"Whenever you work for a big company and they don't help you work on your ambitions, you start doing something on the side. That's what always happens." In this episode, Tim Soulo (@timsoulo) details the winding path he took to quit his job, build his own profitable online businesses, and eventually become the Product Advisor and Chief Marketing Officer of Ahrefs, which generates over $1M in revenue per employee.
What’s up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you are listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions both at their businesses and in their personal lives, and what, exactly, makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses. In this episode, I’ll be chatting with Tim Soulo, the CMO and products advisor for a company called Ahrefs.
Ahrefs is an SEO company, where SEO stands for search engine optimization. They provide a collection of tools that help you grow the traffic to your website that comes from the billions of people who are searching Google and Bing every day, as well as some tools that help you research competitors, see why they’re ranking high on Google, and find out what you need to do to outrank them.
So obviously, this is massively useful stuff if you’re a founder trying to build and grow your online business. Tim, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast and thanks so much for joining me.
Thanks so much for having me.
Let’s talk about Ahrefs. You and I caught up a little bit last week and you told me some stats about your company, Ahrefs, and you guys are killing it. You’re a 45-person company. You’re bringing in over $40 million a year in revenue, which is pretty close to a million dollars in revenue per employee. It’s pretty amazing, and despite being so huge, you’re still growing 60% year-over-year.
And so you’re the CMO, sitting on top of this rocket. You’re in charge of marketing. You’re in charge of growth. And you’re also in many ways, I think, the face of Ahrefs. Literally, when I open the website, a little window pops up in the bottom right and it’s your face telling me about new features and asking me if I need any help. So you’re really front and center. How did you get here?
If I would share the short story, Dmitry, the founder and CEO of Ahrefs, comes from Ukraine, so he’s a Ukrainian and I’m a Ukrainian myself, as you can probably hear from my accent. And Dmitry, because he is a super technical guy, he was able to create a pretty badass product with pretty badass data that was one level better than what was already there, and he was able, just with awesome product and no good marketing, he was able to get it to a certain level.
But then he realized that he won't be able to grow the company unless he does something with marketing, so he started looking for people who could potentially join the team and fill that gap. At that time, there was a website called Inbound Talk, where marketers were discussing newly published articles, or sharing their opinions, doing polls, etc.
And I think it was an “ask me anything” session by Ann Smarty, who is also from the Ukraine, and Dmitry knows her so he was reading her MS session, and within that session I was asking some questions to Ann Smarty, and I was saying that I’m glad that she is from Ukraine and she’s doing so well among the SEO specialists, that she is so visible, etc. and that I’m also from the Ukraine and I’m doing my first steps.
So this is how Dmitry noticed me, and he enjoyed the fact that I am also from Ukraine, because he feels more comfortable to talk to his employees in Russian than in English. He knows English very well, but it’s just easier for him to explain himself in his native language. So he started digging on me a little bit. He found that I did an article for Moz that in 2010 was the top article of the year. It won three nominations out of four, something like that.
He also found my personal blog where I was writing some articles about marketing and where I was creating my own WordPress tools. And I also launched an online tool which was kind of similar to Ahrefs was working at this time, but not the same level of sophistication, of course.
So he reached out to me and asked if I’m interested in doing some freelance work, write some articles, give him some feedback. Within just two or three weeks, we realized that we are a good fit for each other, and he invited me to Singapore. So that’s the story.
How big was the Ahrefs team at the time that you joined, and do you remember how much revenue you guys were doing back then?
No, I don't remember the actual revenue, but I remember that there were like 15 people in the team and now we’re 45, and basically some of the people that are in the team today, not even in the marketing department, are the people who I brought in. So even though I’m a marketer, I actually hired an awesome web designer who joined our team, and then he brought his friend. And now we have two amazing web designers, and I also – this is the fun part – I also brought in a data scientist to our team.
While I don’t have a clue what data science is and what they should do, but just by watching applications like job postings of other people, I created a job posting. I found a few people that seemed promising, and I just provided them to our team, and they did the vetting. So yeah, I kind of participated in hiring that data scientist.
Cool. So you’re really doing a little bit of everything at Ahrefs?
Yeah. That’s the virtue of being in a small company with not a lot of people. This means that you can apply your talents everywhere you want, everywhere you see that you can do some damage. You just go and do this. I like it a lot, because before that I worked in bigger companies with 300-plus people.
And they didn’t feel like any responsibility on me. So whether I do good in my job, whether I do bad, this wasn’t affecting the bottom line at all. Ahrefs is totally different, so every little thing I do, it may have a strong effect from the bottom line.
Well there is a lot I want to get into. I want to talk about all these little details about how you’ve helped Ahrefs grow into a $40 million a year business. I want to talk about the strategies that you’ve used that we can apply to our own businesses to grow them a little bit faster and more effectively.
But first, I want to dive a bit into your history. You’ve talked about having a blog. You talked about having a marketing product that you were selling. How did you get into entrepreneurship? How did you get out of working for these bigger companies and go on to being self-employed?
The part of the story I already kind of hinted. Whenever you work for a big company and they don’t give you the responsibility, they don’t help you work on your ambitions, you start doing something on the side. That’s what always happens. And I wasn’t lucky enough to join any good company early that would give me a chance to shine so to say.
So naturally I was always looking to work on my own ideas, to apply the knowledge that I have and that I couldn’t apply within these companies that I was working at. So I started a blog. The best thing you can do to wrap your head around online business, online marketing, is start doing something. And I started a blog, actually as a bet with my friend.
We had a bet, like who will be able to launch a brand-new blog and generate more traffic in six months. Long story short, I won the bet, but not because I was so good, but because he abandoned his blog eventually.
