Finding Success with Audience-First Entrepreneurship, with Rand Fishkin


Last updated on November 6, 2017 in CredoCast, Entrepreneurship

Rand Fishkin is the founder of Moz and an intrepid entrepreneur. He’s been a friend of mine for a number of years now, and one thing that has always impressed me is how thoughtful Rand is about growth and entrepreneurship, and how he always stays true to his own values.

In this video we talk about serving SMB customers, what he’s learned about the venture world and software, and why relationships have mattered to much to him personally and Moz as a business. And you might get a few sneak peeks at his book and his future after Moz.

Full Transcript

John: Welcome back. Today, I had with me a very, very special guest. Today, I have with me Rand Fishkin who is the founder of Moz, inbound marketing SEO software company based in Seattle, Washington. I’m super excited to have Rand because not only is he a great entrepreneur, I’ve learned a ton from him Moz is super well known in the SEO and the digital marketing space, plus Rand has that amazing hair, but also I’m privileged to call Rand a friend. I’ve known Rand for a number of years now, I think six, six-and-a-half years I’ve known you, like, personally starting when I was at Distilled in New York and then moving on just kind of through different periods. So Rand, thank you so much for being here. Thank you for being a friend and for all that Moz done for me for so many others. If you would, could you introduce yourself briefly, tell us who you are, what you’re working, on and all that good stuff?

Rand: Oh, sure. Well, John, right back at you, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure having both the professional contact that we’ve had over the years and also the friendship. And I know that you may not feel this way but I think that you’ve done a lot for a lot of people in this industry and, yeah, I think in the end that is what matters the most.

John: Thank you.

Rand: Yeah, as an introduction to, yeah, I founded the company Moz. It was originally SEO Moz. In its early days, it was a consulting firm, transitioned to software, and for its first seven years as a software company from 2007 to 2014, I was the CEO as well as the founder. And then over the last three-and-a-half years, I transitioned my role to an individual contributor, and actually in a few months here I’m gonna be leaving the company. And I say that it is…let’s see. I’m not exactly sure how to categorize it. Let’s say it’s semi-voluntary, semi-involuntary.

And I think that journey is one that many, many founders of software businesses and tech companies, they get venture backing, go through where they’re the founder and CEO. And then eventually they, either by their own choice or by the choice of their investors or controlling parties, are no longer CEO. In my case, it was it was completely my choice. And then many of them leave their company. So my plans ahead, so I have a book coming out next year called “Lost and Founder…”

John: Nice. Congrats.

Rand: …from the folks at Penguin Random House. Yeah, thank you. And that’s been a mountain of work, but actually really, really enjoyable work. And I also am starting a new company, name to be determined, mission to be determined, everything to be determined. But I hope to announce that probably in the new year.

John: Awesome. Awesome. Well, that’s I mean all super exciting things. Obviously it’s never fun leaving something that you started, I’m sure. You know, in my case, I got laid off and I talked to many other people that have gotten laid off and it’s definitely kind of…it can be a wakeup call, but it can also be one of the best things that ever happens to you. You know, I look back now two years on and I’m like, “Yeah, that is 100% the best thing that ever could have happened to me” Still hurts to this day a little bit, right, but…

Rand: Oh, yeah. I think that it’s an odd conundrum knowing that something that is good for you and potentially fingers crossed…my God, I mean Geraldine and I still own almost a quarter of Moz, right, we’re the largest single shareholders. Geraldine’s my wife for those who are watching. And so, certainly I have every both financial and personal pride reason to hope and believe that Moz will do well, and I’ll continue to be the chairman of the board over there. But yeah, it stings, right, it hurts, and it’s weird holding these two competing thoughts in your head. This is the right thing, and this also feels bad.

