We Discuss Rand’s New Book Lost and Founder & All Things SEO
Rand has a book coming out April 24 called “Lost and Founder” about the biased thinking of Silicon Valley startup world and how founders/entrepreneurs/early stage teams can avoid those pitfalls. We also discuss SEO in 2018 and Rand give some insights connected to his many years helping individuals and companies working with the challenges os Search engine optimization.
This Episode is Sponsored by Kinsta Hosting
Here’s a Full Transcription Of Our Interview With Rand
Jonathan: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic Wednesday show, episode 287. I’ve got the immense pleasure of a great special guest and a bit of a hero of me, Rand Fishkin is our guest on the show today. Rand, would you like to give the audience a quick bio if they don’t know who you are.
Rand: Sure, yeah. No problem. I started a company called Moz, originally SEO Moz as a consulting business and then I transitioned it into a software company back in 2007 and raised some venture funding through the company over the next 7 years as CEO. And then, stepped down a few years ago and was with Moz until just about February actually. So, a couple months ago I left. When I left, Moz was about a 47 million dollar a year business with about 160 employees and 35,000 customers.
So it grew quite rapidly, raised a number of more rounds of venture and has been a big impactful company in the SEO space certainly. And now I’ve left, I’m doing a new company called SparkToro and that company is specifically focused on trying to help Marketers undercover where their audiences hang out and to whom they pay attention and what publications and events and podcasts and video channels are engaging to that. I hope to have a product in probably 6 to 9 months.
Jonathan: Well, we look forward to it. So, John, I’ve got my co-host for this episode. Kim couldn’t join us today but John is filling in. Can you tell us a bit about you, John?
John: Yeah. I’ll make it really brief. My name’s John Locke. My business is Lockedown SEO and we do Search Engine Optimization for manufacturers and industrial companies.
Jonathan: That’s great. And I’m the founder of WP-Tonic. We’re a WordPress focused maintenance and support company with a specialization in Membership and Learning Management Systems. Before we delve into our great special guest and delve into his unique outlook, I just want to quickly mention our major sponsor which is Kinsta Hosting. The WP-Tonic website is hosted by Kinsta. They’re a specialized WordPress only hosting provider, big enough to have all the bells and whistles, staging site, fantastic support but small enough to still really care. And I have, like I say, the WP-Tonic website hosted plus a number of my client websites hosted with them. They are just fantastic and we’re really delighted that they’re our long-term sponsor and they’ve been extremely supportive and they’re just generally really nice people.
So go to the WP-Tonic website. There will be links there. They are affiliate links. So if you use those for yourself or for your clients, you’ll be supporting the show and that would be great. And give them a Twitter and tell them that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic website. They’d just love you for doing that and so would we. Right Rand, so you wrote your book. Why did you write it and can you just give a quick outline and some of the key things in the book that you covered? Only a small question Rand.
Rand: Small question, yeah. Easy to answer. No problem. Jonathan: I’m notorious for these questions Rand.
Rand: Yeah. Big broad ones that are challenging. So I think that my book mostly came from a desire to share openly a lot of things that, particularly over the last 6 years, I have not shared as openly as I traditionally did in the 10 years prior. So, folks who maybe followed me on my blog through 2005 to 2014, 2015 would say, “Wow. Rand is super transparent about all these difficult situations and really walks through what it’s like to go through whatever it is”, you know, transitioning from a services business to a consulting business or having a failed fundraising round or a number of other posts that I wrote that did very well and went viral. But over the last 2 years, I haven’t been able to do that.
So Lost and Founder was kind of an attempt to make up for that lack of transparency, some of those missing stories and also to try and put all of the experiences over the last 17 years of kind of what it’s like to build this company that does a lot of revenue and that’s grown quite fast at times and then struggles at times, to give that some context and a narrative. And then, to extract a bunch of lessons from it. So it’s hard for me to give you an outline because Lost and Founder, unlike a lot of business books which are sort of single topic focused, they sort of make a point right in the beginning and then the rest of the chapters are spent reinforcing that point and telling stories about how to apply that particular point. Those books do very very well. I think that they resonate well. They’re made for good Marketing. Lost and Founder is not like that at all. It is a complicated series of stories that I think will certainly resonate with folks. For the earlier readers, I’ve gotten some lovely feedback. But it is extremely hard to sum up. It’s more like 19 different extractable lessons from each of these time periods. So if want, we can go through a few of those.
