Today we’re talking to Rand Fishkin, founder and Wizard of Moz. Confident, successful, and the person you want to be like some day … right?
Well, yes. But what you’ll hear is not some tale of a superman that you couldn’t possibly emulate.
Instead, you’ll hear about hard work, lucky breaks, even occasional cluelessness … and how that all somehow translated into a $40-million-a-year company. As always, don’t look at today and get discouraged … look at the journey and be inspired.
You’ll get a lot out of this episode, just as I did. And you’ll also understand why Rand was my immediate first choice to do the opening keynote at our upcoming Digital Commerce Summit, taking place October 13-14, 2016 in Denver Colorado.
Join us there for more from Rand, and the rest of our hand-picked speakers who will give you actionable advice from the trenches of digital product creation and marketing.
For now, tune in to get ideas on how to transition from clients to products, how to define and stick to your core values, and why transparency can be your best friend.
The Show Notes
What Real Entrepreneurism Looks Like, with Rand Fishkin of Moz
Rand Fishkin: Hi, my name is Rand Fishkin. I help people do better marketing. As the founder of Moz (Moz being the only company at which I’ve ever worked in my professional career as an adult), I am definitely unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one — and that’s putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our Free Profit Pillars Course, or choose to sign up for the newsletter only at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com, and take your business and lifestyle to the next level. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Hi, Everyone, and welcome to Unemployable. I’m your host Brian Clark and today I’m talking to Rand Fishkin, founder and wizard of Moz. Confident, successful, and the person you want to be like someday, right?
What you’ll hear is not some tale of a superman that you couldn’t possibly emulate. Instead you’ll hear about hard work, lucky breaks, even occasional cluelessness and how that all somehow translated into a 40 million a year company.
As always, don’t look at today and get discouraged, look at the journey and be inspired. You’ll get a lot out of this episode just as I did and you’ll also understand why Rand was my immediate first choice to do the opening keynote at our upcoming Digital Commerce Summit, which is taking place October 13th and 14th, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.
Join us there for more from Rand and the best of our hand-picked speakers who will give you actionable advice from the trenches of digital product creation and marketing.
For now though, tune in to get ideas on how to transition from clients to products, how to define and stick to your core values, and why transparency can be your best friend.
Before we start talking to Rand, if you do want to check out Digital Commerce Summit, please head over to digitalcommerce.com, scroll down to the summit option. Or if you want to head directly there, it’s digitalcommerce.com/summit. All right, let’s get talking with Rand Fishkin.
Rand, how are you? Thank you so much for taking time to join us today.
Rand Fishkin: I’m good, man. Great to talk to you, Brian. Thanks for having me.
Brian Clark: Yeah, we were kind of reflecting before the show that for the last decade, we’ve been running in the same circles. We often present at the same conferences. You’ll show up to maybe do the opening keynote, I’ll show up a little bit later. We’ve never met in person.
So my strategy here was, “I think if I invite him to open our conference and I introduce him, he pretty much can’t get away.”
Rand Fishkin: Oh no, there’s no chance. We are meeting for sure this time.
Brian Clark: That’s a solid strategy. Stay healthy until October, of course.
Rand Fishkin: Will do.
Brian Clark: Me too. I’m actually the older one.
What Is Your Background?
Brian Clark: All right, we’re going to talk a little bit about a portion of the history of Moz, which of course is a fantastic success story. Not an overnight success, a long term evolution, which it is just about for everyone.
I want to talk in particular about when you guys made the transition from consulting and taking clients and doing services to becoming a software company that you are today.
Before we get there though, I want to hear a little bit about the University of Washington. Some of the most famous entrepreneurs in the world are college dropouts and that would include you. Tell us a little bit about that.
Rand Fishkin: I grew up in the Seattle area, basically spent my whole life here. I moved to Seattle proper when I was 18 from the suburbs outside — actually not even suburbs, like a rural, have to drive 20 minutes to get to the grocery store kind of place. And I went to school for three years. I was one of those very, very lucky, privileged kids whose parents paid for my college tuition.
Then in my fourth year, my senior year, my dad and I got in a fight. I don’t even remember what it was about. I do remember him saying, “I’m not paying your college tuition anymore.” I was working at the time at just a retail job on University Way, which is right next to the school. It was actually at the Wizards of the Coast Game Center.