You won by default.
Yeah, I won by default you could say. But from there I just naturally enjoyed blogging. I naturally enjoyed figuring out how we could get attention, how I could some traffic to my website. I started learning slow. I started learning how to build backlinks, where to get them, how they help me rank, how to do keyword research. I was reading Moz.
I was reading “Smart Passive Income” by Pat Flynn. I was trying to build sites for AdSense. I was trying to build sites for click bank affiliate stuff. So I was trying a little bit of everything and as part of my journey I was sharing on my personal blog, and eventually I decided that I don’t quite like promoting products of other people, because I don’t have any influence over the actual product, and I always had many ideas of how to improve them.
So I decided that I should actually launch my own products and not be just a marketer but a product manager, product owner. So I had a few ideas. I went to Upwork. I found a few developers and I started working on WordPress plugins. Then I set up simple landing pages, connected them to ClickBank, because it was the easiest way to handle billing, and started selling my products.
This was a huge learning experience, because if you’re doing all of that yourself, if you’re doing marketing yourself, if you’re working on the product yourself, managing a team, trying to sell it, etc., you learn a lot about marketing, about business, about everything. You can read a thousand books but unless you start doing something and get the real experience, you won’t be good at it.
I’m curious what was driving you did in this period. You talk about how you started this blog competition with your friend, and you won, and you found out that you really liked blogging. I’ve talked to a lot of people, founders even, who hate blogging. It’s their least favorite thing.
And here you were, reading about blogging and learning how to do all these tactics. What do you think was driving you and what motivated you to keep doing something that a lot of people don’t really enjoy?
That’s a great question, and to be honest, I don't know. Probably that is something in my nature, because before joining SEO and starting blogging, content marketing and getting myself out there, I actually was a DJ. So I kind of enjoyed being on stage, playing music to the crowd, and people knew my name.
So it was quite awesome. I was getting messages from people. They were giving me props on the music that I was playing. I think that is somehow connected, so I like having a spotlight on me or whatever. I think this is why I enjoyed blogging and I enjoyed sharing what I have, being public.
I think I don’t have any fear of being public, and I genuinely like sharing my knowledge with people. So I think this is what kept me going. I think this is just something in my nature. I like to be helpful and I like when people know me for something.
I think one of the algorithms that a lot of successful entrepreneurs run is this exploration phase, where they’ll try a lot of things and they won’t like some of them, but they eventually find something they really like, and they stick with that. Did you try other things besides blogging, besides starting your own product, that didn’t resonate with you, that you didn’t enjoy doing, and that you eventually quit?
To be honest, coming from Ukraine, which is not as developed as some other countries in the world, you have to have some grit. So I really didn’t think much of the things that I enjoy or not enjoy. I just had my ambitions, my goals. So I wanted to achieve something. I wanted to be one level above my friends who were working at 9 to 5 jobs.
I wanted to take a step further, so even if I didn’t enjoy something, I just pushed myself through it. Usually when I talk about this stuff, I like to do analogy with boxers, because I’m a fan of boxing – not a big one, so I don’t watch every boxing match, but in Ukraine we have two guys that are dominating the pound-for-pound list right now.
I’m watching them because they are fellow Ukrainians and I have pride in that. So the analogy with box is that those guys don’t really enjoy working super hard in the gym, because they are under the spotlight two or three times per year when they have a boxing match and all eyes are on them.
But then there’s a ton of hard work that happens in the gym, and no one is watching them. No one is really giving them a pat on the back, well maybe their trainer at least. So I just think that if you want to achieve something, if you want to be successful at something, you have to live with the fact that you might not like doing some things, and you have to push yourself through it.
So I think there are different opinions about this. Some people say that you should only do things you like, and this is the only way to succeed. I think that the only way to succeed is to push yourself through some things that you don’t like in order to eventually be able to do things that you like. So this is my vision for that.
I’ve had a few experiences where I felt a bit like a rubber band. I got stretched so far that I kind of retained this new shape, where I was pushed to work so much harder and have so much more discipline than I normally would have had. College comes to mind.
I’d always considered myself to be a pretty lazy person before college, and by the time I graduated I had a new identity of being a hardworking person. I meet a lot of founders who would describe themselves as hardworking people. I think it’s super useful, because when you come up against these new challenges in the future, they don’t look quite as scary.
You can tell yourself the story that, “Hey, I’m the kind of person that can do this,” or you can look at your past history and say, “Hey, I’ve already done harder things than this in the past, so I can do this, too.”
Let’s talk about your first product business, where you decided to stop selling other people’s products and start selling your own. You talked a little bit about how you got started with that. How did you end up finding your first customers and what became of that business?
The first product that I created was actually within a company that I worked for. I worked for a company that was selling website templates and they wanted to expand. They were selling it at WordPress, Joomla Press, The Shop, etc., and they were always looking for ways to expand their product lines. This was at the time where Facebook introduced their pages, and they allowed you with the code called FBML, Facebook Markup Language or something like this, create custom layouts for your Facebook pages, so whenever people land on your Facebook page, you can show them some beautiful stuff, have some buttons, forms, etc.
So since I was a marketer and I was interested in all those things, I suggested that these guys start producing Facebook page templates, because I could see that it was a big hit at the time, and no one was doing it so there was search demand for it. People were searching for it in Google, but no one was really selling them. So we quickly made 10 of them, listed them on the store, and within a week, those Facebook templates became the top selling product in their store. So this was quite fun. The only problem was that the more advanced templates that they were selling that had some flash animation at the time were costing $200.00-plus, but Facebook templates were $10.00 to $15.00 because they were simple.
