How Authentic Wizardry Nudged Moz to the Top – Interview with Rand Fishkin

23 Minute Read | Interviews

Read Woj’s latest interview with Rand Fishkin on Rand’s transparency addiction, Moz’s future doubling-down on search and their legacy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rand Fishkin earlier this year in July while I was at MozCon in Seattle. The man’s a well-respected seasoned campaigner in the SEO world and has been involved with the web since 1993. He recently stepped down as CEO of Moz, an inbound marketing software company he co-founded, to focus on scaling the business in a more intensive role. He’s co-authored books and can be regularly found attending and keynoting at some of the world’s most renowned online marketing conferences & events.

So buckle up and tune in as I chat to Rand about being transparent and authentic online, entrepreneurship, working hard, stepping down as CEO of Moz, his wife’s impact on Moz, the influence of capital injection, some mistakes and regrets, what to focus on in inbound marketing, thoughts on Microsoft and the book: Billionaire Who Wasn’t, his favourite must-see speakers at the moment, some of his style icons, his ultimate inbound marketing squad & more.
Woj: So I’m here with Rand Fishkin, pretty jetlagged at the moment, coming all the way from Australia..

Rand: Oh, I’m sorry man. It is a long flight.

Woj: All good 😉 You travel a lot – do you have any tips on overcoming jet lag?

Rand: I do not, I’m terrible at it. I usually try and spend a couple of days in a country before a show. Tell, speak, sleep. You know? And I miss the show. I’m not great at it.

Woj: OK, cool. So your travels are well documented on Geraldine’s awesome travel blog and you were in Italy recently. What are some of the highlights from Italy and how good was the food?

Rand: The food was quite good, but I will say the best meal we had was definitely with her family out in the village where she’s from. And I think this is due to the fact that American restaurants have been stepping it up so much of late, I was surprised to find that restaurants were good, but they didn’t blow me away. I’ve had better pasta probably in Seattle somewhere, right, like at some point, so that was surprising.

Woj: There’s nothing like Nonna’s cooking though, is there?

Rand: The family-style stuff, that was unbelievable. And I can also see why restaurant culture in Italy is not the same, at least in the villages. It’s nothing like what it is in the U.S. because people cook at home, and cooking is such a tradition there.

Woj: So you must be used to living so transparently online by now. Was it easy to get used to? Was it a gradual thing? I mean, you’ve got a massive audience now, but you started at zero, right?

Rand: Yeah, I definitely started at zero, or worse. But the transition hasn’t been that hard for me. I actually think that living my life transparently, at least, the professional side of my life, and through Geraldine’s blog, some aspects of personal life, although her blog is obviously curated, is more comfortable for me than being opaque. So I think this is my authentic comfort zone, being opaque is not in my comfort zone.

Woj: Yeah, definitely, it just translates the sincerity and evoked emotion that comes through in all your online touch points.

Rand Fishkin Lab Suit - Mozcon 2014Rand presenting his “Mad Science Experiments in SEO & Social Media” at MozCon 2014 – Image Credit

Rand: Thanks 🙂

Woj: In a recent interview I did with Jon Cooper he said he was honestly genuine in all his quests, and I think that’s contributed to his success.

Rand: Yes.

Woj: How important is that online?

Rand: I think it depends. I think for different people, they find strength in different ways. I’ve certainly talked to folks who tell me that they curate a very different persona than their authentic personal selves for their professional life. And they liked having those two things different. And I don’t want to fault with anyone who does that, I think that’s fine. I personally resonate and find great kinship with people who are their authentic personal selves in their professional lives as well. This is why I struggle when I encounter folks who are more opaque about their personal beliefs or opinion in the professional world, there’s lots of examples of this, for example, inside of Google, people who — they clearly must have a real opinion on this, but they’re just toeing a company line. And that’s hard to hear over and over again.

Woj: I read in Brad Feld’s “Start Up Life” that you badly needed to reschedule your time, to not work as hard and that you haven’t taken a break since you got married in 2008. You were getting sick and you feared falling behind. Have you successfully transitioned or implemented some sort of pivot to help reach that balance?

