What is a ‘Website as a Service’ (WaaS) platform?
Here’s the short and fast answer – a ‘Website as a Service’ platform is a type of business model that’s increasing in popularity due to the technical advances and confusing nature of websites and web hosting to the average person.
Essentially, the owner of the master website manages the technical side and new technology, while allowing people to create their own website(s) off of the core set up.
So, the main site and all subsites use the same code base on the backend (in the example we’re looking at in this article, WordPress multisite), and run from one installation.
A set up like this lets you easily sell websites or blogs to people and businesses from around the world. Thus, generating income each month that can increase as your business grows and your brand becomes more popular.
It’s a powerful and profitable business model if you get it right, just like Software as a Service (SaaS). Could it become as popular in the coming years? Maybe.
In this article, we’ll be looking at how you can create a successful small business using the world’s most popular content management system, WordPress, its multisite network functionality and our WPUltimo plugin (find out more) to create a ‘Website as a Service’ platform. We’ll also look at how agencies and web designers can adapt the model to sell websites to clients.
How to start making money following the ‘Website as a Service’ (WaaS) business model
The perfect example to demonstrate the power, strength, and scope of the ‘Website as a Service’ (Waas) business model is WordPress.com. It uses the multisite feature to power millions of blogs and websites. With the whole network built on the back of one website, the aforementioned WordPress.com.
Think of the setup as a bicycle wheel. The multisite setup is the hub in the center of the wheel, while each spoke emanating from the central hub is a blog or website powered by it.
WordPress brings people onboard by offering free accounts to anyone who wants a website. They’ll get a web presence and website hosting for a setup fee of zero. Of course, it limits the available features to tempt people to upgrade to a paid account. And very often they’ll do so because WordPress is such a strong brand in the blogging/web design space. People know and trust it. They like it.
Since it started in 2005, it’s built a solid reputation on the back of this model. They offered a free blog back then, and they’re still doing it now.
On the opposite end of the scale, WordPress offers VIP accounts to large brands like New York Post, Rolling Stone and USA Today. These accounts cost hundreds of dollars per month.
But you don’t have to charge a fortune to create a profitable ‘Website as a Service’ business.
Niche down and focus on one sector
Edublogs.org is another popular site built with WordPress multisite that follows the same service model.
It’s been online since 2005 and provides blogs and websites to people in the education sector. Niching down like this helps build brand awareness, loyalty and spreads the word amongst people operating in that sector.
Teachers, educators and students talk to each other. Edublogs created an excellent package and provides a great service. Word of mouth amongst people in the education sector helps the site grow ever larger.
At the time of writing this, it hosts almost 4,500,000 sites. The Basic package is free and the Pro account is just $7.95 a month or $39.95 for the year. It’s exceptional value. Especially as it removes all the technical headaches and security issues you get running the standalone version of WordPress.
Anyone can set up a similar network and charge people to create their own website(s). You just need the correct tools and a powerful enough hosting account. Although shared hosting will work for testing, you’ll need a more powerful hosting option when you officially launch.
How web designers and digital agencies can benefit from offering a ‘Website as a Service’
Could you benefit from creating operating a ‘Website as a Service’ business model within your website design company? Even if you don’t call it that or market it that way? Let’s look at how web designers and digital marketing agencies could use this strategy to their advantage.
WordPress multisite lets you install all the plugins and themes you ever use at network level. They’re all controlled by a user type unused on a standard WordPress set up – Super Admin.
This makes creating and updating custom websites for new clients easier and less time consuming than using fresh installs for every project.
A simple and cost-effective way to build multiple websites is to use a standard template and amend it for each client and new site. As you create new designs, those designs become part of your library and can be adjusted and sold again and again.
Use domain mapping to redirect the client’s domain name
On a multisite network, you install each site on a subdomain or inside a subdirectory. The client, or the people visiting the site, never know this because you use domain mapping to assign a unique domain to each installation.
As far as anybody is concerned, the site lives at whichever domain it’s redirected to, and not a subdomain or subdirectory of the multisite setup.
How to charge your clients
Once your WordPress multisite network is set up, you can build websites for a one-off, upfront fee for the site, and an ongoing monthly fee for maintenance.
Alternatively, charge your client a monthly fee for the build – effectively renting the site from you – and ongoing maintenance.
Whichever model you choose, it’s likely your client will come to you for website updates because of your existing relationship. You’ll have the perfect opportunity to upsell additional services such as SEO, website development, content creation, social media management, eCommerce projects, etc.
The biggest advantage of this kind of setup for agencies and web designers is efficiency. You can update the core files, plugins and themes across tens, hundreds or even thousands of websites in a matter of minutes because every site on the network uses the same code base.
How to set up your ‘Website as a Service’ platform using WP Ultimo
WP Ultimo is a plugin created for the online business owners who’d like to emulate the success of WordPress.com, Edublogs.org, and similar sites. Find out more about the plugin here.
Let’s go through the setup process.
First, you’ll need to set up a new website with multisite functionality. Some web hosts offer this option during the setup process by virtue of a checkbox or similar.
Once that’s set up, navigate to the Network Admin section of the WordPress dashboard and upload the plugin.
After you activate the plugin, you are presented with the setup wizard so you can go through the setup process step-by-step. You can skip each option and return to it later if you wish.
This is the first screen you see. Take a minute to read the message so you know what’s going to happen.
Clicking ‘Let’s Go‘ takes you to the second step – General Settings. This is where you define most of the settings for your network. The screenshot below shows the default settings. You can change them to suit your needs.
If you want to give people the ability to point a domain to their website, you’ll have to check the ‘Enable Domain Mapping‘ option.
In the next step of the process, you need to copy a file called sunrise.php from the wp-ultimo directory to the wp-content directory. To make things easy, use the Copy Automatically button. Next, you need to add a line of code to the wp-config.php file to set SUNRISE to true.
It’s important you place the code in the correct place, directly above the line that says /* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */
When you’ve finished, click on Check Configuration.
You’ll get an OK message if everything is correctly setup.
In the next step, you can set up a template site you can use for future signups. The buttons are checked by default because it’s easier to start with a template and ready-made plans and edit them later than it is to make your own.
The template site uses your default theme at the time of setup. You can change it later.
Next, upload your logo.
This is the final step at this stage. The page displays a list of support issues we can help you with and a list of support services you’ll need external help with. If you agree with these terms, click on the Agree and Continue button.
Success! Your Network is ready!
Once the network is set up, you’ll see a new section in the menu on the left of the screen.
To access the settings we’ve already been through and more, click on the Settings link at the top of the menu. You’ll see this screen.
From here you can adjust all the plugin’s settings. For a more detailed explanation of how to set up each of the sections, take a little time to watch the thorough and detailed walkthrough webinar below. You’ll discover everything you need to know about setting up and using WP Ultimo.
Get ready to launch a ‘Website as a Service’ platform!
As you can see from this article and the webinar, setting up a ‘Website as a Service’ platform isn’t particularly complicated or expensive. Yet, it has the potential to become a lucrative business and grow exponentially. The only tools you need are WordPress multisite, WP Ultimo and decent hosting.