Nevertheless, they were super successful, and they had quite a few ideas on how to create more advanced Facebook templates, what kind of things we could integrate there and ramp up the price and earn more. But the only thing that I got for introducing that product to their market is a one-time bonus of $100.00.
So when I realized that I just suggested them a product that became the top seller within their store and they had a lot of ideas on how to develop the product, and they only gave me the one-time bonus of $100.00, I realized that I need to quit at this time.
So I quit and I started with my friend who actually worked at that company as well, our own store for Facebook templates. And I think within less than three months we were making $2,000.00-plus in revenue, and it just kept growing. The demand was rising all the time. So I think this was the first product that I started selling, and it wasn’t that hard for me to get customers because like I said, people were actually searching for that in Google.
Because no one was really targeting these search terms, it was super easy for us to rank for FBML templates, Facebook page templates, etc., so customers were finding us and were buying our products, and from there once you buy a Facebook page template and put it on your Facebook page, other people start seeing it and they are asking you, “Where did you get the template? Who designed it for you?” So word of mouth also started kicking in and other customers were coming to our store based on their recommendations.
So it was quite easy, and actually this is the same strategy that we use today at Ahrefs. We have a blog that targets a lot of SEO-related questions, problems, etc. So people land on our blog. They see how we suggest to solve their SEO problems with the help of our tools so they sign up. And then once they get results with our SEO tools, once they start growing their own traffic from Google, they tell their friends about it, they have word of mouth, and these are our two biggest channels of customer acquisition at Ahrefs, searches and Google, and word of mouth.
I bet it felt amazing to go from working at a big company which you didn’t like, to having thousands of customers after only a couple of months.
It felt like we were on to something, but the story didn’t end well, because that guy actually changed all the passwords and disappeared.
Oh no, your so-called friend.
Yeah, yeah. So-called friend.
So you had this huge exploratory period before joining Ahrefs where you were working at other companies and helping them grow their products, and you were meeting up with I guess some shady figures and starting successful companies and having them stolen out from under you. What do you think were the most significant lessons that you learned before joining Ahrefs, that you have subsequently applied to your work at Ahrefs?
I think the most significant lesson that I’ve learned is that I want to work on the actual product. I don’t want to be just a marketer who sells whatever the boss will tell him, and I don’t want to be a marketer that will do whatever the boss tells him. Like the boss will tell, we need descriptions for our website template so I would sit and create those descriptions.
I hated that. I understood that not only could I promote something, not only did I know a little bit about SEO, and I know how to rank things in Google. I actually know how to create products that people want. I know how to communicate with people and get their feedback that would then drive product development.
So the ideas that I had about Facebook page templates all came from our customers, because I didn’t have my own Facebook page. I didn’t have my own Facebook page template, so I had no idea what I should have on those Facebook page templates. But because I was talking to the customers, I was trying to understand their businesses, what they were looking for, I got some ideas which we implemented in the products and the products were super-hot.
So yeah, my biggest lesson is that marketing is not only about promoting something. Marketing is about creating a better product for your target market.
So you say that you know how to create a product that people like and you know how to talk to customers and get their feedback. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs, especially people just starting out, don’t know either of these two things. These are very difficult things to do that might sound easy in theory. Just talk to people. But in practice, it can be really hard to do.
It’s scary to talk to people and it’s easy to talk to people and come out the other side of those conversations having learned the wrong lessons, because you asked the wrong questions, or you talked to the wrong people or something like that. What are some things that you learned about talking to customers and about creating a product that people like early on in your career that you think most novice entrepreneurs don’t know, or that maybe you didn’t know before you first got started?
I think one cool lesson that I can share from the top of my head is that you don’t necessarily have to listen to what your customers or people that you communicate to, like your prospects, are saying directly to you, but you should look for side clues. For example, when I started to sell my WordPress plugins, of course whenever I reached out to people and asked them to give me feedback on my plugins, people either didn’t reply or said that those are nice plugins.
But what I was looking for is whenever I gave my plugins for free to someone, because blogging was a super-hot thing back then and people were writing articles about whatever what happening in their lives, some of these people actually posted on their blogs that they started using this plugin, and then here are the results they had.
So these were the clues that I was looking for, because there, people were actually telling their honest opinion and they were telling their honest use cases, and they could see what people are actually using your product for – not what they say they like, not what they say they would do, but what they actually do. This is super important – and also the results that they get. And once you see what people actually do with your product and not just pretend to do, you have a good vision of where you should take your product next.
Let’s talk about your transition to running marketing at Ahrefs. I think by the time you joined Ahrefs, you guys were already in kind of a crowded market. There’s a lot of other SEO tools, a lot of other SEO firms. There’s Moz, there’s SEMrush, that are huge, that people are using to basically improve their SEO. How did you guys stand out from the crowd and sell a product that people liked in such a crowded field?
It was quite a challenge, and I remember when I joined Ahrefs. Dmitry, our founder and CEO, said something like, “Moz has marketing on a scale from zero to five at five, but their product is a three at best. Ahrefs has product at five on a scale from zero to five, but marketing is at one at best. So all we need to do is ramp up our marketing to three, and we’ll already be one level about Moz.”
So that’s the long story short. Because we have such an awesome product, we didn’t have to be even the best marketers in the field, we just had to have decent marketing multiplied by an awesome product. It started taking off. To be honest I think there was also a level of ignorance, so I didn’t quite understand what I was up to and who I was against. I didn’t think about it much. I just wanted to do good work. I just wanted to do what I was best at.
So I didn’t really think that we had those big competitors, that they have resources, that Moz has millions and millions in funding, huge team, Rand Fishkin, who is one of the top people in the field with a huge following. I didn’t think about all these things. I was just thinking, “How do I let more and more people know that Ahrefs is amazing, that Ahrefs is awesome?” So that’s basically it.