Jonathan: Yeah. Give us a couple that you’ve, I’m looking for the right word here, that’s in your consciousness at the present moment. That’s a good way of putting it.
Rand: Oh, sure. Sure. I’m starting a new company and one of the chapters that I wrote was about pivoting. Pivoting is like this sacrosanct holy grail that all startups are entitled to. You raise a bunch of money and you’re going really hard at this one problem. But if you discover that it’s not working, you can just pivot to a whole different problem. You can go from being to Twitter and the number of other famous companies that have transitioned in that way. But I am extremely skeptical of the pivot.
What pivoting means is we just poured many months or years and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars into this particular direction, this problem that we thought we were going to solve. And now, having learned a lot about that problem’s space, we’ve decided it is no longer good. And so, we are starting from scratch with less money and no particularly strong experience in this totally new area. And I think that’s actually a very avoidable to get around. For example, one of the things that I’m doing with SparkToro is we have not started building any product yet. I’m still spending a lot of time each day on phone calls and over email and over video chat with a bunch of people in the Marketing field who are doing the kinds of work that I hope my product will solve. I want to make sure, 100 percent sure, that it’s actually a problem they have that really is painful enough that they’re experiencing it in exactly the way I think that they are.
So that when we build something, I know, “Hey. I’ve had 200 conversations. I know that there’s a ton more people like the 200 people I talked to”. That can make me feel more confident in what we’re building and hopefully avoid having to pivot, at least a big pivot. I think little ones are fine. That’s a big lesson I talk about in Lost and Founder. Another one that’s heavy on my mind is, this comes from, I think it’s the last chapter or the second to last chapter, just the power of focus. Of being able to say, “We do this one thing and we do it extraordinarily well and much better than anyone else in the field”. As opposed to saying, “Well, our company does a lot of things. We’re not particularly great at any of them but we’re an all in one solution and it’s hard to find all these things in one place”.
And it turns out that is not very popular these days. For some reason, people are much happier going to point solutions. Zoom is a great example. You probably have Google Suite. You’ve got your Gmail and your Google Drive and all that kind of stuff. And yet, here we are using Zoom instead of Google Hangouts. Why? Because this one point solution is better. It’s a higher quality product. It does the job better than Hangouts does. We probably all have Microsoft Office and I bet most of us use Excel but then we probably use Google Docs for a bunch of other things. Gosh, why are we paying for that? But we probably don’t use Google Docs when we make presentations because PowerPoint is still a better solution. I think that the days of all in one software are fading out in favor of, I’m happy to learn a new interface and pay more money to get exactly the right thing. I think that’s part of the power that comes from focusing your efforts and being best in the world. As opposed to trying to be everything to everyone.
Jonathan: I follow you on that completely. I just feel, just that last point. It’s a very confused area at the present moment. I agree with you. There is a trend. Obviously, you’re an extremely logical person, so I see where you’re coming from.
Rand: If you ask my Board of Directors, they’d disagree with you.
Jonathan: No. The one thing I’ve learned in becoming an old aged pensioner is most things are grey. There are some things that are definitely black and white. But a lot of things are grey. But there are some products I know that have been developed and they’ve thrown, a British phrase, they’ve thrown the kitchen sink. They’ve got so many different features. It’s unbelievable. And they’re adding even more features. And then, there’s other products, like you say, that just do one thing and they try and be best at it. John, have you got a question?
John: Yeah. So, my question is, this is something that we’ve seen a lot become a debate in our own space. In WordPress right now, hosting companies are kind of like doing battle.
John: But one thing that I found very interesting is a selling point has become we’re bootstrapped versus here’s this evil company over here that’s like taking VC money. This is an actual thing that is, I’ve seen two companies use this in the last couple of weeks. What are your thoughts on this? Is there still room for bootstrapped companies? How does that look different from a VC company?
Rand: What’s really interesting to me is a VC backed company will often frame themselves as the challenger to the big companies, the big public companies or the large private companies that own an industry. And they’ll say, “We’re more nimble and we have the advantage of being able to sort of poor capital into solving this problem better and reimagining the problem space and coming up with a better solution”. I think that analogy works flawlessly for bootstrapped companies against venture-backed companies. And I think what’s even more exciting for a bootstrapped company is they don’t have the requirements, the binary exit requirements that a venture-backed company does.
