How I built a marketing team for an 8-figure company

Tim Soulo (CMO @ Ahrefs)
The Startup
Published in
8 min readFeb 12, 2019

Your blog traffic is plateauing.

Can I take a stab at rewriting your homepage?

The UI/UX of that feature could be better.

These are the kinds of messages Ahrefs’ CEO and founder Dmitry received from me in 2015. The funny part?

I wasn’t even an employee yet. I was a freelance marketer who wasn’t afraid to be honest with my clients, and Ahrefs was one of them.

Dmitry got in touch with me while looking for marketers who would write quality content for his 8-figure SaaS company.

What began as one-off article writing quickly evolved into a variety of collaborative tasks: Product feedback, design input, content marketing strategy and more.

Within a couple weeks, Dmitry was like, “Yo, Tim! Why don’t you just come work for us, bro?” Just kidding, Ahrefs’ CEO doesn’t really talk like that.

Soon after, I received a work visa with the words “Product Marketing Director” written across it.

When my friends heard I was moving 8,600 km to Singapore for a new job, they were excited. However, they mistakenly assumed I would be managing an entire department.

The reality? I was a team of one.

Of course, this wasn’t unusual. Early-stage companies and startups often hire a full-stack marketer, or jack-of-all-trades, before onboarding more specialized positions.

This person is responsible for everything from content strategy to social media management.

But how does an organization responsibly transition from marketer no. 1 to subsequent hires? This is the most common question I hear among fellow CMOs in marketing mastermind groups.

Here’s how I approached the process:

1. I did everything myself.

Despite having the budget, I decided to wait on hiring additional marketers for a couple reasons:

  1. I wanted to intimately understand the software I was promoting, and the audience I was reaching, to become a better marketer.
  2. I was already accustomed to doing everything myself; before joining Ahrefs, I bootstrapped a Wordpress plugin business.

Honestly, marketing is more than a paycheck for me. I love helping shape products used by thousands of people, creating content marketing strategies and talking with customers.

Embarking upon the challenge as a lone wolf felt more exciting than the conventional path of immediately hiring a bunch of people. After all, my last name is SOuLO.

However, I struggled to consistently create the high-quality content I envisioned. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write compelling articles on SEO, as much as I didn’t have time. Regularly publishing phenomenal content is extremely time-consuming.

Put simply, if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much work is involved in researching, writing and editing. Admittedly, I also lacked the advanced SEO knowledge our blog needed.

However, building an exceptional company blog was the foundation of my marketing strategy. I wanted people to find our blog articles in Google whenever they had a question about SEO. And I wanted our articles to teach them how to reach their goals using Ahrefs.

“The first use of any product is inside the consumer’s mind.” — © Unknown

I figured that my first hire needed to both a) be an exceptionally talented writer with deep knowledge of SEO and b) already be a true fan of Ahrefs who could naturally “pitch” the product in our articles.

Rolling up my sleeves and doing everything myself, revealed my greatest need, which then informed my first hire. In other words, I didn’t need a team — I needed to get important work done.

Depending on your marketing strategy, and personal capabilities, your greatest need may be different than mine. Maybe you’ve got content marketing down, but desperately need a paid traffic whiz to bring cheap leads to your product.

Most early-stage startups begin with hiring either a Head of Growth or a Head of Content. However, there is no “right” decision. Allow the work piling up to inform who gets hired next.

2. I didn’t hire to fill “positions.”

After identifying my need for a content writer, I realized I needed someone with specific skills. Translation: I didn’t want someone whose portfolio included articles about craft beer, real estate and cars.

I also didn’t want someone experienced in creating company brochures, email sequences or magazine articles. I wanted someone experienced in writing engaging blog content around deep SEO topics because we sell an SEO toolkit.

Luckily, I found that person in our Head of Content Josh.

While browsing SEO communities, I stumbled upon a massive link-building article written by him. We’re talking 60,000 words on every imaginable link-building strategy under the sun.

I shook my head in amazement. “What motivated him to write this unpaid?” I thought. “Does he want to build credibility in his niche? Does he want to scale his own agency?”

So, I reached out and asked those questions.

Josh said he was fascinated by SEO and wanted to write content people would benefit from reading. He loved the topic so much he spent 5 months working on that particular resource!

Providing Josh with a visible platform to achieve this goal has since proven to be win-win. So it wasn’t too hard to persuade him to join us at Ahrefs.

Despite the fact that Josh specializes in content writing, he’s actually “a generalist.” Over the years, I’ve assigned him a wide variety of marketing assignments, which have been executed flawlessly.

