Robert Craven interviews Rand Fishkin - Spark ToroFeb 01, 2021
VIDEO: 1:11:50 mins
AUTHOR: Robert Craven and Rand Fishkin
In this GYDA Talks, Robert talks to Rand Fishkin. Rand is the Co-Founder and CEO of SparkToro. He has dedicated his professional life to helping people do better marketing through his blogging, videos, speaking, and his book, Lost and Founder. When Rand’s not working, he’s most likely to be in the company of his partner in marriage and (mostly petty) crime, author Geraldine DeRuiter. If you feed him great pasta or great whisky, he’ll give you the cheat code to rank #1 on Google.
Rand dropped out of the University of Washington in 2000 to work full-time at his mother’s small business marketing firm as a web designer. In 2004, he created the SEOmoz blog, which, over the next decade, became the world’s most popular community and content resource for search marketers. In 2007, Rand became CEO of SEOmoz, Inc (now called Moz), the software company he co-founded with his mom based on the blog’s success. In seven years as CEO, Rand grew Moz from seven employees to 134, revenues from $800K to $29.3m, and traffic from 1 to 30m annual visitors.
In 2018, Rand founded SparkToro and published, with Penguin/Random House, Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World. Rand previously co-contributed to two books: Art of SEO, and Inbound Marketing & SEO. He’s been profiled in the Seattle Times, featured in Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, named to BusinessWeek’s 30 Under 30, written about in Newsweek, The Next Web, the Inc 500 (to which Moz was named 5 years in a row), and hundreds of other publications. He is, however, most proud of his prominent appearances in Geraldine’s first book, All Over the Place. Geraldine and Rand are also small investors in TinySeed Accelerator, Techstars Seattle and Backstage Capital.
Robert and Rand spend an hour discussing the state of play for digital and Rand’s insight into how to run a successful agency.
Robert and Rand discuss:
- Are there secrets of success?
- What did you learn from the Moz experience?
- What are the myths of start-up/business growth?
- SparkToro– why? And why another 'startup'?
- What have you done differently this time?
- What separates the successes from the failures?
Rand then answered the following questions from our agency owner friends:
What (in business) makes him most angry and how does he handle this?
If he could do just one thing differently as he was building Moz, what would it be?
Bibi Lauri Raven
What's his personal plan for 2021?
In his recent Twitter storm, he was arguing that the importance of SEO is back and the majority of traffic today is generated from Search ... if this is true, what should marketers do/learn to tap on this new trend/behavior?
How's his new business going? What is he doing differently to manage stress from when he was running his old company MOZ?
Does he regret the Moz buyout?
1. What motivates him to build his businesses?
2. As this is a group of agency founders, and sometimes times can get a bit stressful & crazy, perhaps Mr. Fishkin can share his own tips/tricks on how to cope with these ups and downs?
3. What's the book that has recently impacted him the most?
What are his views on nofollow. Did Google always follow nofollow links despite saying they didn’t? Was it a conspiracy which they backed out of recently.
Q1) What does he really think about Google and how they operate as a business?
Q2) Is google the future or can he see another platform dominating search in the future?
3) if he was doing SEO himself, where would he spend most of his time I.e. voice, content, link building etc...
Robert Craven 01:04
Hello, and a really big welcome to the GYDA Talks. And today I am absolutely delighted to have what can only be described who can only be described as a legend in his own lifetime, which is Rand Fishkin, those of you who don't know Rand, you have to read the book, have to read the Lost and founder, which is one of my favourites, I buy the book by the dozen and give it away. And so Lost and founder, Spark Toro, these are the things that he's famous for. But without further ado, let me introduce you to the legend in his own lifetime. Mr. Rand Fishkin. Hello, Rand.
Rand Fishkin 01:44
Hi, Robert. Thanks for having me.
Robert Craven 01:45
It's absolutely fantastic. I guess the starting point, the starting point for those if there are people in the agency world who don't know who you are, that's possible. Would you just like to just give us a quick kind of intro background sort of paragraph on where you've come from and what you've done?
