SaaS Growth Through Good Old-Fashioned Outreach with Bernard Huang of Clearscope
Table of Contents
Meet Bernard Huang. If you work in SEO or content, chances are you’ve seen his face or heard of his company. Bernard co-founded Clearscope, an AI-powered SEO software platform that’s rated as one of G2’s highest-performing tools.
A serial entrepreneur since childhood, Bernard has an adventurous habit of trying new things, often learning by trial and error along the way. Take a look at his résumé, and you’ll find the story of a scrappy autodidact determined to run his own company. A few highlights:
- As an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin, Bernard earned $120,000 playing professional online poker—which he then used to buy a Dickey’s Barbecue Pit franchise with friends.
- After teaching himself to code, Bernard was enlisted by a baker friend to develop her website. This sparked his later idea Food By People, a marketplace for home-baked goods.
- To get more startup experience, Bernard eventually joined 42Floors, a Y Combinator alum and real estate company, as employee #16. His official title was “Growth Hacker.”
- Along with a friend from college, Bernard started GameRunners, an esports coaching platform that helped young gamers sharpen their League of Legends skills.
While not all of his projects have led to success—the Dickey’s location closed after a 13-month run and Food By People floundered—Bernard has drawn many learnings from each experience. Without them, he wouldn’t be where he is today as the co-founder of one of the most established SEO tools.
I spoke with Bernard recently to find out how he grew Clearscope into a SaaS powerhouse generating millions in revenue annually. As with any successful company, many different elements have played into Clearscope’s growth at various stages. Skip to our takeaways if you’d prefer to read a high-level roundup of his biggest lessons. Otherwise, keep reading for more context and backstory on Bernard’s journey with Clearscope.
- A quick overview
- Product development
- Early traction (customers 1-10)
- Growing momentum (customers 11-100)
- Sustained growth (101 customers and beyond)
- Advice for new founders
A quick overview
What is Clearscope?
Clearscope is an AI-powered SEO tool that helps businesses optimize their online content for more search traffic. Companies including Adobe, Shopify, Condé Nast, HubSpot, and Deloitte rely on Clearscope for their content marketing strategies, using it for both keyword research and content optimization.
We at Demand Curve use Clearscope, too. The software’s text editor and keyword reports aggregate a lot of data into one spot, making it easy to see what content Google perceives as relevant to your target keyword. And since it integrates well with Google Docs, Clearscope made a simple addition to our existing content creation process.
How Clearscope began
Clearscope’s origins trace back to Bernard’s start in growth marketing—and how he developed SEO expertise in the first place.
We mentioned earlier that before Clearscope, Bernard joined the commercial real estate company 42Floors as a Growth Hacker. While there, he explored paid advertising and SEO, developing particular expertise in SEO from reading Moz’s blog and running his own experiments.
Part of Bernard’s learnings also came from connecting with others in SEO, including the owners of two of the biggest private blog networks at the time. Realizing the importance of backlinks for SEO, he bought many for 42Floors.
It worked—the company’s organic search traffic skyrocketed.
(Note: This was 2013—a very different time for SEO. The tactics Bernard used then don’t guarantee success today. If you're interested in pursuing SEO as a growth strategy, check out our playbook about it.)
Wanting to scratch his entrepreneurial itch, Bernard eventually left 42Floors to work on GameRunners with his friend Kevin Su. The two had lived together during college before Kevin dropped out and taught himself to code.
From time to time, Bernard would meet with an old colleague and friend from 42Floors to catch up and talk SEO, although purely on a pro bono basis.
However, in early 2015, Bernard and Kevin saw their bank accounts running dry in San Francisco. GameRunners wasn’t taking off. So they pivoted, creating an SEO consultancy instead. Bernard and Kevin called it Mushi Labs.
The colleague from 42Floors had moved on to DoorDash by then. While Bernard had said he wasn’t interested in working full-time for DoorDash, he realized the company’s potential as a Mushi Labs client.