For those who don’t know, Wizards of the Coast is this gaming company. They make all sorts of cards and board games and stuff. One of the things that they made were Pokémon cards and Pokémon cards were particularly valuable at that time on secondary markets. So I would use my employee discount to buy a bunch of cards, sell them on eBay and on Craigslist and made enough. That and my salary, my $4.65 an hour paychecks, were enough to pay for college. This was before college tuition went skyrocketing.
But two quarters later, I think it was the winter quarter of 2001, I kind of got fed up. I was only two classes but two quarters, because those classes weren’t offered the same quarter, away from graduating. And I just got frustrated and I dropped out. I did not complete my degree. I didn’t pay for those last classes, got pretty bad grades in my last couple of quarters as well. Instead I went to work with my mom doing web design and development for her clients who are primarily small businesses in the Seattle area.
Then that transitioned into SEO consulting as our clients started needing SEO. That and the SEO Moz Blog, which was a side project of mine that eventually became the primary channel through how we got clients, and the primary company were instrumental in getting us into the SEO consulting field, which we were in actually until 2009. We made the shift mostly to software in 2007, but we didn’t truly get out of the consulting business entirely until the end of ’09.
How Was the Early World of SEO?
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t think I… well, maybe I did realize that there was a two year overlap there between, because it was 2007 when you first launched software.
You effectively learned SEO on the job, because you got fed up with college and went to work. How was that? I mean, I remember those days and it was a very different world of SEO when I first learned it. I was like, “Wow, this is great.” Those things don’t work anymore. But how was that for you? Was it fascinating or more just kind of, “This is what I do”?
Rand Fishkin: No, no, every aspect of it was fascinating for me. I loved it to pieces. Let’s see, I both loved and had a love-hate relationship with it.
I loved the intricacies of understanding how search engines work. I loved the process of doing work that then was very visible. You could see your rankings go up, you could see yourself beating your competition. You could see the visits coming in through analytics. And back then, you could see all the keywords that drove those visits and all this kind of thing. It was really awesome.
I had a love-hate relationship with the field, because at the time that I got into it there were very few folks who were transparent about what they did and how they did it. SEO was much more of a club of secrets and there was a lot more black hat and gray hat techniques. But even the folks who weren’t using those sort of manipulative search engine guideline violating techniques were keeping it very close to the chest in terms of not sharing the information.
The search engines were actually the worst of all. So, Google, and in the early, early days when I got into it – Yahoo and Microsoft, who still had pretty substantial market share, was almost a third for a while there in the early 2000s. They were all super tight-lipped about how anything worked.
Today, you might say, “Oh Google is still very, very cagey about they work today.” But today, oh my God, compared to those days, it’s a pane of glass versus two tons of steel — very different kind of environment. But that environment of opacity of secrets really pissed me off, and actually drove me in a lot of ways to create the blog and to write every night and to try and understand this field.
I had this frustration and I wanted to make it transparent. I wanted everyone to be able to freely access information about how search engines worked, how SEO worked.
Brian Clark: Yeah, transparency is something I want to come back to, because it’s synonymous with Rand Fishkin in a fantastic way.
It’s interesting, because you’re an audience-first company like we are. You started with a blog, you built a following and then everything came from that. And now, you and I, our companies are featured in books as, “This is the way to start up a company.” It’s bizarre, because we were just really making it up as we went along.
The interesting thing there was you were blogging, revealing everything that you learned, and that was a fantastic way to attract clients, because they still needed you to do the work.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, I think that’s one of the interesting things that I feel like the SEO industry and maybe a lot of web marketing industries have learned over time is that there are no trade secrets. Our knowledge is not something that we keep to ourselves and don’t share with anyone.
I think today there are so many resources, so many people who followed in the footsteps of Moz and Copyblogger and Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Land, and all that kind of stuff, and made this information transparent and accessible. Now I think people don’t really think of it as a secrecy type of industry or secrecy-first industry. And that’s a great thing.