So a venture-backed company, you’re job once you raise venture capital is to return minimum 3, hopefully, more like 5 to 10 X the investors capital and hopefully you’re going to raise more money from them and then make an even bigger return on that. Because they need to take a 500 million dollar fund and turn that into a billion dollars, a billion and a half dollars over the next 7 to 10 years and the only way to do that and beat the market is with companies that are going to have extraordinary performance. So they’re going to invest in, let’s say, 30 companies in a portfolio. 24 of those companies, hopefully, will die or fail completely. 2 or 3 of those companies will do pretty well. And then, 2 or 3 will return the fund entirely. That’s sort of the model. I might be fudging the Math a little bit. As a result, venture-backed companies are encouraged to spend fast to get growth fast and to be very aggressive in the types of growth that they pursue. Whereas a bootstrapped company can say, “Hang on. I think we’re going to do a million dollars in revenue this year and there’s only the three of us. We’re rich. We’re doing amazing. Let’s keep this up. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep making customers happy and let’s keep doing what we’re doing. And if next year we make 1.2 million, we’re thrilled. And if the year after that we’re like up to 1 1/2 or 1.75 and our product’s still doing well and our two other employees are happy and we’re beloved in our space, awesome”. And I think that power is very underrated. The power not to have to go extremely fast, not to have to burn out your team and your employees to try and get this crazy performance and not to have to risk company death all the time, especially in the early stages. Moz didn’t have to do a ton of that. But certainly, in the early days, we took a huge risk. Burned almost all our cash to build the original Linkscape, the engine that powered Open Site Explore which for many years was the leader in its field. And now, has given up a lot of ground but is about to get it back I think.
I remember those days. From November of 2007 to October of 2008, we burned from, I think we had 1.2 million dollars in the bank and we went down to $200,000 in the bank in a year. So we were just right on the edge and then we launched the product and it did really really well, it grew us fast and we went from burning cash to making cash and we were profitable for, I think, the next 6 years after that. So it was kind of a high-risk model. It might not have worked out. And if it didn’t, we would have been dead within a few months.
Jonathan: Wow. It’s fantastic. So, obviously, you’ve left Moz. Obviously, you weren’t the active CEO but I’m thinking of any other individual that is so linked to their company’s brand as much as you.
Rand: Sure, yeah.
Jonathan: You’re kind of an icon individual in the SEO industry and your linkage of your personal brand to your company was extremely tight. So you decided to leave Moz. That must have been, well, I’m presuming, you could say, actually, it was a very decision. But I would imagine it was an extremely difficult and painful decision. How long did it take you to decide that it had to be done?
Rand: Gosh. That’s a tough question. So, let me first be clear. I left voluntarily. So I would say, yes, it was my decision to leave. But also, I think it was the leadership of the company’s decision that that was a good decision that I should be making. So it’s sort of right in the middle of, “We don’t want you here anymore”, and, “You are choosing to go”. It’s not either of those extremes. It’s somewhere in the middle. A little bit messy. That being said, I think the circumstances that led up to it were, it was sort of following the layoffs that Moz did in 2016. I had a lot of professional conflict. And then, that led to personal conflict which led to a lot more professional conflict and sort of broken relationships. And then, that was sort of the trigger for, “Okay. I think it’s time that you left”.
And very thankfully, certainly for my wife and I, one of our investors Foundry Group stepped in and said, “Hey. We think it would be not great if Rand were to leave the business right now. We’d like him to stick around for a year”, as you pointed out, “His personal brand is very tied to Moz and this is a tentative time for the company. So let’s keep him around for a year and ask him to work on this particular project”, this project I mentioned around links that’s coming out soon. And so, I agreed to do that. I was sort of happy to make that commitment. But it’s not the most fun thing in the world being at a company for a year when you know leadership doesn’t really want you there. It was okay. I loved the team I was working with. I still love an overwhelming majority of the people at Moz and I’m cheering for their success. But, yeah. I don’t know if it was a hard decision but it was definitely a hard process.