Over time, Mushi Labs developed into a full-fledged consultancy, landing other clients like Strava and Teespring primarily through word of mouth. Many came from Y Combinator’s private founder community, Bookface, and were referred by Bernard’s former colleagues at 42Floors.
At the same time, Bernard further developed his SEO expertise by consulting for the venture capital firm 500 Startups on the side, giving companies suggestions for their content and SEO strategies.
Where does Clearscope fit into all this?
“The original goal was not to do consulting, but to start our own thing,” Bernard told me.
So as with GameRunners, Bernard and Kevin set out to develop a product—this time, focusing on the SEO space.
After spending a lot of time poring over spreadsheets and using data from the machine learning company AlchemyAPI for clients, they sought to automate their manual processes. Bernard saw potential in natural language processing, a branch of AI aimed at using computers to understand information from text and speech.
“I thought it would be interesting if we tested using natural language processing to optimize content copy to see whether or not it has an impact on organic rankings,” Bernard explained.
Having graduated from college with an economics degree, Bernard considers himself the “non-technical founder.” When I asked about the technical work behind Clearscope’s product development, he gave his co-founder, Kevin Su, all of the credit.
According to Bernard, “Kevin has been the full-stack product brilliance behind the tool from day one. … The brilliance and simplicity of Clearscope can only be attributed to Kevin's ability to have a strong product sense.”
But before Kevin could create Clearscope’s software, the two needed to validate its proof of concept. They didn’t want another flop like GameRunners. So following the principles of lean customer methodology, the two decided to “sell it before you build it.”
Kevin created an HTML/CSS mockup of their software idea, and taking screenshots of it, Bernard made a slide deck about the product. Then he worked on connecting with other SEO professionals in San Francisco through cold email outreach. Here’s a look at one of his emails:
A few details worth highlighting:
- Bernard’s email wasn’t overly personalized, yet it still came across as a tailored message. It’s clear he did his homework on the prospect—he knew they were a “fellow SEO in SF” and included the name of the prospect’s company.
- Although Bernard wanted to pitch his product idea to gauge potential interest, his email ask wasn’t blatantly about selling. Instead, he shared honestly that he was “exploring potential products to help people manage internal SEO stuff.”
- What’s more, Bernard’s ask revolved around meeting to get the prospect’s advice and input. It was clearly a two-way conversation (“trade SEO war stories”), not a one-sided sales pitch.
Bernard set up coffee meetings with around 40-50 SEOs. In each one, he walked the prospect through the slide deck with screenshots of Kevin’s software mockup, explaining what the hypothetical product would do.
“At the end, there used to be a slide that said, ‘We'll do this all for $500 a month’—to price test it,” he recalled. “Then I'd ask, ‘If we built this, would this be something that you'd be interested in purchasing?’”
Bernard estimated that 20-30% of these prospects said they’d buy it or at least check it out—enough for him to tell Kevin, “I think we have enough to start working on it.”
From there, the two paused on taking new clients for Mushi Labs so they could create Clearscope’s software.
Reflecting on this, Bernard chuckled. “Our mindset was ‘There's no Plan B, we just got to make this work.’ We kind of burned the boats, and went all in on Clearscope.”
Early traction (customers 1-10)
You might expect that Clearscope naturally grew by funneling clients from Mushi Labs. It’s totally plausible: Wanting to productize their work, two experts running an SEO consulting service develop software that they then market to their existing clients.
Bernard shared that he and his co-founder actually converted very few of their consulting clients into Clearscope customers.
“When people go with a consultant, they’re going with a consultant because they want you to do the work,” he said. “When you sell them software, they have to do the work.”
Bernard’s point is a good reminder of the importance of understanding your target audience and what “job” they “hire” your product for, according to the jobs-to-be-done framework. If you're changing your business model or trying a new product, don’t assume your existing audience will be interested.
So how did Bernard find Clearscope’s earliest clients? Once again, he turned to outreach—this time, within his network.