Brian Clark: Yeah, there’s almost a rush to reveal the latest in information, which is a complete 180 from where you started. I think you have to take a little bit of credit for that, especially in the SEO world, because I remember how it was. It was just the most closely guarded stuff and you just had to kind of observe and try to figure out, “Okay, what are they doing there?” And you never really had a full answer.
Rand Fishkin: Well, I think the other person responsible for that was Danny Sullivan.
Brian Clark: Yeah, Danny’s great.
Rand Fishkin: He’s a journalist by trade, by profession and background and got into this industry, built up the Search Engine Strategies Conference and Search Engine Watch and then sold those. Now he founded Search Engine Land, I think that was maybe ’07 or ’08, and has had a very successful run with both of those.
Obviously, he built up this culture of, “Hey, let’s get the search engines to actually come to events and talk about how they work. And let’s write content that helps people understand this.” He’s been instrumental in building up that culture as well.
Brian Clark: Yeah, Danny is a true journalist. It’s interesting, because we talk about content marketing and think about content in terms of strategy for our ultimate business objectives. But Danny’s just old school. He’s got great integrity. I admire him quite a bit.
Rand Fishkin: Same here.
How Did You Transition from Clients to Products?
Brian Clark: Of course, clients are going to come to you at that point. Talk a little bit about growing from web design to more of a full-service SEO and marketing consulting shop.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, it wasn’t strategic in any way. It was just we were in debt and then deeper in debt, and then very, very deep in debt. We were just searching for anything that could make us any money. So when some of our clients started needing SEO, at first we were outsourcing it, then we couldn’t even afford to pay our subcontractors. So we had to do it ourselves.
I’ll tell you those years 2002 to 2005, 2006, we really were just an amateur, didn’t know what the hell we were doing, mess.
Brian Clark: You knew what you were doing as far as SEO, but managing the firm. I had that problem with my previous businesses. I was a disaster at managing.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, let’s see. I think we were mediocre at SEO in 2004. We were maybe decent at it in 2005 and we were getting good in 2006, I think, compared to some of the professionals out there today. Even Moz at its height of consulting I don’t think would compare to the quality of service that you might get from a company like Distilled or Seer Interactive or Define or some of the big names in the niche of SEO who are specialists.
We only had a few years of experience, we were a very small team. We didn’t have processes nailed down. I think for us in a lot of ways the transition to software was made easier by the fact that we were never that great at consulting.
Who Was Your Inspiration?
Brian Clark: That is so interesting. We both know Greg Boser, and he always talks about transitioning away from clients. But then he’s so damn talented that he’ll land Disney or something and then he can’t say no.
So it’s almost a blessing if you’re running away from something. For example, before I started Copyblogger, I hated the business I had and I just kind of walked away from it. Sometimes it’s almost better that way. That’s interesting.
Let me ask you this about software, because I remember back in 2005, I was big fans of the guys over at 37signals and was just so impressed that they were able to evolve from a design shop to an SaaS company. I always tell people the thought that ran through my head, “It’s too bad I could never do that.” Then, of course, that’s what we do, but through a very, very convoluted path.
Did you look to those guys at all for inspiration when you wanted to move to software?
Rand Fishkin: I wish I had. I think that would have been really smart. I actually discovered a lot of their content and posts after we made the transition, so maybe around end of 2007, 2008, 2009.
It was one of those things where we were really not savvy about what we were doing. This is how unsavvy the move was. We had built some tools that we were using internally at Moz for our own consulting clients, and I would sometimes show them off to people when I’d speak at conferences or go to events, that kind of thing.
It frustrated me that I couldn’t show them off to more people, like I wanted more people to have access to them. I wanted to make them free on our website. But Matt, our web developer, the guy who built the tools, who actually you probably know by another name…
Brian Clark: The Oatmeal.
Rand Fishkin: He was our web developer. It was me and Matt and my mom for like five years there. Yeah, maybe four and a half, something like 2003 to about the end of 2007.
Matt basically said, “The tools can’t hold up. They’ll never be able to hold up to all the traffic that will come if we make them free. We’ve got to put some sort of paywall in front of them.” And I was like, “Okay, that seems fair.” And Matt said, “Well, we could do like a little PayPal subscription thing. You have to PayPal us like 30 bucks a month.” I was like, “Great, let’s do that.”
