We Bootstrapped A Local SEO Tool To $9M ARR

Myles Anderson
Founder, BrightLocal
$850K
revenue/mo
2
Founders
180
Employees
BrightLocal
from Brighton, UK
started November 2009
$850,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
180
Employees
5.4K
alexa rank
32
followers
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Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?

Hi! I’m Myles Anderson, co-founder, and CEO of BrightLocal.

Brightlocal is a B2B software and services company that helps marketers become brilliant at local SEO.

We did this through a combination of intuitive software, done-for-you services, training, and knowledge-sharing on best practices and tried and tested local SEO tactics.

The software is the core of our offering and makes it easy for marketers to monitor and analyze the performance of their clients on important local platforms like Google Maps, Facebook, Bing, TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc. Our tools highlight issues and give them clear steps to help them improve rankings and online reputation, so they rise above competitors, stand out from the crowd and attract more customers.

Our done-for-you services take care of tasks that our time-strapped customers want to outsource, enabling them to focus on activities that are more critical to their success.

Through our BrightLocal Academy, we offer training modules that help marketers understand the inner workings of local SEO and how they can win clients and achieve success for them.

Essentially we equip marketers with everything they need to be successful in local SEO and support them on their journey to becoming experts.

We’re entirely independent and have no external funding. Essentially, we’ve done it the hard way and grown through reinvesting our profits since Day One!

Our revenue is around US$9m a year, and we are growing 20% year-on-year.

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What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?

I spent my early career working in media planning roles in digital marketing agencies before moving into business development for the UK’s biggest commercial radio group.

This is where I met my (now) business partner, Ed Eliot; we collaborated on the purchase and integration of an online business directory into the network of regional radio websites that we ran. This gave us a taste for ‘local’ as we saw firsthand the struggles that local businesses were having in understanding and capitalizing on digital marketing.

Fast forward 18 months (and after a failed foray into online dating - that’s another story!) we started BrightLocal as a digital marketing agency helping local businesses. We focused our services around SEO for local businesses and made use of nascent services such as Google Places, Yelp, and Qype.

We said yes to every client that would have us but quickly realized that we couldn’t grow our agency quickly enough without automating many of our daily tasks. There weren’t many local-focused SEO tools in the market then so we set about building our tools. Initially, we built these just for us (they weren’t very pretty!) but soon realized there was a big demand for them among other marketers and agencies.

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Effectively this is when we ‘pivoted’ from an agency into a software and services company serving businesses just like ourselves.

That was 11 years ago and now we serve over 20,000 customers a year across 8 countries with a staff of 190.

Take us through the process of building the early versions of BrightLocal.

Once we had identified that there was a big market for specialist local SEO software we spent 2-3 months building detailed product requirements for what we would build over the coming months. We intended to build and launch a new tool each month. We completely underestimated the work it was going to take to build each tool in a robust enough way to put it into the hands of early customers. We also had our agency customers to serve and so we’re doing it part-time, just the two of us.

In the end, it took us two years to launch our first 4 tools - 6 times longer than we thought!

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We tried unsuccessfully to raise some seed finance through various angel investor networks and VCs but didn’t get anywhere. If I’m honest I don’t blame them - we had no experience of running a business, limited product knowledge, and no money… I wouldn’t have invested in us!

Having a business partner you trust and rely on makes every problem much easier to solve.

Having identified what we wanted to build we set about hiring freelance developers to work alongside Ed (co-founder and CTO). It was expensive in the early days and I had to get a second job so I could pay myself while we diverted all the funds from our agency and fledgling subscriber base into building up our development capability.

There were 18 months where I worked 16 hour days, 6 days a week. I also had 3 kids under 5 years old at that time so life was incredibly busy.

I remember the day in 2012 when we hit $20,000 MRR. That was the day I could finally quit my 2nd job and work on BrightLocal full time and pay myself what I needed to survive. That was a great day!

At the same time as building up our development capability in Kyiv, Ukraine, we also started building up an offshore team in the Philippines. This team takes care of the services that we offer customers and some frontline customer support.

We’ve grown this team to nearly 100 people but we still have nearly all of the original team members which have helped us establish and maintain a strong and supportive culture in the team there.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We didn’t hit instant ‘take-off’ with our SaaS offering. The design was pretty ugly in the early days - mainly because I was playing the role of lead designer - and we had plenty of problems with scale as we brought new customers in.

But we dug in and solved these problems one at a time until we had a stable and slightly pretty platform that others were prepared to invest their time and trust in using.

Enjoy the little victories but don’t let them distract you from the next goal.

I remember the day we landed our first big 5-figure customer. I was on holiday in Greece and working on my laptop in a bar while the family enjoyed the sun, sea, and sand. When the signed contract landed in my inbox, that was when I knew we had a fighting chance of making it work. I celebrated with a cold beer, then put that money to good use by hiring two additional developers so we could accelerate even more.

