If Rand Fishkin, co-founder of SEO software startup Moz, could do it all over again, he’d do it differently. The mustachioed SEO icon recently sat down with Conductor’s SEO podcast Search On Tap to talk the lessons he learned in his 17 years at Moz, the new ways he thinks about starting a business, his new book Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World, and more.
Read on for a taste of the conversation, and listen to the whole thing below:
Rand Fishkin on Leaving Moz: Moving Forward
All good things come to an end. Rand founded Moz with his mom, Gillian Muessig, in 2004 and shepherded its growth as CEO from 2007 to 2014. After stepping down as CEO in 2014, he continued to work at Moz in a variety of individual contributor roles for another 4 years.
In February of this year, after putting over a decade and a half of his life into Moz, Rand parted ways with the company. “The day I left Moz — that was a shit day. It was a hard day,” Rand told Search On Tap. “This is a company that I built with my mom, and obviously Geraldine, my wife, was hugely involved in the early days… A ton of the people there are people that I hired. It was painful, just super painful. It’s the only job I’ve ever had.”
“I have some people I want to prove wrong. That’s always a good motivator for me.” -Rand Fishkin
One thing that helped ease the pain of moving on: an outpouring of support for Rand from the SEO community. Over the 48 hours following his departure from Moz, Rand received over 1,600 emails from friends and fans thanking him for his impact on their lives and wishing him the best. Reading them was “an overwhelming experience,” he said.
He realized, in his own words: “Holy shit — this stuff really matters. This stuff makes a difference to people and they’re thankful and they show that thanks.”
But Rand isn’t completely at peace about leaving Moz just yet. “Right now, I have a chip on my shoulder,” Rand said. “I have some people I want to prove wrong. That’s always a good motivator for me.”
Rand Fishkin on Startups: The Problem of Scale
In the years leading up to Rand’s departure from Moz, he’d already begun feeling some discomfort with the company. Moz had simply grown too big for Rand’s tastes.
“One of the things that I disliked as Moz grew was I didn’t feel as good at a company of more than 50, 60 people,” Rand told Search On Tap. “I really liked it small.”
Rand thinks he fell prey to a belief that he sees too many entrepreneurs treat as gospel: the only way to get funding for a tech startup is to grow as quickly as you can. “I think that’s crap, frankly,” he said. “There should be lots of paths, there should be lots of kinds of tech companies. Not everyone needs to pursue the ‘growth at all costs, as fast as possible, 95% death rate’ [model].”
“We can make ourselves happier, more productive — a higher quality company.” -Rand Fishkin
He sees a better way to start a business: “I think that a lot of companies would be great companies who could delight their employees and founders and customers if they weren’t trying to go at crazy breakneck speeds in order to return 5 to 10x capital in 5 to 7 years.”
Rand wants his new startup, SparkToro, to be a different kind of company. “We will find ways to scale that don’t require people, and we will intentionally — potentially — turn down revenue and customers and opportunity if the only way to get it is to build a big team,” he said. “We can make ourselves happier, more productive — a higher quality company.”
Rand Fishkin on What’s Next: Starting a Business
What exactly is Rand’s new startup SparkToro? Here’s how he pitched it to Search On Tap: “You have an audience you want to reach. We will show you the publications and people and sources and channels that influence that audience.”
Companies producing products or services far outside of the mainstream need to supplement their organic search strategy by looking to other marketing channels, Rand explained. “No one’s actually looking for the thing they’re selling. It’s too new or unique or weird or outside the norm.”
If there aren’t yet enough potential customers searching around topics related to your company’s products or services to attract to your company’s site through content marketing and convert, you’re going to have to build awareness in other ways.
“You’ve got to figure out who your audience is, you’ve got to get in front of publications and people and channels and sources that influence that audience, and then you have to earn the amplification in the right ways to them.” -Rand Fishkin
That’s where SparkToro comes in. “You’ve got to figure out who your audience is, you’ve got to get in front of publications and people and channels and sources that influence that audience, and then you have to earn the amplification in the right ways to them,” Rand said.
But the process of building a list of influencer sources and publications is still incredibly labor intensive. “It felt like SEO did in 2002 — just totally manual, no tools,” Rand realized. “I thought, ‘We can automate this.’”
“Just to be clear: this product does not exist yet,” Rand added, laughing. “We just closed our funding round.”
In some ways, SparkToro is a response to Rand’s experience at Moz: he’s set on keeping the company small and not raising venture capital to fund it. “You are a reaction to your past and it can be tough to not let that control you,” Rand admitted.
But for Rand, SparkToro is less about looking backward than it is about moving forward. Reflecting on the twists and turns of his adventure through the world of SEO so far, Rand said, “It’s been a great journey, it’s been a hard journey at times… but I think this new beginning is looking really exciting.”