I don’t even know if we talked to my mom, who was the CEO, about it.
Brian Clark: That’s interesting.
Rand Fishkin: It was one of those like, “Let’s throw this thing up on the blog.” So we did. We threw it up on the blog. I think that was the beginning, like February of 2007. And it only had maybe like six or seven fairly rinky dink little tools that would help you with some little SEO process.
Brian Clark: Well, how did you get these developed? Did you code these yourself?
Rand Fishkin: It was just Matt. He built them all. He just built one little tool after another to help with SEO. He was a very talented self-taught developer.
Look, there was no documentation, there was no formal process. The software engineers who work at Moz today would have looked at what he built and been horrified. They would have thrown up their lunches. But it worked. It worked well enough and people paid for it. And that’s what started us down the software path.
I don’t think we even got very serious about it until the middle of the year, probably June. We looked at our revenue and we were like, “Oh my God, I think in a few months we’re going to be making as much from the subscription on our software as we do from our consulting clients. That’s crazy, because we just started this.”
That’s when we had some investors reach out at the same time who said, “Hey, we’re really interested in the SEO space. You guys look like leaders in that field (especially because our online presence with the blog was so big). And you have the software as a service model, which is really exciting.”
And you know what I did? I googled “venture capital.” I didn’t know what the hell it was. That is how unsavvy I still was at this point. I had no idea what venture capital was. I thought that was like people who stole your company from you.
Brian Clark: Sometimes it is.
Rand Fishkin: But I had just no sophistication here. I had to google “Software as a Service.” I didn’t know what SaaS was.
Brian Clark: You just knew you were making recurring revenue, which is really what everyone’s looking at behind SaaS.
Rand Fishkin: I didn’t even understand why recurring revenue was particularly valuable.
As an example, when Michelle Goldberg from Ignition Partners joined our board of directors in December of 2007, when we did raise our round with them, we raised $1.1 million, which today would be considered a seed round. But back then, we thought of it as our series A.
When she joined the board, there were all sorts of things. She was like, “Okay, this is how a board meeting works. This is the information that we need you to put together every three months for quarterly board review. This is how all these things work.” I think she really very much upgraded our thinking. “This is why recurring revenue matters. This is why churn rate matters.” It took us months to even start to calculate our churn rate. And even then, we were doing it incorrectly.
In fact, what’s crazy is it turns out we’ve been doing it incorrectly until like four months ago.
Brian Clark: It’s tough. I mean, we’ve gone through that pain as well and you’re just like, “Oh God, don’t make me look at another spreadsheet. I can’t, I’m a word guy.”
Rand Fishkin: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy how challenging and nuanced and intricate the metrics and stuff around this can be. And that’s how we fell into software.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I forgot that you raised that $1.1 million round for some reason, because I know you went out to raise money after that.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, and failed many times.
How Has the Business Grown?
Brian Clark: Yeah, and it was like a real fiasco until, of course, you found Brad Feld here in Boulder with Foundry Group. That was the big raise in 2012, and you guys have just skyrocketed since then.
Talk about this period in between the 1.1 and Foundry.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah. What’s interesting is you say we skyrocketed after the Foundry investment. But actually, in reality, our skyrocketing period was really from 2007 to 2013. Every year was between 100 and 300% growth.
Brian Clark: Amazing.
Rand Fishkin: It was just incredible. It has tapered off since then. I think primarily due to some really terribly poor arrogant decisions that I made as CEO in my last year and a half, two years at Moz after that Foundry raise. I think that that Foundry raise was awesome for a lot of reasons and it was bad for one reason, and that was it made me feel like we were smart and knew what we were doing, and made me cocky.
Brian Clark: That’s interesting.
Rand Fishkin: You don’t want that.
Let me tell you, any entrepreneur listening, you raise that big round or you get that big deal done and you start to think, “I’m the man or the woman and I know what I’m doing.” That is your downfall. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book, that’s when the character is about to go into a downward spiral. And the same was true for me.
But yes, so that rocket period, a few things happened. First, we got a little more sophisticated, thanks to Michelle’s help. And actually I should credit someone else. We raised $1 million from Ignition Partners. We also raised $100,000 from a small private investment company called Curious Office here in Seattle. Kelly Smith joined our board from Curious Office. And he was also tremendously helpful with me after hours, and we’d go out to dinner and stuff.
