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In The Beginning: An Oral History of DreamHost’s First 20 Years

 

To mark DreamHost’s 20th anniversary, we chatted with a handful of the company’s very first employees. The goal? To take a peek back to the early days, from an idea hatched at Harvey Mudd College by four of the internet’s earliest adopters to DreamHost leading the industry in workplace freedom (and all those live DJ shows in between).

Let’s time travel through DreamHost’s origin story — and party like it’s 1997!

New Dream Network and the Seeds of Hosting

The scene: Harvey Mudd, a science-focused liberal arts college in Claremont, California. The players: Dallas Kashuba (Bethune), Josh Jones, Michael Rodriguez, and Sage Weil — four undergrads with a passion for using the emerging internet to change the world. The dream: to build a creative company with staying power.

Dallas Kashuba (Co-founder and Co-CEO): “Michael and I hung out quite a bit in college. Josh was also studying computer science, so we knew him from the lab. We all basically liked making websites, which sounds funny to say now, but it was new then. We all built websites for local businesses and realized we were doing the same thing, so we decided to join forces and combine our clients. We started out hosting our sites on the school network. When they told us we couldn’t — it looked too commercial — we bought a server and put Linux on it.”

Weil came along a bit later — he connected with Kashuba through Webring, a ʼ90s internet staple that organized websites by theme. Webring created some of the first online communities — and it was all built by Sage, then still in high school.

Kashuba: “I added my own website to a ring, and Sage noticed my Harvey Mudd email address and emailed me, and said, ‘Oh neato, I just got accepted there!’ I was surprised that he was in high school. I ended up living with him in the dorms his freshman year, my senior year. We had already been working together for awhile, but Michael, Josh, and I asked him to join us as a full founder.”

The four formed “New Dream Network,” which they envisioned as a collection of the most creative minds on the web. Along with programming and promoting new web applications, the founders sought out interesting and well-designed personal websites and offered webmasters a place to collaborate through email. The network gained a reputation as a hub of the internet’s cool kids.

Kashuba: “‘New Dream’ was a reference to the American Dream. To us, the internet represented a new world of opportunities.”

Brett Dunst (VP, Corporate Communications): “In college, I was recruited by Dallas to join New Dream Network. At that time, NDN was an invitation-only online hub for creative types. Back in the day, web pages existed to tell the world who you were and what you were into. Having a ‘personal website’ was trendy! It was sort of like a modern-day online dating profile, but the goal wasn’t to meet people — it was a way to showcase your talents online and a way to flex your creative muscles by building good-looking and smart-sounding web content.”

Kashuba: “We got to be well-known, and people were asking if we did hosting. We started offering free hosting to some people as a collaboration group. From there, people asked if we did hosting commercially. I think it was Josh who said, ‘You know what? Yes!’”

In the summer of 1997, Kashuba was the first of the group to graduate from Harvey Mudd. That’s also when the founders purchased the domain DreamHost.com as the future home of their hosting service. At the time, they considered hosting to be just one of many future products.

Kashuba: “My pet product was Vibeflow.com, an online radio. We never actually tried to make money from it. We just knew a lot of DJ people in LA, and we had a studio set up in our office. We did live video streaming and stored all the archives.

Dan Wysocki (QA Training Manager): “I hosted my own weekly show, Futant Radio!, for a few years and brought in many famous DJs from across the country to play live sets for Vibeflow. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end.”

Kashuba: “Vibeflow represented the early spirit of things; it was a free, creative time. We thought of ourselves as a company that made interesting internet products, and hosting was just a component. But once we discovered that people would keep paying us every month for a thing we didn’t have to work on, we thought, ‘We’ll keep doing that.’ As it turned out, there is a lot of ongoing work with hosting. You are always adding new things, and the business grew from there.

Growing a Team

The first employees worked remotely as tech support, with the original four focused on programming. They grew by hiring Harvey Mudd alumni, online connections — and the pizza guy.

Brian Hill (Director of Instant Support): “I was hired as technical support straight out of Dominos Pizza, so, in hindsight, they really took a chance on some dumb kid with no formal training at all. But, that’s who DreamHost is, really. We’re not scared to invest in people and give them the tools to succeed if they’re willing to put in the work.”

Dunst: “When I graduated college in 2000, I was hired on to be DreamHost’s first Sales and Marketing Team Leader. Our small team performed a sales function, a marketing function, and a web/graphic design function. I wore so many hats back then my neck still hurts. But it’s a good hurt.”

Wysocki: “I had known Brian Hill for a few years through DJing and had played sets at several of the early New Dream parties. My previous employer, DrDrew.com — yes, that Dr. Drew from Loveline & MTV — lost financing (hooray dot-com bubble!) so I was looking for a job while they slowly ran out of money. Several months later, I was finally called for an interview. I sat in a room while the founders asked me things like ‘Do you know what email is?’ and ‘Have you ever seen HTML before?’”

