Leaders | Interview with Rand Fishkin Part 1



Rand Fishkin






Rand Fishkin





James Fratzke

Partner & Executive Strategist,

Head of Client Success




Rand Fishkin



This is part one of a two-part interview with Rand Fishkin the Founder of SparkToro (formerly of Moz). If you're in the SEO or digital marketing world then you've probably used Moz.com and even if you haven't you've probably seen Rand Fishkin pop up in your LinkedIn News Feed. We taped our original LEADERS interview with Rand a few months back as he was getting ready to leave Moz and go on to his next big adventure. But we weren't able to really dig into exactly what that next adventure was until recently when Rand announced he was officially leaving Moz. So we decided to get Rand back on the phone and take a deeper dive into some of the exciting things going on in his life. This is part one of a two-part interview with Rand. Keep in mind that this first part is more recent. Part 2 (which is available right now on iTunes and Google Play!) follows our typical LEADERS podcast format where we make an assumption that you, the listener, don't know who the leader is. But you're listening to learn from their lessons and stand on the shoulders of giants. Part 1 is more for people familiar with Rand, but it's also packed with lessons for everyone else! Make sure you check out both episodes!


Quick disclaimer: these transcripts are auto-generated. They are best used in addition to the Podcast audio not instead of. We cannot guarantee 100% accuracy.

James Fratzke : [00:00:00] If you're in the SEO or digital marketing world then you've probably used Moz and even if you haven't you've probably seen Rand Fishkin who is the founder and former CEO of Moz pop up in your LinkedIn News Feed. At some point in your career we taped our leaders interview with Rand a few months back as he was getting ready to leave Moz and go on to his next big adventure. But we weren't able to really dig into exactly what that next adventure was quite yet until recently when Rand actually announced to the world that he was officially leaving Moz in a very heartfelt vulnerable blog post which we've linked in the show notes. So we decided to get Rand back on the phone and dig into some of the exciting things going on in his life. This is part one of a two-part interview. Again remember that this first part is more recent. These things have just happened in Rand's life. Part 2 which is available right now as well on iTunes and Google Play follows the typical leader's podcast format where we make an assumption that you don't know who the leader is. But you're there to learn from their lessons and stand on the shoulders of giants. So with that please enjoy. Part 1 of our Rand Fishkin interview and make sure you check out Part 2 which is also available for your listening pleasure as we speak.


James Fratzke : [00:01:23] All right so you recently left Moz and you wrote this awesome blog post where you got pretty vulnerable and kind of put a few things out there and one of my favorite quotes was on a scale of 0 to 10 "where zero is you were fired and escorted out of the building by security." And 10 is "you left entirely on your own accord on wonderful terms." Your departure you ranked at of 4. That doesn't sound exactly pleasant but I loved the analogy. Do you mind kind of digging into a little bit what did you mean by that?


Rand Fishkin: [00:01:51] Yeah well I was trying to keep it vague enough because I don't think going into details is particularly appropriate or helpful. I was sort of asked by my leadership not to delve into those details. I'm trying to respect that verbal promise. Long story short is that personal and professional conflict you know between myself and Moz's leadership led to my departure. I think you know that that sucks right, but when you're not the CEO and you get into a real, you know, a true fight of that magnitude. You're going to be the one taking off.


James Fratzke : [00:02:32] Fair enough. I respect that response, let me go back to the blog post real quick. You said that after leaving Moz you felt "sadness, heaps of regret and a smattering of resentment." Now we could certainly talk about those things but I've always felt that it's more positive to talk about the future and things that we're excited about, so Rand, what does the future have and hold for you?