Rand: Yeah, I think stepping down as CEO and taking a lot of the HR and people management tasks off of my plate has certainly helped. It provides new and different kinds of frustrations, but I’m getting to do more of the work that I’m passionate about, and that’s been fun. I still have a lot of tension, anxiety, and frustration around the quality of our tools and software. I never think anything that we do is good enough, I don’t think we’ve achieved our potential and that’s a big frustration for me. And I don’t know how to accelerate that growth. It’s very hard to hire software engineers, obviously. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to scale. Yeah, it has its own frustrations.

Woj: It must be like this indescribable kind of anxiety that pops up every now and then. You don’t know why it’s there.

Rand: It’s always there. I can’t remember going to sleep one night without that anxiety in the last two or three years, not one night.

Woj: I think a lot of successful entrepreneurs get driven by fear, or that kind of anxiety. Whatever it is, it’s something pushing them forward, but you’ve got to take a break when you can.

Rand: I tried for a while. I had a CEO coach that I worked with for a while. I’ve talked to a few therapists and I worked for a while on trying to disconnect my personal happiness from the company’s performance, or my perception of the company’s performance, and those attempts were all unsuccessful. For whatever reason, I have been unable to do that. None of the tools or skills that those folks were trying to teach me proved effective.

Woj: it must be hard trying to separate yourself from the brand.

Rand: Yeah, so I’m just not going to try anymore. I’ve actually actively given up trying to disconnect those things, and now I’m just trying to make things better.

Woj: Maybe you should get inside the Roger suit and walk around every now and again – it can be your little break hub. Hehe

Rand: Hehe

Rand Fishkin 5 Web Marketing Trends 2014Rand talking about “5 Big Trends in Web Marketing” at MozCon 2014 – Image Credit

Woj: How do you think the wonderful Sarah Bird is traveling?

Rand: I think she’s doing a terrific job. And part of that comes from, not just my own perception, but from talking to folks, talking to our customers, talking to our community, talking to a lot of Mozzers. They’re the people whose opinion really counts. And they have universally told me that they felt it was a really good move. So that’s not exactly ego boosting, but I think it’s clear that it was the right decision.

Woj: Well, it sounds like as a CEO, you were losing touch with people and you strike me as a real people-kind of person.

Rand: Yeah, I can see that. I guess so.

Woj: So I read somewhere that Geraldine came up with TAGFEE, which is awesome.

Rand: That’s right.

Woj: How much has Geraldine shaped what we know of Moz today?

Rand: Geraldine worked at a startup here in Seattle for a number of years prior to Moz’s shift from consulting to software. And many of the lessons she learned at that startup, which ultimately, unfortunately, collapsed after some rapid growth – many of those lessons, particularly the cultural and people related ones transferred to Moz. And then Geraldine crafted TAGFEE from a description of our values that the seven of us who worked at Moz at the time gave her. And she took those and put them into the consumable acronym that is TAGFEE today, but she didn’t actually come up with the messages behind those. She was the curator and author, and I think she did a great job. TAGFEE has spread so much further than Moz now, which is pretty amazing.

Woj: Yeah, it’s a value that everyone can relate to and I think it’s something that the whole community embraces. You can walk up to anyone at any table at lunch time here, everyone is really welcoming and it’s very cool.

Rand: I think the cultural aspects of Moz and the focus on TAGFEE and things like that, the sort of softer values around the company have actually conspired to attract a community that’s more passionate, more tight knit and in a lot of ways more unique than what you might find in the marketing or technology world broadly. So I’m pretty proud of that, I think that’s a wonderful thing to do.

Moz's Core Values - TAGFEE

Woj: It’s definitely awesome… I’m going to ask a cheeky question, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to ask it.

Rand: Of course.

Woj: But a little birdy told me that the mo’ stays until Moz becomes profitable?

Rand: That’s right, I started growing it at the end of November of last year. So it’s what – six, seven months old now? And I keep hoping I’m going to get to shave it sometime soon, but we’re not yet back to profitability. I mean, we’re burning less and less cash every month, so our runway keeps increasing, but I would very much like it to be profitable.

Woj: What’s your forecast?

Rand: It really depends on what Sarah wants to do. She’s a little more aggressive about wanting to spend cash to grow and to invest, and I’m a little more conservative and would like us to reach profitability before we go invest again. But she’s the CEO so her opinion is winning out right now, so it could be a while.

