As someone who has built a career out of building and growing businesses from the ground up, I receive a lot of cold emails from people asking me how to replicate that success and scale their own business.

But to truly understand how your own industry's growth works, you should turn to experts in your field. I'm a big proponent of looking to the best in the business to find out how other companies have done it before me.

To better understand what it takes to build and grow a data-focused business from scratch, I reached out to Alexandra Mack, Head of Marketing at Crunchbase. You're probably already familiar with Crunchbase, which provides data on industry trends, investments, and news about hundreds of thousands of public and private companies globally.

When Crunchbase started about 10 years ago, it was a database that tracked the activities of startups through write-ups in various industry publications. Over the last two years, Crunchbase has expanded to become its own SaaS company. The company continues to identify needs within its rapidly-growing community to build robust business tools, helping users get more out of their data and applying it to their job searches, partnerships, funding research, and other needs.

Leveraging a Valuable Product to Enhance SEO

I reflected on how just 10 years ago we were hungry to find this type of highly-focused and usable data online. I wondered if the need for data, combined with how easy Crunchbase is to use, has impacted its success, or if it's actually the SEO ranking and robust platform building itself that has propelled growth.

"In some ways it's impossible to tease those two things apart for Crunchbase," says Alexandra. The company gets a flood of traffic from organic SEO that, in part, has grown out of that highly-usable and easy-to-understand data. She believes their SEO does so well because their data is organized in an extremely useful way, which makes it easier for Google to understand and rank it. "Keeping the data really clean, really up to date, accurate and consumable is what gives us good SEO," she says.

The community loves the format, and as a result, the user base has grown from mostly die-hard tech company followers who wanted more information and data, to include casual users who may pop in - and who may not even realize the full scope of what Crunchbase does - as they're looking for data relevant to their needs.

Tapping Into Community to Know What's Working and What's Not

During my time helping others grow their companies, I have seen the need to change as your customers change. I asked Alexandra how Crunchbase has continued to grow and develop over the last 10 years, and what kinds of behaviors she's seen evolve in their community.

"We consider all ranges of users as part of our community, from the people who are actively contributing data on site, to the people who are monitoring their own personal profiles or company profile pages," says Alexandra. "We have this value prop that can engage users at all these different levels. I think that speaks to a comfort and a normalcy of using the internet in general as a key point of business.

"Even at a level where people don't think about what they see on Crunchbase as data, it is recognized universally as an important thing that you need to understand. And that has changed how we look at data. That has helped us think about how we format and arrange the data on a page to make it really useful for all those different levels of people."

Crunchbase also takes the time to moderate the type of information they put out, and remove things in the data that simply aren't highly useful. "We get a lot of information from our community about what's useful and what's not, what's accurate and what's inaccurate," Alexandra says. "Data types that we think are super relevant and that will attract people and keep them on the site, keep them coming back, help us understand the types of things that are working and the things that are not."

Studying Community Data to Go From Freemium to Premium

It's not always easy to decide when to take a freemium product to premium and ensure that your customers will embrace the change. Crunchbase takes a meta approach to figuring out how to make their data highly useful. "We use a lot of data to understand how to use our data," Alexandra explains.

Crunchbase actively looks at how users are engaging on different pages on the site, and finds the right algorithms to monitor for data quality. The data itself is also telling Crunchbase how people are engaging and using the platform's data.

While Crunchbase did add a paywall, they focused on keeping the core of their data and platform free. The platform identifies customers that look like they are trying to dig deeper into the tools looking for an answer. Once their search reaches a certain level of complexity, that customer will hit a paywall to upgrade their service.

Alexandra says they are letting their consumers drive the demand. Crunchbase recognizes that community is vital to their business model and growth, so they take the customer's cue on what they want and when to offer premium services.

"We market to people who are demonstrating that they're looking for something more," she says. "There's not a ton of in-your-face marketing. We allow the content to sell people up into these more robust experiences."

Crunchbase ultimately focuses on the user experience and markets to users in a subtle way so that they fully see and experience the platform's value before they ever see the paywall.

Segmenting and Customizing Your User Base

Crunchbase also recommends using customized messaging that speaks to the audience in their own voice. This is ultimately how Crunchbase helps their audience understand the value proposition and ensure they're finding the right tools and services for those segments.

And sometimes the only way to create those segments is to ask your audience for more information. In Crunchbase's case, they emailed their customers to ask questions and to tell them more about who they are.

In some cases, Crunchbase could simply infer who their audience was and why they wanted to use their tools. In their early marketing days, Crunchbase would link to content they thought was relevant and then use a lead scoring tool to help group the audience by persona. That push to segment helped to initially tailor their outbound marketing.

I've found this to be true in my businesses as well. Whether you're sending cold emails or onboarding leads into your marketing funnel, fine-tuning the messaging to fit your customers' needs and wants is ultimately how they will understand the value you're offering. Once they see their own situation in your messaging, they'll also see themselves benefiting from your product.

How have you grown your own business through your community and user experience? Let me know by leaving a comment below: