How To Go From 0 to $ 7 Million ARR In 3 Years With Lucjan Suski Of SurferSEO
Here at Userpilot, we love hearing stories about bootstrapping companies and their growth. We’ve spoken with Lucjan Suski of Surfer SEO to see how he bootstrapped his SaaS company from just an idea to $7 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR).
Lucjan Suski is the co-founder and former CEO of Surfer SEO.
You can watch the full interview on Bootstrapping to success here or read this article for a summary of the key points.
- Lucjan Suski is the co-founder and former CEO of Surfer SEO.
- He went from $0 to $7 million in ARR with no sales team and five co-founders.
- They used influencer marketing and word-of-mouth to go global, ditching the investor path.
- After gathering free beta users, they launched the paid version with much success.
- Starting as a tool for experts, they iterated until they found the tool that we know and love today.
- The team started locally and expanded globally, with 60 % of its customers based in the US.
First, what is SurferSEO all about?
SurferSEO is a SaaS tool that helps you with organizing, planning, and optimizing your SEO-driven writing.
The tool is entirely data-driven, using reverse-engineering Google algorithms to scour the internet for what’s out there and let you know how to rank for a specific keyword. Based on these suggestions derived from more than 500 ranking factors, you know exactly what works and what doesn’t.
But the tool hasn’t always looked this way. Let’s see how Surfer SEO got its start and how it became the success that it is today.
How Surfer SEO got its start
Not including freelancing from his teenage years, Lucjan Suski started programming professionally in the year 2012.
As a software developer, he began with Ruby on Rails and moved on to React. After about three years of experience, he joined Strategyzer, a B2B company that uses practical business innovation tools to help you understand customers, design better value propositions, and find the right business model. Strategyzer was founded by Alexander Osterwalder who founded the Business Model Canvas (BMC).
Together, they began building a web application for real-time collaboration based on business models. At the same time, this company was all about business innovation.
“As employees, we were able to join workshops and brainstorm the business side of the company. I became passionate about that and thought, ‘How can I do something in this way in the future?” How can I start a business?’”
Because he had a background in SaaS, he naturally gravitated toward brainstorming a SaaS tool he could create that filled a gap in the market.
Around the same time, Lucjan joined a small SEO agency in a small town in Poland. They were working in a way that incorporated a method of analyzing competitors, considering factors of high-ranking sites, and incorporating structure into the mix.
“It was at a time when this was not the obvious way of doing SEO. At the time, the process was all about link-building. But they were doing it manually, which was a very error-prone and time-consuming process.”
So this is when he decided he wanted to create internal tools.
Risking it all for the success of SurferSEO
By this time the year was 2017. “After hours, I created my version of the tool within a matter of weeks. The feedback was astonishing,” he says.
That’s when Lucjan decided to go all in and create the full-fledged SaaS tool and invest his time into launching it.
He, as newly appointed CEO of Surfer, along with Lucjan’s brother as co-founder, presented the closed beta version of the tool at an SEO conference in Poland. At the end of the presentation, more than one hundred people signed up to learn more.
So, it goes without saying the initial response was a great success.
But Lucjan still attributes some of this success to fate. “You need a bit of luck,” he says.
“You need to figure out a problem and how to solve it, but also pray that the market is ready for it.”
It’s true that sometimes innovation is not well-received because the market is not yet ready for it. Userpilot was given expert advice from Prowly’s CEO Joanna Drabent about how to find product-market fit.
Understanding the market for SurferSEO
SurferSEO was targeting experts who wanted a robust, advanced tool but it was also designed in a way that anyone could jump in and use it.
“I saw other SEO software doing multi-step onboarding processes, but with SurferSEO, you could get started in five minutes. Users could really see the value within minutes, especially SEO experts.”
“We observed the activity of our users and it’s not that everyone was retained, but we saw about 20 – 3 0% of users using the application every single day. That’s when we knew we were on the right track to targeting expert SEO employees.”