Professional relationship management
Early on, Bernard made it a habit to export all of his LinkedIn contacts into a spreadsheet at the end of the year—a virtual Rolodex of sorts. He assessed each contact based on their value as a potential Clearscope client.
Then he carefully developed a few email templates with which to reach out:
- a standard outreach email
- a semi-personalized version
- a heavily customized one
Unlike the cold emails he used during the product development stage, Bernard didn’t have a concrete ask. His messages functioned more as a friendly update and conversation starter, and they placed his name top of mind—perfect in case any of his contacts had SEO needs.
“The whole intention was really to just tell people what I was doing—to get that conversation going in case it popped up in people's day-to-day,” Bernard said.
This wasn’t quite cold outreach, since Bernard knew these contacts. Taking inspiration from Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s book about networking, Never Eat Alone, he instead called the strategy “professional relationship management.”
And it worked, gradually pulling in Clearscope’s earliest customers.
“If you can't sell your friends on professional services that you're offering, you're not going to be able to sell a random stranger on it,” Bernard said. “Your first five customers are probably going to come from your network if you're selling consulting or agency type of services.”
With this philosophy in mind, Bernard avoided using paid ads. People who knew Bernard and his track record of SEO success felt confident in signing up for Clearscope, a product that had no reviews or case studies at the time.
Ensuring product adoption
There was no time to sit back and relax after Clearscope signed on its first handful of customers. Since its software was so new, Bernard and Kevin knew it needed refining.
“It was still lacking a lot of things,” Bernard recalls. “What we wanted to optimize for early on was learning—learning what to say, who to say it to, what clients wanted, what they resonated with, what they wanted to see—all of that good stuff.”
To find out how to improve the product, the two looked to their early customers. Kevin wrote a webhook for Slack that would automatically send a message whenever a client ran a report in Clearscope. Seeing these messages appear made Bernard and Kevin happy—but also revealed which clients weren’t actually using Clearscope.
Bernard reached out to these inactive customers to check in on them. His logic: Customers wouldn’t value Clearscope if they didn’t use it. So he worked on finding out what customers wanted and guiding them to product adoption as much as possible, even if that involved taking a very active role in their product implementation.
Bernard recalled giving a generous discount to convert one trial user into a Clearscope customer—only to find that after signing up, the customer barely used the software. So he offered to optimize 10 articles for them, asking only that he be able to use the resulting data for a case study.
The customer happily agreed. Ten articles later, data from Google Search Console showed that optimization with Clearscope led to a 52% average increase in the customer’s search traffic. Some pages got as much as a 230% boost.
“This was one of the biggest breakthroughs in customers one through 10,” Bernard noted.
And it wasn’t just the one client who saw results—Bernard extended his offer to other early customers to create more case studies. The data helped justify Clearscope’s cost against lower-priced SEO software like Ahrefs, and would set the stage for further growth.
Growing momentum (customers 11-100)
Bernard continued to work directly with Clearscope’s earliest customers to collect case studies. Rather than focus outright on acquisition, he prioritized customer success.
That’s because, Bernard explained, “The two pillars that we still strongly believe in is an easy and understandable product and customer success.”
Both were integral to growth, especially in the SEO space.
Bernard pointed out how many business owners receive terrible outreach emails advertising SEO services. “Coming from the SEO industry,” he says, “I was pretty well aware that the way to spread would be to prove that we get results and that it works.”
Just as he did in Clearscope’s earlier stages, Bernard reached out to his network again—this time, with a slide deck highlighting the case studies he’d helped to produce.
As more customers signed up for Clearscope, Bernard continued his hands-on involvement in their onboarding and implementation.
“We would treat customer success almost like sales,” he explained. “So when somebody signed up, we would say, ‘Now's the time to prove them right—that they should continue doing business with us.’”
While Bernard worked on selling and onboarding new customers, Kevin refined the product, often making changes based on user feedback.
