Interview with Jen Lepp

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Before there was The Wild Hunt, there was simply “,” my personal web site, and its host was DrakNet. Knowing very little at the time about web hosting, I decided to fiscally support a Pagan-owned and operated hosting company. This turned out to be a very good move on my part because DrakNet, and its owner Jen Lepp, provided me with excellent customer service that was responsive and accessible to a degree that I was to learn later was very rare in the world of web hosting. As The Wild Hunt went through its many growing pains, I shudder to think at what would have happened to me had Jen not been there to oversee things, and when was recently acquired by A Small Orange I followed along primarily for the promise that Jen would be an ongoing part of ASO. Since DrakNet was the first web hosting company that I know of to bill itself as a Pagan-owned and operated company, I decided to interview Jen about the history of DrakNet, the perils of running a Pagan business, and its recent acquisition by A Small Orange.

Jen Lepp

When DrakNet first started in 1997 it was billed as a Pagan-owned and run company, and many of your oldest clients were Pagans (including me!). You even provided free hosting to various worthy Pagan organizations (and in some cases, still do). Could you talk a bit about that? What made you decide to make the Pagan-owned element a selling point? How did that evolve?

Before DrakNet started, I actually had no intention of owning a web hosting company, and DrakNet really was a bit of an accident.

I originally started out as a representative for the Witches League for Public Awareness, and then Laurie Cabot made a decision to “fire” all the Representatives that worked as volunteers for religious tolerance. In Texas, our state Representatives chose to start Texas Pagan Awareness Online independent from any national organization (though we did work with national organizations and folks frequently), and it was through a need to financially support TPAO that DrakNet was born.

Originally, TPAO offered hosting instead of asking for donations as a way to support its endeavors. After it had about 10 people hosted on it’s Reseller’s account, I realized that these poor folks really could use some documentation other than just constantly emailing me, and I created a more formal hosting site with some How To’s and some order forms. I never truly understood how it happened, but it took off and we got orders at a very, very steady clip until I woke up one day and realized that I was a business owner, and DrakNet was an actual business.

Because of how it was “born”, the Pagan element was never really a question, at least in the early years. DrakNet owed it’s entire existence to the Pagan community, and the religious tolerance movement within it. I felt a responsibility to give back to to the community that helped birth it with what I was able to do. I hoped we did that with our non-profit program, which was one of the few hosting non-profit programs that did not require a 501c3, did not preclude religious groups, and did not preclude politically active sites from applying.

Over time, your own personal life journey led you away from Paganism, to Unitarian-Universalism, and ultimately to Judaism. How has your personal faith journey shaped your business and work? Did you get a lot of flack from the Pagan community when you moved away from being a “Pagan company”?

There are some folks in the community that know why my own path, and DrakNet’s, “evolved”, and to some extent I became an example case of what I was fighting against as an activist. But many people were not aware, and so yes, as we “de-Paganed”, there were some people that were very angry. They felt, and were very vocal about, the fact that they felt we had sold out. It was a very difficult time for me.

This question, actually, has lead to the long lag in my response to this interview, as I wrestled with how public I wanted to be in answer to this question.

The fourth year I owned DrakNet, my husband and I got a divorce, and the following year (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into), we entered into a highly acrimonious custody battle. The suit stated outright in it’s initial filing that the basis was the fact that I was Pagan. I hired an attorney who dismissed it as a concern, stating my religion could not be used against me. While I have no doubt the attorney believed that when he told me, he was wrong and his objection was overruled. The county this lawsuit was in was extremely right-leaning, and the Judge in the case relieved me of custody temporarily while my beliefs and their affect on my ability to parent was investigated.

Those I knew in the community did offer to rush to my defense, have protests on the courthouse lawn, call the press, and make the case into a circus, but I strongly felt then, as I do now, that a child cannot choose to be at the center of a public controversy. Though I was very, very careful in my answers not to establish any precedent or disclaim or lie about anything I was in the final trial, once I fought back and defended myself and won, I chose not to tempt fate a second time and I left Paganism so that it could not be used against me

Once I did that, I had to “de-Paganify” DrakNet. That was a difficult thing to do both because of how it came about and how much devotion some segments of the community felt towards us, and some people left the service angry. Many stayed, and many continued to “claim” both me, and the company, regardless of what I said to the contrary. To them, we were always Pagan and Pagan friendly.

But, yes, some people didn’t understand, and some people felt betrayed. Perhaps those that were angry may read this, and understand a bit better why I couldn’t answer “why” at the time.

As for my personal faith journey, I’m not sure I ever truly changed other than my tools and my circles – the Goddess was welcomed at the UU Church, and I became a Sunday School teacher teaching the lessons I had once been taught as a neophyte to children. When my son became curious about his Jewish heritage, we found a Jewish Renewal synagogue that spoke of Asherah and who’s congregation would turn each Friday to an opened the door to the Sabbath Bride and bow to Her.

Once you know the Goddess (and, more importantly, She knows you know Her), it’s honestly very tough to get away from Her.