Rand Fishkin: [00:02:56] Well yeah I wrote about that a little bit in the blog post as well but the three big things. One is I have a book coming out called Lost and Founder, and that is about the last 17 years of building Moz, founding the company transitioning from a services to a product firm and you know it tells a lot of stories. But the book is really trying to help founders and early stage companies and people who are going through these growth experiences to avoid making a lot of the same mistakes that we made, and that I made, and that is... Look I think there's no way that I could or anyone could help you avoid a lot of the disaster that comes from a startup world. There's a reason that nine out of 10 startups fail, and it's just a very hard risky enterprise. But if you can at least avoid making the same exact mistakes that we made I think that'll be, that'll be a win. And that's really my hope. My pitch to the publisher was sort of, Silicon Valley startup wisdom and "wisdom" in air quotes bias founders to make a lot of dumb decisions and mistakes because we think it's what we're supposed to do. Things like you know when you raise a big round of funding you have to spend the money quickly to get more growth quickly. That's why you raise that money if you're not going to use it. It was a waste and it diluted you and your employees for no reason. So that's your job. But that's actually a pretty dumb way to go. Spending a tiny bit of that money to experiment until you've found things that work and you can pour cash into and know that you feel confident that you can get a great outcome from you because that takes you two to five years. That's actually a much better way to go. Much better and your investors will probably be supportive. But even if they're not you're in charge right. You're the CEO. You should run that thing. So just a lot of tactics for how to stay alive. How to avoid disaster. And some things that have worked really well for Moz. Some decisions we made that were that were really terrible that you don't have to make.


James Fratzke : [00:05:08] Well I've always said there's two types of people in this world, the ones that learn from other people's mistakes and the ones that have to pee on the electric fence themselves. It sounds like you are helping.


Rand Fishkin: [00:05:20] Well at least when you pee and you feel the jolt you'll know what it is.


James Fratzke : [00:05:25] That's great.


Rand Fishkin: [00:05:26] So even if you have to make the mistake you can be like "that what that Rand guy was talking about.


James Fratzke : [00:05:31] Right. You're wrapping words around it so you don't have to spend that extra time trying to post mortem figure out what the hell did I just do. You'll know exactly what happened. I love that. Yes. So when does the book go live and kind of will you be doing any promotional stuff going on book tours anything like that how's that work usually?


Rand Fishkin: [00:05:51] Yeah. So it comes out April 24th. In May I will be visiting a few cities and doing some book events so doing one here in Seattle and one in Portland and one in New York and one in San Francisco. So not a ton of not a ton of places but put a little bit and then you know I am speaking at lots of conferences and events this year. And I think most of those that are after April 24th. You know anyone who knows this event will probably get a copy of the book too. Yeah I don't really know what it's like to be an author. Rather than an entrepreneur but yeah that leads to my second thing that I'm doing post Moz which is starting a new company. I mentioned you know I've got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I have something to prove. And I think you know it's not just prove to other people it's prove to myself. I need to be able to prove to myself that I can build another interesting exciting company even if it's very different. And I think this one will be I I don't have you know, 150 or 250 employees. My goal is to keep this one pretty small. Not to raise any institutional capital. Make a company that I can feel really excited and proud about. Even if it's in a very different way.


James Fratzke : [00:07:05] Right now the name of the company, I hope I'm saying is right, "SparkToro"


Rand Fishkin: [00:07:10] You got it!


James Fratzke : [00:07:11] Boom. There we go!


Rand Fishkin: [00:07:11] So James the way I picked that name was I had to ask a bunch of people just to say you know show them the written word and then say it and everyone said it exactly the same. So when then I was like "Good!" excellent. It's easy to pronounce. SparkToro!


James Fratzke : [00:07:28] The capital T really helps. OK so a couple of questions I want to dig into because I think there's a couple of interesting things we can unpack, but the first is tell us a little bit about SparkToro. It's about influencers, it's about audience intelligence, but you're taking a little bit of a different slant on it.