My colleague Dennis, a former contractor with Clearscope, told me: “They genuinely listen to user feedback and shape the product accordingly. For example, I mentioned that a citation panel could be useful for quickly finding relevant outbound links to authority sites, and Kevin came back to me a few weeks later with a beta to test out.”
The two co-founders focused on optimizing Clearscope for an excellent user experience all around. They did that by:
- improving the product
- providing robust customer support
“Moving forward, we recognized that if we can just prove to customers that they could get 50% month-over-month growth in organic traffic, then they'll be happy, they'll tell their friends, and it'll all work out,” Bernard said of the two-pronged approach.
Sustained growth (101 customers and beyond)
Customer success was, in short, how Clearscope continued growing without spending on paid advertising or other marketing channels.
This approach involved a kickoff call and weekly check-ins in the customer’s first month.
“We were very relentless in asking, ‘Hey, are you using it? Are you finding success? Do you need us to do anything?’” Bernard shared. “That's predominantly how we grew.”
The goal was to create a product and product experience so good that customers would recommend it. However, Bernard recognized that this wouldn’t look the same for Clearscope as for B2C products.
He pointed out that because SEO is a zero-sum game, people are disincentivized from sharing helpful tactics or effective software. After all, why would anyone want to give away part of their SEO strategy?
“People in SEO buy from their friends—as in, based on recommendations from their friends,” Bernard explained. “But oftentimes, they're not necessarily sharing those in public outlets.”
While delivering excellent customer support was instrumental in acquiring Clearscope’s earliest customers, the company has since expanded its marketing efforts to include content, paid advertising, and something Bernard likes to think of as “backchannel marketing.”
In line with their focus on customer success, Bernard and Kevin hired a writer to create onboarding guides for Clearscope. These serve a dual function: as customer enablement materials and educational resources for SEO beginners.
Admittedly, Clearscope hasn’t worked on creating a blog or SEO content strategy as much as other B2B software companies, in part because of its emphasis on customer success and challenges scaling the team (we’ll get to that in a bit).
But Bernard also pointed out that inherently, Clearscope isn’t a content company. It’s a software company. Because of this, he and Kevin haven’t needed to prioritize content in the way that a major publishing brand like NerdWallet would. However, this is changing, thanks to a new director of marketing leading the charge on Clearscope’s blog.
Besides written content, Clearscope has also explored video marketing in recent years—most notably, video tutorials and webinars.
The video tutorials, created by Bernard himself, provide walkthroughs of Clearscope’s software and, like the onboarding guides, help facilitate customer success.
Clearscope’s webinars take a broader educational approach. Started in April 2021, they teach viewers about SEO topics, often with the help of marketing experts from other companies. This builds both brand awareness and authority.
- Brand awareness: By inviting guest speakers, the webinars effectively tap into audiences outside of Clearscope’s existing users. Not to mention, the recorded webinars, uploaded to YouTube, appear in Google and YouTube search results, giving users another way to discover Clearscope organically.
- Brand authority: The webinars don’t sell Clearscope’s software. Instead, with topics like “How to Report on Content Marketing” and “Psychology of SEO,” they establish Clearscope’s authority in the SEO and marketing space.
As a result of the webinars, Bernard’s seen growth in three particular areas: Clearscope’s email list, YouTube audience, and web traffic from YouTube.
Paid ads played no part in developing Clearscope’s early traction—but what about later on, like today?
Clearscope runs search ads for only two keywords: “clearscope” and “clear scope.”
“We just bid on our brand,” Bernard said. Then with a laugh, he added, “A lot of other people do, which is why we bid on it. And clearly, we're not bidding enough. But that's the only consistent source of advertising that we've done.”
Clearscope’s low ad spend speaks to the company’s strong moat. It doesn’t need to go after broader keywords that its competitors target, like “online seo tool” or “article writing for seo.”
This approach also affirms the company’s laser focus on product and customer experience—neither Bernard nor Kevin prioritizes advertising because they know new customers will naturally come by word of mouth.