John: Right. Totally, totally. Yeah, and as you were chatting up before we even started recording I mean you started the company, I mean you joined your mom’s like web-dev company and then you all really got SEOmoz going. I know Gillian, your mother, transitioned out of the company and you did the CEO thing, and you’ve been doing a lot of stuff. But I mean along the way you’ve built a ton of amazing relationships with people in the industry, right? Like I look back at the marketing team that you had in place at Moz in like 2011, 2012, 2013, I mean like Joanna Lord who’s CMO of ClassPass Casey Henry who’s been HubSpot and Wistia and I think is doing his own thing now.

Rand: He’s actually at Ookla. He’s back in Seattle.

John: Back at Ookla in Seattle, right. Jamie Stevens, right?

Rand: Jamie Stevens.

John: He used to be at Moz and was the…I think is still the VP marketing, CMO over there, something like that?

Rand: I believe he’s now the CEO, actually.

John: CEO, see? You know, big things. You know, you connected with all these amazing people and those relationships. And so, I mean the original thing I approached you about for this conversation was talking about growing Moz through do conferences was really like the big thing. But I think what would be great to talk about is actually growing a company through the relationships that you have. You know, and there are a lot of different ways to look at that. We were actually talking about San Francisco and how San Francisco feels very transactional these days. And me living there, it took me two-and-a-half years to find some good, deep, like, tech friendships.

So talk to me about like that journey and kind of how you think about building a business like how you’ve built Moz, but then also like moving into your next thing. Obviously, you have a much larger platform now than you had when you started Moz. But numbers in that case don’t really mean much. You have a little bit more reach, but like the people are actually gonna help you out, the people that are actually gonna be with you through it are not some random part of those 350,000 people that follow you on Twitter, right? There’s maybe like a 100, 150 there that would actually reach out to. You’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I know that person personally and I’ll ask them for their opinion on my new business.” So yeah, I’d love your take on that and how you’ve built Moz differently than other businesses have been built, other venture-backed businesses, off the back of a lot of relationships. But then also moving forward, what are you focusing on?

Rand: Yeah, so I think this started early on in my career when we were a consulting firm and I found that the conversations around sales were deeply uncomfortable and felt very inauthentic to me. And because of that experience, the transition to software where essentially I could say, “Hey, all I wanna do is help people. I wanna help as many people as I can as much as I can. And if they happen to find the software that we use, which is our own stock, to be useful for this purpose, well, they can subscribe and use it too.”

And I think that that turned out to be a really great way to go. You know, John, you you’re probably very familiar with us because you’ve been in the subscription business, software as service world, for a while now. But one of the things that’s really interesting about that is if you play in SaaS or in subscription business and you are serving a small to medium business customer, right, someone who is an independent entrepreneur, or an independent consultant, or at a small agency, or in-house at a firm, at a company between, say, zero to a couple hundred people churn tends to be extremely high. That’s both institutional churn, and churn due to budget reasons, and churn due to turnover.

You know, if you’re targeting enterprises, which the vast majority of software as a service and subscription businesses that are venture-backed have tried to target over the last decade, decade-and-a-half, that churn rate tends to be dramatically lower. But the relationship is built on sales. And so, I think Moz was almost a pioneer in this world, especially our first decade, almost a pioneer in this world of self-service software as a service. And that world, building personal relationships based on wanting to help people and just generally having a lot of love and care for people, which is, you know…for folks who know me, right, that’s just who I am.

If we hang out, I wanna help you. I wanna help you find your next job. I wanna help you find your next date. I wanna help you make your life better, help you find a house, help you go on vacation somewhere amazing, whatever it is. Right, like that’s just…

John: It’s you.

Rand: …who I am. That’s what powers me personally and emotionally. And those relationships turned into a brand amplification for Moz that was incredibly powerful. And I think, obviously, we took advantage of a lot of high reach channels. So early in our days it was it was the blog and then a Q&A forum. And then, certainly, we were early adopters of social media across many platforms, email, newsletters, the Moz Top 10, which is extremely popular, right, in distribution mechanisms like this, and then a lot of free stuff too. So I think we took that ethos of relationship building and said, “How do we apply that to software?” Well, let’s offer a free toolbar for Chrome and Firefox. Let’s offer lots of free tools that people can then upgrade to. Let’s offer lots of free content. And so, you sort of get this marketing machine moving without having to invest in transactional, sales-driven relationships.