Rand Fishkin: [00:07:45] I think the problem, the basic problem, that I see, that we see over and over again is that a lot of marketers engage in this practice whether they're in house or at an agency, engage in this practice where they try and figure out where their audience hangs out online. What blogs and websites do they read? Who do they follow on Twitter and Instagram? What Facebook pages do they like? What YouTube channels are they subscribing to? What podcasts do they listen to? What events they go to? Right. Who are the influential people who are the sort of big minds that they follow in their field? And right now that's a convoluted manual process That's done through a combination of lots and lots of googling and then you know clicking around to verify things and surveying your audience and interviewing them. And we think we can do a much better job of that with software. I mean and in an ideal world if you imagine like a perfect product you have a huge data set of everyone in the world and all of the things that they've liked and shared and visited online and you can then do a big like Venn diagram of okay, you know what every general contractor in the greater Seattle area turns out they all listen to this podcast, or you know 7 percent of them listen to this podcast. And that's actually the highest percent of any you know podcasts that general contractors in in the greater Seattle area listen to. And so that's the podcast that we want to advertise on, or that's the podcast we want to try and get a guest appearance on. Or we see that they all go to this particular event. It's not even in Seattle it's in Vancouver B.C.. All right well let's try and have a booth at that Vancouver expo, or whatever it is. So that is what we're trying to get close to. And obviously we won't have the perfect data set and the perfect product but we're going to try and estimate something like that so that you can get real data about who does my audience pay attention to and how much and where should I be going and spending my time and energy and dollars and budget right?


James Fratzke : [00:09:56] So instead of just kind of randomly making guesses and kind of pointing at a map and saying "that's the one we're going to do that." You're going to rap some different ideas and algorithms around that. And not even algorithm s , I guess its pulling in raw data taking those data sets and being able to paint a picture with them.


Rand Fishkin: [00:10:15] Exactly right. So trying to get a statistically significant sample set of any given group that you're trying to reach and target and then saying "OK they are in these places with these levels of density" therefore you can reach that audience through these channels or through this influencer or through this event or podcast, or what have you.


James Fratzke : [00:10:38] I want to dig into that a little bit more but before I forget my other question I want to ask you because coming up with a brand name is really important and it's kind of difficult. I used to interview rock bands and the very pop that question used to be like "Well how did you come up with your name?" You know it's like they've never heard that before. So I'm gonna to ask you and hopefully we get a better more interesting response but how do you come up with that name. I mean there's a lot of pressure on coming up with something. It's definitely unique and different. What was that thought process?


Rand Fishkin: [00:11:05] So this one was much less. You know what something that I like and want to have. And much more. Let me find something that fits all the criteria. And as long as I don't dislike it we'll go with it. So the criteria for me were zero results in Google. You Search for the name prior to the launch of the website and Google had no results. If you put SparkToro in quotes you know no space zero results. Not a single thing had ever been associated with it previously. And I really wanted that because I wanted no preexisting associations. I also wanted it because it makes it really easy to track the company's progress over time. Right so you can plug it into you know a tool like Mention or talk walker and see all the places, or Google alerts and see every time you're mentioned. Look we appeared here. You can see it in search volume through Google trends and see. Oh OK. More and more people are searching for our brands. Great. That's excellent. And I think that becomes a lot harder if you have overlap with other names or other preexisting ideas. The other thing was we wanted something that had no other concepts or associations around it. So SparkToro doesn't mean anything. No one could be like "Well I think they sound like they do blah." We wanted it to be like "No you have to go and figure it out." You got to look it up. You can't just make an assumption that you think you know what that company does. You've got to look at it. And that was another important one. The dot com domain name was available. Well actually it wasn't available. It was owned by my wife but it was available to us.


James Fratzke : [00:12:51] There you go. Wow. How did that negotiating go?


Rand Fishkin: [00:12:54] No it was pretty easy surprisingly easy. It is just logged into her Google site's account and pointed the DNS where I wanted. Yeah I mean we also we wanted a name that was pronounceable so I don't know if you've seen the research there's this fascinating research about ticker symbols and company names on Wall Street, so the NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchange and how the more pronounceable and obvious the ticker symbol and the business name is the higher the stock price, controlling for all other variables.


James Fratzke : [00:13:34] Wow.


Rand Fishkin: [00:13:34] And I think that it's just a human bias to processing fluency. Right we like things that are easy to say and easy to remember and easy to think about. So we wanted a name that fit that. It could be said easily it wasn't you know overly long. It could be said in lots of languages. Right. So if you're in most western languages in Japanese and in lots of other cultures you can say SparkToro right. It's not overly Americanized or or any other language. Yeah. So those are all considerations.


