Alexander De Ridder of INK: “Strong Company Values”

Strong Company Values: Building a successful app starts with building a solid team. Choose company values early on, and use them as a guiding force for building your team. For example, our values empower everyone who works with us to be Innovative, Driven, Passionate, and Elevating in every aspect of their work. These values are the […]

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Strong Company Values: Building a successful app starts with building a solid team. Choose company values early on, and use them as a guiding force for building your team.

For example, our values empower everyone who works with us to be Innovative, Driven, Passionate, and Elevating in every aspect of their work. These values are the glue that binds our remote team together, sets a clear standard, and keeps everyone rowing in the same direction toward a shared goal. They are also instrumental in hiring new talent and measuring performance.

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander De Ridder.

Where most people see problems, Alexander De Ridder sees potential. From startups to Fortune 100 companies, he has designed dozens of technologies ranging from patented artificial intelligence solutions to innovative marketing application development. He is the Co-Founder, CTO, and creator of the world’s first AI-powered content optimization software, INK.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Understanding where technology can transform a company, how the interface can impact the user, and how to scale applications to serve millions of people is why I do what I do. I’m at my strongest when there’s nothing there, and I can build something new.

I started programming at 13 when my Dad got me a 386 computer running MS DOS without Windows. I’ve always loved learning about anything and everything, and then finding ways to make them better. And, I’ve always been interested in understanding how and why humans (and AI make) decisions.

For me, programming was another tool to help me express my ideas and build my solutions, like writing and drawing were for me when I was little. Technology became the place where my passions for innovation and philosophy intersected.

In 2006, I immigrated to Houston, Texas from my hometown of Bruges, Belgium and immediately started knocking on doors to get my first development job. The most valuable currency you can have in Houston is your reputation, and I quickly built a reputation for helping companies innovate. Over the years, I’ve created patented AdWords Phone Conversion Technology, leveraged ML computer vision to create customer “cookies” and analytics in retail stores, and generated no-code web applications for forensic accounting before it was a ‘thing’.

By 2015, I had met my now partners and co-founders, CEO Michael Umansky and CRO Gary Haymann. With the introduction of Google’s RankBrain AI, extension-level changes were coming in SEO and AI. I started forming a theory about how Google’s algorithms index content. My partners said: “Prove it.” And, prove it we did — building Edgy Labs — a multi-million dollar SEO agency — in just a few years.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Content creators invest an incredible amount of time crafting over 4 million articles per day. But according to Ahrefs, over 90% of content published never actually gets seen by the audience that it was created for because it won’t get Google traffic. That’s a huge problem for content producers and web content writers.

I saw a major shift in search caused by Rankbrain’s introduction in 2016. Beyond keywords, search engines could now understand the meaning behind the words and measure user intent with quality signals to close the loop. I realized how these changes could create major opportunities for content creators.

The internet was (and is) an increasingly crowded and noisy place. While the majority of content producers recognize how important SEO is to their success, we realized that many don’t have the expertise or resources to ensure their content performs.

How do you rise above the noise?

My immediate thought was: How can we help content creators stay on top of a quickly-evolving industry so that their target audiences can find their content, engage with it, and convert because of it? How do we help writers tie their efforts to ROI?

In answering these questions, the idea for the INK company and our AI SEO software was born. Just as we started out with an idea of how search engines rank content and built case studies and an agency to prove it, we believed our solution needed to be writer-centric, and we needed to prove that we could make writers love our solution.

From there, we set up interviews with real writers and content creators. I watched their workflows and listened to their frustrations about complicated content creation processes, expensive optimization tools, and difficulty understanding the ROI of their work. There was a clear need for a tool like INK, but nothing like it…yet.

All kinds of web content writers were running into the same problems. When we started grouping these issues, the problems we set out to solve became clear:

  • How does a writer know when their content is good enough for publication? How do they know they’ve written enough words, that they’ve covered their topic completely? How do they know they’ve hit the sweet spot for customer intent? How do they know they’ve written in the right style, difficulty, and tone to reach this particular audience?
  • How do we make SEO easy for writers? Not with spreadsheets and tables, but do the hard work of interpreting the information for them — in real time — in the context of their assignment, and give them actionable and clear recommendations to improve their content?
  • How do we create an interface that is distraction-free and encourages productivity? How do we make it work seamlessly for them and their workflow to save time and reduce the frustration of copy and pasting between different tools?

But we also discovered many problems on the business side:

  • How do I prove the ROI of my content marketing initiatives?
  • How do I streamline the workflows of creation and optimization for efficiency?
  • How do I know what content needs to be updated?

Our mission became helping content creators put their energy into content that performs: is found, is engaging, and converts!