John: Yeah, totally. And the amazing thing about that is, I mean, those…and we can look back now. I know you guys were pioneering it a decade, 8, 10 years ago with Moz bar and all those different things. But you know, now, when we look back and all the like startups are talking about like like building something people love, right? I mean they’re talking about it as growth hacks, like you didn’t think about it that way. It was just like, “This is what our people need, right?” I mean when you look at it now, it’s like that’s actually a pretty freaking awesome growth hack, like a growth, like, channel for you potentially, right? But you just built something that was useful out of a need that you saw.

Rand: Yeah, yeah. So preview sneak preview, potential spoiler for my book. There’s a whole chapter in the book that’s all about this sort of flywheel method of marketing versus growth hacking, right? And growth hacking is sort of like let me find this one tactic that I think will transform our growth curve and get us way more adoption of users or paying customers or subscribers whatever it is. And for us, what I found with actually every single company, not just ours but every company I’ve ever helped or talked to or advised or consulted with, is that the growth hack…so I think I’ve often been very critical of the concept and the terminology around growth hack, but I think I’ve come around to the notion it’s not evil or bad or wrong, it’s just often misused and thought about poorly.

John: And shortsighted too, yeah.

Rand: Yeah, it can be shortsighted. So the way I think about it is, basically, you wanna build a flywheel in your market, right? A set of channels and practices that scale with decreasing friction, which is what a flywheel is designed to do. It holds on to energy and the more it turns, right, the inertia carries it through. That’s what you want with your marketing. You don’t wanna have to invest as much effort and energy in, say, your blog or your Facebook ads or your podcast in month 18 as you did in month 1. Month one, everything was a slog. It was so hard. But I think once you find flywheels that work and that scale with that decreasing friction, then if you can identify what the individual points of friction that are holding back the flywheel from turning from making those revolutions, from having that success, that’s where a growth hack is hugely valuable.

Right? So we talked briefly about the Moz bar. Moz bar is a great example of a growth hack, right? It’s essentially, “Hey, we wanna distribute software tools for free. We recognize that people have this challenge around looking at lots of SEO-focused issues in their browser.” Review source is a pain in the ass, Inspect elements, a pain in the ass. There’s a few toolbars out there that can sort of substitute, but SEOs had to install like 18 of them at the time to get all the things they needed, right?

John: And a browser doesn’t work. Yeah.

Rand: Yeah. Oh, my God, and then the browser conflicts and blah, blah, blah. Right, so like what if we could offer that for free? Oh, well that’s sort of a growth hack to get the distribution of our software and our metrics, which was a friction point at the time in our flywheel turning faster and smoother. And so, we applied this growth hack in the form of a product, but a free product, and that was extremely successful. I think Moz bar is installed on like 400,000-plus browsers It’s our most popular product by like 10X.

John: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think I’m personally responsible for like eight of those.

Rand: Yeah, I shouldn’t say users. Oh, look at John Doherty, one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

John: Exactly. Yup, yup. And you gotta test it on everything, right? Yeah. I love the way you say that about like marketing is an…I think I actually got it from Will Critchlow who may have gotten it from you, or I don’t know. These terminologies get passed around, but like I also talk about the flywheel where you’re first like pushing it and then eventually it starts spinning and you can almost thinking about is as like a snowball, like you’re pushing a ball up a hill, right? And it’s hard and it’s getting bigger, especially like right near the top, it’s really hard. The snowball’s huge, but once you get over that crest, then you’re just like running to keep up with it. And then and I guess it breaks down with like greasing that wheel, right, to make it go even faster.

But I think that distribution, like that distribution side is something people don’t really talk about. And I actually think it’s interesting how you can do it with software, you can do it with the Moz bar, you can do it with…you know, I know you guys have various, like, free trials over time and you can run like link reports on three sites logged out, on Open Site Explorer. You know, all that sort of stuff that, yeah, it gets people like in the door, but it also like, for some people, like the hobbyists, they just need to audit, look at the links of one website, right? And so, you’re just genuinely being useful to them.