James Fratzke : [00:14:13] It does roll off the tongue pretty good. So I like it a lot. My other question I was going to ask about you describe what your mission is with SparkToro and the problem that you're trying to solve. It's obviously different than the mission you were trying to solve for at Moz. Obviously there are some parallels and some similarities but what do you think that experience at Moz, how does that equip you to kind of build out this software company with a totally different aim but what are some of those things that you're going to take with you that it's going to make it easier or maybe set you up for success moving forward?


Rand Fishkin: [00:14:52] Well I think that there's a lot of painful lessons learned right? And some of those are about the forcing function of you know of a scale and of having venture dollars in. Right so Moz just published their annual report for 2017 and you could see the company did 47 and a half million dollars in revenue. You know about five and a half million of that was... So you know profitable company with a healthy amount of revenue. Tens of thousands of customers I think 36,000 or so customers. I think a lot of entrepreneurs would feel pretty good about that. Unless you're a venture backed company in which case you can't look at those numbers without also looking at growth rate year over year which I think was 11 percent. And that's the number that makes you go "Nope." Not an interesting venture business right. Sort of stuck in the middle company and you know maybe we shouldn't have made that investment. So that is that's real tough right to find yourself in that sort of position and I think that's one of the things that I want to be freed from in this in this next business. Not to be forced to be you know a billion-dollar outcome or failure, but rather to have opportunities for varying degrees of success. I think by being very intentional about how I finance the company and how I lead it and you know how I set up expectations that's very possible. You know another big lesson is focus. That's actually the last chapter of the book. I write about you know the challenges Moz faced due to a lack of focus. And for me that just means I've had lots of interviews with customers about SparkToro. I've heard tons of problems that people have. It would be awesome to try and solve all those problems. For example once people identify, these are the influential people in publications that reach my audience. The next thing we want to do is. All right, now I want to do outreach to each of them and I want to manage that contact flow and process. And I want to streamline it and get you know really good data out of that process. You know are these people answering my e-mails or calls and have I been mentioned on these sites. And with what frequency? Did I get a link from them all that kind of stuff? That whole CRM contact management process. I'm not doing it. I know people need it. I know it's been important to solve. I realize that. I'm not going to do it. Just nope, sorry. Right. And I think saying no to things that you know are customer problems that you could solve is really important so that you can focus on just the one thing, right. I want to I want SparkToro to be known just as a place with superb audience intelligence. You know and great metrics around influencers and audience and not anything else.


James Fratzke : [00:17:44] I think that's one of the most difficult parts of being in this space and especially dealing with enterprise level brands or small businesses even, even more so the mom and pop businesses. They want so much. Right. Well "why doesn't it do this or do that?" Because their imagination can imagine a world where maybe something could do that. Then they start looking at your product as inferior almost because they're like "well it should be able to do this" which is my favorite statement from a client "like it should be." Who the heck are you? How do you know what it should to you?


Rand Fishkin: [00:18:20] Yeah well, I think saying no to that stuff so that you can be you know truly superb at just one thing is a really powerful important way to play. And I would I would urge a lot of entrepreneurs and businesses to think about that carefully. It's so much easier to be known for being best in the world at something, and when you are best in the world at something you're so much more attractive to other companies as opposed to "what do they do?" "Well they do a bunch of stuff. You know this and this, we use them for this, we don't actually use this part of their thing for this." I don't want that right. I want to be Netflix not Amazon. Netflix is not all things to all people. You just watch shows and movies. It just has shows and movies, like what do you do with Netflix? You watch shows and movies. What you do with Amazon? Well they do a lot of things. It not that Amazon's bad right? Amazon is a good example of going broad and succeeding. But what do with Amazon? "I host my website there, and you can also buy pretty much anything you want from them. They have a self-publishing books department. You can get groceries delivered to your house. Oh they have a little speaker that lives in your house. Answer questions.


