Luck is not a toss of the coin. It's understanding the probability | ELVTR

Eugene Levin: “Luck is not a toss of the coin. It's understanding the probability.”

Semrush’s Chief Strategy Officer unwinds his idea of luck, privacy regulations, and the future of online marketing.
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During the last 10 years, Eugene Levin has made a couple of serious career shifts. Having a technical education as an IT specialist, Eugene started as a Senior Systems Analyst. 

He then joined one of Russia’s top-10 VC firms and was even eager to invest in Semrush at the time. The guys from Semrush refused just to offer Eugene to become their CSO in 2016.

Since that time, Eugene helped Semrush to quadruple revenue and raised over $40m from Tier 1 investors. Right now, he’s driving innovation and development, helping Semrush grow during the most uncertain times. 

We had the pleasure to ask Eugene a couple of questions, discovering the thought process that leads to his genius.

“...Chief Strategists are the CEO’s right hand. We focus on moving things forward.”

You have quite an exotic title. What is that that you actually do?

I think Chief Strategy Officer used to be a very rare title, but it's becoming more and more popular. I’d like to think that I started the title’s upward trend in popularity.  

Traditionally, CEOs have focused on Operations and getting things done, Chief Strategists are the CEO’s right hand. We focus on moving things forward. We are constantly anticipating Marketing dynamics, looking two or three years into the future. 

This role includes maintaining a good relationship with the Product team. Additionally,  corporate development falls under the title of Chief Strategy Officer, if a company doesn't want to build something in-house, the job of the Chief Strategy Officer is to buy it from someone.

What is it like to work at Semrush?

When I joined Semrush we had just two layers: C-level and everyone else. Now, in certain parts of the organization, we have adapted a classic corporate structure, specifically in sales, where hierarchy is needed for the company to function. But, many parts are still extremely flat, especially the Marketing and Product departments.  

To be successful in Semrush employees need to be able to deliver high-quality results, autonomously.  Yet, we do expect that peers provide feedback, cultural feedback, which means constructive criticisms. 

All-in-all, we want our employees to always challenge themselves, always look at their work and think, yeah, maybe I can do this better, never allow themselves to be satisfied with mediocre results.

What are the strategies that are unique to Semrush?

All of our secret weapons are built in-house. Our project management software, for example, is custom-built. The framework that we use is new, it is called Rhythm. It was pioneered by Spotify. 

Also, we have many business Analytics and Marketing tools that we build in-house. We build our own attribution model to understand the impact of marketing activities, for example. 

Can you name some Chief Strategy Officers that inspire you?

I don’t know the names of many strong Chief Strategists, they are usually in the shadow of even stronger,  more charismatic CEOs. 

But, if you look at companies that have great strategies, HubSpot comes to mind. I have had the privilege of knowing their Chief Strategy Officer, I think he is extremely impressive. 

There are many companies in the SaaS sector that have very strong strategies, companies like Shopify and Zendesk. Yet, I think in terms of corporate development, what the guys at Salesforce are doing is just iconic, I think that’s one of the strongest SaaS providers.

“...the most important part is that people understood we are with them, that we wanted to support them. It was the main thing during this pandemic, for Semrush.”  

When people ask about your success, you often say it’s mostly luck. However, it really looks like your brain first does all the math before taking a step, and you call it luck. 
Do you think there is something about you that makes you so “lucky”?

The way I think about luck is not a toss of the coin, it's understanding the probability, making decisions that would have a higher likelihood of success with lower risks.  

Ultimately, you can work really hard and have decent results, or you can have some luck on your side, work really hard, and have an extraordinary outcome. There is only so far that hard work alone will get you. Unfortunately, sometimes you need to be in the right place, at the right time, somewhat ahead of the competition. 

What are the core lessons you’ve learned as a strategist in 2020?

A Black Swan event like 2020 would’ve been very hard to predict and the outcome was somewhat surprising. We weren’t impacted by the pandemic, not in the way we thought we would be.

Initially, we expected that because we focus on small businesses, the impact of the pandemic would be detrimental to Semrush. But, small businesses were forced to gain online visibility, quickly. 

Due to this, we experienced an increase in demand for our educational content. We reallocated resources here and there, began creating more educational materials, instead of content for more mature Marketers, and weathered the storm quite well. 

In 2020, we initiated support programs for loyal customers. We offered discounts and made many of our features free for small businesses. 

The way we reacted to the pandemic helped us build a good brand that people felt connected to. But, the most important part is that people understood we are with them, that we wanted to support them. That was the main thing during this pandemic, for Semrush.

“With each generation comes new patterns of consumption. These new patterns allow for novel products to take hold of the market.”

Do you think that concerns over internet privacy will impact online marketing?

The impact of online privacy on Marketing is exaggerated. If you look at Google and Facebook,  collecting less user data is not going to harm them. They are target number one and two for all Regulators, and the regulations are already in place. 