Making SurferSEO more accessible
SurferSEO went from being a niche tool for specialists to being the go-to tool for content management.
“We saw the user activity and knew we needed to change some things around,” Lucjan says.
“We thought we could either add more features and factors and let experts be even better experts. But we saw experts as only a tiny fraction of the market. So we thought of how to penetrate the market even further.”
At first, SurferSEO was there for analyzing the data and figuring out how to structure the content. So, to make it more accessible to all, the team aimed to make it more approachable and require less technical knowledge — or as Lucjan says “democratize it.”
It’s important to take away that this team didn’t just roll out a great idea and that was it.
They spent upwards of two years iterating their product, thinking about how it could be better, and exploring different ideas. They started with a seed of an idea and molded it toward what the market wanted and needed. These steps were made little by little.
“At that time, we didn’t know we’d become a content management tool. We were just exploring different ideas,” says Lucjan.
Looking to expand and take SurferSEO global
After you’ve found a good product-market fit and have initial interest flowing in, it’s time to focus on growth.
But how you focus on growth in your business can depend on a lot of factors. Lucjan and the team at SurferSEO decided to focus on growing their authority and generating leads through word-of-mouth.
“We never did PPC or ads or content marketing. The most important thing we did was think about how we could become more credible, not just a small company from Poland,” he says.
“That’s why we never translated our tool to Polish because our intent was always to be positioned in the global market.”
Influencer marketing & word of mouth
They started exploring their relationships with influencers in Poland. Starting small, that helped connect them with influencers in the UK, which helped connect them with influencers throughout Europe — until they were talked about far and wide, including within the US.
Another turning point was getting invited to Chiang Mei SEO Conference.
“We managed to be one of the biggest discoveries. Everyone was talking about us and we weren’t expecting that reaction,” he tells us.
“After that, they had enough authority to go after even bigger influencers and commissioned them to actively promote the tool.”
After those pivotal moments, a lot of people at this point were talking about the tool and mentioning them in papers. This generated a lot of buzz, making them feel confident to start charging for their tool!
Early access plans
After they generated plenty of buzz, they knew they had to start charging for the tool.
That’s when they created an “early access plan” that was a one-time fee of $500 for a full year. Out of their pool of beta users that had accumulated to this point, 25 users signed up.
“It was great because we knew those people that paid upfront really believed in the tool,” Lucjan says. Just a month later, they had a Black Friday plan which sold another 125+ users on a year-long plan.
At this point, you may wonder why going to investors wasn’t part of the plan which seems to be the end goal for many SaaS companies looking to go global.
While SurferSEO had nibbled from investors and even had one in the books, this scrappy and headstrong team knew that they were growing and knew they could do it on their own.
“We could have invested in PPC and gotten more users who weren’t ready for Surfer, but I’m not sure that’s the way,” Lucjan tells us.
“We were growing at the fastest rate we could handle. For a long time, I think you should strictly invest in the product and solving problems for customers. You can’t grow your company too fast because the character will fall apart. You can’t hire 20 developers in three months. You just can’t bypass some of these steps, even with investment money.”
The same way that Michał Sadowski of Brand24 told us that having limitations forced them to be more creative and resourceful in a way that ultimately helped them grow in the right direction.
So, knowing their way to growth, the co-founders decided to cut off their salaries for one year and invest themselves into the company. Luckily (and through hard work and product-market fit), it worked out.
When we see SurferSEO’s story from rags to riches, there are three key points:
- Believing in the idea is a great start, but listening to what the market wants is key to iterating the product in the right direction.
- You don’t need to invest a lot in traditional marketing avenues. Influencer marketing, word-of-mouth, and authority building are effective ways to build buzz.
- Too much growth too fast can be the downfall of a SaaS company not yet ready to handle all the influx. Stay confident in the growth that feels right for you.
Hopefully, this serves as inspiration when bootstrapping your idea to life.