James Fratzke : [00:19:43] I'm glad you didn't say her name because if you did then she'd start speaking to us right now because I have one of her sitting right by me. But at any rate yes it is a lot of things and it becomes very difficult to manage that especially at scale. Obviously Amazon is a super freak example, but a lot of people that are starting businesses. I've seen they aspire to be the Amazon so they start trying to scale at an Amazon like level. We're going to do everything like Amazon does. Amazon did n 't get there overnight. They started selling books and they kind of grew from there so.


Rand Fishkin: [00:20:17] Well and I think what people miss out on is they look at Amazon and they say "it's possible." Right. And I hate "It's possible." What I want is TELL ME THE ODDS. I want the odds. I want to know how many thousands of companies failed because they tried to do those same things right. They tried to go broad. They tried to. They were selling books you know or whatever analogous process or product they were selling. They tried selling books and then expanding to everything else and it killed them. And I bet there's 999 companies like that for every one of Amazon. And I don't like those odds right. I don't want to play that game. I want to play the yeah like you know most startups fail, but actually 50 percent that did this made it through. All right. Now I mean in. That's what I want.


James Fratzke : [00:21:13] All right I want to end Part 1 of this interview on this note which is from your blog post. You said that one of the biggest lessons you've learned as the CEO of Moz is how to use empathy. I think empathy is one of my favorite words of 2018. I think because a lot of people get it mixed up and don't necessarily understand the definition which is basically put yourself in other people's shoes. That's what empathy is being able to put yourself in other people's shoes. So how did you use empathy Rand. How does it apply to leadership? Tell me a little bit.


Rand Fishkin: [00:21:50] Well so I think that the crucial thing for a CEO or a founder to be able to do is to put yourself in the shoes of two different kinds of people. Your customers and potential customers and your employees. And you need to be able to feel the feelings. I think empathy is about feeling right. So I can feel what it's like as a customer to have this frustrating challenging manual process problem of identifying influential publications and people that reach my audience so that I can go do good targeting you know with my marketing efforts like that. I feel that frustration. I know what that's like. I've watched people do it. I've had to send me their spreadsheets. I've seen all the inaccuracies in there and you know and the surface level metrics and all that crap and I know how they feel right they feel embarrassed by their research. They feel frustrated that the process takes so long they feel stymied right. Like just stop p ed when they can't reach deeper into an audience and find the right affinity for that group and then for employees right. You need to be able to feel the frustration of your employees. What is holding them back from delivering their best work? Why do they work for you? Why did they want to work for you? Why did they want to leave. What makes them leave? What inspires them to have great ideas? What holds them back? What's helping or harming them this week. Is that something that is something you need to consider in terms of their performance. Or is this a one-time thing that you need to forgive and let go. Because we're all human beings and have personal lives outside of work. And you know well if your parents you know if your mom just passed away. Yeah maybe you're not going to deliver your best week of work and maybe your CEO should not worry about that right. Those kinds of things. I think that both those kinds of empathy will help you deliver a better company a better product, better experience, have happier employees. All those things.


James Fratzke : [00:23:55] You know Rand this is part one of our interview that we're releasing to the world but part two we actually taped a few months back and there were just so many lessons that you shared that I think people can get excited about. Like not getting caught up in the hype of Silicon Valley or VC funding. Not getting caught up in the hype of a lifestyle company versus a real company. Understanding that you can only do, and this is something that I've talked to a lot of people about after our interview you can only do two things really well right? So you can't be a great dad, a great business owner, a great husband, and have a hobby on the side. Like those things just aren't going to, it's not going to go well for you. So another great life lesson from Rand, empathy. I think that's such a great place to kind of end. All right a quick recap before we wrap up Part 1 of this interview. Some exciting things going on with you right now Rand. First your book Lost and Founder is going to be released soon, if not already by the time people listen to this podcast. Lost and Founder is a painfully honest filled guide to the startup world. And then you have SparkToro which is this very exciting new company that you're starting. I know in your blog posts you mentioned that it's going to take a little bit of time for you and your team to put together exactly what that product offering looks like. But I'm very excited to kind of dig into that and get my hands on it as well. So Rand a very exciting time to be alive.


Rand Fishkin: [00:25:31] Yeah absolutely. Absolutely. Well James I really appreciate you having me on the show man. This has been great.


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