Where most people see problems, Alexander De Ridder sees potential. From startups to Fortune 100 businesses, he has designed dozens of technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence to application development and marketing technology. He is the co-founder, CTO, and creator of the world’s first AI-powered content performance editor, INK. Prior to co-founding INK and creating the INK content optimization editor, he has been involved in IT for his entire career. He started programming at the age of 13. He has powered patented solutions for over 50 businesses worldwide. When he was 28, he created the first real-time method of attributing phone calls directly inside Google Adwords. He has led development of machine learning solutions for in-door camera-based positioning systems, people-emotion-attention detection, and camera-to-camera handoff tracking systems. He also introduced retargeting and web cookies to the retail service industry. He has developed revolutionary algorithms and proven insights to transform the process, performance, and experience clients have with SEO and SEM. Given his background, applying his experience and expertise to creating the INK editor was a natural progression for him. Alexander is excited about the recent launch of INK Pro and sharing the new AI innovations he’s working on to change the content marketing landscape forever.
Where did the idea for INK come from?
I was working in machine learning, creating computer vision solutions at the time, but I saw how neural networks would be used for search. I had a hypothesis that Google’s new Rankbrain AI would create major challenges for content creators who were not prepared for the change. I shared my theory with my now-partners, Michael Umansky and Gary Haymann, and we started our company. We bootstrapped it and set about creating the solution.
So, in 2016, we started a new blog to test these theories. We immediately went to work on our experiment which we call the Rank Candidate Theory. We found that content is king. Put your energy into becoming a Rank Candidate by making your content the best resource available on the subject. Then, ensure that the content achieves good engagement metrics with its target audience. Content creators have to merge the art of writing with the science of understanding what the search engine is looking for in terms of relevant content.
The Rank Candidate Theory is the idea that Google crawls your page, scrapes your content, and determines from a deep understanding of the content if you meet the user’s intent. If you do, Google considers your page a rank candidate. As a result, it directs some traffic to your page to test user satisfaction. If users like your page, your rankings will go up. We confirmed our hypothesis using our blog.
Based on our findings, we developed our AI-based optimization editor INK. We continued to tweak and evolve it through our work with large Fortune 100 customers. We validated INK is a much-needed product during beta testing. We conducted hours of interviews with real writers, identified their biggest challenges, and crafted the most elegant and technologically-advanced tool tailored to their needs.
Our product solves a major problem for content creators who make the Internet what it is: how do you create content that ranks? Writers invest an incredible amount of time crafting over 4 million articles per day. But, over 90% of that content will never be seen by the audience that it was created for. This affects content creators’ bottom lines, their livelihoods, and their most precious resource: their time.
While the majority of content producers recognize how important SEO is to their success, many don’t have the expertise or resources to ensure their content performs.
This is exactly why we designed INK and the problem that INK solves: to give content creators, large and small, an unfair competitive edge over top-ranking content with the most advanced optimization expert by their side, as they write.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I work with a worldwide, globally distributed remote team. I start my day at 6:30 a.m. online. I use this time as a common touchpoint to connect with my team. In the morning, I have my CTO hat on. I coordinate with the team, work on technical developments, and give marketing guidance.
In the afternoon, I shift to a creative, innovator focus and mindset. I put on my visionary hat. This is my time to work distraction free, be creative, and come up with innovations that push INK forward.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Having a clear vision, understanding the gravity of our work, providing a positive example, and my genuine outlook inspires others to bring out the best in themselves. Focused on these guiding principles, we have been able to scale our team from 4 people at inception to nearly 50 full-time team members from around the world.
I’ve also learned to delegate more to the very capable people I surround myself with. I work to help them develop their skill sets, nurture their talent, and trust them to help me execute my vision.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Why just one? Transhumanism, Quantum Computing, Fusion Energy and Artificial General Intelligence are just a few!
I love the intersection of technology and human psychology. I study why we make the decisions we do — and reverse engineer what made AI make the choices it did, and why.
We used that to build technology for content creators that can give Google exactly what it wants.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I just recently changed my schedule. My whole day used to be meetings. When I was in meetings all day, I didn’t have as much time to devote to creating and innovating. I now have shifted my meetings to be held in the morning. This allows me to devote my afternoon time to get ‘in the zone’, be creative, to focus on new ideas, and to strategize how to execute them.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would advise myself to choose company values early on and use them as a guiding force for building the team. I would also say to implement the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) and weekly company-wide meetings early on.
It is critical to have strong company values. Our clear company values and mission are critical to our success. They are the glue that binds our remote team together. They keep everyone rowing in the same direction and guide our daily work. They are instrumental in our hiring decisions. They are also critical in assessing if someone is the right fit for their role.
Another crucial element is EOS. To facilitate communication and productivity, EOS has been a key tool that provides a clear structure for communication. It also allows us to address issues effectively and to resolve them before they escalate and become blockers towards workplace success. No matter their location, this helps our team members to clearly understand what we are trying to achieve, how we operate, and where we are all going together.
Weekly company-wide meetings are also a must-have, especially in a distributed environment. One key way that we keep our team engaged in our company culture is through a weekly company-wide meeting held every Friday, the Week That Was (WTW). This is a 30-minute all-hands video meeting where we reiterate our company values centering on innovation and elevating those around us. Each lead shares slides highlighting their team’s biggest accomplishments and how team members exemplified our values. We also use this space to communicate important updates and any policy changes. This meeting provides a common touchpoint to celebrate all of the departments’ achievements, week over week.