Jonathan: Thank for being so frank about it. We’re going to go for our break folks. We’ll be back. I’ve got one of my, I can’t believe it. He’s like one of my heroes, a really class act, Rand Fishkin. We’ll be back in a few moments folks.
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Jonathan: We’re coming back. We’ve had a fantastic discussion. Well, I do see you as a class act actually Rand. I’ve always thought you’ve done things your own way. Actually, your letter that you wrote which you made public, I thought that was typical of your style really. It was a really great way to leave in a way. You must have taken a while to write that.
Rand: You’re going to be shocked. I was actually shocked. I had a very very busy week and I realized I needed to write this post, my last that was sort of coming up. And so, late that night before I went to sleep for my last day, I probably only spent maybe 2 hours writing that post. It was just something that had been sitting in my head for so long, I think it was really easy to just put it out there, or comparatively easy. I spent a lot more time drawing up all my charts and graphs for that jump shot post I did the next week with all the data.
Jonathan: Before I ask John to come in with another question, I’ve just got one. I think conflict in a company is good. I think passionate discussion on board level or having different views. And like I said to you and John in this conversation, there’s a lot of grey out there. There is no finite answer with a lot of business problems in general. So a good passionate discussion and a lot of people shy away from that. But also, how do you keep it so it doesn’t also become toxic as well? Got any insights about that?
Rand: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I talked a little bit about this in Lost and Founder around values and getting people on the team who share values and belief in who should we hire and what kinds of people are right here, what behaviors would we dismiss people for. I think certainly when you assemble that team and they share those beliefs and those values, that helps a tremendous amount. And I think it also helps to share the big picture . Because disagreeing on the tactics or how you get there becomes much more tenable than you all agree, “Look. We want to go there. That is the direction that we’re going and this is how we’re going to get there. You think this is going to work the best to get us in there and I think this is going to work the best and so we’re going to try your thing or we’re going to try my thing”. The CEO is going to make a call about whose thing is going to be tried. But there’s no hard feelings. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll try the other person’s way. Fundamentally, that’s sort of at the core of how you have those robust discussions with healthy disagreement and then come to good conclusions.
I will say one more thing which is I think that everyone in the room needs to feel psychologically safe. If John and Jonathan and I, if we’re all having a discussion about, “Hey. Maybe we should change the format of this show. We think the WP-Tonic show should be in a different format”. But if I feel like I could share what’s going on in my personal life and you guys wouldn’t judge me and it would make you like me and accept me more and you would say, “Rand, that’s sounds hard. Let me give you a virtual hug. I am behind you 100 percent”.
Jonathan: You get no hugs from an English guy like me Rand.
Rand: But I’m saying that of relationship between us would mean that when we disagree about professional things, it’s fine. There’s no hard feelings. There’s no animosity. There’s only sort of a personal and professional love between us that gets over all of those disagreements which are just tactical and logical disagreements and you think we should try this thing and I think we should try that thing. But we can be passionate about our beliefs but we need that to be able to be vulnerable with each other or to feel like we could be vulnerable and we would not be judged by the others for it.
Jonathan: Yeah. I think I get some sense what you’re meaning because if you can’t be honest without it being used a weapon later on, you’re not going to get any honestly.
Jonathan: But it’s finding that balance. I think also when it starts becoming personal attacks at board level where people say, “You’re just not a really nice person”. Use stronger language than that, whatever.
Rand: I think you get into a situation where you say, “Hey. Look, John, I need to pull you aside. I think Jonathan is actually acting only in his personal best interest and he’s doing this for political reasons. We should be careful about how we treat him”. You get that all the time on teams. You get that sort of, “I don’t trust that person. I don’t think they have the best intentions. I think their motivation is suspect”. And that is when you have a break down of the system. That’s when you have to let somebody go.
Jonathan: And it can also work the other way. When people are too close to you, sometimes because of a few personal loyalty and the closeness of the relationship, they can’t be totally honest with you.
Rand: Interesting, interesting.
Jonathan: Well, John, got your next question, John?
John: Yeah. I sure do. I love what you said about being able to be vulnerable because, I’ll just agree before I ask my question. Definitely, people can’t contribute fully unless they feel like what they’re saying is going to be heard and actually listened to. So, total agreeance. One thing that I saw that you were writing about very recently was changing, not just targeting search as we’re looking at keywords but it’s more about creating a brand that’s synonymous with those search words. And I really do feel like SEO is going that direction. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about creating demand for a brand and associating words with a brand instead of just being the top for a certain set of words together.
