TL; DR: HelioHost is aiming to make high-performance free hosting a reality for its community of more than 10,000 users. Fueled by donations, the nonprofit trades sales gimmicks and advertising ploys for a transparent financing strategy and word-of-mouth marketing. With a knowledgeable community of users willing to lend a hand in the name of education, HelioHost strives to make a difference for those eager to learn about the industry.
When Ben Frede first stumbled upon HelioHost, he was a PHP hosting novice looking to learn about the programming language by setting up a free website. Today, he’s the nonprofit’s CEO. But, as he will tell you, the story behind HelioHost is far from Ben’s alone.
As do many other HelioHost users, Ben turned to the organization’s community forums for answers to tech conundrums he couldn’t solve himself. What he found was helpful assistance from neighborly peers.
“I had some exceptionally helpful people supporting me, and I was like, ‘This whole thing is really cool,’” he said. “It was a community of people learning and helping one another, and I instantly wanted to give back to those who had helped me.”
At the time, Ben had a computer science degree but hadn’t quite mastered web hosting. Still, he followed in the footsteps of other forum patrons and put in his best effort. “There was so much demand for free hosting that the admins were overworked,” he said. “So, when I came upon simple questions that even I could answer at that point, I would just help out.”
Users like Ben earned admin access to the system as they gained experience. “That’s how all of our admins, and everyone behind the scenes, got to where they are today,” he said. “We came along and gradually became more and more involved.”
For Ben, years of hard work culminated in a promotion to CEO, though he’s just one of the many users who has successfully leveraged HelioHost’s free solutions. Today, the nonprofit’s unique approach to free web hosting is void of advertising campaigns and sales gimmicks, yet still growing through word-of-mouth marketing and a transparent donation strategy.
A Unique Approach to Free Web Hosting Without Sales Gimmicks
It’s not difficult to see how HelioHost’s altruistic style came to be. In his mid-teens, when most adolescents are thinking only of themselves, the organization’s young founder, Ashoat Tevosyan, was bringing a hosting support forum to life.
The forum officially launched February 4, 2005. Less than a month later, on March 2, 2005, Ashoat started the hosting service. From the beginning, the company aimed to move away from the traditional, ad-based free hosting model in favor of one based on donations.
“Back in the day almost everyone put their ads on people’s websites — they’d provide ‘free’ hosting but put their ads on your site instead of charging you money,” Ben said. “That was the big thing, but we didn’t think it was acceptable to have a hosting service do that. Instead, we were trying to make our service completely free and without gimmicks.”
HelioHost didn’t want users to experience the frustration that so often comes with freemium plans. “It happens all the time — you spend maybe a week setting up your website, getting everything perfect, and then you find out features that are pretty much integral to what you want to do are not available,” Ben said. “Then you realize the host was just trying to lure you in.”
Ben said HelioHost temporarily experimented with mandatory forum posts in lieu of a fee, but ultimately decided the requirement was an unnecessary hoop for clients to jump through. “We quickly moved away from that in an effort to become a what-you-see-is-what-you-get provider,” he said.
Honesty Matters: The Key to Building Donor Trust
Though HelioHost has been offering free web hosting services to its community for more than a dozen years, the organization officially became a nonprofit in 2017 after some minor restructuring. Due to HelioHost’s current 501(c)(3) status, donors who make charitable contributions to the organization are eligible for tax deductions.
“We try to be as transparent as possible so that everyone knows where their money is going,” Ben said. “I think that helps people feel more confident and secure when they donate, so as CEO, I’ve tried to make it clear exactly what we’re doing with the money we receive.”
The company typically gathers donations via PayPal or Skrill. Earlier this year, however, they experimented with a GoFundMe campaign for the first time.
“We were straightforward and explained that we needed to buy a piece of network-attached storage because our servers were really low on space,” Ben said. “We told everyone that if they could raise the money, we’d buy the hardware and install it in our cabinet, which would provide more access to storage space.”
The response was better than Ben expected: Users raised $710 despite the fact that the organization requested just $650.
“We met the goal within a week or two,” he said. “It made me realize something about our community. It’s surprising because you’d think people are just trying to get all they can for free, but in reality, they’re willing to open their wallets and pay for other people to learn — people like students who are completely strapped for cash.”
The Power of Word-of-Mouth: How the Nonprofit Grows Without Ads
According to Ben, HelioHost funnels all of its earnings into keeping its servers, which are housed in a datacenter in Silicon Valley, up and running. “We haven’t spent a single cent on advertising,” he said.
Unfortunately, that means the organization flies somewhat under the radar. “There’s so much noise out there that if you search for free hosting, you have to wade through a lot of junk,” Ben said. “I’ve personally gone and tried some of these services, and while they might provide some sort of free hosting, it’s neutered so badly that it’s almost unusable.”
Since HelioHost’s advertising budget is nonexistent, the organization’s web traffic is primarily organic — and Ben said most of that comes from folks looking to run Python on a free hosting account. “Our site analytics show that our #1 source of traffic comes from those searching for a free Python host, which apparently is kind of rare,” he said. “We also offer Tomcat Java hosting, which draws a lot of users.”
Following in the HelioHost tradition of offering free advice, Ben also answers questions on Quora. It’s a win-win situation for HelioHost and Quora users alike. “The problem-solving we’ve done on there has helped us out with traffic,” he said.
Of course, HelioHost’s free services alone are often enough to get people talking. Aside from organic traffic, Ben said most new users are directed to the nonprofit through current ones. “Because we’ve never placed a single ad, a lot of our users come from word-of-mouth marketing and reviews,” he said.
Find Industry Success Through a Community Learning Experience
HelioHost now serves more than 100,000 users, many of whom are students. “Students are our #1 customer; generally younger people looking to learn about HTML, PHP, or something similar,” he said.
Ben told us he’s heard many success stories from users who leveraged the organization’s free hosting as a learning tool before finding success in the industry. “I’ve seen more than a few stories posted on our forums about users who came to us when they were like 15 years old — similar to our founder,” he said. “Using the knowledge they gained from our community, they ultimately found successful careers.”
In that way, Ben believes HelioHost stands out in a sea of hosting providers. “We’re so much different,” he said. “We’re a nonprofit host, which is difficult — if not impossible — to find, and we’ve helped so many people learn.”
Included in that group are HelioHost’s moderating team, a dozen or so individuals who, like Ben, rose up through the ranks of the organization. “They’ve made it to the point where they can operate forums and custom controls — and have collected a lot of experience along the way,” Ben said.