SaaSy SEO Startups & Digital Empathy: Interview with Jon Henshaw Part 1

18 Minute Read | Digital Transformation

It was awesome to catch up again with my buddy Jon Henshaw, founder of Raven Tools, who I first met at our Big Digital conference in Adelaide in 2016. In part 1 of our mammoth interview, I got answers to the following burning questions:

How and why did you start Raven Tools?
What was it like using cloud-based services before anyone else?
Did you have many competitors back then?
How has your psychology background made you a better marketer?
What does digital empathy mean to you?

If you’re into making software or you just want to know what it was like back in the early days of SEO, this is a must-read…

So tell me about how and why you started Raven Tools?

Jon: Well, we were an agency, a very tiny agency called Sitening. Stupid name.

Woj: Like lightning?

Jon: Yeah. In fact, the AMP logo is pretty much what our logo was back then. So I think they stole it from us, but I can’t prove that.

Anyways, it kind of came about accidentally. And I was trying to find a way to analyse a homepage of any site, to give me a score and give me a description of what’s good, what’s bad, what could be improved upon. So I had one of my business partners, at the time – he was a developer – make that. And it’s called the SEO analyser. It is very similar to what HubSpot ended up creating – the Website Grader – very similar.

It ended up being really popular, like, number one. It was a great sales tool for me; I got a lot of business from it. But we decided to make it into link bait before link bait was even a word. And we gave it away for free. We had people all over the world using the tool. They loved the tool.

Because of the way Google worked back then, you could get links from anywhere, for anything, and you would start ranking for certain stuff. So we had a little badge made and thousands and thousands from all over the world put this badge on there, which linked back to our site. And so we were just ranking for everything related to what we were going for.

We wanted to continue that, so we made a few other tools. We had this page rank checker and we created what I believe is the first web-based automated rank tracker, which we call Search Tracker. And we gave that away. And all of these things we put on Amazon Web Services before it was publicly available. We were using AWS at the very, very beginning, which is kind of a side story, but I think kind of interesting.

What was it like using cloud-based services before anyone else?

Jon: Yeah, from the get-go; we were cloud-based way back in the day. And that was nice, because as everybody knows now, it’s the most affordable way to be able to do anything. I mean, you don’t have to build your own network infrastructure and stuff. So it was very affordable. But because all those tools I just told you about were so successful, and because AWS was new, and they hadn’t come up with more affordable pricing, it was really expensive.

Woj: I bet.

Jon: And we were just a small agency. And even though we were getting new business, we looked at our bills, which were several thousands of dollars a month, and realised it wasn’t sustainable. And so that is what brought on the creation of Raven: We realised that we definitely had a hit and there was a need, an interest in these type of tools. But we needed to find a way to get people to pay for them. But back then nobody who was in SEO paid for SEO tools. It just wasn’t done.

I mean, that’s why I’m in SEO because I don’t like paying for ads! I wanna figure out how to get the free traffic.

So that was a really big challenge. We looked inwardly as an agency and essentially asked ourselves, what would we pay for? For us, it ended up being reporting and link management. Because it was such a mess to keep up with – just a bunch of Excel spreadsheets or whatever. We wanted to solve that. We wanted to centralise it and make it so everything was clean and reportable. Google Analytics was awful back in the day, it was so hard to report on. We’re talking over a decade ago. And so, because we spent the last week of every month trying to put together all this data and put together reports for our clients, we thought, if we could just have this magical button, that would just bring it all together and output this report for our clients – that is what we’d pay for. And so that is what we created. That’s where Raven came from. It was essentially centralised link management and reporting. And so we made it, we launched it, and everybody hated it.

Woj: Great success.

Jon: Yeah. We were fortunate to have two people from two big agencies, one in the UK, and one in U.S. say, “We see what you’re trying to do and nobody else is making this. We don’t wanna make it because it’s expensive and hard to do” – which it is and was – but they said, “If we can work with you, and you can add these additional features, we’ll totally pay for this and use this throughout our whole agency.” And so we’re, like, “Okay.”

Woj: So what types of things weren’t working?

Jon: We didn’t have multi-user capabilities. And some reports that they really needed to have that we hadn’t created yet. And so we turned off all new signups for 6 to 9 months and went back into this sort of closed beta mode working with these two agencies to build the additional features they said they needed in order for it to be useful.
When we relaunched it, that’s when it went well.

Woj: And what year was this?

Jon: Oh, man. Probably 2007. But it would still take a couple of years of going to Pubcon and getting sponsors, and me trying to get to the speaking circuit, so I could bring some visibility to the brand before people would really start adopting it. And there was one year – maybe it was ’09 – where we kind of went all in. We really felt like the timing was right to go big, especially with the sort of competition that was creeping up around us.

