Josef Hos: Company Is the People, Not the CEO 

October 6th, 2023
Interview Josef Hos

Our CEO Josef Hos is very visible at Webnode through concrete actions, but he doesn’t talk much about them or himself. Webnode’s 15th anniversary, however, deserves an exception with a long interview. How does he remember his beginnings at Webnode, where is the company heading in the AI boom, and why does he like Brno? Here are the answers.

Webnode is 15 years old, you’ve been here for the last 4 years. How were they?

Very turbulent for me. I came to Webnode from bigger companies, AVG and Avast, and it was the first time in my life when I took on the role of CEO. But I first found out about Webnode in 2013, when Vítek Vrba was running it. We discussed a possible collaboration, it didn’t work out then, but in 2019 I already agreed to return to Brno. It was a great honor for me to join a Brno company that develops a global product with a lot of customers. Vítek and I have been friends for a long time, which also was projecting into our professional life.

Then, Webnode was sold to a Belgian investor, and although my role is still the same, for the last two years I have been operating differently because of the foreign owner and the group of shareholders, of course. The company is much more performance and growth oriented, also our employees are facing different requirements because our product is no longer a separate entity, but is being offered in the portfolio. However, it is still important for me to preserve the start-up spirit and the people-oriented corporate culture as much as possible.

What made you accept Vítek Vrba’s offer in 2019?

I felt it was time to capitalize on my experience and learn something new, to give myself a new challenge. It was also important for me personally to come back to Brno to be closer to my family after years in Prague and London.

Did Brno meet your expectations?

It did, exceedingly! Every day I enjoy the feeling of being in a city where everything is around the corner and where I can walk to many places without having to get in the car, or on a plane countless times a year. When I need to pick up my child from school, I’m there within minutes. It’s quieter here, I like that. And my health has improved a lot in Moravia, that’s another benefit.

What was the biggest challenge after you joined Webnode?

There were, and still are, many. The first is the role I came into. I’m an introverted type, I don’t easily step outside my comfort zone, although that’s the biggest motivation for my own development: to try and learn something new, to learn from mistakes. I’m not a natural leader who would walk into a company on the first day, shout “this is how it’s supposed to be, and this is how we’re going to do it” and everyone automatically obeys.

What else did you have to deal with?

That I came to replace the technology gods Vítek Vrba and Ondřej Kratěna, although I am not a technology expert myself. Vítek and Ondra, who founded Webnode, are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Webnode is their baby, for which – logically – they breathed. They knew and made every detail. They were able to conceive the product, development, business, finance, marketing, all at the same time. I came in as an expert in business analysis, e-commerce, partly product management, but also as an outsider, an interloper. The professional distance was an advantage, but everything else was a big school.

When you joined Webnode, it already had over a hundred employees. How did you earn their respect?

I don’t have a simple formula. My philosophy has always been to tell people: you are the company, it’s not me, even though I’m the CEO. I’m just creating the environment for you to be successful. Of course, I help create the vision and strategy to ensure the company has a future of growth. That’s why the first thing I did was define Webnode’s strategy so that all our people understand what we do and who we do it for. That we are not just a website builder, but we help people succeed online. The job-to-be-done methodology, focused clearly on the customer’s needs, has helped me a lot to do that. In my previous position, we used to call it “people don’t need a drill, they need to hang a picture, how can we help them to do that?”. The analogy at Webnode is that people don’t need a website, they need to be successful online.

What does this mean in practice?

Even before I started, many Webnode customers switched to social networks or Google, because such a presentation was suddenly enough for them. The job-to-be-done methodology led us to expand the business to offer a more comprehensive product than just a website. This means development of e-commerce, digital product support, integration options and more. We regularly do “all hands” meetings where we present the strategy and key numbers to all our employees. This gives them complete visibility into most of what’s going on in the company. I believe this has also helped to keep everyone from getting up and leaving after the big changes Webnode has gone through.

How far ahead do you look in this very action-packed time where things change in weeks or months? How far ahead can you plan for that makes sense?

That time is getting shorter. When I started at AVG, the corporate strategy was defined for five to ten years. Today you can look two, maybe three years into the future. But you still need to sit down at least once a year and think about whether the direction you’ve set is right and adjust it as necessary.

Josef Hos

I believe you have several ideas on where the company should go. How do you evaluate the ones that make sense at Webnode?

We divide them into several categories. The first one is customer requests – we collect tips on what people are missing in the product, and then we try to implement them in order of priority. The second group is related to the long-term goal of the company’s growth future. At least once a year we talk about how we can grow Webnode’s business and increase the number of customers. At these meetings, we decide whether to ask the development team to primarily work on email marketing or whether to focus on integration of the booking system, for example. We consider the business and the general direction of technological development. Currently, of course, there is the development of artificial intelligence.