After we refined what worked, it was time to build the technology to help content creators win on the web. We went to work building the INK software and the revolutionary AI that powers it.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Bootstrapping innovative companies is not without sacrifice. However, we solved our biggest challenges by contemplating the ideal, listening to our users, and iterating until we achieved that ideal.

Our challenges included growing two businesses while building a completely revolutionary technology. At home with my wife and at work with my partners, we had to carefully budget everything. This gave us the ability to be able to reinvest everything back into our vision.

They say the ability to defer gratification is the best indicator of future success, and that seems to be something most entrepreneurs have in common. Forging ahead, even when faced with obstacles and struggles, is a big part of achieving success.

I worked multiple jobs simultaneously to be able to grow EDGY as large as we have, all while launching the software company INK and budgeting at home. Elon Musk once described his work as “painful” and didn’t recommend his lifestyle to others — there were definite times I’ve felt that way.

What keeps me going is the people at EDGY and INK — we built a company culture of passionate, innovative, driven and supportive, elevating people. We are rallied by a compelling vision of the future of content marketing and working with them doesn’t feel like work — we feel like we are changing the world, together.

Budget management has been one part but equally important has been time management. Some of the changes I’ve made that worked really well are:

  • Making meeting length a half hour by default instead of an hour.
  • Keeping my scheduled meetings limited to the mornings so that I have the afternoon to focus without interruption.
  • Requiring an agenda for every meeting so we have alignment on expectations and goals.
  • Reducing the number of participants per meeting.
  • Banning “optional” attendance in meeting invites. You are either required to attend or not. Optional meetings clog up your calendar and limit uninterrupted time.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

As a completely bootstrapped startup, we took a risk with our go-to-market strategy of making INK free and then building paid functionality. I’m beyond happy to report that we’ve not only proved that INK provides real value to its users but also that INK works. From freelance content creators to Fortune 100 brands, INK has increased our users’ visibility by over 1 million monthly visitors, including for highly coveted Featured Snippets.

When we launched INK in October 2019, we earned Product Hunt’s coveted Product of the Day and Month honors. Making the shortlist for the US Search Awards Best Search Software Tool was also a huge moment of validation for the team and our journey.

In less than two years, we’re proud to have built our own semantic engine at scale and secured a patent for the artificial intelligence that powers it. Just five months after we launched, INK’s user base was already growing by thousands week over week! We’re also proud to be a G2 High Performer with stunning user reviews.

What I’m thrilled about is how we were able to democratize the expensive and seemingly unapproachable world of SEO. We are starting to roll out paid versions with additional features, but we will always remain true to our beginnings and offer our free version.

And, this is just the beginning. Our Innovation Roadmap has plans for new features and brand new technologies inspired by our user feedback.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

We decided to build a brand new blog as a kind of laboratory to test my Rank Candidate Theory. We settled on the name “Edgy,” approved the (3,000 dollars) budget to buy the domain, and it was up to me to purchase it.

Feeling excited and motivated about our new project, I snagged the domain and got to work…and then noticed I had bought the misspelled “” instead, and was not available — it had been too good to be true.

I felt horrible because we really loved the name. What a start, right?

When I shared this “small” error with my partner, Michael, (and this is a testament to his personality), he just laughed. We bought instead, and we still laugh about it to this day.

This moment set an important precedent in our company culture: Mistakes are good. They are the spark of innovation. Recognize the error, learn from it, then move on, and do better next time.

This moment also taught me how important it is to build a new project with the right partners and the right team. This is the foundation that allowed us to bootstrap a fast-paced, fully-remote, and resilient software company fueled by innovation.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What sets us apart is our focus on our users and our innovation. There’s nothing else like it.

Other tools have figured out that rule-based SEO content optimization appears outdated, but they then resort to counting keywords like with TF-IDF and LSI, which are really encouraging a form of modern day keyword stuffing.

Such lexical optimization needs to make way for true semantic optimization, and herein INK leads the way. We built it from the ground up — with original AI that took us 2 years to research and refine.

INK is the only content tool that understands what Google wants and guides non-SEO writers to transform their work into content that performs. What other optimization tool helps you write content that’s 450% more likely to rank?

INK analyzes your work against the top-ranking content for your target keyword, in real-time. Then, it scores your content on a clear scale from 0 to 100%. You get specific, tailored action items (not generic!) on how to improve your content so it has the best chance of ranking and connecting with your target audience. As you resolve tasks, your score changes. If you add a sentence or change your keyword, you’ll get different recommendations.

Your SEO score in INK actually matters because it directly reflects and impacts how your content will rank online. It is not a vanity metric. In this way, INK raises the content marketing bar by finally providing metrics to help tie content marketing’s success to ROI.

