Saying Goodbye To Web Hosting Icon, Head Surfer Robert Marsh
On April 2nd a legend of the Internet infrastructure industry passed away.
If you’ve been in the web hosting industry for less than fifteen years, you may not have heard of Robert Marsh. If you were around at the turn of the millennium, or anytime before, you couldn’t have possibly missed him. In the mid to late 1990s, only small businesses paid any attention to web hosting. Those businesses were carved into two factions, those who did ‘shared’ webhosting – multiple accounts on a single piece of hardware – and those who sold ‘dedicated servers’, which gave you the power of an entire web server.
Every website that sold dedicated servers back then was basically just a list of technical specifications. We would all list all the components of the web servers we were trying to sell, and then wait for our highly technical customer base to contact us and purchase. When a customer would place an order, the web hosting company would charge the customer a large setup fee that would allow them to acquire the gear and set it up a few days or weeks later.
That may sound dramatically different than today’s on-demand cloud environment, but the biggest difference between then and now was that most dedicated server buying experiences were about as consumer friendly as a mail-in catalog sale. In flipping through the advertisements in early publications like Boardwatch Magazine or the early days of TheWHIR, you would barely see a picture of a person anywhere in the entire periodical. Every image was either of equipment, or some early graphical depiction of what the ‘world wide web’ was supposed to be.
Into that environment stepped Robert Marsh of Rackshack, later EV1 Servers. To say that Robert made himself the face of his company was an understatement. He referred to himself as “Head Surfer”, and stood at the center of his company’s website and all of its banner ads and magazine layouts, surrounded by the equipment he sold. Robert was far from the typical stock photo customer service guy. He was stocky and balding, but impeccably dressed in a three button suit and tie. He managed to be a commanding presence in the way he put himself at the center of the technology he sold. In assuming the role as face of his organization, Robert Marsh brought more personal accountability to this industry, and more professionalism.
From the moment Robert opened Rackshack, you could tell he was trying to change the industry. His prices were the lowest, his setup fees were lower still, and his servers were available within hours of purchase, rather than days or weeks. Gone were the heavy customizations – choices were simple and standard. It was the first successful attempt by anybody to move dedicated servers into the mainstream. Part of that came from Robert being a businessman who knew how to take things to scale. However, I’m convinced most of his success came from a willingness to put himself out there, as a transparent and open industry leader willing to accept personal responsibility for what he provided to the world.
I always admired Robert, and in 2013 I was proud to be asked to share the keynote stage with him at that year’s cPanel Conference. Our job was to share lessons from our times in the early days of web hosting. That day we got to carve out a little time to share thoughts and experiences with one another, and he said two things that still sit with me:
“Believe in yourself to dig deep and find those opportunities and when someone tells you no, that’s where you realize you’re onto something pretty good!”
“You can trust your customers. If you’re open, honest and completely transparent, your customers will work just as hard for you as you work for your customers.”
The early days of this industry were a special time, and most of us who got to be there feel lucky. Many of us owe a debt of gratitude for leaders like Robert Marsh for charting a path forward. “Believe in yourself” and “trust your customers” seemed to be what made Robert a modern icon in this industry. Robert Marsh helped change web hosting for the better, and he will be missed. He is remembered by his three young boys. Services are pending.