Is the rise of AI a big change for Webnode?

It’s a challenge for the whole market and of course for Webnode too.

How do you use AI and how will Webnode customers use it?

The plan is to create bespoke websites for customers using AI. Let’s say you’re our customer – a lawyer. Thanks to AI, you won’t have to fit into any of our predefined templates anymore, but you will generate a unique design yourself with the help of AI, exactly according to your ideas and needs. We already offer this product. The customer answers a few simple questions, and the AI creates a customized website, automatically fills it with text and images. We plan to launch an updated version by the end of this year.

What is currently the biggest challenge for Webnode?

Market saturation in general. Besides smaller competitors, there are big players in the market, companies like Wix and Google Sites, for example. The strategy of creating a simple web presence is basic, but the customer’s primary concern today is acquiring and retaining their own customers. At Webnode, of course, we realize this. That’s why we’re focusing on creating a kind of hub for small business owners: so that they don’t just get a website from us, but also a domain, email, e-commerce, marketing, a booking system, all within one platform that will make us more competitive with, say, Google. Wix has all this, true, but it is also significantly more expensive. And without easily accessible local support, which is key for us. We want to be a real and close partner.

Technology aside, what is the biggest change Webnode has undergone under your leadership?

When I came in, a lot of responsibility was given to one or two people in the company, which was logical based on the history and organic growth of the company. But I had to change that after the founders left. Today, we operate in smaller teams where responsibility is distributed to individual leaders. My ambition is to give them feedback so that they can decide and implement most things themselves.

What do you like best about Webnode?

I like the fact that we are a global product that is still emerging from the relatively small city of Brno. I marvel at it every day and appreciate it very much. There aren’t many companies here that design and decide on a product with such scale.

What annoys you about Webnode?

Some things are simply slower here. Webnode wasn’t created as a risk taker. It’s not now and it never will be. We don’t go headfirst into things, we’re prudent, we’re more conservative in the field of tech start-ups. Sometimes I wish we were more flexible, but who wouldn’t? On the other hand, Webnode was already built this way by Vítek and Ondra, and it paid off. The company has never needed an external investor, it has always had a healthy cash flow, and business has always been good.

The company culture at Webnode does not dictate whether you work from home or from the office. Where do you personally prefer to be?

I combine the two. Primarily, I like to be at home, which is due to two things: the fact that I’m an introvert, as I already mentioned, and the second thing, my team and I function remotely. Our Chief Financial Officer, for example, is based in Boston in the United States, so it doesn’t matter where I connect with him from. At home, I’m calm, I’m extremely focused, flexible, and productive. I like to see my colleagues in the office, but for work I just need to be there once or twice a week.

Josef, as an introvert, how do you perceive company culture focused on people, events, and everything that HR manager Zuzana Marková does?

I would refer to Zuzka here, but in short, when Zuzka says I must do this or that, I obey – we all obey. (laughs)

Webnode currently operates in 34 countries, and has employees from many cultures around the world. Which is the biggest business challenge?

Webnode has historically had a large base in South America. In Brazil, it was one of the first localized website builders, for free, and we still have a lot of customers from that time. There are several challenges there. Firstly, local currencies in South America have devalued significantly, secondly there is a completely different way of paying, whereas even dinner or a t-shirt you pay in installments. Our annual subscriptions are unaffordable to Brazilians or other South American nations, so there is the installment method for them, when they pay for the site in three or six installments. Within Europe, Germany is a bit of an anomaly, where people don’t pay with credit cards, but mostly with PayPal or use the so-called fast bank transfer. These are specifics that we obviously must adjust to if we want to keep customers there.

Josef, it’s Webnode’s 15th birthday. Will it be around in another 15 years?

I think so, but probably in a completely different form. There are big emotional reactions about the advent of AI right now, but no one can predict what the real deployment will be, and especially how it will be reflected in the business once the emotions die down a bit. Webnode has the great advantage of being part of, a large European company, and can thus benefit from collaboration. We already have a lot of customers who come to us as part of the group. It’s a partnership that fortifies us, makes us stronger, gives us hope that even if there’s a big change in the online world, we won’t be swept away. But I’ll refrain from any more precise prediction that goes beyond three years.

Josef, what would you like to wish Webnode for its 15th anniversary?

My wish is that Webnode keeps being a great place for people who love to create a product for their customers. May you still enjoy it, may you still be the young and resilient one.

Interested in more? Read our series of anniversary articles.

Jana LeBlanc – Czech publicist, author and blogger. She publishes in the magazines Moje psychologie, Respekt, Deník N, Reportér. She is the author of the book “Moje bejby Amerika”. She writes the blog “Co mi udělalo radost” – about life in foreign countries and the experiences of a mother of bilingual sons –