Rand Fishkin 02:04
Sure, yeah. The short version is that I dropped out of college and started working with my mom, Jillian doing web design, and then started a small, very small SEO consulting agency, out of the ashes of that business, that became a very popular blog called SEO Moz. And then later shortened to Moz, which raised some venture capital and became a software company. You know, today is 10s of 1000s of customers, and somewhere around $50 million in revenue. I was CEO for, you know, a lot of that high growth period, for Moz stepped down from that role and left the company a few years later, and started this one Spark Toro, which is not venture backed, certainly has aspirations to grow, but not in the same ways and fashions I, after having experienced a lot of the ins and outs of it, I'm no longer a fan. In fact, I think many folks would call me a harsh critic of well of Two Worlds really one of Google and the way that they participate in the macroeconomic picture around the world, and also the monopoly of search, and also a venture capital, which, of course, Google was a venture backed company itself. And I have worked with and led and raised ventures and pitched lots of VC. And I think both of those ecosystems are pretty broken, and that there are better ways to do things while still being a staunch capitalist.
Robert Craven 03:41
I'm sure we're gonna get into all of that. I've got a bunch of questions from our community. And I think there is a real issue about, you know, how people work with Google and how they feel about working with Google. But before we get onto that piece, we'll just have a couple of questions. I like to ask you, I mean, there's this kind of myth and I love it you say identical thing in the book, you know that you the American, we call it the American Dream over here, which is kitchen table, dining room table, Gerrard industrial unit, and then along comes this big multinational, you know, check for $100 million richer than your wildest dreams and everything's perfect. Do you see any kind of holes or flaws in that kind of debate about or discussion or journey that we're all meant to go along?
Rand Fishkin 04:38
Well, so I think there's a bunch of weird hard to stomach things and potentially some really serious ethical flaws in the whole structure, right, the whole concept behind it. So Robert, I don't actually know what your experience has been like but mine has been one where, you know, my income has fluctuated quite a bit. I made the most that I've ever made as a salaried employee of MAs. But the, you know, the stock that I had there is still illiquid, it's still held, I don't know, if it'll ever be worth anything someday, right.
Robert Craven 05:21
In the book, you've got this wonderful graph, which has got an employee developer standard developer growth, and he starts off at like, $100,000. And he's just going dot, dot, dot, dot, then there's your income.
Rand Fishkin 05:39
Yeah, and that's exactly right. Right. And I think one of the odd things to realise as a startup founder is, you know, you can build a company, that's worth, you know, 100 million, 200 million $500 million, and still be making less than much of your senior employees be making less than, you know, an engineer at Microsoft, or Google or Amazon or Facebook. And that is an odd thing. I think that most people don't realise that many of my agency friends, for example, are much wealthier than my wife and I, just by virtue of having had a profitable business for a long time with 5 employees or 10, or 20. And that was, I think, surprises them, when they when they realised like Wait brand, did you lead a company of 200 people and you raise $30 million of venture and Moss was doing $50 million a year every year and spitting off 5 million cash, what do you mean, you don't have money for that kind of thing. So I think that those are oddities to realise and understand. Another thing that's very strange about the whole, you know, American dream, and then this sort of new dream of startup sale is it is. It is very, I think, difficult at the moment to reflect on your individual impact on an ecosystem, right as an individual building one company. But when you look at the broader picture, you see that almost all these new technologies and exciting companies and innovations are being picked up and acquired, rather than staying independent for the long term. You get the sense, oh, wait a minute, there is a lot of marketplace innovation that is being lost, because the big four or five tech giants don't want competition. And that's exactly what's happening. Right? Google is essentially stifling competition and space after space. It's really hard to imagine a world where Google didn't own Google Maps, where there weren't 5 or 6 or 10 or 20 different players in the maps space, right? And in the world of local information and mapping technology and all these different things. Instead, we have one major player and one sort of half indie player, right? In social media, you've got Facebook, and then a bunch of almost RANS, right, your TikToks and Twitter's and that sort of thing. In phones, you just have Google and Apple. It's weird.
Robert Craven 08:15
So yeah, Google started with do no evil. And then there was and then they discovered revenue from advertising.
Rand Fishkin 08:30
I think it really is. So I don't think the Don't be evil was shifted when they discovered advertising so much as it was shifted when they went public. Right. And once they had public market investors who demanded and essentially compensated their executives and their team based on growth performance, quarter over quarter and short term revenue. Google became a short term revenue focused company, right? So they killed a lot of their exciting long term moonshot projects. And they focused on hey, how do we gobble up sector after sector and enter all these different spaces compete with marketers and SEOs and, you know, different websites and use our monopoly power to unfairly compete in new sectors. Not so great. Right?