The Building

After the founders graduated, they decided to move New Dream HQ out of the dorms and into a real office. They rented a quirky place in Huntington Park that was soon affectionately termed “The Building.”

Dunst: “We worked in a dumpy little building in an industrial part of east LA. It was made famous in the seminal Tony Danza classic, She’s Out of Control. The building was charming and very unique, but it leaked when it rained. Fuses were constantly blowing. There was a homeless guy living in our parking lot who kept asking us to pay him to be our security guard.”

Kashuba: “It was art deco with rounded windows, sort of a wedding cake style with each story a little smaller than the one below. The stairs were covered in piano key carpet. There was enough space that a bunch of us actually lived in the building. The first summer a whole bunch of Harvey Mudd students who interned with us lived there as well, so it was full of people. Work and life clashed or mixed a lot.”

Wysocki: “All of our desks were just filing cabinets with an old door on top spread across them, and the vault became our server room. The rickety elevator (that just had a little porthole window and no lights) went up to the fourth floor, which was just a tiny little boiler room. The look on people’s faces when they rode in that elevator for the first time was priceless.”

Young Startup Vibe

Dunst: “The culture was great. It might have been 10 a.m. and one person would say ‘Hey, let’s go see a movie’ and the entire office would leave to see a movie. You can do that kind of stuff when you’re that small — things just didn’t break. And when they did, they didn’t take a whole lot of manpower to resolve. You’d be surprised what our sysadmins could do with a Blackberry 850 back then! Now, with two hundred employees and 24/7 coverage, there’s no way we could pull a stunt like that today. ”

Kashuba: “It was very collaborative early on. I think that’s because most of us came right from college and knew each other well. Everything was really open from the beginning — no secrets, no hierarchy — everyone could work on anything. That’s the basis of how we ended up with an organizational democracy. In 2008 we were certified by WorldBlu as a freedom-centered workplace; we didn’t have to change anything to earn that. We had just been doing things in a generally open way, sharing most details with most people from the beginning.”

Wysocki: “There were pretty much no rules other than ‘do your work.’ This was before we even established ticket quotas so ‘your work’ was open to interpretation. There were no schedules. As long as there were fewer support tickets in the queue than when you started, everybody was happy. The company back then was small enough that we’d have weekly ‘all hands’ meetings in our conference room, where we’d also squeeze in some training about a new subject.”

Jeremy Hanmer (Principal Cloud Architect): “The office used to double as a music studio and party space, which definitely bled into office life.”

Kashuba: “We had all this space, so why not have a party! We invited all our friends to a Halloween party that first year. I don’t know how big it was; it might have been 100 people or so. It got bigger and bigger, and eventually, we were hiring local bands and bartenders. Either the first or second year, I dressed as a court jester. My wife remembers me wearing little green tights.”

Working with the Founders

Of the original honchos, Kashuba and Rodriguez still lead the company today as co-CEOs; Jones and Weil have moved on to new ventures. DreamHost’s early employees often worked directly with all four on the ground level, bringing different skills and leadership styles to the table.

Micah Sachs (SVP, Hosting): “Working with the founders was fun, frustrating, straightforward, and confusing! As in each of the four would pick one of those to be on any given day.”

Dunst: “What made them work so well together is that they all sort of specialized in an area of the business that needed it.

“Dallas was the tech guy. He was always looking out for what features might resonate with customers the most and figuring out how we could deliver them.

“Michael was the money man. He always kept an eye on our finances to keep us in the black.

“Sage was a head-down programming machine. He was the architect of so much of DreamHost and could write code faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.

“Josh was the marketer. While he’s no longer involved in our day-to-day operations, he’s directly responsible for our style, our tone, and our approach to interacting with customers.”

Andrea Silas (VP, Technical Support)“They all made me feel like an important part of the team.”

Embracing Open Source

Kashuba: “From the very beginning we used open source for everything, more because it was free than anything else. We started when Linux was the new thing, and that did have a big impact on our business model. We were lower priced than a lot of the competition because we didn’t pay for anything besides hardware and people. Things have changed since then, but the decision to put Linux on our first server made a big difference.”

Dunst: “We will always favor a free, open source software solution when it’s a way to make our service offering better. If we can deliver more value to our users without raising our prices, why wouldn’t we?”

Hill: “Running Debian from the very beginning is probably the best example of us embracing open source. I think, without that, we wouldn’t even be a real company.”

Technical Difficulties

As a fledgling tech company, the DreamHost team learned a valuable lesson: prevention is a better model for technical issues than pulling the plug.

Kashuba: “Pretty early on some hacker was able to exploit all of our servers — this is when we only had eight of them. That was a pretty hairy one. We ended up calling the data center and asking them to pull the power cord. That lead to a model for security that we have stuck with even today, like isolation between the customer servers and the backend servers. Thanks to what we learned from that hacking, we’ve avoided any security issues that significant ever since.”

