Ground Up Podcast

Rand Fishkin Reflects on 17 Years of Moz & Search Engine Optimization

As he prepares to leave the company he founded to start anew, Fishkin shares details on how Moz built its product and audience, the importance of owned assets, and what he’s thinking of next…

John Bonini John Bonini on January 16, 2018 (last modified on January 24, 2018) • 3 minute read

When we first booked Rand Fishkin for Ground Up, I admittedly struggled on how to angle the interview.

Do we focus on SEO? After all, Rand is probably the single greatest resource on the topic on the planet.

Do we focus on Moz, the business? He launched Moz in 2004 as a blog, formerly known as SEOMoz. Think about that. This was before Facebook was open to everyone. No Twitter. No iPhone. To build and sustain a tech company that long, over that period of time, is remarkable.

So I was torn. So I did what any rational human would do–I did both.

What followed was the most honest conversation we’ve had on Ground Up to date.

Rand shared everything from why he’s leaving Moz to personal things like his bout with depression that led him to step down as CEO in 2014. And of course, we talked a lot about SEO.

Settle in. This one is longer, but worth every minute.

P.S. There is no way to summarize, or even post highlights from our conversation. However, I did add just a couple of my favorite quotes from the interview below.

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On raising money

[The following was Rand paraphrasing a quote he’d recently come across.]

“Venture capital is rocket fuel. And if you’re building a car, or a house, or even a jet plane but one that doesn’t plan to go into orbit–rocket fuel is dangerous. It’s bad for you.

Your investors will be pretty disappointed in you even if you build the world’s best house. The world’s best car. The world’s best jet plane. They’re counting on that rocket that’s going to take them to space. So you have to be prepared for what you’re signing up for.

I think a lot of startup culture, especially Silicon Valley culture, creates this impression among entrepreneurs–certainly I held it–that you’re not a “real” entrepreneur unless you’re venture backed. That’s the litmus test. And once you’ve met that, the new litmus test is “are you a unicorn?” And then, “are you a unicorn that exited?”

Nothing is ever really good enough unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, and even with Bill Gates it’s, “well, how good is Microsoft really?” (Laughs)

It’s a pretty weird, messed up cultural signifier.”

On launching the blog first

“People tell you not to think of the mentality, “build it and they will come”, but if you build it and they’re already there, which is essentially what happened in our case, then you’ll have the right customers for your product.

The [Moz] blog already had the right customers for the product, the people who were doing the same work we were, learning about SEO, sharing what they were doing, arguing about tactics–those people were right customers for our products.

The fact that we already had the audience meant that we didn’t have to get particularly good at marketing to get our first 100 customers or even our first 2,000 customers.”

On the assets businesses should invest in

“For most web-based businesses, it’s still your website.

For a lot of small and local businesses, the answer is probably your email list.

The reason I don’t say Twitter, Facebook, or any social channels is because those non-owned assets just have much more limited reach and it’s in the interest of all these other platforms to keep people on their website and their user experience, not on yours.

You might be a huge YouTube celebrity, but if it were me, I’d do what I’ve done with Whiteboard Friday. I’d host with Wistia, I’d put the videos on my website, and then maybe three months later put it on YouTube.”

About the author
John Bonini
John Bonini is Director of Marketing at Databox. He's passionate about building brands that tell great stories. Connect with him on Twitter @bonini84.
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