Ukrainian Dmitry Gerasimenko created Ahrefs service: now it earns millions and competes with Google
In the spring of this year Google got itself a new rival: the founder of the Singapore-based Ahrefs company, Dmitry Gerasimenko, announced that he has been working on an anonymous search engine that would give content authors 90% of the profits. Dmitry wants to make the Internet better this way, unlike the mercantile Google, which makes money on the sale of user data and takes all the profits for itself.
Dmitry Gerasimenko is a Ukrainian, born in the city of Nizhyn, and today a resident of Singapore. He created large SEO service Ahrefs and link analyzer that, according to Owler estimates, earns $4.4 million a year. The search robot Ahrefs already ranks second in terms of activity after Google and is ahead of its closest competitors in terms of performance.
The editor of AIN.UA talked to Gerasimenko to find out how Ahrefs was created and inquire about the status of his ambitious Antigoogle project.
Tell about yourself: where were you born, your alma mater, when did you move from Ukraine and why, where do you live now.
I was born in the city of Nizhyn. My father put the first computer together when I was 6 years old, so when I was in school, I became interested in programming. I studied at Kyiv Polytechnic University, and in 2012 relocated to Singapore. At that time, I wanted to focus on the development of Ahrefs, and Singapore lured me with its awesome doing business ratings. I was in Singapore for a few days on one of my travels in Asia, so I knew more or less what to expect.
How did your career develop? How did the idea of creating Ahrefs come up?
I started working as a C# and PHP developer in a website design studio in Kyiv, then freelanced for a while for a company in the USA as a programmer and project manager, then I became an entrepreneur.
I have long been interested in the search. I launched my first Internet project at school – and it was a documentation search engine (for programming languages, networks, databases, etc.). I even got some search traffic on it and started making money selling books, until something happened to the server and all my achievements got lost (back then students were not yet taught how to make backups, I hope the situation has changed now).
Almost ten years later, after I graduated from university, I returned to this task with the idea of searching for PDF documents. We needed to somehow find the files for indexing. So the idea was born to launch a web crawler.
What is Ahrefs, what distinguishes it from similar services? What is its business model? What are the rates?
Ahrefs is a SaaS project that helps online marketers get more traffic from search engines. Now it is a set of tools that helps you at every stage from selecting keywords to analyzing results.
Our main competitive advantage from the start has been data quality. Whatever we do – whether it is an index of links or keywords or a tool for finding errors on the website – we make every effort to make it the best index or a tool on the market.
Our minimum subscription plan is now $99 per month.
Tell us briefly about the history of the company. Did you have partners or did you do everything yourself?
I had a team, but there were no partners. I took all the risks and reinvested my own money, starting from the time when I was still working remotely and my salary was enough for a modest life and to pay freelancers who worked on my project ideas. So gradually I moved from simple projects to more complex ones, building a team on the way.
In 2010, we started working on a system that would crawl and index the web, by that time Igor Pikovets, with whom we studied in the same group at the university, was already working with me. He was able to convince me to bet on OCaml, which largely determined our success in the years that followed.
About a year into the project, we launched a paid service based on the link index.
What are the current figures of Ahrefs today? What is the number of links and indexed pages in the database? I read that your search robot is second after Google in terms of activity.
Now we have almost 300 billion pages in the index, and we are updating about 8 billion per day, which is about 100,000 every second. And, importantly, we display new links for our users within 20 minutes after AhrefsBot finds them, which as a matter of fact is not an easy job.
How much have you invested in Ahrefs? Did you engage investors? Have the investments paid off?
The project began to pay off quickly. There was a lot of interest from investors, but I was in no hurry to grow and rejected all investment offers, preferring to focus on product development.
The initial costs were about $400,000, mainly towards development and servers.
Can you tell us how Ahrefs developed from zero to break-even point? How did you attract the first customers, and what did you do to make it happen?
We had unique data that SEO specialists need. And although there were competitors, they updated their index once a month or less, whereas we do it every 15 minutes. It was a serious competitive edge that helped us gain momentum by word of mouth.
We only had to acquire the first customers, and we got them by placing ads on SEO forums, but we could get them by buying advertising or becoming sponsors of conferences in our niche – it wasn’t very important.
We managed to create a product that promoted itself at an early stage. In the first years, we had all the focus on the product and we developed without a marketing team. We have no sales team to this day.
Do you have “flagship” clients, i.e. large agencies or companies?
We do not have special clients (everyone can count on attentive and competent customer support; everyone receives the same data at the same speed as part of their subscription). But among more than 25,000 customers today, there are large online stores, banks, airlines, and popular brands. Everyone uses Ahrefs.
How many people are currently on the team? How many of them are Ukrainians? How many people work in the office, and how many work remotely?
At this time, we have about 45 people from over a dozen countries. There are about fifteen Ukrainians, another half can speak Russian, but the official language of communication is English.
The head office is in Singapore with 20 people. Others work remotely. We used to have an office in San Francisco, but we didn’t like it there.
Why? Can you compare the ecosystems of the Valley and Singapore – what don’t you like in the former and what you like in the latter?
It was a matter of personal preference. After an orderly and clean Singapore, San Francisco seemed less convenient. In addition, despite the fact that many globally recognized startups (which actually change the lifestyles of many people) are based in the Valley, the public infrastructure in San Francisco produces a rather dull, and sometimes terrifying impression compared to modern cities.
On top of that, we expected that it would be easier to find the specialists we need in the Valley, which turned out to be the opposite. First of all, there is a strong headhunting competition by industry’s behemoths.
Apparently, it makes sense to settle in San Francisco if the end goal is to attract investment, but this is not our case.
What is the company’s valuation and/or its turnover for the period?
We do not disclose our turnover. I can only say that in 2018 we crossed $40M ARR mark.
You have announced the development of a search engine and plans to compete with Google. Are you already doing this project or is it only in your plans? What stage is it at now?
We are engaged in the project and are building a strong team. There are people with massive experience in search, who for some reason do not want to work in Google. Perhaps they support our idea that the search should work as Internet infrastructure, and agree that it would be fairer to distribute advertising revenue between content authors compared to the current situation. We invite such people to join us.
In addition, my team already boasts 9 years of experience in data crawling and indexing. Of course, the project is very complex and contains many unknowns, but we will do everything to make it a success.
How did the idea to create an alternative search engine appear? And if it is going to be confidential, will it be able to compete with Google in terms of the relevance of search results?
As I said, I have been interested in the search for a long time. I used to think that Google is doing a great job and we have nothing to offer.
Then, watching news agencies add paywalls to keep themselves afloat, or Wikipedia places a huge banner every year to raise money for infrastructure, I saw that there was an opportunity to create a cheaper alternative to Google. Search by Google now costs $100 billion a year.
But how can you do something cheaper than a free search? I think that the distribution of advertising profits between the search engine and content contributors is a way to make the Internet a bit fairer, and support those who generate high-quality content.
As for confidentiality, the duckduckgo’s experience shows that it is possible to display relevant ads based on just a search query, it is not necessary to accumulate information about users.
As for the investment – as much as needed. We will use whatever search engine know-how we have in the development of Ahrefs, so the risk for us is quite low.
When do you believe you can launch the project? What stage is it currently at?
It will greatly depend on how quickly and whom we can engage in our team. We did not just make this announcement; we want to expand the team. We have a lot of experience in crawling and link indexing, but now we need people with text experience.