10 Years of BrightLocal: Founders’ Q&A
When Myles Anderson and Ed Eliot first met, they couldn’t possibly have envisaged that 10 years later they’d be heading up a 150-person strong, global operation. The yet-to-be-realized entrepreneurs began their decade-long partnership at a national radio station, before buying a directory. Thus began their first foray into the world of local search marketing.
After celebrating 10 years of BrightLocal in December 2019, I sat down with the founders to find out how it all began, what they’re most proud of, and what we can expect from BrightLocal in the coming decade.
Read on to hear from our fierce leaders, Myles and Ed*, as they share their fondest memories and more in our first-ever in-house Q&A.
*Disclaimer: I cornered Ed for answers right before he left for the holiday break – so he jumps into this interview about halfway through, but we promise he’s in it!
The BrightLocal founders (minus CTO Ed Eliot and plus office dog Sookie)
Over the past decade, BrightLocal has evolved from a two-man side hustle into a 150-person-strong operation. Where did the idea for BrightLocal come from and how did it all begin?
Myles Anderson, CEO: We never envisioned it would ever amount to what it amounts to today – the origins are very humble. Ed and I met while working at a kind of big national radio station. We actually worked on a project where we bought an online directory from a couple of other entrepreneurs. That was our kind of first foray into local marketing. That directory was actually called “We Love Local”, which is why we now have on our office wall “We <3 Local” [pictured above with beloved office dog, Sookie]. So, we’ve kind of come full circle from that.
The first incarnation of BrightLocal was pretty clunky, pretty ugly, but it got the data we needed. It wasn’t until about 2012 that we got to a point where the customer base was big enough that Ed and I could actually go full time. Up until that point, I had a day job, and I’d been running BrightLocal in the evenings and on the weekends. I’d been doing kind of 18-hour days to get it done.
At that point, we had enough money to start scaling up, and we’ve been profitable since then, but we’ve kind of reinvested the money and built it up and built it up.
You say that directories provided your first foray into local marketing, but did anything else inspire you?
Myles: Well, I had some friends working in local businesses – one was a builder, one ran a hairdresser’s, one ran a chain of pubs, one ran a tile shop – and they were all struggling to understand how they should be using online to grow their businesses and track new customers. So, I started helping them out.
Then that grew into a sort of mini-agency, and Ed was doing some development work on the side. We quickly realized that actually, this is not what we wanted to do – we wanted to be utilizing Ed’s background and building a product. I’d worked at a subscription service before and I’d seen how building a good product that you can resell – and invest in software and grow that – was a really interesting business model that appealed to us.
So we basically decided that, rather than doing this sort of servicing of local businesses, let’s take what we know about online and local marketing and build some software. Really, initially, we were building it for ourselves in terms of building a platform that we could use. And then, to the network of other local marketers we’d built up, we started canvassing it, asking “Would you find this appealing?”, “Would you use it?” And really universally the answer was yes. So we knew we were on to something then.
The local SEO community is thriving now more than ever. When exactly did you realize you’d clocked onto a good thing here?
Myles: The first tool we built was something called ReviewBiz [pictured above] – which we no longer have because it’s kind of a bit outmoded today, so we retired it. It started as a marketing device for ourselves, to generate backlinks – which Google now sees as spammy, but back then it was a bona fide route.
So we created this free tool for people to put on their websites and it would create our own domain authority. I remember putting it out and saying “let me know if you want to Beta-test this” to our network. I remember my phone was just going “bing, bing, bing” and wondering what that was. It was basically all the people requesting to be on our Beta-testing lists. I think it got to 800 or 900 requests and that made me think this could really work.
Before you moved into the software market, BrightLocal defined itself as an agency. What was the reasoning behind this change?
Myles: We saw that actually scaling an agency is quite difficult unless you have got 1) the processes, 2) the people, and 3) the tools. I used to work for eHarmony – a big online matchmaking service – and I’d seen how they’d grown this product and they’d sold it over and over again to consumers. I thought that was a really empowering business model and, when combined with Ed’s 18 or so years of development experience, it was a natural fit.
In 10 years, BrightLocal has introduced a whole host of free and paid tools to help SMBs and agencies further their local SEO efforts and, as you say, help make marketing simple. But, is there a feature you’re most proud of?
Myles: In 2012 we released three tools at once [website pictured above], so we basically moved from having a single tool to having a multi-tool offering, and that was really an inflection point for the business, where we went from being just one single entity, really struggling, to having this kind of suite of tools, and we saw a huge growth after that. So that was probably the biggest single update we made.