I remember, we only had so much money in our bank account, and we just said, “let’s just be the main sponsor of Pubcon this year in Vegas.” And I remember it being a make or break decision. It was the type of thing where, when I talked to my business partner, we would look at each other and be like, “If this doesn’t work…”

Woj: We’re screwed.

Jon: Yeah.

I wanted to communicate to everybody visually, that we had made it. That if they weren’t using us or had never tried us, there was something wrong with them.

That was the silent unheard message that I wanted [the attendees of Pubcon] to have in their minds based on how we were going to be seen and be that main sponsor.

And I can tell you, it 100% completely worked. I mean, it was a huge gamble but it completely worked. Pubcon did a really good job that year of saturating our logo everywhere and I think that year, there may not have been another main sponsor, so that helped us even more. But we had also built up a good reputation for having good shirts – we had started a couple of years before using American Apparel shirts, which feel as soft as a baby’s butt, you know – like, you can sleep in them.

Woj: Smooth.

Jon: Exactly. And I intentionally did not want to have anything on our t-shirts, just our logo, which looks cool. I mean, it could be a band… so I’ve been told. And at Pubcon, we went a step further. My wife who’s a graphic designer would actually design a special limited edition sort of design for each Pubcon each year. And they were all really interesting and cool. And then, people would line up for our shirts, and they’d just be gone.

So this year, we went bigger than we did the previous year. So because we had literally spent all our money on this – like, all our money – we just had really awesome shirts made.

I can tell you, from that event, we had probably two to three years of 10% month on month growth, every month. People thought we had arrived, and so, therefore, we had arrived. And we had a really good product, especially for the time.

Did you have many competitors around that time?

Jon: Moz was around. I think Moz started before us. You know…

Woj: SEOmoz.

Jon: …at the time they were SEOmoz, exactly. I think they had started before us. But they were kind of doing their own thing. I would say that people always positioned Moz and Raven as direct competitors, but I never really felt that way. I never really thought that. We had some overlap, but they were always doing something slightly different, and we were always doing something slightly different. I think reporting is a good example of that. I mean, we always focused on reporting and they always reported on their link scape. We focused on our own things…

Woj: That’s still quite typical of the industry currently. There’s no one tool that exactly matches another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.

Jon: There’s not, unless you talk about research. You look at Ahrefs, and SEMrush and Moz – I think a lot of those companies are almost one-to-one to some degree.

Woj: Is Majestic part of the conversations, too?

Jon: Yes, I love Majestic.

Woj: Majestic is awesome. I haven’t seen it come up very much in conversation in the last year or so. But Dixon [Jones] is a genius.

Jon: Dixon is a genius. Well see, that’s the thing – I don’t know if Dixon’s going to as many shows anymore. Right there, that shows you the power of having a presence. If you have software, you need to have a presence. And that was absolutely true for us.

Woj: Yeah it’s interesting… the first time I think I heard of you was through MozCon’s videos.

Woj: 2012, I think you did a talk about the psychology or the power of relationships and link building.

Jon: Yeah, outreach.

Woj: Which is cool, because I’ve used that as a training material sometimes, to make my staff think, it’s not about spreadsheets – there are people behind the keyboard, and we have to consider that as part of the outreach process.

Jon: Yeah, there’s nothing more that I hate than an obviously automated email. I got a really bad one the other day where their software had discovered my privacy policy page and thought that would be a good place to put their link. Obviously, no human actually wrote that email, because nobody would be that dumb. Most of the time, it’s not as bad as that, but it’s still very impersonal, they don’t really care, they’re just doing their version of outreach.

That type of outreach, while it might be effective for some people, can ultimately or sometimes harm the brand they’re representing. And I think that the best way is always the harder way – the way that takes more time, more research. And by time, I mean, doing stuff on foot sometimes, like going to a show, trying to talk to somebody instead of pitching them. Get to know them, bring some humanity to the table and see if we even like each other.

Woj: Is that so much to ask?

Jon: The thing is, it’s not efficient and it’s not cheap, from a time or cost perspective, but that’s where you get the best type of relationship that you can build off and you can even give back to that other person too. That’s how I like to do it. It’s how I’ve always done it. I may not always end up getting a link, or a mention, but – and this is gonna sound really corny – I may end up with a really good friendship. So that’s how I always approached it. For me, it’s always been very personal, almost philosophical, or potentially existential, in the sense that this is how I’m spending my life. I don’t wanna spend my life doing things in a way that are completely empty and have no meaning. Which is why friendships, including our friendship, matter to me more than whether or not we ever do anything in the industry together.

Woj: I operate the same way. This life is too short to deal with douchebags.

