How we achieve +65% YoY growth by ignoring conventional startup advice
I closed my Macbook and sighed — it had been 6 months.
Six months since I flew into Singapore’s Changi Airport.
Six months since I anxiously waited to have my passport stamped.
Six months since my routine turned upside down.
I had traded my winter coat — a staple in my small Ukrainian town — for a new pair of swim trunks.
Sadly, they would spend more time in my closet than on the beach. At least, I spared the locals from seeing my uber pale legs.
After a series of conversations with Ahrefs’ CEO and founder Dmitry, I accepted a job offer as the company’s product marketing director. Ahrefs provides a toolkit that helps clients grow their organic search traffic.
There was just one problem: I knew nothing about SaaS marketing.
Even worse, the role consolidated a breadth of work typically handled by multi-person marketing departments. I was a team of one.
You’re probably wondering how I landed the job, but that’s a story for another time. Initially, I dug into every SaaS marketing article I could find.
I came across a lot of “shoulds;” not just about marketing, but about how to run a startup:
You should track “dozens of metrics” without fail.
You should A/B test every variable.
You should build an email list.
Initially, I was embarrassed. How could I have called myself a marketer for the past 5 years without knowing how to calculate MRR Churn?!
However, on this particular evening, it dawned on me that my lack of knowledge was no longer the problem: I knew everything I should be doing to accelerate growth — I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do it as one person.
Why we stopped listening to experts
If this were a motivational article, this is the part where I’d plug some amazing productivity hack that turned everything around.
But that’s not what happened. For the next several months, I continued to delay implementing the growth hacks and best practices religiously preached by the startup community.
I spent my days gathering customer feedback, collaborating with product development, refining website copy and writing blog articles.
And, two years into the job, something funny happened: I stopped caring that I wasn’t implementing 99 percent of conventional SaaS marketing advice.
And it wasn’t because I was an irresponsible employee; it was because we were growing fast.
All of the not-so-sexy tasks I was focusing on — actually engaging customers, implementing feedback and building a library of educational content — were building momentum.
Today, I manage a team of 10 individuals, plus several contractors. And guess what?
We’ve managed to grow our Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) by more than 60 percent for 2 years straight.
Many marketers I meet are surprised to learn Ahrefs still doesn’t do drip campaigns, nurturing sequences or extensive metric tracking. In fact, the only metric we consistently track is our ARR.
Check out Nathan Latka’s private database of SaaS company metrics, and you will see how unusual that is.
The 1,082 participating organizations share numerous metrics with Latka, including Churn, ARPU and LTV. Again, tracking these metrics like a hound on a hunt is common startup advice.
However, our experience has shown these numbers take care of themselves when we consistently put the customer first. Another common rule we break?
Conventional advice suggests making it super easy for prospects to try your product. Most SaaS companies offer a fully-functional trial of their product in exchange for an email address.
At Ahrefs, we charge $7 for our trial because we believe our ideal customers won’t mind paying for it. And we think it’s worth it.
Here’s how one team member describes the difference between working at Ahrefs and a typical SaaS company:
To be clear, we didn’t set out to “break the rules” — it happened because we prioritized a few variables over many others.
So, what do we focus on?
How we succeed despite breaking “the startup rules”
1. We focus on the actual product
Our philosophy is pretty simple: It’s better to be amazing at one thing than mediocre at several things. Nothing groundbreaking, right?
When evaluating SEO tools, customers have many factors to consider. User experience, quality of data and price are just some of the things someone might prioritize.
We don’t price ourselves lower than our competitors, and we don’t have the widest variety of product features. But we’re considered the best in the industry at delivering reliable SEO data.
Dmitry started Ahrefs as a side project because he saw holes in how providers were handling data. He thought he could do it better, and he was correct.
For this reason, we attract customers who rank data as their no. 1 “must have” when evaluating SEO toolkits. They have a great user experience, tell their friends we’re super reliable and advertise on our behalf.
This is exactly how industry leaders like Amazon, Apple and Facebook found success: They poured the majority of their early resources into building unprecedented products and services — not trendy growth hacks — that generated “word of mouth” advertising.
Our CEO and founder Dmitry has purposely instated a 50-person hiring limit that challenges us to be resourceful.
As a small company, we can either task team members with a). Developing complex marketing systems or b). Creating a superior product for our customers.
We choose the latter, knowing our users will share their positive experiences with others. Besides, our customers are savvy enough to see through the tricks anyways — have you ever tried marketing to a marketer?
But how do we know what improvements to make if we aren’t tracking our customers’ every move with heat maps, A/B testing and conversion rate monitoring?
2. We’re our own user
We’re kind of lucky — we’re marketers marketing marketing software.
Essentially, we’re tasked with educating others about something we use daily. Every team member in our department relies upon our SEO toolkit to inform our content marketing and SEO strategy.
Instead of running user polls and engagement experiments, we take our personal frustrations, questions and ideas straight to our developers.
We love the product SO much that we even discuss feature updates during our free time on Slack:
This kind of shortcut wouldn’t be possible if we were marketing something less familiar. For example, right now, I would make a terrible marketer for a fitness product.
Since becoming a new dad, I’ve spent more time around my kid than at the gym. I know nothing about the latest exercise equipment, gadgets or apps. And my midsection is looking “less than chiseled.”
There’s no way I could successfully market fitness products without testing my assumptions with market research. Ideally, that research would consist of many real conversations with my target audience.
Surprisingly, only 42 percent of B2B content marketers report conversing with customers as part of their research.
Honestly, this was one of the first things I did after joining Ahrefs.
Since I was new to SaaS, and it was my first time leading an entire marketing operation, I didn’t want to make any assumptions.
Looking back, I think my lack of experience actually served me.
I asked tons of questions — of our customers, developers and support reps — and learned everything I could about SEO tools.
Advantageously, my job provides me the opportunity to put into action what I’m learning everyday.
If you can’t “be your own user” during office hours, you will probably spend more time setting up marketing experiments and tracking online behavior.
3. We deliver quality content
Customer research, combined with our SEO toolkit, helped me create content I knew our audience would love.
This is where I spent the majority of my time, during the early days.
As our budget increased, we expanded the marketing department, and invested even more resources into content creation.
Last November, I went on a subreddit and found some SEOs answering the question:
Imagine you have only 1 hour a day to study SEO-related topics and monitor trends. What source would you study?
It was cool to see several Redditors upvoting recommendations for our company blog. I don’t believe marketing tactics can sustain this type of spontaneous word-of-mouth promotion.
It comes from having a phenomenal product and getting it in front of enough people to create a “snowball effect” of recommendations.
Our vehicle for keeping the ball rolling? Quality content.
Over the past couple years, the majority of B2Bs have jumped on the content marketing bandwagon. But studies, frequently, show only a small fraction of them experience success.
Lack of promotional strategy, inaccurate audience assumptions and unrealistic expectations are just some potential reasons why.
However, assuming you’re consistently getting in front of the right audience, your success comes down to two things:
- Is your content good enough to be recommended?
- Can your product deliver on a promise no one else can?
Because we prioritize both these objectives, we don’t have to obsess over whether our sales page button is green or blue.
We just have to create original content — that isn’t just regurgitating what everyone else is saying — and improve our product.
As long as our ARR continues to grow, we will maintain this level of simplicity.
Now, over to you…
While this has proven effective for us, I don’t know that it would work for everyone.
Do you work for a company that’s obsessed with marketing metrics, hacks and tactics? If so, how has that improved growth?
Conversely, tell me if you make decisions based on industry experience, customer feedback and gut feeling. I want to know!
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