Woj: Fair enough. You’ve inspired me a lot and in fact my logo mascot, Steve Kwasbot is inspired by Roger Mozbot, long distant cousins, I’m sure.

Rand: Heck yeah!

Woj: When I started, someone I looked up to and who mentored me in my early days of SEO told me that having a cartoon character would impact the seriousness or perception that people would have about the brand. I haven’t really found that. Did you find that with Roger? Did people take you seriously?

Rand: I think it helps makes us feel more accessible, less formal, less businesslike, more authentic. I think it’s a better representation of who we are as a company and as a community. And if that’s not your thing…

…if you want the suit and the tie and the jacket and the formal language and no one who ever says the “F” word, then we’re not the company for you. That’s not us.

And I don’t ever want to be part of a company that isn’t who I am. I think it’s certainly had an impact, but it’s an intentional one and for us, it’s a positive one.

Woj: Right on. It’s kind of like as Rich Millington said earlier, it’s given you some boundaries.

Rand: Yeah.

Woj: So how did you manage the economies of scale at Moz? What are some of the key milestones, where you had to make some serious changes like employee counts, income etc?

Rand: Let’s see, big milestones… I would say last October/November (2013), as we were launching Moz analytics, it was already a year late. We were launching it a year delayed from when it was supposed to come out, and it still wasn’t really ready. That launch did not go well. The six months before this didn’t go well either because we had to shut down our funnel (like how you signed up for normal, pro accounts) and all the metrics around it just sucked. It was super ugly. And because of that, we had to go on a kind of a hiring freeze, not an entire freeze but we went from hiring five or six people a month to maybe one.

Woj: Wow!

Rand: And it was very, very painful. And then, of course, in January or February, I stepped down as CEO. I think some of those things were tied together, not directly…

Woj: What about in the early days? What were some pivotal points? My company has gone through some rapid growth recently. In a way, I feel like I’m in this perpetual cycle, but it’s a different beast. We’re now at seven, I remember when there was three or five of us…

Rand: I hear you… The size that I like best, from a managing perspective, was between about 40 and 60. It felt right at that size, everybody knew each other. We were close-knit, tied together, and you can still know everyone pretty darn well, so there’s still that sense of community. The part that sucks about it is there’s no redundancy. Someone’s out? You can’t get that thing done. There’s only one person who can create this particular database. But there’s a lot of wonderful things about that size. We had a big shift from consulting to software, but it didn’t feel that big. It was relatively simplistic because the consulting business was always very small.

Woj: Okay, cool. How much has the injection of capital influenced the direction of Moz, both from a funding and decision making point of view?

Rand: I would say dramatically. When I think about what Moz might have been without capital and without this intentional trajectory to attempt to grow to IPO size, it probably wouldn’t have been even close to the company that it was today. Before Michelle Goldberg from Ignition Partners invested in Moz in 2007…

…my dream was “Hey, how do we go from making $450,000 to eventually $1 million in a year?” You know, we made $30 million last year. So it’s a very, very big shift.

I think one of the things I don’t love that it made – not made us do, but that we thought we had to do, was to broaden our scope. So we really felt like we needed to be all things in landmark. We need to give them social, got to get into content, got to get into brand mentions, got to get into all this stuff.

I wish we’d doubled down on the four core things in SEO a little bit more before we’d done that — keywords, crawl, rankings and links.

I feel like if we had nailed those four, instead of spending two years trying to expand to these other sections, we would have had a much better product. We’re doing that now, but yeah, it’s frustrating.

Woj: Have you mentored anyone or provided business coaching before?

Rand: I have been asked a few times, but my bandwidth is all used up by Moz, unfortunately. I was part of the TechStars 2012 Class, I think it was. And I mentored one company called Maptia. I was really impressed by those guys. I just loved what they did, and they’ve continued to chug along.

Woj: Awesome. Because, I guess, with all your publishing, it seems like it would be a natural thing to be a teacher.

Rand: Yeah, maybe for my next career.

Woj: Or maybe next life… With people now being enabled more and more with mobile devices and sensors to upload loads of findable and sharable data, have you come across any interesting examples of brands where they’re mining data really well and creating interesting content?