Robert Craven 09:20
We went to business school to do an MBA to discover how to do that kind of stuff. I'm not saying why. If whatever happened to run a great small business with great people that you do great stuff that you love, and you enjoy and you sleep well at night and you're not going to get a brick put through your window. You know, so I'm not saying that's not great having done the business school thing. I'm not saying I proved it. I wonder whether it's possible to run a large corporation and be good? Because it's almost like there was a client of mine who told me about the Great Bell Curve they'd invented. It's like a bell curve. And on the very left, it's like really cool people but not making loads of money. And then it goes up to this perfect point where we're really cool, and we're making really good money. And then the bell curve goes back down to it. We're making ridiculous amounts of money and we're monetizing things very efficiently. Let's put it that way. And he said there's a tipping point where you cease to be nice, and you start to be just a money machine. I guess, what do you think there's this place where you can make really good money, capitalism, you know, make money, do good for people, look after your people without simply chasing the goal of increasing shareholders earnings year on year?
Rand Fishkin 11:07
Absolutely, it is possible. I have seen several examples of it. I think there are, you know, there are plenty of very good, very decent, very ethical companies that are publicly traded, but we're talking about small numbers compared to a larger ecosystem. And the reason I'll give one example, there's a company here in Seattle, that a friend of mine is CEO of called Redfin. It's a real estate technology company. They're publicly traded, they're worth billions of dollars, hundreds of millions, but billions of dollars. And it's an excellent company, just in every kind of way, you know, every type of ethic, ethical way that you could measure that company. It's wonderful. And it does, I think, broadly speaking, you know, stockholders or public market investors would say, well, but if you know, it doesn't perform as well as it could if it were willing to be more evil. Right? And this is why he's my friend. Right? But Glen is not willing to do that, right? He's not willing to be horrible to people, the real estate agents, the buyers, the market, right? And he's gone on, you know, CNBC, and talk to the Wall Street Journal and said things like If you want a great company with great people who are doing really good things, invest in us. Wonderful, I love it. I think very frankly, the problem is the incentives. So Robert, you and I are web marketers, right? We're really familiar with how incentives and structures and psychology and little nudges make changes in people's behaviour. Like, one of my favourite examples is those websites speed, right? Like, you and I are shopping for Hanukkah presents, I don't know, maybe you're shopping for Christmas presents. And, you know, we go to some website, and, you know, I'm buying, I don't know, a few $100 worth of presents, I've carefully selected them all, I put them in my shopping cart. But then when I click Check out, the shopping cart experience takes 0.5 seconds longer to load. And so I don't check out and I waste all my effort and the merchant loses $1,000 of commerce. That's madness. How is it possible that half a second in delay changed the entire behaviour and, you know, suddenly $1,000 of commerce is gone, and all my work is gone. And all their work to get me as a customer is gone. That seems crazy. And yet, there you go, we all have the statistics to prove that this is true. These tiny little things and so when you think about how that those nudges expand, right, those psychological barriers and friction expand to ecosystems, no wonder that you know, politics or economics are marketplaces that reward certain behaviour, incentivize certain behaviour, nudge certain behaviour, like the speed have the effect that they do.
Robert Craven 14:29
So, your argument is, you can run, you can be capitalist and be good, you can make money ethically, you can run the best business, you can run the nicest business, you don't have to be bad to do really, really...
Rand Fishkin 14:50
You don't know but you will have to fight against the incentives that nudge you to do all those bad things. And you will have to do them consciously and actively, all the time because we live in an era where wealthy moneyed interests have influenced our political systems to a degree that have reduced regulation, right, the regulations that we sort of, I don't want to say enjoyed but experienced, and that helped make capitalism relatively healthy for much of the 20th century, is has disappeared. Right? Wealthy people have lobbied the US government and the UK Governments and even the EU, right? To basically remove the regulations that created a more healthy, more friendly version of capitalism. And so we live in a very cut throat type of world where what you call the American dream at the start of our conversation is almost gone, right? There are vanishingly few, statistically speaking, vanishingly few American families whose children will do better financially and economically and health wise than their parents. And that's the first time in 100. And I think, in the history of the United States, that that's been true, right? For all previous 27 odd years, whatnot. The United States was a place where generally speaking, every generation did better than the last one. Now, the last, yeah, the last 20-30 years. That's no longer true. And of course, now you get these forces fighting about what that is. Right? I think you and I would probably agree that it's the removal of these safety guards of regulation around how capitalism works. Other people would argue, I don't know, it's, you know, whatever race based or religion based, or it's because, you know, we've turned with, you know, there's a lot of that sort of thing in the right wing media spectrum and belief system.