This proves that smart, responsible and hardworking hires need not be limited to specific tasks — they can handle anything.

Most of our marketing team consists of generalists who, simultaneously, work in several directions: Writing blog articles, posting on Quora, managing podcast advertising and running our corporate Twitter account.

When conversing with “marketing leaders” I often hear questions like:

Who should I hire? What roles do you have in your team? Should I hire more generalists or specialists?

Honestly, they are making the hiring process too complicated. I don’t look at my team members as generalists or specialists. All I need are people who are capable of getting important work done.

Our work is, mostly, about producing and distributing high-quality educational content that illustrates the awesomeness of our product. It doesn’t matter what “position” or “experience type” that falls into.

With that said, Josh is exceptional at writing about SEO — so that’s where he spends the majority of his time.

The bottom line: Don’t get caught up in the whole “generalist vs. specialist” dilemma. Hire people whom you trust to get work important done.

3. I hired remote talent.

Becoming the best requires hiring the best. Unfortunately, top talent doesn’t always live in your backyard.

Ahrefs eliminates this obstacle by relying upon freelancers in foreign locations. For example, Josh works full-time from the comfort of his home in Sheffield, UK. Like myself, he started out as a freelancer. However, we didn’t believe he needed to move here to contribute.

Another irreplaceable member of the Ahrefs marketing department is our video leader Sam. He creates educational videos and manages our YouTube channel from his home in Toronto. Finding someone in Singapore with Sam’s diverse technical skill set would be nearly impossible.

This flexible work arrangement allows us to partner with super talented people around the world. And this is a company-wide policy, that is not limited to marketing department only. Many of our super smart developers (including our CTO) are working remote.

Relying on freelance talent can also be a cost-effective option for startups wanting to hire part-time talent with minimal risk.

4. I hired Figure-Shit-Out (FSO) people.

My first full-time hire was Nick, my former partner at BloggerJet. It’s worth mentioning that 30 percent of my hires have been people I already knew before the need arose.

I hired Nick because he was smart, trustworthy and willing to “figure shit out.” As Bryan Harris advises fellow entrepreneurs and marketers in his video:

“You have one job — that’s to figure things out. Need more customers? Figure it out. Need more traffic? Figure it out. Need to hire a coder, a designer or a writer? Figure it out!”

Bryan Harris is a huge advocate of mapping your own path, and I agree with his philosophy. While contributing to Ahrefs’ rapid growth in my almost 4 years with a company, I’ve ignored much standard growth hacking advice in favour of figuring out what works best for our company.

I wanted to work with similar individuals who could direct themselves. One way to identify such candidates early in the hiring process is to evaluate their written communication skills.

It’s amazing how much information you can gather about someone from a simple email:

  • Did they organize their thoughts in a coherent manner?
  • Did they leave out unnecessary details?
  • Did they address all your questions?

Hire a person who writes great emails; they will probably have the high Figure Shit Out (FSO) quotient you need. Excellent communication skills are even more important when working with remote team members.

5. All hires work in Customer Support.

Finally, a marketer’s education, work experience and soft skills don’t mean anything if they don’t really understand the product.

For this reason, I insist every new hire to the marketing team should spend a minimum of 6 months in our Customer Support team. This policy is based on my early experience answering support queries almost daily.

Talking directly with our users helped me write the copy for our homepage, choose an editorial direction and surpass 1M views on our YouTube channel. It also made me even more passionate about the product itself.

Here’s the thing: Ahrefs is a team of 45 individuals competing against significantly larger organizations like Moz (200+ people) and SEMrush (600+ people). But if you had a chance to meet anyone from our team, you’d be blown away by their genuine enthusiasm for what makes our toolkit unique.

Customers who have met Josh, Sam, Nick and myself in real life can attest to this fact. Heck, I even “hung out” on corporate Slack, while vacationing in Bali!

So, not only does our Support-to-Marketing Policy help new hires learn more about our customers, it also enhances their enthusiasm for the product’s unique capabilities. In my opinion, THIS is “the secret sauce” of our impeccable marketing team.

Now, over to you…

In summary, I built the marketing team for Ahrefs by:

  • Initially, doing everything myself to identify the greatest needs.
  • Hiring based on those needs, not positions.
  • Procuring the best talent by utilizing remote workers.
  • Prioritizing hires who could figure things out on their own.
  • Requiring all new marketers to work product support.

Are you in the process of building a marketing team?

If so, what has been the most challenging aspect so far?

Additionally, let us know in the comments below if you have any tips that weren’t covered here.


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