Rand: Yeah, I think I’ve seen plenty of examples of that phenomenon, but I would say that there are challenges for small and medium businesses. Usually it’s big global brands. So Nike will curate stuff from all of the athletes that they sponsor. I think Virgin, the airline, curated a bunch of traveller content and profiles and these types of things. Obviously, folks like Getty make it their business to curate and now make available, in some cases for free, for license use, their image libraries and the work of their photographers and those kinds of things. What’s hard is saying how do I apply that back to my business? That’s been the struggle. I think curation can work, but on a mass scale with big data, with huge amounts of uploads, it’s hard.

Woj: Archive.org is pretty interesting, in terms of the amount of content available and I’m surprised people aren’t just spinning the free creative commons stuff that’s there.

Rand: Well, there’s licensing. There’s licensing works around it, but I think the challenge is finding the needle in the haystack.

Woj: Other than Dr. Pete’s great work, are you aware of any updated CTR studies about the SERPs, given all the changes from the traditional Top 10 format? The numbers sort of suggesting top three spots get 40% of the clicks, Adwords get this amount etc.

Rand: So my understanding is that the click through rate studies are much harder to do now that keyword (not provided) is there. It’s something close to impossible to get that data. But what I’ve seen is that the percentages fluctuate massively the standard deviation on all of those studies is so insanely high that what it’s suggesting is:

there’s no percentage you should count on for ranking number one for any given term or phrase…

…not even on average. It’s just crazy to think!

Woj: We get asked by clients all the time: “We want to rank number one for keyword X” and to get them out of that mindset can be quite time consuming!

Rand: What you want to say is “How do I help you make twice as much from your search traffic next year as you made this year? That’s what I’m going to help you do.” And ranking is part of that.

Woj: More traffic, more money.

Rand: Yeah, more traffic, better conversions, better user path, all of those kinds of things. And rankings is a part of that. But if a client is going to look and go, “hey, we’re not number one for this term,” and that’s how they judge your efforts, well, there’s a certain kind of SEO for that.

Woj: What’s so good about the book Billionaire Who Wasn’t?

Rand: I think it’s wonderful because it’s a great narrative and a well-told story, but it’s also a story of someone who felt a deep need to contribute in a way bigger than themselves, and to give back from the great benefits that they received through a great combination of dance and skill to become a billionaire, and then to say “what the hell am I going to do with all of this?” What’s inspiring about Chuck Feeney, too, is that he’s kind of the spiritual leader of the billionaire philanthropist that you see now. That includes folks like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and it’s pretty fascinating, right?

Woj: Yeah.

Rand: So Microsoft received a lot of criticism when they were growing up here in the ‘90s, and some of it was deserved. They were a pretty aggressive company when they grew, but they brought about the era of web and technology, and everything that we have today.

I credit Microsoft more so than Google or Apple with where we are today. I think Google and Apple really stood on the shoulders of Microsoft, putting a computer in every home, getting people addicted to using the web and computers in general.

And then with the financial benefits that came from that, you see Bill Gates turning around and bringing infant mortality rates down significantly through his own personal effort. That’s quite cool.

Woj: That’s pretty awesome.

Rand: It’s pretty amazing to say: “I’ve saved 250 million children’s lives in the last 10 years”.

Woj: Actually making a difference.

Rand: I think it’s very hard. Many of us say, if I can impact one person’s life, that’d be impressive, so very cool.

Woj: Which speakers are must-sees at the moment? Apart from the ones at MozCon (and I think you should invite Kevin Spacey to MozCon next year).

Rand: Kevin Spacey, the actor?

Woj: Yeah. He’s keynoting at some content marketing conferences.

Rand: Fascinating.

Woj: Because he’s involved with Netflix, who released House of Cards all in one go, so he’s all about the consumer; content being in the hands (and power) of the consumer.

Rand: Fascinating.

Woj: Look into it.

Rand: All right, I’ll check it out.

Woj: I think that’d be cool.

Rand: Let’s see, Oli Gardner from Unbounce, he’s top notch. I saw him in Minneapolis, he was solid. Gosh, I’ve been wanting to see Rita Gunther McGrath. I would really like to see her. I’ve watched one of her TED Talks – yeah, really, really cool, business strategy and marketing stuff.