That’s so much pressure to put on your shoulders. Talk about lighting a fire under somebody’s ass, to come into a new company and say “Hey, we’re pretty much a five out of five on product, but you’re the new marketer guy, and the only thing that we really need to succeed is badass marketing, so get to it.” That’s a lot of pressure. Let’s talk about this one out of five state that Ahrefs was in. What were some of the things that Ahrefs was doing wrong when you joined?
First of all, because I had so much experience with blogging, I thought that the blog wasn’t doing well. Because they were doing maybe 10 or 15,000 visits per month, and they were publishing three articles per week. The quality of those articles was not super good, because they were actually employing some people from the SEO space. I don’t even remember the names of these people, and these people were only interested to quickly create an article within an hour, publish it on Ahrefs blog, and get $300 Euros for that article.
So I saw that this is not how blogging should work. This is not the strategy. So the first thing I did when I came to marketing at Ahrefs, I fired those freelancers. I told them, “Okay. We are canceling contracts with you. We no longer want to follow this strategy. We are going to redo our blog.” And I started looking for people who have first-hand SEO experience, who are actually practitioners and not just writers, and second, who had a track record for publishing amazing articles. Not just any articles from any blogs, but the articles that I would read and say, woah, I want to have that person on my team.
So that’s basically the trick. Plus, with our blog, before that the content strategy was just random. These writers were allowed to write anything that they wanted. So whatever was hot at the time, I don't know, mobile SEO or whatever, schema, they were writing about it, and those pieces were mostly opinion. So I think that mobile SEO is headed there, here are five tips on optimizing your website, so not the stuff you will read.
What I did is that we started doing keyword research. We started figuring out what kind of search queries, what kind of things people are actually looking for in Google in regard to SEO. What is the search potential, what is the traffic potential of these topics, and can these topics can feature Ahrefs tools? Because I realized that we were a small team.
Actually, when I joined Ahrefs I was a single marketer, and I realized that we don’t have a huge team of writers to cover every imaginable topic. So we had to focus on topics that would bring us customers. And that meant that these topics should be related to SEO, which our product does, and within those topics we should be able to pitch our use cases.
Because I heard a nice phrase somewhere, in some book, that the first time people use your product is in their heads. So this was my objective. And my objective was within an article, to make people envision themselves using Ahrefs, to show them use cases. They were searching in Google for some kind of problem they have with SEO, and my goal was to show them how to solve that problem with Ahrefs so that they would be naturally interested to sign up.
So that’s the first thing I did. We changed the direction of our blog from publishing random stuff to target super-specific searches and showcasing Ahrefs within those articles. We are doing this to this date, and we recently surpassed 200,000 visitors from Google search alone, so the Google traffic is much bigger. If you go to Ahrefs blog, open any article and there would be some use cases for Ahrefs. I don't think we have even 3% of our articles that don’t mention Ahrefs. Most of them do have use cases for Ahrefs. So this was one of the first things that they were doing wrong, and I corrected it.
One of the things I know about you that I think sets you apart from a lot of other expert marketers is that you’re not really into metrics. You’re not fanatically tracking every single user behavior through every single funnel on your site. You’re pretty happy not looking at a lot stuff at all. Why aren’t you into metrics, and how do you compensate for not tracking this kind of stuff?
Well if I know metrics, or if I don’t know these metrics, that doesn’t really change what I do day-to-day. So I knew that I wanted to create content around specific searches. I knew that I wanted push Ahrefs within those articles and show people how to use it. And because people were signing up, I was also doing some support to better understand our customers, and they were saying, “I’ve read about you in that article and you showed this use case and I want to apply it to my website.”
So I knew by these side clues that my strategy works, because when people were signing up, they were actually telling this to me, and some people were even sending direct emails to me saying how much the enjoyed some of our articles and that they started applying these things for their business and it works.
So I knew it works and I didn’t care what was the conversion rate from my article into Ahrefs subscribers. And I didn’t care - I don’t even know what the total traffic is to our blog right now, because I don’t understand what it would change. I can only see that our search traffic that we care about the most is growing. I can see that people are consistently finding us in Google. Whenever they have SEO issues they land on our blog and they learn about Ahrefs. That’s all I need to know.
One other fun story is that, again, when I joined Ahrefs, I of course started learning everything about SaaS marketing, sales funnels, conversion funnels, tracking every metric, cohorts, churn, etc. There’s a ton of stuff to learn, actually. At a certain point, we started to apply this. For example, we tried to measure the conversion for funnel for Ahrefs. This is when people land on your home page then they click the trial button they enter their information, then they confirm their email, and then they do some steps of onboarding and finally they have a registered trial.
We wanted to track every step in this funnel and what we did, we actually signed up for three different tools, three different analytics tools. One was KISSmetrics, another one was Woopra, and I think the third was Mixpanel. And there was also a tool called Segment where you can funnel your data, and then Segment collects through all those different tools and sends them exactly the same data. So we knew the setup for all three tools was exactly the same, because we were using a single tool to feed those three analytics tools.
But what we discovered after setting up that thing is that the numbers in the conversion funnel, like how many people go from step one to step two, from step two to step three, was actually different. Numbers differed by 1 to 3% and we realized that if numbers between those three analytics tools already differed by 3%, what’s the point for us trying to ramp up the numbers in our conversion funnel by 3%, by obsessing over A/B testing, doing different copy, etc.
A better use of our time was to simply create the onboarding or conversion funnel in a way that we think is logical and convenient to people, and then focus on the actual product. Focus on bringing value to the people who signed up in trying to use us, other than trying to get more people into the product that is not as good as it could be if you would invest all the time there. So this is our policy with obsessing over all these analytics things.