Robert Craven 17:00
Yeah, I mean, there's a lovely book, just out called the 10 lessons from the pandemic, which it talks exactly about the dangers, on the one hand, the dangers of this kind of right wing kind of approach, and also the possibility that there is a liberal approach, where the diversity actually will encourage businesses to behave more sensibly. And the creator of the warm and well rounded way of it's, it's really difficult to know where we're going to go. So let's just get back to agency work. So we've got an agency that I mean, that they're going to have questions in them. The question they always ask me is, ask him Are there Secrets of Success?
Rand Fishkin 17:46
Are there secrets to success? I mean, there are, absolutely. But I think the biggest one, in my opinion, the biggest secret of success, is realising that the idea you have in your head, certainly the idea I had in my head for most of my 20s, for sure, about what success meant, was completely wrong. So we talked about, you know, wealth and money and earnings and those kinds of things. And one of the weirdest things to realise, especially in the past, I'd say 10 years, 5 to 10 years of my life, for me to realise is that I pushed myself very, very hard to become as wealthy as I possibly could and to make as much money as I could for my shareholders, right, my investors, when I was at AWS, and in the last few years of my experience there, and the first few years of my experience at Spark Toro, I realised relatively rapidly. And I'm lucky to have exposure to so many people like this right that people with 10s of millions or 100s of millions of dollars of wealth, are not happier than me, they are not worse, they are not more successful, they are not better off their lives, in many ways are a combination of more complicated and more uncertain. And they are more worried about, you know, the world around them and their families and their friends. I almost want to say fearful of forming connections. When I hear that old, what's the biblical phrase about, you know, it's harder to get into heaven. It's harder for a rich man to get into heaven. And for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. I have this reflection on that of Oh, I see why that has persisted so long in popular opinion, because there is a lot of truth to that, that doesn't make you a happy or successful person. So the biggest thing, the biggest way to be successful is to change your definition of success, that's probably going to be very hard to stomach. I'm sure a bunch of agency owners have already turned off this podcast because they thought to themselves, I want to make more money. That is what success means to me. I'm sure we'll have a bunch of tips and advice for them. I like helping people be more, you know, classically successful. But if you want big picture long term success, let me urge you to reconsider what that word means.
Robert Craven 20:25
I mean, it's I mean, for me, it's like, if you want to know, the quote, the joke is, if you want to know God is actually probably a Jewish joke. If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at the people he gives it to.
Rand Fishkin 20:38
I love it. I love it.
Robert Craven 20:41
I thought you might like that. I was talking to someone earlier today and saying, you know, I don't work Fridays. I wish I could do that. I said, but you've got your running for different businesses. Yeah, no, no, I've got to run these businesses. And it's kind of like, no, you've not got to run these businesses. Because when you don't work on a Friday, and you walk the dog, go for a swim, get the camera out, get the paints out, you're actually working on your business. I've never had a great idea in front of computers, you know?
Rand Fishkin 21:15
Yes. Oh, Robert, you could not be more correct. So there's all sorts of science and research that's come out. That talks about how in information economies and high tech economies in particular, right, the challenge of doing high quality, high volume work is not time limited. It is concentration, focus, and creativity limited. And those three things are best optimised by taking lots of vacations and breaks and getting lots of sleep, and good exercise and eating well. And those are things that don't fit with our idea of being a hard worker. Right. So just yesterday, I had a weird experience right over the, you know, I will do in four hours, the amount of more than the amount of work that I'll get done in four days. And I'll think to myself, gosh, how do I get those four hours again? And the answer is to take those other four days off. And it doesn't feel like work, right? Okay, I'm gonna go for a walk around the neighbourhood and get a little bit of light while there's some sun out and I'm going to cook an elaborate meal and maybe play some video games and read some things and, you know, chat with my friends. And then I have that four hour streak, right? And my co founder emails me like, holy moly, man, how'd you get all that done? That's incredible. You know, you're a rock star. I had four days off.
Robert Craven 22:47
Yeah. But it's actually about doing $1,000 an hour. hours, not $10 An hour hours.
Rand Fishkin 22:55
I love the way you say things. I would like to steal all of your phrases.
Robert Craven 23:00
That's not mine. That's Perry Marshall. He talks about that.
Rand Fishkin 23:04
It's mine now.
