The first time Polish public relations management SaaS Prowly tried to expand to the U.S. market, they did not hit their targets.

“After four disappointing months, we strategically retreated,” said co-founder Joanna Drabent, explaining how they pulled back their stateside sales operations team.

But they didn’t stop there. “We dreamed about a presence in the United States and knew that we had to be there if we wanted to make a difference in our market segment,” Drabent wrote in a blog post about the acquisition.

Instead of shifting goals, they changed their strategy, focusing on content marketing and SEO for growth. And they launched a new product that appealed to their international target market.

“We were struggling with international growth until we built a feature called Media Database,” which showcases over a million media contacts, Drabent said. “That was a missing piece of the puzzle for PR professionals in other countries.”

In 2020, seven years after launching Prowly, Drabent and her co-founder, Sebastian Przyborowski, attracted a U.S. buyer, Semrush, a marketing SaaS best known for its SEO tools.

Building a PR product with global demand

Drabent was running a PR business in Poland called the Kolko Agency when she got the idea for Prowly. “I was looking for ways to automate our daily workflow,” she told They Got Acquired.

Pryzborowski met Drabent around 2008 when they worked together at another company. He brought a wealth of product and UX design knowledge to the table.

One of Kolko’s clients, IQ Partners, invested $50,000 for the pair to build their MVP, and Prowly was off to the races.

Prowly offers a wide variety of tools to make PR professionals’ lives easier, like a media database, pitching tool, mention monitoring application, and more. They bill themselves as a one-stop shop with a user-friendly interface.

The product gained traction among Polish clients, providing further proof of concept. So after building their MVP and bootstrapping for a few years, the pair raised $1 million in Polish venture capital and set their sights on a U.S. market presence.

The process of building substantial and reliable global sales took about three years of experimentation, but Drabent said the results were well worth it.

Catching the attention of Semrush

Drabent and Przyborowski had been aware of Semrush for years as a longtime leader in the search engine marketing space, and Prowly itself was a Semrush client, Drabent said in her blog post.

About a year before the acquisition, Prowly’s leaders got the opportunity to meet and talk to Semrush’s business development team. Slowly, the wheels started turning.

“We didn’t know they were researching our segment for the purpose of acquisition back then,” Drabent told us. Also, she and Przyborowski weren’t actively looking for an exit. “But over time,” she said, “our conversations opened our eyes for such an opportunity to grow under [the Semrush] umbrella.”

By the time the sale was finalized in September 2020, Prowly was at a cash-flow break-even point with $1 million annual recurring revenue (ARR). “ARR growth was in the triple digits, with the majority of new revenue coming from the U.S. and western Europe,” Drabent told us.

Prowly had also helped its customers publish more than 75,000 news stories about their own brands with its product called Online Newsroom. The company’s team had grown to 20 employees.

Adding Semrush’s tracking and analytics capabilities made sense for improving the product. “Cooperation with SEMrush is the missing piece of the puzzle for us,” Drabent wrote. “We will have access to ready-made technologies that we can use to enrich Prowly with functions focused on measuring the effectiveness of PR activities.”

In a 2020 PR Newswire press release, Semrush’s Eugene Levin said: “We had Prowly on our radar for several years, and once we saw that they could generate international traction, we decided to make an offer. The Prowly team has demonstrated strong execution thus far and we are excited to help them continue scaling globally.”

Both Drabent and Przyborowski stayed on as Prowly’s CEO and CPO, respectively. Semrush later went public, in March 2021.

Semrush made several other acquisitions in subsequent years, including Backlinko, an SEO education website and newsletter in 2022; Kompyte, a competitive intelligence automation and sales enablement platform in 2022; and Traffic Think Tank, a online SEO community, in early 2023.