In terms of the tool I’m most proud of – well I’m most surprised by Citation Builder. We never quite realized what the demand level was going to be for something like that. So it continues to surprise and delight us and, you know, we have more customers using it today than ever.
Ed Eliot, CTO: I guess for me it’s our Rank Checker but mainly because I was so actively involved in its development in the early days. It’s had to change a lot over the years and technically it presents many interesting (and sometimes frustrating) challenges. When we first launched it I never imagined that we’d now be handling billions of rows and terabytes of data.
10 years as a company and as a partnership is a major milestone. What other major milestones jump out to you from over the years?
Myles: It’s funny, I have such random memories of things that are quite insignificant but stick in my mind as being quite pivotal. So I remember when we landed our first agency customer – Imprezzio. They were the first agency to put their faith in us. I was actually on holiday with my family in Greece at the time, and I worked furiously – they didn’t really see me the whole time. And I remember sitting at a bar while they were all by the pool – I was working at the bar and I remember them signing the contract. I knew the money they were going to give us would enable us to grow to the next level, so that was really exciting.
I also remember conceiving Reputation Manager while going for a run in Cyprus – while I was visiting Mike [Wilson, one of BrightLocal’s first and longest-serving employees] – I remember running through this field of corn and planning it in my head, getting completely lost in the process. After an hour I was in the middle of Cyprus with no idea how to get back to where I was – I’d been so absorbed in the process.
Meeting Renier [BrightLocal’s very first employee, pictured above right], our Head of Submissions, was a highlight for me. He and I had worked together for around five years, speaking every day, but I never thought I’d actually meet him – we had no money, no experience – so the chances of success [for the business] was really quite low. So, I never really conceived I’d get to meet Renier, but I remember pulling up outside our Philippines office around 10 o’clock, sliding open the door of this van and jumping out into this warm mugginess, seeing Renier and just hugging each other and thanking each other for what we’d done for one another’s lives. That was a really special moment. And meeting the original Citation Builder team was great, too.
It’s always the people I remember – like meeting our Kyiv team, taking the Customer Success team to New York for a week-long conference where we just worked together in a random flat in Brooklyn.
I can remember really obscure, random things about what’s happening with work. Meeting the people that I speak to every day is probably the most important thing.
Ed: I think for me it was moving to our first office in Brighton. We had a few offices in Lewes before that but they were mostly shared with other companies. The first office in Brighton was ours; we completely refurbished it. It was also our first branded office. Refurbishment of the Kyiv office and branding followed shortly afterward.
I think it gave us an identity and a sense of pride. It also marks the point at which we really matured as a company. We think a lot more now about what it means to work for BrightLocal and what we want our collective values and beliefs to be. We want people to have fun at work, but we also want to create a safe and fair environment where people are respected and feel empowered to do their best work.
Beyond that, there are lots of mini-milestones. Lines of codes, numbers of reports, servers under management, data processed, etc. All very geeky of course but fascinating, nonetheless.
A lot’s happened over the last decade, but where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
Myles: It all depends on how we adapt with the market, because what we do today will not be what we do in five years’ time. In a way, that’s the most exciting thing; it’s a series of opportunities to be grasped. We will always put the customer at the heart of what we do, so in a way, it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as it’s something our customers find valuable and useful. A key thing for us is making sure we don’t lose sight of that. Through it all, we want BrightLocal to be indispensable to our customers achieving their greatest goals and objectives, and we do that by constantly listening to customers.
In terms of the state of the business, who knows? We’re ten years in, but I think now is the level I get the most satisfaction from the business. Maybe because I’ve got more people around me who are there to make decisions, so I don’t feel the pressure to be the sole decision-maker. It’s great to have more brains and minds.
I’m very much a ‘people person’ and running a successful independent business allows me to make decisions from the heart, without having to justify it outside of the business. Being able to make decisions quickly that can change people’s lives. I love the fact we can try to be a positive force in people’s lives, whether that’s customers or employees. I get a huge amount of satisfaction seeing us having a positive impact being made on customers and more.
Ed: The market we’re in changes constantly. It’s hard to know where we’ll be or exactly what we’ll be doing in 10 years’ or even five years’ time. I’m sure our products will look different than they do today.
One thing I’m sure of is that we’re now far better equipped to deal with the challenges that will come our way than we were in the early days. We’ve built up an amazing team of passionate, committed, and skilled professionals who can help us get to wherever it is we end up and that fills me with a huge amount of confidence.