But it’s also interesting to me how you’ve also taken relationships and helped that be kind of a distribution method for Moz. Not in a like, “I’m gonna do this so that you can promote my company” sort of way, but genuinely like, “I’m gonna be helpful to you.” Like I think it’s fascinating how…I mean, obviously, when Moz transitioned out of consulting into software Distilled, took a bunch of the clients and Moz partnered with Distilled, I believe, like officially on that and I know that greatly helped Distilled grow. But then also Distilled and different various agencies through the years, and still are also huge promoters of Moz, right?

So I think one of the most brilliant things you guys did was having like the group of agencies and such that would blog, that would write on the Moz blog every week, right? Like, I know Distilled had every Monday. I think someone else had every Tuesday. Like, you were doing Whiteboard Fridays and writing a lot more. But you not only like…those relationships then increased the visibility of Moz and also increased the visibility of those agencies. But that was all built through relationships through conferences. Is that is that fair to say?

Rand: Close to. I don’t know that everything was conferences and events, but certainly, if I had to guess, I would say the majority of those are formed through personal relationships. And this is odd in a digital era where we’re talking about digital publishing to say “Why, Rand, is it that you had to meet someone in person before you’d form a relationship and let them publish on your platform,” and those kinds of things? I mean obviously, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from “Forbes,” and yet, everyone I know has published on their website.

John: It’s so true.

Rand: You know, it sounds like an odd model, and for us, I think the reason that it worked so well is because it gave us a high signal to noise ratio. Right, essentially, we could do a lot of filtration by I hear someone speak at a conference or I meet them and they have very intelligent questions and comments and powerful experiences. And I think to myself, “Gosh, I’d really love to have that person share that experience on the Moz blog. Let me invite them.”

You know, once we had built up a platform that could be helpful to folks in their career and for their for whatever it is, for their agency, for software, tools, or whatever it was that they were doing in the digital marketing world we had this powerful sort of currency, right, exchange currency where we could say, “Hey, why don’t you contribute something, and in exchange you get all this visibility?” Yeah, that was a wonderful tool. I think that is a challenging thing to do, right, to become sort of “the” center or one of the centers of your industry through publishing. But it was something I had a natural predilection for and something that I obviously spent many years building up even as a consulting firm, so that when we transitioned to software it was a point of leverage for us.

John: Totally, totally. Yeah, and that makes a lot of a lot of sense. I mean it’s the whole like look at what’s working, right? So in your case, like…you know, and also what you enjoy doing…so in your case it was blogging. Like, you were getting a lot of consulting clients. I know you guys had some ginormous clients that you’ve talked about publicly in the past that ostensibly off the back of. I mean some are relationships and personal referrals, I’m sure, but others from like they read what you’re writing about and they’re like, “Oh, I need I need that thing what they have to offer.”

Rand: And the interesting part was early on in the SEO world, certainly when I first started writing, a huge portion of the SEO world was very secretive, and intentionally so, right? There was this underlying belief that, “Hey, this is our special thing that we understand and know. Let’s not share it out there. If we do share what we know, people will be able to apply it themselves. They won’t come to us. We’ll lose our competitive advantage. We’ll lose our business.” And so I don’t know if you remember but like the early years of the Moz blog, we made as many enemies as friends, right? Like, there was a lot of people who seriously disliked us for sharing that information. For a while there…

John: They still dislike you.

Rand: Yeah, some people. Less so now, right, because it’s become such a common tactic now, I think, for people to share openly that the hate has sort of drifted away. But even Google was very frustrated for a while. I remember get some late night email from Matt Cutts because he’s pissed off that I wrote about something or spoke about something at a conference or invited someone else to speak about something at a conference, whatever it was, right? And we had this constant fear for years that he was gonna ban us from Google. You know, that would affect our business, but thankfully…

John: Never did.

Rand: …he never did. Yeah.