But on the other hand, I can’t say that we don’t check anything at all, because for example if you want to change some feature within a tool, we won’t be ignorant about it. We’ll set up internal tests, internal tracking, and we will measure how many people opened this report? How many click on this button? How many people add something to something? So we would know the usage of that feature, and we would know what to do, how popular it is among our customers and what to do next.
So it’s not that we’re ignoring all measurements. We only measure stuff where we know that we can actually then – based on these numbers we can actually do some takeaways, and this will change the way we work with that feature further.
Everything you said resonates with me so hard, because I’ve read over and over online that you should track any metrics that aren’t actionable. You shouldn’t track metrics that you’re going to actually change your behavior once you see the results of, but I can’t tell you how many charts I’ve set up on Google Analytics or Mixpanel or Amplitude and then just never looked at it again, never did anything as a result of it, so it’s a total waste of time.
Let’s talk a little bit about word of mouth as a strategy, in addition to all this content marketing that you’re doing. You mentioned earlier that the two things that helped your template business run were the content and the word of mouth, people liking your product and talking to each other about it, and sharing it with each other, and writing blog posts about it.
I imagine that’s a pretty huge driver of growth at Ahrefs, too. I know I started using Ahrefs because a friend of mine told me to start using it. How do you actually, intentionally harness word of mouth? How do you get your customers to talk about the product that you’re building?
There’s a story to it, because I wasn’t that smart from the start. I actually learned everything the hard way. And the story is, when I came here to Singapore, I was lucky to meet a guy, Eli Schwartz. He’s the head of SEO at SurveyMonkey. Well he’s for sure at SurveyMonkey. I just don’t remember his exact title.
And when I met him, he introduced me to a local Singaporean group of marketers and we started to have hangouts now and then, to drink beers and talk about marketing. And from one of these hangouts, the guy started asking me about Ahrefs, like, “Tim, what do you think is great about the tool, about the company that you joined?” and I simply started bragging about our technical team, about Dmitry, our founder, who is super technical, who is super knowledgeable with all those servers, programming languages etc., and the level of knowledge of our development team, their coding in programming language called OCaml, which is not super famous but it’s very, very effective and very hardcore.
And I was bragging about the quality of data that we have, the size of the data that we have and that we have an awesome crawler. And the guys were simply dropping their jaws. And I remember like it was yesterday that Eli actually asked me, “Why don’t you tell this to everyone online? Why are you sharing all that with us now?
This is super impressive to us, but there’s no way to learn about all these things unless we actually talk to you,” and I thought, “Okay. Now I’m on to something.” So I realized that I was -- in person, one-on-one conversations, I was bragging about Ahrefs, how good our data is, what separates us from the competition, what are our unique selling propositions, etc.
But I didn’t do this in my marketing. So this is when I stated applying into our content some references about the tech stack that we have, about the quality of data that we have, about the size of the data that we have, and today we actually have a dedicated page so you can go to Ahrefs home page.
This is so important to us that I actually created a dedicated page called Our Data, and once you click it you can see the numbers of how many backlinks we have in our database, how many keywords we have in our database, and these are huge and impressive numbers. And we also have information about the amount of servers that we have which is also huge.
Our infrastructure is super huge, and it impresses people. They realize that they are not just using a tool that was made by a few freelancers, but they are using a sophisticated tool that costs millions of dollars, literally, to maintain, and they can get access to it for a hundred dollars per month.
So I started integrating those clues into my marketing whenever I was doing an interview, whenever I was recording a video or writing an article or talking to people on Facebook, and I saw that it was amazing people. So this is how I generated some extra word of mouth, because when your customers will talk to their peers, they need some kind of arguments as to why the tool that they are using is better than the tool that their friend is using.
So my job was to give them those arguments. Other than that, we were super lucky that some guys, I think they own come content delivery network or something, long story short, they have access to analytics of 100,000 websites. They did a small research to see which kind of search, search bots, search crawlers, were most active on their website, on 100,000 websites that they have access to.
And Ahrefs turned out to be the second most active crawler after Google. So we were visiting more pages and updating pages more frequently than Bing, Yahoo!, etc. So immediately I started using this heavily in our marketing that Ahrefs has the second most active crawler after Google and we integrated this, again, into our content, into our promotional materials.
And I saw that people started telling this to each other, so whenever there was an argument about who has better link data, who has better crawler of the web, people were just sending each other a link to the research and saying, “Look, Ahrefs has the second best crawler after Google, and it’s not a research that they’ve done themselves. This is a third-party research which is not in any way related with Ahrefs.”
So it seems like you have this repeated process, where you would interact with customers and talk to them. You would see through their reactions what impressed them the most about what was going on at Ahrefs, and then you’d work that into your marketing material and blast that out to everybody, instead of just keeping it contained in these one-on-one conversations that you were having or these small research projects that you were finding.
Now that you’re saying it, yeah. I think that is the process. But actually, I never thought of it this way. So it’s not intentional that I would talk to people and test their responses on whatever I was sharing, so it happened naturally. I was kind of sharing what was impressive to me, and then when I got a reaction, like a normal human being, I was making a mental note, like, “Hey, this works. I need to tell about this to more people.” So that’s it.
Exactly. You mentioned that when you joined Ahrefs, you started learning everything you could about SaaS marketing. You started reading about sales funnels and conversion funnels and cohort analyses, etc. Let’s say people are listening to this right now and they have no idea about any of this stuff. They’ve never marketed anything in their life. What do you think are the most important concepts for them to understand?
Oh, that’s a super good question. I think the most important concept is there are just two ways to reach people online. Okay, three ways. The first way is when they search for you. Like I said, whenever people have a problem, what do they do? They go to Google and look for a solution. So if you show up there, you automatically get customers. So this is the first way.