You say that customers are at the heart of what you do. Does that mean you’ll be connecting more face-to-face next year?
Myles: Well, all of our 5,000 or so regular customers are spread out in so many towns and cities. Actually, that reminds me of another standout moment – in around 2013 maybe I was invited to be a keynote speaker at this conference in Orlando with about 250-300 people, run by a customer I knew really well. I remember sitting at a table in the bar the night before the conference and saying, you know, “Hey, I’m Myles from BrightLocal” and almost every person was a BrightLocal customer. I almost wanted to cry – because you know, we’re based in England, this is America. It was still fairly early on, and we were battling so hard to build the software and the brand. I got to buy them all drinks and talk to them – so I’d like a bit more of that next year.
Certainly, the idea of putting customers at the heart of what we do means we need to try to meet with people physically more often. I like the idea of always having an open door, so if a customer happens to be in the area, they can just walk in – no appointment necessary. But also hopefully going out to more conferences if we can and seeing more customers there.
Looking at the slightly less-distant future, are there any exciting new releases on the horizon you can tell us about?
Myles: A lot of our effort at the moment is around consolidating what we’ve already got, ensuring that the existing sets of data-gathering solutions are as robust as possible. So we’re redefining and re-architecting those so they’re fit for the next level of scale. It’s all about stability, consistency, accuracy, and speed. As well as refocusing on some of our core and most-used tools – focusing time and effort on improving those areas.
We also want to provide more insights to support holistic location marketing. So rather than just going “here’s the information, now you interpret it,” it’s “here are some insights that will help you interpret the data” and “here are some actionable tips to help you move forward”.
Ed: As Myles says, we’re putting a lot of effort into re-architecting many components of our platform, especially those responsible for gathering the data that makes up our reports. I’m really excited about that. We’ve got a highly skilled team and they’re able to deep-dive on this in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the very early days. Those changes will bring us huge opportunities and set us up well for the next few years as we continue to grow.
You must have plenty to choose from by now, but what’s your fondest memory from your BrightLocal years?
Myles: It’s all about people. My fondest memory and the one I’ll cherish the most – the thing I’m most grateful for – is meeting Ed. In the ten years we’ve been working together we’ve never had a single big disagreement. We’ve always respected each other’s skills and had quite clear lines of responsibility. We’ll always defer to each other when it comes to the point that the other person knows best. We’re very respectful of each other’s skills and experience. But we’re also incredibly grateful for the fact that we’re not doing this alone and that the other person is always positive. I always feel that he’s got my back and I’ve got his. So, that and also my wife’s understanding of the early, tough years and her support getting through it. I’m incredibly thankful for those two things. But, you know, this definitely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t met Ed.
Ed: Similarly, I feel very lucky to have met Myles – that our paths crossed, that he chose to share his vision with me and make me part of this amazing journey. Ten years is the longest I’ve been involved with any company or project and I can’t imagine, nor would I want to imagine, doing anything else.
They say you should always go into business with someone who has complementary skills and, looking back, I can see how important that is. Much more than that, though, Myles has been the best business partner I could possibly have hoped for. He’s a true force of nature (in a good way) – kind, fair, and always challenging us to be better versions of ourselves.
Looking back, the thing that always makes me laugh is thinking about a photo we took of Myles and I sitting on a bench in the garden of the flat I was renting at the time. We took it for one of our early websites. It must have looked so amateurish. Walking around our Brighton and Kyiv offices I find it hard to believe just how far we’ve come. I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years will bring.
Finally, I have to ask, how are you planning to celebrate the big 1-0?
Myles: I think we’ve done it [referencing the UK team’s recent Christmas/10th Birthday party, pictured above]! And, of course, there have been celebrations in the Philippines and Ukraine too.
So for us, it’s like, okay we’ve celebrated, now let’s move on. It’s kind of the BrightLocal way – it can be a little bit relentless but I think we’ve given this a bit of air time and celebrated it. But now it’s like, what more can we do? What other exciting things can we develop to keep the BrightLocal machine moving forward and to improve customer’s lives? So no other grand plans as yet.
Ed: Yep, done. We’ve ticked that box. We celebrated with an amazing day (and evening) in London, including a party bus up from Brighton, lunch, ice skating, and a meal with river cruise down the Thames. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy ice skating. Our Development team in Kyiv is heading off to Bukovel for skiing and snowboarding. I’m sure that’ll be great fun.
With a decade behind them, the future is looking Bright(Local) for founders Myles and Ed. If you’ve been a part of the journey so far, why not share your experience in the comments below?