I look back fondly on those first few years. Every day was exciting and we had to scrape by just to survive. The key learnings I took away from that period are:

  • Anything is possible if you want it enough
  • Every problem you solve puts more distance between you and the chasing pack
  • Having a business partner you trust and rely on makes every problem much easier to solve
  • Find good people to work with, then trust them and empower them 100%
  • Enjoy the little victories, but don’t let them distract you from the next goal

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We operate a free trial model, offering a 14-day ‘card-free’ trial before customers need to subscribe to continue benefiting from the platform. We have a big pipeline of self-serve customers with a small inbound sales team that looks after high-value prospects.

95% of our customer acquisition is inbound through organic search and word of mouth. We have always focused our marketing efforts on building a high authority brand that attracts customers to us. We’ve done this through extensive content marketing that aims to educate target customers on marketing tactics, expert insights, and market trends which helps them to improve their understanding of local SEO and refine or validate their strategies.

We conduct over 20 detailed research projects each year and share the findings openly and freely through our blog, webinar series, and podcasts.

Our longest-running and most successful piece of research in terms of coverage, building authority, and attracting customers to us, is the Local Consumer Review Survey. We have run this survey every since 2012 and it has generated over 500,000 page views, 37,000 links and references in notable news outlets such as CNBC, The Guardian, Harvard Business Review, Fox News, Fast Company and Wikipedia.

We’ve also been lucky to work with a network of notable and knowledgeable industry experts who willingly share their insights on current best practices and emerging opportunities that help our customers stay informed and competitive in their markets.

A successful way that we’ve harnessed the wisdom of experts for the benefit of our customers, is through the BrightLocal Academy. This is a free, interactive learning platform that hosts video-based training courses related to all aspects of local SEO. We’ve had over 5,000 customers complete our courses which have improved their knowledge and strengthened their commitment to BrightLocal.

We also put a lot of time into understanding and improving our conversion rates throughout the funnel, and invest heavily in customer support to help new customers get value as soon as possible from the platform. We recently established a phone support team that has been very successful at boosting the engagement of new customers that has seen our logo churn fall from 4.5% to 3.2%.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We have been profitable every year since 2012 and have maintained an average annual revenue growth rate of 20% across this period.

80% of profits are retained in the business and used to fund growth through expanding our team (we added 16 people in the last 12 months!) 60% of our revenue comes from SaaS subscriptions and 40% from services.

We’re optimistic about the future. The last 18 months have pushed many local businesses to embrace digital marketing to survive. New businesses coming into the market will need to inherently understand how to make digital work for them. This creates healthy long-term demand for marketing services and in turn platforms like BrightLocal that are dedicated to helping this audience.

We are under constant challenge from new competitors and changing techniques that mean we have to adapt to remain both relevant and valuable to customers. We see this as a great impetus to push ourselves to keep getting better and to keep the business fresh.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I put some of these above already:

  • Anything is possible if you want it enough
  • Love your mistakes - talk about them, share them, let everyone learn from them
  • Every problem you solve puts more distance between you and the chasing pack
  • Having a business partner you trust and rely on makes every problem much easier to solve
  • Find good people to work with, then trust them and empower them 100%
  • Enjoy the little victories but don’t let them distract you from the next goal

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

With a sizable and growing distributed team, the biggest challenges we have are with people. Coordination, communication, and motivation are the three areas that we focus a lot of our lead time and headspace on.

We make use of some great tools that help us do this:

  • Jira and Confluence - to coordinate all product and development activities
  • Slack - internal communication and as a hub for alerts from various systems
  • 15five - supporting and motivating team members through regular and rapid feedback
  • OKRs - we use quarterly OKRs to activate our strategy through manageable team and individual goals

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m an avid reader/listener of leadership and management books. Three recent ones that I’ve found real value in through new ideas and challenging concepts are:

The Infinite Game - Simon Sinek: A very inspiring book that has taught me to look well beyond the usual definition of business success and build a business with a clear purpose that inspires and benefits our team and community as much as the business owners.

The Advantage - Patrick Lencioni: It does a great job of identifying the importance of being a healthy organization built on a culture of open and honest communication.

Black Box Thinking - Mathew Syed: A wonderfully researched and analytical study into the power of failure and feedback to drive understanding and growth.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Having a business partner that I trust and enjoy working with has made starting and growing BrightLocal so much easier and more enjoyable. If you can find someone to collaborate with that has a different technical skillset from your own but shares your values and ambitions, then grab hold of them with both hands and don’t let them go!

My second piece of advice is to grow your company through trusting others. If you try to control everything and make every decision yourself you’ll not only inhibit your growth but you’ll burn out eventually and leave yourself frustrated and exhausted.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always looking to hire talented people that share our values and beliefs.

Right now we have open positions in Development (engineering), marketing, customer success, and sales. We share new job postings on our social media channels (links below), or you can get in touch with us [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Myles Anderson   Founder of BrightLocal
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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