Rand: Totally. Yeah. So I think this is actually a direction that Google has been pursuing and it’s benefitted brands that are synonymous with their topic or with their area of interest quite a bit. And it’s also meant that for brands who aren’t that, they’re sort of left with this choice. Do I pursue very classic SEO where I go after non-branded keywords and try and build links and content to rank in there? Or can I try and create demand for my brand and associate my brand with the topic so that people are not searching for, whatever it is, Rehab Center on Google, they’re searching for the name of our Rehab Center on Google. And if a lot of people start to do that, Google will actually push you up in the rankings for the unbranded keyword terms.
I think what’s really interesting is that is not a skill, that brand building and sort of attention and awareness building, that is not a skill that SEOs classically have had to develop. That’s not been a strength of ours. We’ve left that up to a whole different class of Marketers and Advertisers. And so, the fact that we now have to invest in that and get good at that, I think that presents some challenges. And I’ve seen a bunch of pushback in the field too of people saying, “No, no, no. I do your website audit. I give you the keyword research and I do technical SEO and then I show you have gaps in links and then you try and rank for these keywords”. That’s the job of an SEO. This whole, “I’m going to get people to search for your brand name. That’s not me”. I think that’s going to be a hurdle for us to overcome. Some of us anyway.
Jonathan: Got another question, John?
John: Yeah. Sure thing. Here’s a question. SparkToro seems, even though I know you’re not building a product yet, right now, to me, it seems almost positioned around Influencer Marketing and we see an awful lot of that in our space.
John: In fact, a lot of products receive boosts because there is a lot of Influencer Marketing, Affiliate Marketing, people do and sponsor different things. What do you feel are the keys to success when it comes to getting people to vouch for a product or something that you’re trying to sell?
Rand: Yeah, sure. I think authenticity is probably mentioned the most and I agree with that because it is absolutely huge. I think it’s easy to tell when someone is promoting a product because they’ve been paid or sponsored to do so and that’s a very different kind of endorsement. If I see Lebron James in an advertisement for Sprite, I don’t think, “I bet that guy really likes Sprite and that’s authentic”. But if I see him in a place where he has no idea that he’s being filmed and he goes to a fridge and there’s a bunch of different drinks in there and he actually grabs and Sprite and drinks it in private, all right.
That’s new information to me. That’s sort of authentic. And there are people and brands and publications that are known for their authenticity and ones whose credibility is suspect. For example, a lot of what’s called Influencer Marketing right now actually just means, let’s go find a person on YouTube with a large following or a person on Instagram with a large following and we’re going to pay them a bunch of money and send them our product and they are going to put up a post or a video about it. I know that technically for some brands that is working. I don’t think it will work for long. I think that that particular tactic is going to follow Andrew Chen’s classic Law of Shitty Clickthrough rates and eventually become much less powerful. Instead, I think that seeking out people who authentically already like a product and then amplifying them, creating products that people, especially influential people will naturally love and gravitate toward and then making it easy for them to access it or being in the right places at the right times where they are.
I think that’s another great way to go. And I think in the field of Influencer Marketing, unfortunately, somehow publications which have a tremendous amount of sway have lost focus, not the publications themselves but the field of Influencer Marketing has lost focus on publications that could really move the needle. And so, sort of the world of the blogosphere and of traditional media and of sort of the world of new media that have a presence online, I don’t know why that’s not classified as Influencer Marketing but it absolutely should be. And I think that those folks because of their editorial decisions and the trust that they’ve built up with their audiences over time have much more sway than a lot of people perceive.
I think very frankly, Influencer Marketing should be a little bit more like link building. I know that sounds weird. But modern link building is totally, it’s identifying right people who reach right audiences and right websites that can provide links and hopefully get you traffic and also help your Google rankings. And then, doing outreach to those folks that’s going to have an impact. That sounds a lot like what Influencer Marketing should be.
Jonathan: That’s great. There seems to be a lot of bad news recently about the Internet and Internet companies from the Facebook incident to the very unfortunate killings at YouTube to certain statements made by a certain President about Amazon. There seems to be a lot of interesting stuff going on. Do you think there’s any linkage to all these separate incidents? Have you got any of thoughts about why that’s happening?