John: Yeah, yeah, interesting. Well, it’s also like…I mean I love that you were able to build your business through like those sorts of relationships and really focusing on that like signal a signal over noise. And it’s interesting to me, though, because I mean, yeah, I’ve been running a business that has catered somewhat to S&Bs;. I still, like, love helping S&Bs; find a good agency or consultant to work with. For my own, like, for my business’ health, I have had to go a little bit more enterprise or at least I changed the model a little bit and now I’m working with different businesses. But we charge a bit more. But that’s all driven like by our relationships and you can’t have like personal, in-depth relationships with 45,000 customers that Moz has, right?

Rand: Right.

John: So, like as someone that ran a company like that with tens of thousands of subscribers, how did you think about like, you know…like you personally, like as Rand the person and Rand the entrepreneur, I mean you’re like the Energizer Bunny, like you do so much and I see you get tired as well. I know you get tired. I’ve stayed at your house.

Rand: Yeah. Oh, I do.

John: I know you get tired. But like how do you, like as Rand the entrepreneur, think about those like relationships and kind of like investing down into people? Going back to like San Francisco, like everything is so transactional, like how do you personally think about that? I know you have people that you’re close with like Will Reynolds people like that you become very close with. But like, how do you draw those lines? Like, let’s talk about it on like the entrepreneur, like, personal side now.

Rand: Yeah, I mean for me it’s…I think I have a few sort of healthy, I hope healthy, barriers that I put up to try and do that. So I have kind of a routine about health and sleep, especially the last few years since I had depression a number of years ago, which you might recall. And that has been very helpful in sort of maintaining a semblance of control over my own life and health, right, mental health, emotional health, and physical health too. And then…

John: They all go in together.

Rand: Oh, my God. Yeah, it’s disturbing how much they’re connected and how…

John: It is. It is.

Rand: …poorly…I don’t wanna say poorly understood. I think the medical science community understands this very well, but the rest of us…I don’t know why that message has not resonated very well. But in terms of building those relationships I would say that one of the things that I do is just try and show as much kindness as I can to as many people as I possibly can whenever and wherever I can. But also, have what I’d say are like a healthy ability to say no, right? So if you look at my email inbox you will see that there’s between…and the number has decreased, especially since Sarah sort of announced this summer that I would be leaving Moz, the number’s gone down not massively, but substantively, probably 30%.

So now I’m probably down to maybe between 40 and 50 requests from people per day to do something, like will you share this thing, will you read this thing, will you help introduce me to investors, will you take a look at my company page, will you whatever? And so, yeah, I’ve gotten good at sort of saying like, “Here’s a resource, but I don’t have the bandwidth for this,” and just saying yes to the most critical the folks that I feel like are the ones that I wanna help the most. You know, I have my own sort of criteria around that. A lot of it is people that I know personally, or have been introduced to me very personally, or certain people who I know are very under-represented in the tech world and would have a really tough time building connections. Yeah. So right, if you’re like a San Francisco based white dude who has gone to Stanford, I’m sort of like, “Eh, you’ll be fine. You’re good.”

John: “You’re good,” yeah.

Rand: “You don’t need me. You’re fine.” Yeah, but when that’s not the case, right, I try and help a little bit more.

John: Yeah, gotcha, gotcha. Yeah, I like that approach because that’s also very like…I mean it’s very in keeping with who you are just about being like very very giving and caring about people. But those are like your personal values there, as well, where like you value diversity, you value those things and you value like those that might need a little bit of extra help not in a take pity way, but just, you know like, “You deserve to have every single chance that I have as a white male.”

