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From the Kitchen Table to Nearly 10,000 Customers

The co-founder of the SEO firm BrightEdge explains how he scaled his bootstrapped company--fast.

Jim Yu, CEO of search engine optimization and content management company BrightEdge, built his first computer program at age six. He enrolled in college at age 12 and graduated with a BS in computer science at 16. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, then, that the company he co-founded in his kitchen with CTO Lemuel Park has followed a similar fast-growth trajectory. BrightEdge officially launched to the public in 2010 and by 2012, the company had 3,200 customers. Now it has 8,400--including Microsoft, Adobe, Target, Marriott, and StubHub.

BrightEdge gives companies customizable dashboards to measure their traffic, revenue, search rankings, and customer engagement across all Web and mobile platforms. The technology also suggests specific keywords and SEO recommendations (with customers and competitors in mind) on every piece of content you create--down to a single page and tweet.

Now BrightEdge has a headquarters in Silicon Valley, offices in New York City and London, and $63 million in venture funding from Intel Capital, Insight Venture Partners, and others.

It's come a long way from the 10 servers on Yu's kitchen table and $5,000 in start-up cash. I spoke with Yu recently about how exactly a company goes from zero customers to nearly 10,000 in just three years. Here are some of his best nuggets of advice:

Find the early adopter.

"When you're bootstrapped, it's all about finding that first customer, bringing your product to the market, and battling to survive," he says. So your first customer, Yu says, probably will be someone close to you. BrightEdge's first paying customer was Yu's former boss, who ran a marketing and products company. "It is important that clients come from personal relationships because they will become valuable references and will provide candid feedback as your business grows," he says. But then you need to branch out quickly. "You have to be pitching continuously to establish contact, fan out, and reach as many people as you can. Go broad early."

Build a formula.

"Early on, you're the one selling. You know your customers and you know every corner of your product and service--you built it," he says. "But, then you have to turn it into a formula that can be repeated over and over again." This is the translation period between entrepreneur and sales person. You need to hire a sales manager who can replicate the spirit of your first pitch. Teach that person your targeting and pattern-recognition skills, so they can find new accounts and close deals without you.

Then you start off the next round of deals with the buddy system: "You know exactly what gets the first dozen deals and now you have to bring the salesperson along with you for the next round of deals," he says. "You cannot have everything you learned from pitching your product lost in translation. Have them shadow you--this will get you the next two dozen deals." 

Scale the sales team.

Now it's all about replicating your original pitch on a bigger scale. "Now you have to create different specialties within the sales team. This phase is about building demand generation from account executives who will close the deals," he says. "You have to hire the next round of sales staff and slowly" to preserve your original pitch.  

Yu says getting to your first 30 employees is easy--you've hired friends and friends of friends. Getting to 100 employees is more challenging--"the talent, you know, is tapped out," he says. This is when you need to formalize a recruiting process. Think about how big you want to be, how you want to define your culture, and what your unifying message will be. "Then, scale the culture, objectives, and value of the company. Now you have to align everyone in one goal," he says. "You have to teach the team clear objectives and clear goals."

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Last updated: Nov 19, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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