Wow! Where did the last decade go?
It seems like only yesterday that we were in my garage writing the first lines of code for the software that was to become Analytics SEO. But in fact it was the summer of 2009 and Mark, my first hire and CTO, was busy writing his first SaaS (Software-as-a -Service) platform code.
For a few years we had been running a small digital agency specialising in website redevelopment and SEO projects. We had started with clients in the golf industry (due to my connections from a previous hobby business) and had branched out into golf hotels, ecommerce stores and brands.
Albeit small, we were already experiencing the scaling challenges faced by most agencies and with every new client win we had the unsurmountable challenge of delivering more quality work in less time. I spent most of my working day feeling a bit like Sisyphus.
Naturally, we looked to technology to solve the issue. There was a cottage industry of SEO tools at the time (such as SEOChat, SEOBook, WebPosition Gold, Xenu, IBP and SEOMoz to name a few) which we were familiar with, but they were mainly standalone tools solving one specific problem.
Many of them were also CD-based or if web-based required manual intervention every time you wanted to perform a site analysis. We could not find a single cloud-based platform that was oriented around automating an SEO’s workflow, so we decided to build our own. We wanted to build a SaaS platform that “optimised how we optimise”.
And that’s what we’ve been doing for these past 10 years!
So, I’m writing this post to reflect on that milestone and to thank our lovely customers, my amazing team and supportive investors, in fact everyone who has contributed in some shape or form to get us this far.
2009 – Getting Started
Like all good businesses, we had humble beginnings and the first few years were spent in my home office and garage.
We started building the software in the summer of 2009 and by September 2009 we were ready to have a soft launch to some friendly clients, with a hard launch planned for the October Search Engine Strategies exhibition and conference.
In my previous venture, I had been privileged enough to publish a couple of great golf DVDs with legendary golf instructor and arguably Europe’s top coach, PGA Master Professional Pete Cowen. I learned many things in his company (and dramatically improved my golf, as well as managing to sell thousands of his DVDs), but there was one ‘lesson’ which really struck a chord with me. It was in October 2010 when Pete coached Lee Westwood to World No.1 (knocking Tiger Woods off the top spot) and he mentioned to me all the areas of Lee’s game which could still be improved (or as he was more likely to have put it; “not up to scratch”). We then spoke about the “Slight Edge Philosophy” and how it’s not one thing that’s going to get you to the top of whatever field you are in, but hundreds of small things – and you just need to be better than the competition at the majority of these things to beat them.
So, we set out to try and build a multitude of integrated tools and data that (where relevant) always analysed and visualised your performance in context with your competition. We tried to build an automated process that could work for thousands of websites and that would help a user or team create a continuous process of improvement.
Our first tool was a bulk keyword ranking tool which could check your rankings from the US or UK and compare the results in a spreadsheet. We thought it was pretty cool. We showed a few friendly clients and they agreed. So, we built some more – next was a basic Site Auditing tool that performed daily Site Audits. More tools quickly followed and before long we had our first sales and we had completely dropped selling websites and performing SEO services.
My golf business which morphed into the Website Redesign and SEO Services business was called “Dizzy Heights UK Limited” – because often you would hear sporting commentators say that a player had reached the “Dizzy Heights” of World No.1. It seemed like a good name, since it mirrored the concept of getting to No.1 in Google, so we kept the name for a few years.
However, eventually we decided we needed an SEO oriented name and we settled on Analytics SEO.
Lesson #1 – Branding is more important than you think
We chose Analytics SEO for two reasons. It broadly described the business we’re in and EMDs (Exact Match Domains) were performing well in Google! Well until October 2012 at least, when Google launched its EMD Algorithm Update and the ranking advantage dissipated.
The downsides to the Analytics SEO brand name were that it was not distinctive or memorable enough and this didn’t help us market the business on a shoestring. It was fairly typical and it could have been the name for one of hundreds of agencies or consultancies in the space. Finally, there was another company called SEO Analytics – and everyone got us confused.
If I had my time again – I’d have chosen Authoritas back then.
This is what the first Analytics SEO website looked like!
And this is v1 of the platform.
To this day, I still don’t know why we picked the red and black colour scheme. I’m a Liverpool fan, but looking back it’s more Manchester United than Liverpool.
Lesson #2 – User Interface Colours are more important than meets the eye
We went with red. We should have picked a more neutral colour palette. Better still we should have hired a UI/UX designer. They did exist circa 2010, but the breadth and depth of research and content around designing UIs for SaaS platforms and the appropriate use of colour and typography is much greater today.