There’s one more marketing channel that Bernard has explored for Clearscope—something he calls “backchannel marketing.”
“It's this idea that people don't just go to TechCrunch or Wired, or even Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Land, because we're inundated by a lot of stuff,” he explained. “Instead, what we do is go to the backchannels—backchannels being Demand Curve’s Slack channel and other similar communities.”
To clarify, Bernard doesn’t mean he’s actively trying to sell Clearscope in marketing communities. After all, most communities, including Demand Curve’s, have rules against blatant promotion.
Instead, backchannel marketing involves being an active member of these groups and contributing thoughtfully. That might even mean partnering with community organizers to do free exclusive events.
"People don't want to be sold to. They don't want to be marketed to. That's why we have ad blockers,” Bernard explained. “But people still want to buy, and by offering as much value as you can, you get the best bang for your buck.”
Backchannel marketing works because it’s built on trust. Selling isn’t a priority—sharing helpful information that other members value is.
Once again, the success of this strategy is fueled in part by Bernard’s close attention to customer success. How so? It’s not just Bernard who’s participating in communities. So are happy Clearscope customers who are recommending its product or webinars organically.
There are communities for all kinds of niches now—you can find them on Slack, Facebook, and Reddit. For starters, consider joining some or all of these ones:
Growing Clearscope’s team
When I asked Bernard about his philosophy for hiring, he admitted, “To be completely transparent, we haven't done as great of a job scaling the team. It was mainly because I was doing too much.”
Clicking through his Google calendar, Bernard showed me weeks of product demos scheduled back to back. He was also heavily involved in Clearscope’s webinar series, often appearing onscreen with the company’s marketing manager.
Reflecting on his involvement in the company’s growth, Bernard compared it to the thrill of a farmer harvesting his first yield.
“Kevin and I spent a lot of time sowing the fields,” he said. “And then the fruit started to bloom from the trees. And I got so excited picking the fruit. Instead of hiring people and setting up processes and systems to then harvest the fruit, I just went out and picked as much fruit as I could—and then passed out due to exhaustion.”
Many founders can probably relate. For Bernard, it got to the point where customer demand far outpaced what he could do.
But while Clearscope has kept its team on the leaner side, it hasn’t shied away from outsourcing, as it did with its onboarding guides. Bernard offered a practical rule of thumb for deciding which functions to outsource versus keep in-house.
“You never want to outsource any of the core life blood of what you think makes your company successful,” he advised.
For Clearscope, that’s product and customer experience. Meanwhile, since content isn’t a Clearscope fundamental, content creation is one of the areas that Bernard has felt comfortable outsourcing.
Advice for new founders
The last thing I asked Bernard was how he might approach Clearscope now if he were to build it from scratch in 2022. He chuckled before saying, “I honestly don't think I would do anything differently.”
From product development to landing Clearscope’s first customers to growing the company, Bernard consistently relied on his network and word of mouth. They’re timeless strategies compared to new growth channels like TikTok and podcast advertising.
So is delivering a stellar product and customer experience. In any industry, people are happy to share and recommend a product that they’ve had an incredible experience with.
Admittedly, there’s more competition in the SEO software space now than there was in 2016, when Clearscope was still being developed.
Bernard acknowledged the first-mover advantage. So in today’s more saturated SaaS landscape, he advised focusing on four areas:
- Tap into your network. Start with your connections. Don’t be disingenuous about it—be honest, just as Bernard was when he emailed cold prospects that he was “exploring potential products.”
- Create quality content for your site. Having few competitors starting out “allowed us to take some shortcuts,” Bernard said, like not having a product page or an about us page. But today, good content is a must to separate your company from the noise.
- Invest heavily in social proof. Testimonials and case studies go a long way, especially when selling expensive products. After collecting measurable proof that Clearscope worked, Bernard put together a detailed slide deck to use in sales meetings.
- Win over experts. Bernard shared how leads are impressed by the big-name guests that appear on Clearscope’s webinars. Their affiliation with Clearscope acts as social proof. You can get a similar effect with strategies like influencer marketing.