Rand: Sure. Yeah. I’m going to say yesish. I think there’s a thread that you can run or several threads you can run between these various topics. But a lot of it has to do with the dramatic polarization of political thought and political support in the United States. But I think also somewhat in Europe and other countries. There’s kind of a like, what do I want to call it, I’m going to say a world of white nationalism that’s spread across multiple countries. And I think obviously, Donald Trump is the beneficiary of that here in the United States and there have been some leaders in Europe who are as well. And then, on the flip side of that, you see people who are very angry and very upset about this. And Facebook, I think Facebook happens to be a very convenient target for both sides of that. Because rather than saying, “Well, I guess we did kind of conspire with a foreign government to illegally rig a Presidency”. They can say, “But Facebook enabled us to do that”. And on the other side of that, you can sort of point and say, “Yeah. Facebook enabled that”. And so, everyone can get mad at Facebook and they can be a common enemy for a time. So I think there’s some of that. Facebook’s business model is essentially exactly what people are complaining about. They think they’re complaining about, “Hey. Facebook allowed”, whatever, “Cambridge Analytics to use third-party data to get all this information and maybe it was on behalf of some foreign government which has its own problems”.
But I think the real issue is that’s what Facebook is. It’s free. It makes all these things fun and easy. It sucks up your time all day. And in exchange, you’re the product and Facebook sells you to Advertisers and third-parties and political parties and candidates. And if you’re not comfortable with that, you should not be on Facebook. But I think that, very frankly, people don’t care that much about privacy. They just don’t, especially in the United States, Europe a little bit more. But people in the US do not care about privacy. They are happy to trade privacy in exchange for some of these free Internet services.
Jonathan: Well, it’s all about boundaries, isn’t it? I’ve put a lot of stuff on Facebook. But there’s some stuff you’ll never find on Facebook about me or on Twitter or any kind of social media platform. There will be some things about me that are either for my family and my friends. But other people just choose to literally put everything about themselves on all social media networks. It’s a kind of choice in a way.
Rand: I like Twitter a little bit more because I think Twitter is very much a, “Okay. Everything you do is completely 100 percent public”. That’s the whole model. And this is a broadcasting. I think they describe themselves, certainly initially, less as a social network and more as a, “We’re a microblogging platform. So if you want to blog and say something to the whole world and have as many people as possible read it and see it, you put it here and it can go and reach a lot people”. And so, I like that transparency that’s sort of inherent in your thinking about Twitter as opposed to Facebook which is kind of like, “Hey. We have tons of privacy settings. You can choose who sees your updates. Oh, yes. But also, a clever data broker who wants to target you with advertising and messaging can also gain access to you”, and you may not be aware of that.
Jonathan: That’s great. We’re going to wrap it up for the podcast part of the show. Rand’s been very generous. He’s going to stay on for a little while and continue the discussion which you’ll be able to see on the WP-Tonic website with a full transcript of our interview from beginning to end. Rand, if people want to find out more about you and what you’re up to, how’s the best way for them to achieve that?
Rand: Sure. So I’ve been writing a little bit at sparktoro.com/blog and I’m very active on Twitter @randfish. And certainly, if you have any particularly private questions for me, you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan: That’s great. Thank you. And John, if people want to find out more about what you’re up to, what’s the best way to do achieve that, John?
John: You can go to my website which is Lockedown SEO or search for LockedownSEO on YouTube. How do the people get a hold of you Jonathan? Jonathan: Oh, before that, I want to say John’s been publishing all sorts of SEO stuff. You’ve become a bit of a monster with your publishing schedule, haven’t you John? John: in love with a monster.
Jonathan: Yeah. You’re right. And how to get a hold of me? It’s quite easy. Like Rand, I’m blessed with an unusual name. So you can find me on Twitter @jonathandenwood. Go to the WP-Tonic website. We’ve got a load of articles about membership, LMSs, search, you name it and you can find us on our Facebook page. We’re going to wrap it up now folks. Like I say, we’re going to continue the discussion for a while and next week we’ll have somebody doing something interesting with WordPress or the Internet in general. We’ll see you next week folks
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