Robert Craven 23:08
Okay, so I guess the thing is, you know, I mean, Moses was was amazing. It was a remarkable storm of honesty and frankness and independence and almost representing the people. I mean, What do you think you've taken out of from the mas experience going forwards?
Rand Fishkin 23:36
Oh, that's a great question. I almost always get asked what would you do differently? But what did I take from mas that I want to do again? So I agree with you. I think one of the biggest things that I love about my mas experience and about building that company was helping a lot of people by opening up and democratising information. And in a lot of ways that's all Spark Toro is right the entire product is basically just democratising information and making it easy to access the same way mas sort of made a lot of SEO information easier to access. And that's both through the product and content at both companies. I think another thing that I really took away from Moz that I'm doing differently this time, but similar to the early stages is mas was a very healthy, fast growing company, when it was profitable and constrained in growth by its profits. And when we raised you know that $18 million round in 2012, which I you know, I longed for, I celebrated I thought that made me such a bigger success, all those kinds of things and it brought a tonne of, you know, whatever notoriety and sort of perception industry perception in the particularly in the startup and tech fields, not necessarily an SEO and marketing, but that made us undisciplined in 1000 ways. And I think that one of the things that I have taken away from those years of very rapid growth at Moz is to be very disciplined financially. So we, you know, Casey and I raised 1.3 million for Spark Toro, we spent just over half of that, on almost exclusively our healthcare and our salaries, and a few data, you know, the setup of our infrastructure before we launched in April of this year. And, look, I mean, pandemic economic situation, like, maybe the worst time to launch in 100 years, but nevertheless, we were able to get to profitability by September, which is quite remarkable. And so now, you know, we have this, maybe $450,000 sitting in the bank that we can rely on, should things be frustrating in the future. But we're being extremely conservative about spending and trying to stay at that profitable or above that watermark for the future. And I think agency owners are very similar in this way. Right? They tend to be very profit motivated. And I think that is a really, really smart and healthy way to grow, especially a services business, but even a product business.
Robert Craven 26:38
Okay. And, what is the answer to that? What would you have done differently question? Because obviously, that's the one. Oh, that's answer 52.
Rand Fishkin 26:54
Yeah, I mean, that's only one of many things, right? That I'm doing. For example, one of the self discoveries, right, this goes back to what's the definition of success. And I think part of that is, knowing oneself and realising what makes you happy and productive and fulfilled in the world. And part of what made me very unhappy at Moz, even though maybe from the outside, it looked like success was building a big team. I do not like having lots of people reporting to me, I don't like having a large team and being sort of responsible for the small p politics between all those individual groups and sectors of a company that does not fulfil me, it doesn't make me happy or excited. I do love having a small team of people who know and like and trust each other. And so I think you could expect that over the next few years, assuming Spark Toro does well, Casey and I will probably build a very small, very focused team. The other outcome from that is that we have leveraged agencies and consultants and contractors to a huge degree in a way that I never did at Moz in a way that I was told I should never do. If I'm a, you know, tech startup, you know, you want to build all those competencies internally. That's pilot bullshit, you know, I have found that the variability of cost is incredibly valuable. And the expertise level, I mean, agency owners know this, you get the very, very best people with who are absolutely aligned in incentives with your business's success and your outcomes, because they know that their next, you know, whatever referrals, job networking, the next time you hire them, whether you consider whether you keep going with your monthly contract with them, whether you switch providers, is all dependent on their work for you. So the incentive is just terrific. Versus I love full time employees, there's nothing wrong with them. But if you're a full time employee, the friction of firing you, and recruiting and hiring someone new is vastly greater than cancelling your agency contract and finding a new agency. And so, you know, employees know this, employers know this, and thus, there's a lot more, I want to say, you know, flexibility in terms of what the work output to amount invested in is and very frankly, we have done extraordinarily well using contractors and agencies. I think we have almost a dozen people and agencies that we use for everything from you know, finances and taxes to design to UX to our beta testing project to our email launch sequencing and our convert Rate Optimization and data entry and scrubbing work, all sorts of stuff.
Robert Craven 30:06
So why one other startup?
Rand Fishkin 30:15
So this one goes to my definition of success for myself and how I'll be happy and satisfied with my life. And a big part of that, especially when I left Moz was proving to myself and to a few people at Moz, mostly my board of directors, that I could do it, and that I could do it very well. That Moz was not an outlier, but rather something that I have the capacity to do, and that I'm good at. And I think, you know, if you were to ask me, like, ]why did you start Spark Toro? It is 50% to build that company, and to accomplish the things that I think that it can accomplish, and 50% to prove some people wrong.