Woj: I went to TEDxSydney this year. It was good a good break from marketing full of all these really inspirational people. And the stories are fascinating… So now we go into the fun section.

Rand: Sounds good.

Woj: The show’s been great so far. I also came along last year and because I’m a fan of grunge, I was extremely happy when I found out the party was at the Experience Music Project.

Jesse & the Fishes - live from Mozcon 2013

Me & my band “Jesse & the Fishes” taken last year in mozcon – if you’re in this pic, I’d love to reconnect!

I grew up listening to bands like Nirvana. Can you remember the day Kurt Cobain died, and what it was like here in Seattle?

Rand: I was pretty young. Let’s see, how old was I when Kurt Cobain died? I must have been in college, something like 18, 19, maybe 20.

Woj: Were you into grunge?

Rand: Yeah, absolutely, my favorite was Pearl Jam, but I liked Nirvana too, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, those folks. Yeah, I don’t remember the mood being very unique. But I’m sure that if I had been a little more connected to the music community that it would have been.

Woj: So you’re quite the snappy dresser.

Rand: Ha! If you say so 🙂

Woj: I must say, as evident in a recent Whiteboard Friday – a trailblazer in the tech fashion community if you like.

Who are some of your style icons?

Rand: Oh, jeez, style icons. I don’t even know if I have one. I just see people wearing stuff on the street and I’ll occasionally ask them where they got it. But I don’t have someone that I look up to. There’s one guy in Seattle, in the tech community, named Jonathan Sposato, who sold a couple of companies to Google, one of them was Picnik, and he always dresses immaculately. He just looks phenomenal, so I guess I look up to him. But I can’t even come close to affording the clothes he buys, so I’ve got to find my own way.

Woj: Not even Kyle Rush?

Rand: Kyle, oh yeah, Kyle’s a great dresser.

Woj: He was rocking that bowtie earlier.

Rand: Heck, yeah.

Woj: That was pretty good. Apparently, you’re quite the singer too. According to iPullRank, who made you the lead singer of Link Direction when I interviewed him.

Rand: That’s a dirty lie.

Woj: LOL! I think he said he heard you do karaoke or something but maybe I got it wrong.

Rand: I don’t karaoke. I’m terrible. Beastie Boys – I can do Beastie Boys.

Woj: Nice. I think I did Rage Against the Machine one time. That was fun.

Rand: Wow, nice.

Woj: Ok, now name your ultimate inbound marketing squad. We need to have one email marketer, one CRO expert, one social media expert, one SEO, and one content marketer.

Rand: Oh dear god, that’s an insanely hard question. Let’ see. I’m going to exclude Mozzers, so as not to seem biased:

Rand's Ultimate Inbound Marketing Squad

Woj: Nice list! Would you ever consider doing a blackboard Friday with chalk?

Rand: Oh God, I hate the sound of chalk, hate it. I’d consider it, as long as I could draw it all up in advance and it was…

Woj: Or maybe you could get someone else to draw it up for you.

Rand: Yeah. But then if you had to mark up the board during the whiteboard Friday, it would just sound awful.

Woj: Finally, Squirtle, Bulbasaur or Charmander?

Rand: So I used to sell Pokemon cards way back in the day, but I never actually played. I’m trying to remember.

Woj: Squirtle’s water, Bulbasaur is plant, and Charmander is fire.

Rand: Oh, I’m definitely going with Charmander then. Plus that’s the coolest name.

Woj: Yeah, it is… Thank you so much.

Rand: Thank you, Sir.

Woj: You’re an absolute legend and a scholar.

Rand: You’re far too kind, Woj. Thanks man, I appreciate it.

..and like that, he ran off back to the conference to watch the next speaker!

I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did doing it – please leave your feedback in the comments below.

Update – 21-Sep-2014 – A couple of days after this interview aired, life finally gave Rand the right space and he produced a great post. A true testament to the authenticity we discussed. It goes into much further detail and elaborates on the areas where we merely skimmed the surface. It’s an incredible, heartfelt account entitled “A Long, Ugly Year of Depression That’s Finally Fading“. We don’t often realise how busy entrepreneurs really are and how suffocating the smallest request can be, blocking their quest for the smallest breath of fresh air. Despite all that, the man keeps getting stronger and stronger. Onwards and upwards!

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