One thing that never changed in DrakNet’s history was its commitment to the environment, free speech, equal treatment towards all faiths, and very personal customer service. Do you think that your ethos is still uncommon among web hosting companies, or is it one on the rise?

I actually joked with my husband that it was finally ok to sell because actually listening to customers was in vogue. What the Pagan community was way ahead of the curve on was social networking – The Witches’ Voice was doing it before Facebook, hooking people up into a tribe. The Pagan WebCrafters Association gathered the geeks. Pagans have always been incredibly net-savvy, utilizing the tools to build circles and webs wherever they need them.

What Pagans were doing in the early 90’s everyone is doing now, including businesses and corporations. Views of customers and their power and their voices have changed with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other mediums and tools that make it easier for people to speak their minds about their experiences with companies. Companies have had to adapt and as a consequence have become much savvier about communication with the audience they wish to reach and, ultimately, to sell to.

Once they were listening, they realized people actually cared about company ethics, honesty, transparency, the environment. People will make decisions to do business with a company based on their company values and how well they communicate these company values. As a consequence, there’s a new movement in companies that actually puts customers before profits – at least for the companies that “get it”.

In web hosting, though, I do still think it’s uncommon – web hosting is somewhat of a unique industry in that it’s almost constantly in flux, and it’s customers are the savviest of the tech savvy, heavily utilizing internet mediums to complain, to praise, and to communicate. When your customer base lives in the same sphere you do, you have two choices – you can either do really great and engage with them and listen and be responsive, or you can ignore them and arrogantly dictate the rules. In my industry, it honestly seems that companies fall very much on one side or the other.

What made you decide to sell DrakNet to A Small Orange after 12 years of being in business? What’s the reaction from your customers been?

I was approached informally to sell DrakNet at HostingCon to HostGator. They had introduced me to Doug Hanna, the CEO of A Small Orange, to demonstrate that the founder of HostGator could buy small companies and not actually kill what was special about them. It was the first time I had heard ASO had been sold, and as a hosting owner the idea that all these special, unique companies were getting bought up just infuriated me. I felt like the industry was getting homogenized.

In response, I literally went ballistic outside the cPanel Party on 6th Street in Austin, naming all the reasons I was better, why the mega-behemoth couldn’t give the service I could. I truly did shoot them with both barrels. It affronted me on so many accounts, not the least of which was that I was one of the very few female owned hosting companies and I had a very idealistic notion of web hosting and what was owed customers that I felt they didn’t get. I came home, and wrote a blog post blasting them again, just to make sure they got the message.

It did get me to thinking, though, about how much I could accomplish with DrakNet as it was – I was a small fish in a very large pond. I was not large enough to get asked to speak and although I was fairly well connected in the industry, my revenue was not the type that would get me invited to share my pearls of wisdom anywhere about the hosting industry and my views on it. The idea of changing things “from the inside”, of trying to accomplish a coup d’état from within kind of appealed to me, so I decided to give them a call and see if they were really serious and what they had in mind.

In the end, I wound up connecting with Doug first, and he stated that he was never more surprised by any phone call for any potential deal than he was by mine. If there was a person he was sure would never, ever sell, it would’ve been me.

As we talked, we both realized that DrakNet customers meshed better with ASO’s philosophy, and I was honestly surprised at what extent ASO already focused on customers first, and exceeding customer service expectations. They were environmentally conscious, progressive in their thinking about employees and customers, and very focused on free speech. I was surprised at how much I liked them as I was so conditioned to be suspicious of a larger company, and so a deal was struck.

Our customer reactions, initially, were pretty stunning. Roughly 15% of customers took the time to express extremely, extremely strong opinions. Since the sale, however, I’ve heard 99.9% positive, and everyone seems very pleased with the move.

Do you have any regrets? Anything you wish you could have done differently? Looking back, how do you picture DrakNet?

I ran DrakNet for 12 and a half years, and I watched it do a lot of good. We hosted things that had been kicked off other hosts because the host didn’t understand the site and nuked it, we had transgendered people that could call and not have to explain why their name was male on their credit card and go through justifying who they were and what they wanted to be called. We didn’t balk when two covens started DMCA-ing each other because this person wrote that ritual and were able to help explain it in a way that everyone understood.

I hope that people that hosted with us felt that they were respected for who they were – a lot of people moved to us because they had been places where they weren’t being treated with much dignity because of who they were, or their site’s content.

If I have any regrets at all, it’s those times that we couldn’t help, and couldn’t get involved – we got DMCA notices from some very large, very powerful corporations and entities that sent them for no other reason than to squelch free speech, and it was obvious that’s what they were doing. It never failed to make me angry that my hands were tied.

Now that DrakNet has been absorbed into A Small Orange, what’s in store for the future?

I was “acquired” along with DrakNet, and am now the Customer Experience Manager for ASO. I hope that in this position I can apply some of what made DrakNet unique to a multi-million dollar company and for a wider number of people.

That would be a neat legacy.