Below, we recap the major takeaways that helped guide and accelerate Clearscope’s growth.
First, here’s a quick company overview:
- Founders: Bernard Huang and Kevin Su
- Year founded: 2016
- Company type: B2B SaaS
- What Clearscope does: Using AI, help businesses generate more organic search traffic through comprehensive keyword research and content optimization.
Sell it before you build it
Before fully investing in Clearscope’s product development, Bernard used cold outreach to validate its proof of concept. He targeted other SEO professionals in San Francisco, asking to meet up over coffee and talk SEO.
His outreach emails succeeded because they:
- Were tailored to the prospect
- Didn’t mislead them about his intentions
- Asked for advice and input—not money
Bernard didn’t literally sell Clearscope to these contacts. He proposed the concept, including a tentative price, and asked if they’d be interested in using it if it existed. When 20-30% said yes, Bernard took it as a sign to get Clearscope started.
Look to your network for your first customers
Early on, Bernard relied on professional relationship management—a year-end process of reaching out to each of his LinkedIn contacts about what he was working on. Unlike cold prospecting, this form of outreach targeted people Bernard already knew and had a relationship with.
It also didn’t ask for anything specific. Bernard’s outreach simply gave a friendly update about what he was up to.
Bernard created three email templates based on how much value each of his connections represented as a potential Clearscope customer:
- a standard outreach email for contacts who weren’t strong prospects
- a semi-personalized version for contacts who could possibly benefit from SEO
- a heavily customized template for contacts with a clear need for SEO
For service-based businesses like consultancies and agencies, Bernard emphasizes the benefits of leaning into your network. If you do it right, you can expect to get your first five customers through people you already know.
Follow up with customers to ensure product adoption
If customers aren’t actively using your product, they probably don’t see its value. For subscription-based business models, this means customers are more likely to churn once their subscription ends.
To avoid this, Bernard reached out to Clearscope’s inactive customers on an almost weekly basis to check in and ask if they needed any help. The goal was to turn them into active users so they’d understand the software’s value.
Offer extra support in exchange for case studies
Besides checking in on new customers, Bernard also offered hands-on support—specifically, optimization for 10 client articles. All he asked for in exchange was the resulting data to use in a future case study.
After collecting several case studies, Bernard put together a detailed slide deck of Clearscope’s impact. Knowing that skeptical prospects could be convinced by seeing tangible results, he used this deck to land more new customers.
Refine your product to deliver the best user experience
Clearscope’s software today looks very different from its first iteration in 2016. This is because Kevin, Bernard’s co-founder who leads product development, actively shaped the product according to users’ needs and feedback. Both founders agreed that making the product easy and understandable would facilitate a better user experience.
Customer success = sales (through word of mouth and backchannel marketing)
Bernard treated customer success as sales. He knew that by delivering an incredible product and customer support, users would be more likely to share their experiences with their peers. This was the case even in SEO, an industry where people are inclined to keep their tactics to themselves for fear of losing out to competition.
Many satisfied customers shared about Clearscope to their network or in relevant communities, like on Slack. Bernard describes the latter as “backchannel marketing.” He’s also taken an active role by participating in communities, and occasionally even doing community-exclusive events.
Here are a few communities worth joining:
Keep core functions in-house
We’ve mentioned that Clearscope’s success came in large part from focusing on its product and customer success. Bernard views these two as the company’s foundation, which is why these functions have always been kept strictly in-house.
Content, on the other hand, isn’t core to Clearscope. Because of this, Bernard felt comfortable outsourcing content creation to contract writers. He suggests that other companies do the same and outsource only their non-defining functions to freelancers.
Bernard shared a few resources for aspiring SaaS founders and entrepreneurs.
- The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness by Eric Jorgenson
- Clearscope’s YouTube channel
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
- Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz
- Paul Graham’s essays
- SaaStr Academy
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