The second way is ads. So if people are hanging out on Facebook, people are hanging out on Twitter, people are hanging out on different websites that have banners, etc. And you can pay for placements on those websites or you can even pay for, I don't know, dedicated email lists to someone’s audience. In other words, you can pay to tap into someone’s audience and get your message in front of people.
That is not as effective as when people purposefully search for you, because it is what Seth Godin calls permission marketing versus interruption marketing. When people search for something in Google and land on your article, they kind of give you permission to market to them. You have their attention and they want to learn from you and want to hear what you say.
When you send people an email blast with your offer or whatever, this is interruption marketing. Because people are into whatever takes their mind at this point in time, and you’re trying to interrupt them with your message and you’re trying to get them interested, so the conversion rate is not even close to what you can get from traffic from Google.
And the third way is something that we discussed quite a few times already, is word of mouth. So if your product is really helpful, and if you can educate people on how your product is helpful, they’re going to recommend it to their friends. This is super important.
One other important thing, one other important takeaway that I’ve learned, and I don’t see a lot of people talk about it, usually when you start learning SaaS marketing or product marketing, people obsess over that “aha” moment, the moment where people start using your tool. They click a few buttons and suddenly, they realize how to use it.
A lightbulb switches on and they are your customer for life. There are a few success stories, like Twitter had to make people follow ten other people, and this is what made them stick with Twitter. Or Facebook made their users, their new signups, also befriend ten people and this is what made them stick.
I don’t see any other such case studies, so I don’t really buy the thing, but I think the product education, it happens before people sign up for your product. Because for Ahrefs, I don't know, it might be for simple products that “aha” moment works. Because Twitter is quite a simple concept. There’s not much to learn there. But Ahrefs is quite a sophisticated tool.
We have a lot of different tools. We have a lot of different reports. You have to really dig into it to understand what kind of value you can get. So people won’t just sign up for Ahrefs, browse around a little bit and suddenly a lightbulb switches. It doesn’t happen. In our case, we first try to educate people.
We have our blog, where we have articles about different SEO problems and different SEO concepts. We have our channel on YouTube where we also teach different things and we also want to collect search traffic from YouTube. So people are actually searching for solutions for their problems on YouTube, and we have videos there.
So people first, they learn how to use your product to solve whatever issue they have, and then they will sign up for your product, and look like, “Okay. I saw that video, and he went here, and he did that. Let me replicate it.” So this is how it happens for us. This is what I believe in. And that is why we mostly invest our efforts into educating everyone before they join.
Even more, we have a trial, but it’s a paid trial. You have to pay $7.00 to use Ahrefs for seven days. I don't think I know any other SaaS companies that would charge $7.00 for their trial. So you actually have to pay to even take a look inside our tool. Would you pay for something that you don’t even know how to use? Of course not.
So first, you have to understand, what are you paying for? You have to understand what kind of use case you’re going to act on. So first, people learn about Ahrefs and how to use it, and then they invest those $7.00, because they already know what they are going to get inside, so this is very important.
That makes a ton of sense, and I think most people, at least people that I see on the Indie Hackers forum, people that I see posting on Product Hunt, to have the idea that they’re going to put up a landing page, people are going to come and read one or two lines and immediately decide, “I’m going to buy. I’m going to shell out a hundred dollars for this. I’m sold.”
And it’s really easy to underestimate how much work can really go into education before that point. So if marketing was a one out of five when you joined Ahrefs, where would you say it is today?
I won’t answer that question, because I have two choices, either to be humble or to be arrogant, so I’d rather have people who saw what we were doing in terms of - well, actually, it’s interesting.
If there are any Ahrefs customers among our listeners, let’s have them tweet mentioning you and me what they think, from one to five, where our marketing is right now. I’ll be super interested to get feedback from people.
Okay. Your Twitter is @TimSoulo, so @-T-I-M-S-O-U-L-O.
Yeah, or they can actually mention Ahrefs. You’ll see those tweets. It will be super interesting.
This will be an interesting experiment. I've never asked people to tweet while listening to a podcast. But where do you think Ahrefs’ marketing is at? Tweet Tim, tweet Ahrefs, and let us know.
Let’s switch over into talking a little bit about SEO in particular. You said elsewhere online that SEO is the best distribution channel for a small bootstrap startup to get started on. Have you said that? Is that true?
I said many things, but yeah. I believe this is true.
Okay. So that’s a pretty ambitious claim, and you mentioned earlier that there are other ways, of course, that customers can find your startup. But you think SEO is the best. Why do you believe so much in this approach?
Well like I said, because this is permission marketing, because people are actually looking for a solution to their problem and you have that solution. If we talk about paid traffic, you can still bid for keywords in Google, but still you’re getting your product in front of people who are actually looking for it.
So this is why I think that getting yourself in front of people who are searching for something relevant, whether they are ranking organically or paying for ads, this is the best way to get customers.
On the other hand, SEO is free, so once you write an article and make it rank high in Google, it will consistently bring you traffic every single month, so you don’t have to pay for it. If you’re paying for pay-per-click advertising, you have to pay for every single click. But once you get your article to the top of Google, it might stay there for years.
So then you can write a second article, so now you have two articles that generate your traffic. And then you will write a third one, and you have three articles. And it’s compounding. It’s adding up, and you’re investing work that actually adds up, not like investing dollars that, once you stop it, you’re out of customers.
So yeah, this is why I think that SEO is an amazing channel. Of course, people might argue with me that SEO takes time to build up so if you have a new website you have to build authority, you have to build links, you have to invest your time into creating all those great articles and integrate your tools there, etc..