He’s an entrepreneur who sold a couple of companies, and I think now he runs marketing for Starbucks in China, which is a pretty awesome gig. But he and Michelle both helped upgrade our thinking in a lot of different ways. We got much more sophisticated about things.
One of my favorite things, in 2009, you mentioned this, Brian, that we ran out and tried to raise money and failed. But it turns out we didn’t actually need to because of this sort of hack that we did at the middle of 2009, where we had built up an email list from our blog for years and years, but we’d never actually emailed any of those folks.
So we took that email list and we said, “Hey, we need to send them an offer and give them an unsubscribe so we can figure out who’s actually opted in to this and that kind of thing.” I think we did have a double opt-in, but we had never emailed.
So, we designed basically a campaign with the help of Conversion Rate Experts, Karl Blanks and Ben Jesson out in the UK. We designed this campaign with a new landing page that they’d run a bunch of tests on, and we sent an email offer.
The offer was “Try Moz Pro for only a dollar.” Basically, your first month cost a dollar and then it was $99 a month thereafter. And that took us from a $1.1 million run rate to a $3.1 million run rate almost overnight.
Brian Clark: Got to love email, man.
Rand Fishkin: Yes, tell me about. It was crazy. I mean, that was pretty insane.
So, we failed in fundraising over that summer, but at the end of the year, we had a great business. Then the next year was 5.7, and the year after that was 11.4, and year after that was 21.9. And then the year after that, I think it slowed down. It was 29 and then 33, and then last year was 39. So, growing more in the sub 50% range, 20 – 30% since then.
Brian Clark: Still respectable.
The Role Arrogance Plays
Brian Clark: Let’s shift gears here a little bit. It’s interesting to me that you say that you got arrogant, because just listening to you, you have so much humility and you’ve always come across this way. I can’t see Rand sitting with the big cigar behind the desk going, “I’m the king of the world.”
Give us a little insight there, because I do want to talk more about your level of transparency, which I’ve seen people emulate lately over and over again. As I’ve told you, you’re the guy I think of who started that trend. And it really started with the blog and then you got transparent about financials and lots of other stuff.
Anyway, tell me a little bit about how Rand Fishkin could have let that go to his head. I can see how it can happen. That’s the most important self-check I put on myself, which is, “Are you full of it?” Because it’s possible, you just want to dial it back.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, so for me, the big arrogance was I had an assumption — an assumption that as the world of web marketing advanced and SEO advanced, SEOs and web marketers of all kinds would stop doing only their one job.
You wouldn’t just be doing SEO or just be doing social media or just be doing content or just be doing PR and brand. You would have to kind of combine all of these things. I think that ended up being true from a departmental level, but it never ended up being true from a professional level.
We spent multiple years building software without the input of any customers, without doing any reviews or testing or showing it to people, with no lean process whatsoever. I sat down in a room with my chief product officer and designed a crazy multi-hundred screen product, and then said, “Now go build it.” An engineer spent two plus years working on it. And, of course, when it eventually launched, it had half the features that we wanted and didn’t work very well.
People were still very much in their silos. If you did SEO, you were focusing on SEO. If you did social, you were focusing on social. If you were worried about brand and PR, you kept worrying about brand and PR. If you were doing content, you mostly worried about content.
These people all had overlapping knowledge but not overlapping work. It was never the case that the content marketing person was doing a technical site audit and checking for the hreflang on all the international pages. That just never ended up being true.
So it was really that arrogance, that conceit that I knew better than everyone else, that I didn’t need to listen to my customers anymore. We didn’t need to do product research and market research. We could sit in our cave for years, not upgrading our old platform, building this new thing, launch it, and everyone would want it.
You know what sucked too? Tons of people signed up. I can’t even tell you. I think it was our highest traffic day ever by a mile when we launched this new product. It’s called Moz Analytics. Now Moz Analytics is still there, but it’s much more SEO focused. We kind of dialed back all the other stuff and went back to that path and it’s much more successful now.
But at the time of launch, 100,000 people clicked on the email link and came to sign up for the product. I’ve never had a product launch, anything on that scale. That was more than five times the number of total customers that we had. We were excited about this.