Overall, with so many regulations in place, the quality of advertising has not decreased, not to the extent where it's impossible to continue using Facebook and Google to generate interest in a product or revenue. 

The parties who are most impacted are advertisers — companies that don't have ownership over data. For them, it's probably going to be a challenge. But for Facebook and Google — they will suffer somewhat on efficiency, but nowhere else.

Take Semrush for example, our features focus on Content Marketing, SEO, Search Ads, Digital PR. In other words, types of marketing that don't require Cookies or anything similar. 

Our beliefs are:

  • don't be intrusive,
  • create great content,
  • think about the distribution of content, but don't think about distribution in terms of I want to show this content to John Smith.
  • instead, think about I want this content to be retweeted 2000 times. I want this content to be published on some blog, or I want it to have a link from Forbes.

We don't need to consider John Smith, or anyone else, on a personal level. I think there are tons of things you can do in Marketing successfully — and never really know the names of people who interact with your content, unless they want to share their name with you.

What is the future of the online experience?

We must consider generational shifts. 
For example, TikTok is popular not because it has features that other software doesn’t, or cannot, have. It’s not popular because it has a genius distribution model that nobody else can replicate, Facebook can replicate anything, but TikTok has a unique appeal among the younger generation.

In fact, there probably won’t be a major shift in content consumption within the next five years, but, in the next 7-10 years — there will be something new, a form of consumption that is more appealing to future generations.

With each generation comes new patterns of consumption. These new patterns allow for novel products to take hold of the market. We must also consider the different reasons why people consume content. Some search the Internet for a solution to a problem, others scroll Facebook feeds because they're bored.  

From this point of view, the search is not going anywhere. But this question remains, what percentage of time will be dedicated to searching versus discovery?

And within discovery, do we expect to see any reallocation? I think search is probably going to be as big, or even bigger than it is now, primarily because of an increasing number of positive use cases. 

Like previously, you wouldn't search Google for a restaurant, now you would, you wouldn't book airline tickets on Google, now you do that. So technically, Google will steal a lot of eyeballs from places like Yelp, and so on. 

Most fascinatingly, the way that we search the Internet is going to be more diverse.  Apple could play a bigger role in this. Right now, I think they're struggling with the algorithm. It's not very good beyond very few use cases. 

What is your relationship with Google?

It's mutually beneficial. Our products are generally designed to help people implement Google guidelines, projects like Site Audit inspect a website’s optimization, which makes it more compatible with Google. 

For example, when people see guidelines from Google, they instinctively think that Google is always pursuing their own agenda. But Semrush can be unbiased and say “no, you actually have to do this, it's better for your website, it's better for your company and  better for Google bots, they will have an easier time crawling your website.” 

Also, Google cannot show Booking.com what Expedia is doing, but we can do that in our competitive intelligence products. We provide the transparency that ultimately leads to higher advertising budgets. And higher ad spend is good for Google.

“...a Strategist must investigate how the world is evolving from various vantage points, because change happens rapidly.”

Are there any must-read books for the aspiring Chief Strategic Officer?

Ultimately, a Strategist must investigate how the world is evolving from various vantage points, because change happens rapidly. These changes impact your business, even if you don't think they will. Blockbuster is a good example of this, they could have bought Netflix. They could have built Netflix.

These days, I'm reading books on Artificial Intelligence, although it’s only somewhat connected to what I do, it’s still connected, maybe the technologies that I'm researching now will have practical applications in five years.  

Also, looking into how the economy and society works is important, almost all successful companies will be impacted by macroeconomic trends at some point. If you had a really small company, maybe you weren’t impacted that much by Covid-19, but companies like Wix really felt it. They kinda felt it in a good way, though. 

Do you find the time to take courses? 

I’m not taking many courses these days, but meditation is one of the skills I wish I would’ve picked up earlier in life. I think that would’ve saved me a lot of liver cells.

There are different ways people deal with stress. People who know meditation — meditate, people who don’t know meditation — do other things that could impact liver cells. 

In regards to meditation,  I’ve been learning how to live in peace with my body, with my family, this is very helpful, and, ultimately, it assists in business as well. 

Having a lot of stress at home doesn’t help with your sales calls, and so on. Yet, if there were some courses about how to be a great parent, I would take those. I wasted a lot of time being a not very good parent.

How do you recharge?

I play video games, even though I don’t have a lot of time to do so. 

I think the reason that people like to play video games as a form of relaxation is that the game transports you somewhere else. If your imagination works in certain ways, you really feel like you’re in the game. A shift in context helps the mind achieve relaxation

Once in a while, I take a vacation, yet again, I think the main purpose is just to change the context. 

Is there any historical figure that you think is significant?

I would like to meet the Pontius Pilate.  

He would be quite an interesting person to speak with and ask if this stuff really happened. I just want to know how everything played out during that period of time, in that part of the world. 

Religion is not as interesting as science, but it's not like any historical figure witnessed Big Bang.