These approaches provide a common framework for achieving our goals and common touchpoints to communicate both our issues and our successes.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Fries are supposed to be consumed with mayonnaise, not ketchup. Fries were invented in Belgium, and as a native, I can assure you that despite your horror — that’s a true statement.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Whatever your powerful secret sauce is — focus on that. There might be other products and solutions out there, but what makes yours better? Why should anyone use it over that of your competitors?
What sets us apart is we created our own AI to meet the specific needs of content creators. We architected an AI SaaS platform able to handle hundreds of thousands of users while keeping server costs low — a difficult feat to achieve.
Our product is different from anything else on the market. INK understands intent-matching like no other software does: Advanced modeling and extensive training created the AI that powers INK. INK understands the meaning behind the words and creates unique conceptual maps for each article.
Other tools offer rules-based solutions that apply the same recommendations to radically different pieces of content without considering the competition. INK raises the content marketing bar by finally providing metrics with an SEO score to help tie content marketing’s success to ROI.
It is a game changer in other ways. It is a timesaver. It dramatically cuts down on time spent switching between apps by combining spelling, grammar, and readability tools all in one app.
INK is also inclusive. We are proud of the Advanced Accessibility features we have that can benefit all users. Specially-designed Focus, Offline, Colorblind, and Dyslexia Modes were thoughtfully crafted to create an inclusive experience and address the lack of tools that help increase any user’s productivity and focus.
As a completely bootstrapped startup, we took a huge risk with our go-to-market strategy of making INK free and then building paid functionality. Our innovative approach and risks have paid off.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
As a fast-growing start-up, there were a few challenges. The way we solved these challenges was to contemplate the ideal, listen to our users, and iterate until we achieved that ideal. The first one was to understand how the heck Google ranks content. We had to relentlessly experiment and isolate all the variables, and we needed to run dozens and dozens of content experiments to conceptually even begin to have an idea of the things that matter. Then we had to turn that insight and those lessons-learned into a proven process that we could apply while also measuring what worked best. We then had to be able to pivot and adjust.
Then, the next challenge was turning that proven process into a technology. And, when designing such technology, you are dealing with true semantic artificial intelligence and the meaning of words and text. You have to design this at search engine scale. In other words, a search engine cannot afford to spend 5 minutes analyzing your site to make up its mind about what you mean. This has to all be done in nanoseconds or milliseconds. It has to be near-instant. Imagine trillions of websites being scanned by Google, and Google needs to come up with a definite opinion on all of them. So, we couldn’t come to the table with an AI solution that takes 5 minutes or more to process one page. That just wouldn’t work. We had to come to the table with a design that could be very fast and very effective but very clever. That’s definitely a big challenge. Related to this is the fact that “off-the-shelf” AIs just didn’t make the cut. You can’t build a product like INK using off-the-shelf AI products. We had to design this from the ground up.
Very early on we had a discussion asking ourselves if we would create an enterprise version and charge for it or would we make this free? And very early on, we decided that we wanted to make the core of INK free for everyone, with later the addition of pro and business features. To think of a way to approach that goal in a way that is not going to bankrupt you and how to make it so efficient that it would be possible to offer a version for free AND scale, that was probably the biggest challenge.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
We built 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) 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 “egdy.com” instead, and edgy.com 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 edgylabs.com 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 is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A real-time lunchclub for LinkedIn via a Chromium Plugin that matches you with other professionals who are available to network at the same time. Choose from 4 topics and/or the type of people you’d like to meet, or let the algorithm surprise you. These connections could allow you to speed network, meeting a new person every 12 minutes, while never having to leave LinkedIn.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
We finally got a SparkToro account, which was very useful for audience analysis. I think it would have cost me $5,000 in professional fees to get the same insights without it.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
We use shared communication tools. To ensure we have streamlined, secure, and unified communication, we use Google Workplace tools. We use Google Meet video capabilities during meetings, and Google Chat for constant coordination amongst team members.
We also have a company-wide chat room where colleagues from all of the different teams can talk about work and fun. Team members often share everything from success stories and useful news articles to recipes and vacation photos.
We use Loom to asynchronously give feedback to the team and communicate important information in the organization quickly and in the most engaging way. Instead of spending time on a detailed email with screenshots, we make a quick video walkthrough. These videos also add to our knowledge base by creating a resource that others can refer to at a later time.
To research and discover new SEO opportunities, we use Ahrefs. Ahrefs allows us to monitor our traffic gains and understand what impact our efforts are having. It also helps us monitor any technical SEO issues and address them quickly and comprehensively.
For our blog, we built a theme on WordPress, and for content optimization, we use our INK editor. All of these tools are what have and are continuing to work for us.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini is mandatory reading for growth marketers. I’m into psychology and AI. I also recommend the podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz on NPR. In it, the host asks entrepreneurs and innovators about the background story on how they built their business, brand, or movement, whatever it may be. Fascinating stories. I’m also rooting for a new podcaster, Anna Furmanov. She was gracious enough to invite me on her podcast.
What is your favorite quote?
“Do or do not, there is no try.” — Yoda
- Clearly defined purpose: Know what problem you are solving and who you are solving it for.
- Strong company values: Choose these early on and use as your guiding force.
- Powerful “Secret Sauce”: Focus on what makes you unique.
- Trust your team: Put together a team that shares your vision and you can confidently delegate to.
- Identify what you do best: Refine it, iterate, and scale up.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.