Well yeah, you have to work. That’s how you make money. That’s how you build a business. You have to work. Of course, if you have tons of investing, it’s easier for you to simply just burn that money into all sorts of ads rather than hire a team, train them how to create content, train them how to build links, how to get exposure.
But yes, those people who will have their content there organically will eventually win over the people who are burning their money on ads. Because the first ones, they are not spending any money, and every next article they write adds up to their total traffic and total number of prospects that they get to their website.
And their competitors are paying for each customer, so already their customer position cost is high and it’s harder for them to make profits.
I like that you went a little bit into some of the objections that people have around SEO, because that, it turns out, is exactly where I wanted go. SEO, obviously, one of the most popular channels online, billions of people searching Google every month, and yet a lot of founders are starting companies and completely neglecting SEO for a number of reasons.
One of the first objections that people have is that the market’s too crowded. Any amount of success you are going to find the SEO pretty much died years and years ago, and at this point it’s impossible to succeed. I think an interesting data point is to just look at the people I’ve had on my podcast. I’ve had Rand Fishkin of Moz on here. I’ve had John Doherty of Credo.
I’ve had Nat Eliason who runs an SEO content marketing agency. I’ve had Ryan Bednar of Rank Science. I’ve had plenty of other people who I think in the SEO space – I think this is just a reflection not of me liking SEO and interviewing SEO guests, but of SEO just being a crowded place with tons of people.
What do you say to founders who are considering trying to get the word out about their startup, but are afraid to enter the search engine optimization game because they think it’s too crowded?
Well, I think I have a super fun answer. Those people that you mention, like Rand Fishkin, who’s like the biggest person in SEO, probably, Nat, John Doherty, etc., when I joined Ahrefs, I was up against them. I was up against the best SEO people in the world. I was up against Moz.
I was up against SEMrush. I actually had to do SEO against people who are the best in the world in SEO, and our blog went from 15,000 visitors per month to over 200,000 visitors per month.
So while I was able to compete with the best SEOs of the world, I’m sure that if you enter some other niche, there would be still room for you. It’s fun that – I think there’s room for everyone and I actually think that not all the businesses are good in SEO. For example, if I take a look at Moz blog or SEMrush blog, they are not targeting many, many juicy keywords that we are targeting.
So if people are interested, they can use Ahrefs and go to our tools, go to our site explorer tool, enter the URL of Ahrefs blog, enter the URL of Moz blog, enter the URL of SEMrush blog, and go to a report called top pages, which will show them the pages that generate the most traffic from search to each blog.
And you will instantly see which topics each blog is targeting, which topics are bringing the most traffic, and Ahrefs’ ranking in getting traffic for a ton of topics that are not really covered on those other blogs. So there’s a ton of opportunity, and I think many businesses are simply missing out.
They are not doing proper keyword research. They are not doing proper content marketing. I think it is quite easy to get traffic with SEO. If I was able to wrestle with all those biggest guys in the world and still be successful, then you should be able to.
And one other thing, one other objection about SEO, is many people think that SEO is too technical. Probably doesn’t apply to the audience of developers, of course, because the technical SEO is actually web development, the other word for it. But recently, here in Singapore, I was giving a short talk to MBA students of the National University of Singapore.
They were doing some online project, launching their startup, etc., so I asked them how many of them are going to use SEO to bring traffic to the websites of their project. None of them raised their hands, so I asked, “Why are you guys not using SEO?” And they said SEO is too technical. And I said, “Guys, I barely know any HTML, and I was able to ramp up the traffic to our blog 10X.” You don’t have to be technical to know SEO.
All you need to do is do keyword research. You need to find the phrases, the topics that people are searching for online related to your product, and then you need to write articles on your blog or create pages on your website, that would target those searches, that would target those problems that people are having.
And then the last thing is that you need to get some links from other websites. So probably you have, I don't know, partners. Probably you have friends with websites, or you can go and guest post for other blogs. There are many ways to get back links to your website. And that’s it, only three steps.
First, you need to know what people are searching for. Second, you need to create some content or pages on your website to target those searches. And third, you need to get links from other websites as a validation that your validation that your website is important so that Google would rank it high. That’s all you need to do on the surface level.
Of course, if you’re doing SEO for big sites or e-commerce sites, there are a lot of bells and whistles there, and yes, you have to technical, you have to understand many different concepts, you have to be good at web development. But on the surface level, SEO is super simple and straightforward.
You got into a little bit about the difficulties of SEO and the technicality, and this was my second objection that I wanted to bring up that a lot of founders have trouble with. When they look at SEO, it just looks like it’s too hard. There are people like you.
There are people like Rand Fishkin who have been doing this for 10, 15 years, and the amount of expertise and experience that you’ve built up by this point in time just looks exhausting. And so they turn to SEO experts and consultants who can help them, and that’s kind of a crap shoot, because if you don’t know anything about SEO, you don’t really know how to hire somebody to help you with SEO.
And of course, you can turn to various WordPress plugins that promise to optimize your website’s SEO, but you press the button in WordPress, and nothing really seems to happen. You’re not ranking on Google and you think, this is impossible. A lot of people don’t even bother trying because it seems like it’s too much to learn. There’s too much work to do and whatever they’ve tried doesn’t really help.
Yeah, and they’re missing out big time. So it’s really that simple. You know what people are searching for, you create pages to target those searches and you try to get links from other websites. That’s all you need to know.
You said there are a lot of scamming SEO experts. Let me defend them. There are also a lot of legit SEO experts, because when you have a huge website with thousands and thousands of pages, probably you’re doing a ton of mistakes on this website. Probably you have a lot of dead weight pages, etc. So the guys who have a lot of experience with SEO, they can assess your website and show you all the mistakes that you’re doing and remove duplicate pages, remove sim pages, and ramp up your traffic.