Rand: Exactly. Exactly. I’m a huge advocate for the underdog, right? You know, turn on like a sport that I don’t know, and one team is way down and it’s the near the end of the game, that’s who I’m gonna be cheering for, right, the one who is almost definitely gonna lose but maybe still has a chance. And so, I think that’s just imbedded in who I am. The other thing I was gonna say that might be useful to think about is one of the things that has been really helpful for me, because I have such a big, well, opportunity with broadcast content, right, so Whiteboard Friday and blogging and also the large number of followers that I’ve got on like Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and stuff, Instagram, whatever…

One of the things that’s been really useful for me is to take the questions and problems that people come to me with individually and to say, “Hey that’s a great question. Look out for a Whiteboard Friday on this in the next month.” Right, and then I’ll use that, I’ll take it out, I’ll send it over to Michael Bird who does the filming of Whiteboard Friday, we’ll put it on the calendar, and we’ll make a video about that particular problem. So then, instead of helping just that one person, I can help lots of people who have that same issue. And if anybody contacts me again, I can say like, “Yes, I have an answer to that. Here it is.”

John: Gotcha. Yeah, I like that. I mean and that’s in keeping with the, like, stuff that you create. Like, who is the one person that you’re speaking to, right? Like, if I email you a question and you do Whiteboard Friday about it, like I’m your fan for life, A, plus also like if I have that problem, there are likely a lot of others that have that same problem. Like, I’m not special, right, like I have the same problems that other people do. You know, other people deal with the same sorts of problems that you have. So I think that’s a brilliant way to go about it in building like…I mean you’ve really built just like a tribe of advocates, is what you have. Not just like Moz advocates, but Rand advocates, which is awesome as well. As an entrepreneur, that serves you well into the future, right? You’ve been through it once before you’re just a couple years older than me, like you’re not an old guy, but you know, you have like a wealth of…Yeah, I got some of that down there too.

Rand: Oh, yeah?

John: Yeah. My wife, every day, is like, “You got a little more gray there.” I’m like, “Uh, dang it.” I used to, when I had like two or three, I’d like pluck them out. And now that I did, I have like huge like…

Rand: Gaps.

John: …holes there. Yeah, gaps. That’d be awkward. But yeah, like I think that’s gonna serve you super well, like as an entrepreneur, and this is the kind of thing that I try to tell entrepreneurs, as well, that come to me with questions is like…Like I one guy yesterday asked me, he’s like, “What can I be doing now as a like 23-year-old to set myself up for future success?” I said, “Hone your craft. Like, go super deep into your craft and then teach other people your craft and build an audience. And if you can build an audience, then you can build a business. But like, you have to start there, you have to be like really good at what you’re doing, and then you also have to like have advocates, have fans.”

Rand: Yeah. I mean I love that approach as well. I think the audience first path of entrepreneurship is a really powerful one because I think once you have connections and resonance with an audience you often will build up the muscle to have awareness of their problems. And I think one of the biggest challenges of entrepreneurship is identifying a problem that many people actually have that is not solved yet, and then solving it in a way that is unique and uniquely valuable from everything else. It seems like many, many entrepreneurs still struggle with that.

John: Yeah I agree. I agree. Well, Rand, I’m wanna be respectful of your time. So thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. You know, as I said at the beginning, like you’ve huge for me. Like, Credo would not be where it is today without you and Moz being the one to mention me, like that Whiteboard Friday where you mentioned me earlier this year. It’s just like, my referral traffic just went boom. It just blew up.

Rand: Awesome.

John: And I’ve had multiple people be like, “Oh, Rand Fishkin has a testimonial on your homepage. Like, you must be legit.” I’m like, “Thank you. Thank you, Rand.”

Rand: You are legit, man. I mean, and you’re helping a lot of folks, I think, with a big, real problem, right, a problem that you and I have both seen many times over the years, so I commend for that. And yeah, certainly, I’m happy to keep endorsing and amplifying.

John: Awesome. I appreciate it, man. So if you could…I mean I bet a lot of people here already follow you on Twitter and on social media. But especially moving forward as you transition into the next thing, which best of luck, by the way. I mean I’m super stoked to see what it is, and I know it’s gonna be awesome. Where can people find you online? Where’s best to get in touch with you?

Rand: Yeah. So on Twitter I’m @randfish. I pay relatively good attention to most of my mentions there. You can also reach me on LinkedIn where I’m Rand Fishkin, and you can still email me for the next few months at rand@moz.com.