If I had my time again, I’d go for Wycombe Wanderers blue (my other football team).
Hopefully, you can see from the numbered menu tabs at the top of the page that we were building tools around our 5-Stage SEO Process – Site Audit, Research and Set Objectives, On-site optimisation, Off-Site optimisation and Measure results. It’s evolved over the years to the flexible 6-Stage SEO & Content Marketing Process you see below.
During the early years, we worked almost tirelessly all day and often into the evening. Short lunch breaks were often spent in my garden, often watching Mark practise his Tai Chi. These breaks were generally uneventful, but the day he brought a long two-handed sword to work to practise his art had me a little worried. Mark has since moved on to pastures new and is going great guns.
I had to go all the way to South Africa to hire Nic our current CTO and I’m glad I did – he’s one of the smartest, nicest and most knowledgeable people I know and he’s the brains behind the next generation of the software (v6) that we are currently building.
The early years involved a lot of trial and error, a lot of bug fixing, a deluge of new features and continuous attempts to get the software to load faster. Specs were scrawled on a whiteboard and stories written up on Rolodex cards!
Lesson Learned #3 : First give clients what they really need not what they desire
Clients are obviously a great source of feedback and inspiration for any product. But they also can lead you into a mad dash to have every bell and whistle possible. The danger with this approach is that the software can become bloated, the user interface can be hard to navigate and the initial experience can be overwhelming for new users.
You can end up with a comprehensive list of features, but when you look at the data many of them hardly will ever get used. Ironically, when push comes to shove, what clients really want are the absolute essentials delivered on time, every time.
We wasted a lot of time during the first few years’ of development. We raced to build out new features covering the whole SEO Process and we spent less time than we should have on fixing annoying usability and performance bugs.
If I had the time again, I’d build 50% of the features but twice as well.
The company was boot-strapped. I worked for nothing. But every employee got as close as we could get to a competitive market salary from day 1.
In 2012 we did a small Angel seed round (from high-net worth individuals we knew) and we moved into our first proper office in Teddington (5 minutes’ walk from my home where it all began).
I remember buying the desks from an office clearance on eBay and then storing them at home for a few weeks until we moved. In the meantime, we used them all for the street party to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The first office was open-plan and had no meeting room – so as a result we’ve developed a very open culture and transparent and honest communications. Literally, there’s never been any room for office politics! In fact there wasn’t room for much. A second hand test server rack (eBay again), a borrowed printer, 12 desks and a water cooler.
We were crammed in for a few years until we grew enough to move to our current office in Twickenham where we have been for the past 6 years.
Lesson Learned #4 : As CEO when you choose your office location – don’t chose the most convenient for you
If I had my time again, I’d have moved to Twickenham sooner. It’s a bigger town with better transport links into London. It would have made early hiring easier. I’d have also got a meeting room (but I wouldn’t change the open and friendly natured culture of the business).
Moving to the new office was a great move for the whole team. I’m so pleased I persuaded the landlord to put down Karndean flooring rather than the boring grey office carpets – they’ve stood the test of time well and I would probably have had to fork out to replace them at least twice by now given the amount of food, coffee, tea and beer that has been spilled over the years. The office is light and airy and has a car park and a WIFI enabled garden – ideal for team BBQs and practising my golf swing!
Lesson Learned #5 : If you are going to raise, raise much more, much earlier
We were fairly early to market, and if not the first, then certainly amongst the first SaaS SEO platforms.
We only raised £750K at a time when others were raising tens of millions of dollars.
We made it last as long as possible and were proceeding prudently (I now say over-cautiously) at a time when we competitors were burning cash to invest in product development and accelerate sales and marketing. This cash injection helped many of them catch-up and overtake us. We still compete very well on features and data, as you can only add so many engineers to a project before you get the inverted U-shape of productivity – but their marketing dollars gets them access to many more board rooms.
If we had raised more, perhaps we could have been further ahead today. Who knows, perhaps we could have exited successfully and someone else could have been writing this post. However, raising money alone is not enough; Linkdex raised over $12.6 Mn and we acquired them in the summer of 2018 for a fraction of this amount.
If I had my time again, I’d raise more. You’ll never know how much you’ll need, but you’ll definitely need more than you think!
Read part 2 to find out the 5 other lessons I learned from being in the SEO and SaaS industry over these past 10 years.