We’d done our marketing work and that was all organic, not paid. But then we let those people down. And it was heartbreaking, man.
Brian Clark: It’s such an important lesson and I think everyone has to learn it. Hearing it from you, I think is going to help a lot of people. Before Eric’s book came out, The Lean Startup… I thank my stars every day that my COO back then, just my initial partner, Tony Clark, was a developer and he was all into Agile and Lean and Scrum. And I’m like, “I don’t know what any of that means, but okay.”
So we’ve always built products that way. It’s funny because we started that conversation because he said I was an Agile content developer. And I’m like, “I’m just paying attention to what people do and make more of the good stuff.” He’s like, “Yeah, that’s what it means.”
But I get it, because you do get to a point where you feel like, “I can see the future and I’m the person to deliver it.” And sometimes that can be right, but often I think it leads us down the wrong path. Listening to customers is a pretty solid strategy.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, and just building a little bit of the thing that is in the direction of your vision and then validating that that’s something people actually want. That’s the whole idea of the lean methodology, and it’s just smart.
We didn’t have infinite amounts of cash sitting in the bank and infinite amounts of time. And I think as a result of this, it’s not just the case that the product failed or had that very bad sort of three to six-month period that we eventually dug out of. And then finally, I’ve kind of built a respectable product over the last couple of years with that.
But it’s also the case that during those two and a half years when we were developing this thing, a bunch of competitors popped up and started taking market share away from us, started serving our customers better than we could.
One of the things that just, it’s like that lump in my throat that goes down to my chest and makes my breathing hard, it’s just so emotional for me, because I’m so personally invested and tied to this company as my identity, as who I am. And my success is entirely based in my own mind (I know this is not healthy, but it’s how it is) on Moz’s success.
So, to go to conferences and events and see people who I know wish that they could recommend Moz, wish that we were the leader in the field, wish that they could say, “Oh yeah, Rand and his team have done this amazing thing,” but instead, they were recommending our competition when they’re presenting from their slides up on stage, and when they’re talking to the audience, when they’re talking to their clients and customers. That was just a heartbreaker.
Brian Clark: It’s your baby without a doubt. You try to maintain perspective. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same way when I’m in that situation.
It’s a good thing though. I mean, it is, because the analytical spreadsheet types who are, “It’s just business,” I don’t even know how they operate. If I’m not stoked to be doing what I’m doing that day, I should be doing something else.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that one thing I’ve definitely found to be the case is I think that there’s a lot of truth to this idea that as human beings, we want to support people and we want to support stories, and we are drawn to those things.
So, when you talk about that, “Oh, an investor saw that there was an opportunity in the SEO market and so recruited a CEO and a team of engineers and they built a product. And none of them are particularly interested or passionate in the SEO field, but they thought it was a good financial opportunity and they executed well. And so they built a product that is useful.”
People will use that product, but we want a story. I want to get behind Copyblogger, because I’ve read you guys for years. I know your struggles, I know you. Even though, as you said, we’ve never actually met, I feel like I know you. I have this human being inside my head that says, “Brian Clark, I trust that guy. I know him, I like him. I know a bunch of people who know him and like him. I want to be behind him. I want him to win. I want his company to be the one that succeeds.” And I feel that way about tons of companies.
I made a switch about a year ago from Uber to Lyft after Uber had all this crap coming out about how sexist their executive team and board and particular CEO were and how they treated some women employees and some of their writers. I think they’ve actually fixed up a lot of those things, and they’ve certainly done a good job of keeping their CEO’s behavior in better check. But I was like, “I don’t need that crap, I’m going to Lyft. The story there is way better. I like the story of Lyft. I think it’s really compelling.”
Brian Clark: A lot of times that’s how people make decisions — why it’s so important. Although sometimes human beings get stuck and they don’t want to switch, even though they know they should, which is what we all fight every day.
Rand Fishkin: For sure, for sure.
Transparency and Core Values
Brian Clark: I’d like to close on the topic that we’ve kind of touched on, which is transparency. Rather than me talking about my observation of you over the years and the way I trust you, because I know you’re telling the truth. I mean, you just have to know that, that’s how we trust people.