We practice what we preach: we commissioned 64 articles from Crowd Content and asked them to use INK as they wrote the articles. In less than 6 months, those articles resulted in 100,000 visitors a month. Not bad for a brand new blog, right?

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

We’ve been described as “relentless innovators” for our fast-paced approach. This has been one of the driving forces behind our rapid success, but I know I’ve struggled with having too many ideas and not enough hours in the day.

Speaking from my own experience, I am a high-performing ADHD individual. I can hyper-focus at will — if I work on something I’m passionate about. When I’m in hyper-focus mode, I feel superhuman. But there is another side to this — if I am not passionate about something, or my work is under a cloud of stress (especially the emotional kind) — my productivity drops.

So, I steer clear of anything that can disrupt my superpowers. I stay away from caffeine, control my energy with ketosis, moved to an area with a lot of trees and walking trails, and cleared my afternoons for focus time. I’ve also made adjustments to my personal life to reduce even small sources of stress. For example, I work with music on repeat, wear headphones, and I’ve even noise-isolated my office. My awesome kids help out with picking up and vacuuming so that I don’t come downstairs and step on toys or breadcrumbs after a long day of work.

Building a successful SaaS company (and thriving at whatever you do) is a delicate balancing act between giving yourself the time to think creatively and driving momentum on the business side.

Shifting contexts too quickly in succession creates entropy and slows you down. You won’t be able to plan for the business, set the right goals, or scale if you don’t take the time to reflect.

For this reason, I had to overhaul my schedule and learn to pace myself. Now, I limit my meetings to my early morning and block out afternoons on my calendar. This is my time to work distraction free, be creative, and come up with the ideas that push INK forward.

For me, this is like intellectual fasting. Just like physically fasting helps build discipline and control, these best practices help me develop the discipline to put all of my energy into one thing at a time.

Think mind over matter. Treat yourself like an athlete and optimize for self-performance. Self-discipline and focus are arts that take practice and so too is productivity. Create an environment conducive to visionary creativity.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are two people: my partners, INK CEO Michael Umansky and CRO Gary Haymann.

A business partnership is like a marriage. Building a strong, lasting rapport with someone else means first recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, it’s about finding the person whose strengths and weaknesses complement your own.

I think strong leaders are not only aware of their weaknesses but acknowledge them. I touched on earlier how I’m at my best when I work on something I’m passionate about. Michael and Gary help me achieve my full potential by removing obstacles.

Behind every visionary there is an integrator.

Before founding EDGY and INK with my partners, I had the opportunity to develop my ideas and build technologies via consulting for many companies. But what we’ve already achieved — a revolutionary patented AI and bootstrapping a multi-million dollar business to fully fund an even bolder vision — would not be possible without the incredible people in my life who trusted me enough to call me their partner, colleague, and friend.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Building in product feedback loops so that we can really listen to and engage with our users has been the key to designing a product our community loves, and loves to share. Putting the customer at the center of everything we do is how we designed the product and is central to our brand.

This guiding principle has helped us grow to over 27,000 users in just over a year.

However, I would like to say that the growth of INK has not been and is not our primary focus. Numbers are great, but quality is better. And, quality is the secret to happy users that keep coming back to the product and share it with others.

That’s why we’ve been focused on profoundly understanding and building our core persona. What problems are they facing? What frustrations can we solve from their current workflow? What holds them back from creating their best work and knowing it’s reaching their audience?

Throughout the entire development process and beyond, user interviews and feedback have been the foundation of refining our product into an easy-to-use solution that makes its users more successful. For example, we designed an in-app Feedback Button that turns user feedback and screenshots into a ticket that goes directly to our devs.

We talk to our users all the time. Via LinkedIn, Lunchclub, on-site chat, in-app feedback, or email, you name it!

I’d say this is at the heart of how we were able to build such a large and supportive community. I think of our entire product as an on-going conversation with our users:

  1. Making it as easy as possible for users to give us their feedback, report issues, and share ideas for new features.
  2. Making sure we’re out there, connecting directly with content creators on socials and contributing to online conversations about content optimization.
  3. Always being receptive and accessible to our community. I’m the CTO, but I’m also the creator of INK. I monitor our Help Chat, and sometimes when questions come in, I jump on a call with the person. Not only do I meet amazing people and build lasting relationships with them, but every interaction also shows me how I can make the product better for the people we created it for.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

Making a product creators love is our heart. Making a product that delivers unbelievable ROI to business owners is our mind.

We don’t want to monetize underpaid writers. For this reason, it was an important branding decision to break into the market with a free version of INK. INK FREE is our love letter to the content creators.

There is a fascinating dual dynamic: creators are artists — they love their creation tools and swear by them. They introduce the tools they love into the businesses they work with. We have astounding data from our own users to back this up.