But specifically, for people who are building websites from scratch, you don’t really have any pages at all right now. So you don’t have any mistakes at this point, so you don’t need to hire an SEO expert. You just need to start creating those pages to target what people are searching for. It’s that simple.
The last objection I was going to go into you’ve also already touched on briefly, which is that SEO is too slow. You’re a startup founder. You’re trying to get your company off the ground. Maybe you only have six months of runway in the bank. You’re still building your product. Can you really invest three to six months into writing dozens or even hundreds of articles before you start seeing any results?
Great question. First of all, yes, SEO is slow and probably you won’t be able to get SEO traffic in the first month, in the second month, and you’ll probably be lucky if you get your first traffic in half a year. But why is that an objection not to start doing SEO? Because time will pass anyway. So where do you want to be in six months?
Do you want to have passive traffic that you don’t have to pay for and customers coming to your website consistently every single month? Or do you want to be looking half a year from now, you want to be looking for that next growth hack that will magically take your business to new heights?
Another thing is that you don’t need to publish that many pages. Like I said, if you do keyword research, you can see the search demand for different topics and some topics are super popular. So if you take the search query “dog food”, there’s a huge search demand for that search query, but can you really sell to that search query?
It’s hard because it’s kind of general, so people are not looking to buy anything. But if you look at the search query, like buy some specific dog food in Texas or whatever, that is something you should be targeting because people are actually looking to buy something at your location.
So you don’t have to build a ton of pages. You just have to figure out what kind of topics, what kind of pages would be the most effective for your business to make a sale. But still, you have to then hustle and build links from other websites so that Google will start crawling your website and so that Google would understand that your website is worth ranking at the top of the search results.
But there’s another quick, “hack” that you can do. Once you do the keyword research and once you find all the relevant search queries, all the relevant phrases that people are using to find solutions to relevant problems, there are already ten pages for each of the search queries that are already ranking on the front page of Google. And quite often, many of those pages are not your direct competitors.
So for example, if you Google for “best Wi-Fi headphones”, these will be all review sites. So if you happen to sell super new Wi-Fi headphones, let’s say you just recently launched a kick starter campaign and you want to promote them, just go to those pages. Just go to these websites that already get traffic for your desired search term and pitch them your product.
If they’re already listing ten different headphones, why wouldn’t they list an eleventh? Of course these people are looking to make money via affiliates, but if you have an affiliate program, just pitch them your product. Just tell them that you also have an affiliate program, and they can include your product on their page and start making a little money from promoting you.
So yes, to start getting SEO traffic early, you need to focus on what I call secondhand SEO traffic, which you get from pages that already rank for your desired search terms, unless they are your direct competitors. In that case, they of course will not be interested to include you or your pages.
But yeah, while you’re not getting the SEO traffic of your own, while you don’t have all these pages to target relevant search queries, go and see all of the ranks there and if you can pitch them your product or service, and if you can have them included on their pages and you will instantly start getting some relevant traffic.
That’s good stuff, Tim. We’re approaching the end of the episode. I want to close out by asking you to maybe give some general-purpose advice to entrepreneurs who aren’t located in a tech hub. You yourself come from Ukraine.
It’s a very different environment there than it is in places like San Francisco, and I think most people listening to the podcast don’t live in tech hubs like San Francisco or London or anything like that. How can you strike out on your own and start a successful business, and what kinds of problems have you overcome in doing that, being from Ukraine?
Like I said, the best way to learn something is to start doing it. So be an action taker. Don’t just lurk the internet indefinitely looking for the next best idea or the next most awesome growth hack. Actually go build that website. Go create MVP of your product. Put it out there. Start getting feedback.
And the second-best thing you can do after you do all these things, connect with people who are either at your stage or just one or two steps above you. Indie Hackers is an amazing community for that, so you can easily engage, discuss your problems and connect with like-minded people. And you’re going to get friends.
Like I said, I launched my own blog because it was a bet with my friend, and I met that friend online. I was reading his blog. I was leaving him comments. I wanted to connect with him because he was quite a few steps above me. He was where I wanted to be. So eventually, I was able to connect with him and we are friends to this day.
So start doing things. Start connecting with people who are a few levels above you, and eventually you will figure it out. There’s just no other way for you. There’s no way to consistently fail for years and years if you’re trying things and if you’re connecting with people far above you.
Well, thank you so much, Tim, for coming onto the Indie Hackers podcast and sharing your story and sharing your knowledge so passionately. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about what you guys are up to at Ahrefs and about what you’re up to personally, if you share that kind of thing online as well?
Yeah. I have my own personal page at Ahrefs. It’s ahrefs.com, A-F-H-R-E-F-S-.com/tim, T-I-M. And on that page, I’m basically listing all my social profiles. I’m listing all the best articles that I’ve written for Ahrefs blog, and I’m also listing my podcast interviews so once this one is published it will appear on that page as well.
So if people want to connect with me, they can find all the information there. Other than that, I can’t even tell people to go to Ahrefs blog or to go to Ahrefs or to go to our YouTube channel, because if you’re not looking for help with SEO, then you don’t really need to explore those resources.
But if you are looking to start an SEO, if you are looking to get some knowledge to learn how to do things, just go to Google, start typing whatever problems you’re having. Just go to YouTube, start typing whatever things you don’t understand. And I’m sure that eventually you will land on Ahrefs blog. Eventually you will land on our videos and you’ll learn how to use our product and you’ll become our customer.
That’s good stuff. Thank you so much, Tim, for coming on the show. It was great having you.
Thanks a lot for having me.
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