What’s your philosophy of transparency? I see it used very strategically now. Was there a component of that to you or is it more just the authentic Rand coming out?
Rand Fishkin: For me, transparency is this: it does not come from a strategic place or a tactical place. It comes from a place of core values. And there is a big difference.
For example, there are companies who say, “Hey, we’re going to use transparency as a strategy to help us with our marketing.” And I think that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to be more transparent and you think that that can help bring you customers, more power to you, go for it.
But for me, it’s not only the case that I hate lying and hate dishonesty, I hate information that is sequestered and information that’s unavailable. And you could tell, even in my early days in the SEO field, I had this powerful emotional response to the search engines not sharing how they worked.
To be totally frank and transparent with you, a lot of that comes from just how things were for me growing up. Not when I was very young, but as sort of a tween and a teenager, I really hated how my parents kept a lot of information from each other. They were married, they’re actually still married today, but they were just constantly hiding things. “Don’t tell your mom we went here. Don’t tell your dad this. If your dad asks about this, say we did it for this reason. If your mom asks about this, say that we did this.”
I think the stress and fear of being a kid and trying to hide things and keep in memory all the stuff that you were supposed to say and not say, it just drove me crazy.
So, I think as an adult, I went the opposite direction, which is no hiding anything. I don’t want there to be anything that anyone can even find out about me that hasn’t already been put out there. And that’s infected everything I do, including Moz.
Brian Clark: That is fascinating. We did an earlier episode of this podcast that talked about how entrepreneurs seem to leverage things that could be viewed as bad or adverse in their lives, often from their childhoods. I shared for the first time the story of being adopted and not knowing until I was six and all this stuff, and how I probably compensate for it in a good way, as an entrepreneur.
And here’s another example, I think. You just went against what bothered you about your parents’ relationship and you internalized that and use it as a force for good, both for your customers, and for your company. Let’s face it, I think it helps.
Rand Fishkin: I hope so. Let me be totally honest. It has not always helped.
You and I talked about the venture capital process and how I wrote about a number of VC failures. I can tell you that there were partners at VC firms who I mentioned and talked about in those blog posts who would not respond to my emails.
I had a brief phone call I remember with one guy in particular for our firm, who I won’t mention, because he was clearly pissed that I mentioned him in the post. We got on the phone and he was like, “Look, I don’t want to read about myself in your blog posts, so our conversation’s done.”
That’s something that probably harmed the company. That person actually told me, but I bet there were 20 or 30 more who didn’t say anything and just were no longer interested in investing in or helping Moz.
So, it’s not always the case that core values are going to be something that are a strategic benefit.
Brian Clark: That’s why it takes courage. But look at who you ended up with. If there’s anyone who appreciates it, it’s Brad Feld. And he’s not like everyone else, so there you go.
Rand Fishkin: He’s not. And he and Seth and Jason and Ryan, the four partners at Foundry, are from a totally different breed of investor. They are more than Founder-friendly. It’s like a spaceship compared to an automobile. They’re just in a whole different class. And I think every Founder, every entrepreneur who’s worked with them says the same thing.
So we are incredibly lucky. And I think that’s one of the advantages of transparency. But even broader in concept, it is of sticking to your core values — you attract people who share those same values.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong if you want to say, “One of my core values is using secrecy as an advantage.” Apple clearly believes very strongly in secrecy and more so under Steve Jobs than they do now. They use that to their advantage. I think they built a remarkable firm. I hope they attracted lots and lots of likeminded people to the company who shared that belief in and that value of secrecy, because I think that it sucks to work in an environment where you don’t share core values with the rest of the team.
Brian Clark: Absolutely.
Rand, thank you again for your time. I’ve really enjoyed this. We actually went a little long, but I wasn’t about to cut it off. This is fantastic, and I’m really looking forward to October where I get to introduce you and shake hands and all that good stuff. Again, thank you very much.
Rand Fishkin: My pleasure, Brian. Take care.
Brian Clark: All right, Everyone, thanks so much for tuning in. You had to love that. The struggle is real for everyone, but it also has happy endings and there’s certainly a great story with a wonderful ongoing result for Moz.
All right, whatever your goals are, whatever you’re working on, just remember, keep going.