The second dynamic is that enterprise money flows to marketing technology that can prove its value, so long as creators don’t resist adoption of this technology.

Our monetization strategy therefore is free-to-paid, a bottom up, self-service sales model. We plan to introduce new features and benefits for different buyer personas, from freelance content creators to SMB teams and eventually up to the Enterprise level.

After our wildly successful INK FREE launch and reception, we can’t wait to release our first paid version in Q1 2021: INK PRO. This version focuses on equipping individual writers and teams to win at content marketing.

It’s been awesome to see the overwhelming number of our existing INK FREE users who have expressed interest in PRO.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.

For us, the five most important factors to SaaS success are:

1. Strong Company Values: Building a successful app starts with building a solid team. Choose company values early on, and use them as a guiding force for building your team.

For example, our values empower everyone who works with us to be Innovative, Driven, Passionate, and Elevating in every aspect of their work. These values are the glue that binds our remote team together, sets a clear standard, and keeps everyone rowing in the same direction toward a shared goal. They are also instrumental in hiring new talent and measuring performance.

2. Clearly Defined Purpose: This is the reason why you set out to build an app in the first place. This is the reason you get up in the morning. What problem are you solving? Who are you solving it for?

Our purpose is to help content creators truly perform through using the most powerful, most fun optimization technology at their side. Everyone on our team knows this is our North Star, from Accounting to Marketing to Development. And, everyone is driving toward it with every part of their work.

3. Hyper-Focus on Beauty: in order to create the best solution for users, you have to know and understand your users. Do a deep dive into who your users are and build personas from the start. Map out who they are and what they want the product to do. Build feedback into the product and development so you can stay close to your users and constantly incorporate that feedback into making the product better.

This principle has been crucial to our branding and our success. For instance, our early interviews with content creators revealed that many web writers find most SEO tools clunky and complicated. They also were frustrated by how much time they were losing switching between multiple apps to craft content. Many had no idea how to tie the quality of their work with how well it’s performing.

This inspired me to design a clean, uncluttered, and beautiful workspace that combines every aspect of content creation into one fun tool. Real-time scoring gamifies the app, plus gives you a clear way to measure your progress and ranking potential without interrupting your flow.

A secret: we use Plato’s theory of beauty in all of our development sprints. Cool topic for a podcast episode, right? I enjoy being a guest!

4. Powerful “Secret Sauce”: What makes your app unique? There might be other products and solutions out there, but what makes yours better? Why should anyone use it?

For us, it is our AI. INK understands intent-matching like no other software does: Advanced modeling and extensive training created our proprietary AI that powers INK. Where other tools give you the same rules-based suggestions no matter what you write, INK understands the meaning behind the words and creates unique conceptual maps for each article. It gives you a clear standard to meet and measure your ROI against. That’s a truly smart AI and our biggest differentiating factor.

5. Transparent Communication: This speaks to how your team communicates internally.

Daily stand-ups are crucial to maintain momentum, cascade important updates, and keep everyone (including myself) accountable. We also have a company-wide video call every Friday to celebrate each team’s wins and accomplishments over the past week. We reiterate our company values, call out specific team members that exemplify them in their work, and communicate updates. Throughout the week, we have a streamlined meeting structure that helps us identify issues quickly and remove any blockers to our progress.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Imagine a world where amazing content was buried on the second page of Google and never got an audience simply because the content creator was not also an SEO expert.

We’re trying to start more than a movement — we’re working on a content performance revolution!

Content creators make the Internet what it is. This proves it: when we have a burning question or are trying to find a product, we turn to Google to find the best answer.

Anyone who creates web content does so because they want someone to find it. But, right now, the majority of that work isn’t seen by the audience it was created for. People are spending time, money, and their professional livelihoods creating content that doesn’t connect with audiences, and therefore, doesn’t perform.

If SEO and content marketing are an expensive, frustrating black box that writers need to open in order to be successful, then our movement is to give them the keys via INK. Helping people do what they love more efficiently and more enjoyably while increasing their bottom line is how we’re bringing so much good to so many people.

But, our movement doesn’t stop at empowering INK users to be more effective at what they do. If INK helps users create higher quality content that is better aligned with what their audiences want, readers benefit, too.

Content creators benefit from being able to craft better content faster, while audiences benefit from higher quality, more accessible information. Never has there been so much information so readily available to the world, and we’re building the tools and technologies that connect people with what they’re searching for. That’s our movement — that’s our content performance revolution.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I post industry insights along with ideas and success stories on my personal LinkedIn. If you achieved some incredible results with INK, connect and let me know. We always love sharing success stories from our own work and from others and are always working on new case studies for the community.

You can also connect with our INK company LinkedIn and Twitter where we share optimization tips, ranking strategies, and more resources for the community.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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