Dunst: “We let DreamHost.com’s registration expire once. It took us an hour or two to get it renewed and back up and running, but I remember that was a very tense, panicked time.”

Kashuba: “In 2006 we had networking issues that were making things slow for customers — it wasn’t down, just unpleasant. At some point, you realize that you have to do more prevention; that’s just part of maturing as a technical organization.”

Building and Growing

Silas: “In the early days, it was a big deal to hit a milestone for x number of customers or domains. It’s still a big deal, but we have come a long way since!”

Hanmer: “It seemed like a pretty big deal when we started offering CGI access with every hosting plan!”

Kashuba: “When we did our first major rewrite of our automation system, which we generally refer to as DH2, we joked that we were going to call it DH 2000, like Windows 2000, which was out then. We thought it would take six months; it took two years, but it became the core of basically how everything works today. It was a big lesson in software development: things can take longer than you expect and decisions you make will have a lasting impact.

“At that time, it just wasn’t in our DNA to buy things. We built everything — our bug tracker, HR system, and billing system. After a while, no one wanted to work on the HR software so we don’t make that ourselves anymore, but we did until fairly recently.”

Sachs: “We probably built instead of bought far too often, but it worked really well for the first ten years! We made our own Netapp drives, and moved data centers at the drop of a hat.”

What DreamHost Means to Us

Over the past twenty years, DreamHost has hired some pretty great people. Here’s what employees from the early days (and beyond!) love most about working here.

Silas: “Most of my friends are still from the DH team.”

John Robison (DreamPress Product Owner): “Harvey Mudd students work hard and play harder. I think that carried over to DreamHost and created a unique atmosphere where people want to do well because they know that we’re going to enjoy the fruits of that hard work as a team. It also created a family atmosphere where employees genuinely care about each other regardless of rank and are invested in the success of both individuals and the group. That’s why I chose to stay here for almost two decades — and why still love being a part of DreamHost.”

Cathee Smith (Marketing Coordinator): “I like to think I work with some of the coolest people that have ever existed on this planet.”

Luke Odom (Data Center Manager): “I moved to LA from a Georgia farm in 2010. I had never been in a building more than three stories tall. I was unemployed, out of place with a thick Southern accent and a degree from a college no one had heard of, and it was the middle of an economic slump. And I was a DreamHost customer.

“One day when logging into the panel, I noticed the jobs link and applied. Three months later I got a call, and that week I took my first of many elevator rides to the 50th floor (which was totally awesome) and found a family. I’ve always felt like my hard work was recognized and that the company cared about its employees. Even though pretty much everything has changed since I first walked in nearly eight years ago, when I step off the elevator, it still feels like home.”

Andrea Kao (Software Development): “The idea that we’re all working towards common goals and given the flexibility to accomplish those goals.”

Wysocki: “It’s my baby. I’ve been around since the start, and it’s been great to see all the work I’ve done help contribute to DreamHost’s success.”

Daniela Jimenez (Tech Support): “The fact that our bosses are not scary or intimidating, which makes it so much easier to speak to them when there is an issue, concern, or question. I feel respected and I feel comfortable here.”

Dunst: “When DreamHost makes headlines, or if something’s blowing up on social media, or even if we’re just rolling out a new product or feature, I feel personally obligated to step up and speak on behalf of the whole company.  Luckily, that’s my job.  I truly feel a connection to the brand, and that’s something that’s exceedingly rare in the tech industry.  It probably explains why I’ve been here for 18 of our 20 years!

Hill: “I have gotten to know some pretty special people in my eighteen years here, and some have even become lifelong friends. The best part, for me, isn’t that I have a great career in a field that didn’t exist when I was growing up. It’s that I’ve been able to have that career with people I genuinely consider some of my closest friends — humans that I really like and enjoy hanging out with. Very few ever get to experience that, and I’m really grateful that I have.”

Want to learn more about DreamHost’s major milestones? Check out our timeline of fortunate events.

About the author

Megan Hendrickson

Megan started her career in women's magazines, but after authoring waaaay too many "Walk Off the Weight" columns, she merged into the tech lane. She writes and edits for DreamHost and shares an inordinate amount of WordPress content on Twitter.

4 Comments

    • I love how DreamHost people are not afraid of showing their hair getting thinner and whiter! GO FOLKS, here is to another 20!

  • 20 years, Congratulations! It’s amazing how fast that time can go and of course, how much DreamHost as a company and the industry as a whole has changed during that time. 15 years ago, did any of you think DreamHost would be what it is now back then?

    Hearing the history and early stories were good and mentioning the hacking was good for lessons learned (I wasn’t hosting with you guys yet at that point) but what about the power issues in 2005 and early 2006? Those were pretty major in your history and helped with moving you guys into better environments in years since.

  • I worked at DreamHost for a few years on the dev/admin team. It was the best job I’ve ever had !!