So you mentioned you’ve got a background in psychology… How do you think that experience has shaped you into being a better marketer?

Jon: I think it’s helped me with empathy. That’s something that probably isn’t used enough. When people think of marketing, they probably think of manipulation and less about empathy.

Woj: Yeah, there’s the manipulation side, then there’s the persuasion or nudging side…

Jon: Right. So I think a traditional marketer is an interrupter. And as a consumer, that irritates the crap out of me. But the marketing team is being paid to promote their thing. So how do you promote your thing? Well, you promote your thing by putting your URL on the back of a t-shirt. “Well, let’s get a t-shirt and we’ll wear the t-shirt and give away the t-shirt, then people will see the URL.” But nobody wants to wear that crap!

And on top of that, they get the cheapest shirt, because they don’t wanna spend too much money. So you’re basically giving out something that nobody wants to wear because it doesn’t feel good and it looks stupid, makes them look stupid…

Woj: Promo goods 101. Just don’t do it.

Jon: And so the argument would be, “But nobody’s ever heard of Raven, they won’t know what that logo is.” They will if you’re doing it in your environment, if you’re doing it at an industry event, and you’re doing all the other things, making sure that your brand is getting mentioned, having relationships with other speakers… Then they’re gonna know what Raven is. They’re gonna know, “Oh, that really cool shirt that is nondescript and looks interesting.” Nobody knows what it is outside of the industry. But they’re gonna wanna wear it because it looks cool and it’s unique. It feels good. I can’t tell you how many people told me they sleep in them…

Woj: It’s kind of like influencer marketing. It’s all about the feeling in the end. It sort of reminds me of this diagram of Mario representing the user and the flower, representing the product. But what do you want is the combination of the two when he powers up. And that’s kind of the outcome of you know, a good shirt should make you feel great.

Jon: Yes, that’s exactly it. This kind of ties into that MozCon presentation that you brought up: the people of quality, the people that you want to know, and people you make friends with, and the people you want to work with, if that even becomes an option, they have good bullshit detectors. When you’re in a sea of people all trying to market and take advantage of each other, I don’t wanna be anywhere near that.

You only get one life so I spend it, you know, getting to know people and enjoying life instead of trying to sell them something.

That’s what’s really nice about events in our industry; you’re already in a good place because you’re around people who you can geek out with and who have very similar interests. Let the business stuff happen organically, let it happen naturally. And what’s nice about that is you end up working with people you like. So…

Woj: You’re not interrupting them.

Jon: Right, you’re not interrupting them, exactly. And I think if more people took that approach, the things that they focus on would see more success and it would see more long term success. And they would experience better customer loyalty because you’re honest with them, and this is who you are. And they’re not just a thing that could help them with their business. They’re a human being that you have befriended, and you like, and you appreciate or respect them for whatever reason. And if there’s a good fit, the other person almost always will find a way or come up with an idea, come back to you and say, “Hey, why don’t we do this?” The conversation we’re having now is a great example of that. The only reason we’re even recording something right now is because we have a good friendship and we stayed in touch. And I was like,”Hey, why don’t we do a little podcast thing?” It’s from a place that’s genuine.

I recorded a podcast recently where I was exploring the notion of digital empathy. And I kind of defined it as the ability to understand and share the feelings of a person on the other side of the screen.

So from my guests on the show, I distilled 16 different points of what digital empathy compromises.

Digital Empathy Diagram by Woj Kwasi
Digital Empathy Diagram compiled using ‘Wojcast’ interviews with industry leaders.

Jon: Digital empathy; does that mean, trying to understand where the person is coming from via the Internet?

Woj: Correct.

Jon: I think it really comes down to this: I want to know enough about that person to have an idea of what their interests might be and how they might see me. And I also like the idea of efficiency; so, if I have a good idea of how they perceive things and what they want, and what they don’t want, then we can just kind of get to the point. And to me, that is also showing respect.

Woj: How would you distill that to three to five words? Respectful, efficient communication?

Jon: Right. Well, that’s an outcome.

Digital empathy is… I would say, understanding what you think their perception is – so things can get real deep, real fast.”

Woj: Yeah. I mean, it’s a combination of a few things, like valuing human interaction, being intentional… understanding the context.

Jon: I think it is a complex idea to put into just a few words.

Woj: It is.

Jon: I think the outcome though, what you’re really going for, is definitely respectful, efficient communication.


Interested in seeing Jon in action?
Check out this video where he answers one of the hardest questions we face as digital marketers… Why is SEO so difficult?


Stay tuned on the Kwasi blog for part 2 of my interview with Jon Henshaw, when we discuss the relevance of link building today and what it was like selling Raven Tools…
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to follow Jon on Twitter @henshaw and check out some of our other interviews:

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