Robert Craven 31:20
It's like, I mean, entrepreneurship is like a drug like so if you fail first time, you have to do it again. To prove that you can do it. And if you feed, you have to do it again to prove it wasn't a fluke.
Rand Fishkin 31:38
Well, and I spent a few years at Moz, right, my last few years there, three and a half years or whatever we're spent as not the CEO working for someone else. And granted, that's one experience who knows how it would be in other places. I'm sure it'd be quite different but I did not enjoy it. I can say that. I think I like doing work I don't mind doing hard work. I don't even mind doing boring work or tedious work. But I really despise doing work that I don't think is right or necessarily or the best thing for the company.
Robert Craven 32:24
I've got a good friend of mine who sold his agency took six weeks off, eight weeks off whatever it was, he had to go back into do three years' earn out he had I think, whatever it was 3 million upfront and then 10 million on payout three years later. And he went in the morning, he went in when Starbucks at eight o'clock in the morning, spent two hours and Starbucks drinking coffee and getting stuff right and went into work 10 And he was greeted with what time do you think this is? You know, we start working at 8:30, You should be in 8:30. And you do a 40 hour week and that's what you do as he said, You know what? You can keep your money, that wasn't the language you used. And, you know, I think you know, there are different times where we fit in different points in different places, we do different things. And I think that's And for him, you know, it was a real shock because he assumed you went from that height of Whoa, we sold it to the richest man in the world. It was okay. Now it's a bit bitter. I think the trouble with the Silicon Valley stories is that History is written by the winners. Secondly, they say, and one of the things I love about lost and founder, but all the other books. So we were five people we had passionate, we have strategy, we had vision. And three, right? We were two people and we were going to essentially get our money and it's like you haven't told us about the difficult bit anyone. Anyone can be five people with passionate enthusiasm and excitement. And you know, everyone is but to actually do that journey. That's the toughest, isn't it? That really is.
Rand Fishkin 34:15
Yeah, absolutely. Very, very difficult. And I think the other unfortunate reality is that history is written by money. So in many cases, the winners, right, I have talked to for example, after Lawson founder came out. I talked to many entrepreneurs who had raised venture capital, including some who'd raised it from, you know, the same funds that I had raised from the same investors. And, you know, they reached out and said, like, hey, you know, I really appreciate you putting out this book because when we wound down when we were acquired when we had our fire sale when I was let go as CEO Oh, when I was replaced, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I signed an NDA saying I wouldn't talk about this stuff. And there you go. Right. That's, how kind of this ecosystem keeps a muzzle Yeah. Keeps a gag on real information and real stories. And I think the worst part of a lot of this is, if I had done this, the most common type of venture story is to raise money, and then try and build a company and fail and go nowhere. And no one would have bought that book because I wouldn't have achieved enough notoriety and interest and Penguin Random House never would have published that book. And you know, an agent wouldn't have picked it up, right? All those kinds of things. So I'm very lucky that I had this sort of audience along the way, but that story is the most common one, and it is the least heard one. Because it's not in anyone's interest to tell that story.
Robert Craven 36:02
And my point would be that, if you know, I've done it on a regular basis, you talk to someone who's been hugely successful. And you so tell me what was the secret of success. And they said, we had a strategy team for the people in place, with the marketing, we had the right product with the right product mix with the right strategy in place, and we implemented it, and that's why you know, I'm richer, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then you go to the graveyard. And you say, so tell me about your business. You know, they say we have the people with the strategy with a marketing plan, we're in the right position, right place. But why did the business go pop? So it's not about the strategy, the plan, the marketing, I think, you know, there's a whole bunch of luck of being in the right place at the right time, most of my business success has been around bumping into people and drunk or just happening to pick up the phone. Because they were going to find someone else after me and I just had, and it's a kind of a sliding doors type thing going on. And of course, if you're a successful one, you want to be saying, Oh, yes, well, this is all down to my brilliant strategizing.
Rand Fishkin 37:22
I mean, the human mind works very hard to convince ourselves that we have earned what we have, and that other people deserve what they don't have. Right. And I think that this fundamentally speaks to why in a capitalist society, ideas, like taking care of those who are less fortunate, or sacrificing some of our wealth and earnings to help others has become so distasteful is because we've convinced ourselves that we alone are responsible for our success, when in fact, it is that is the worst kind of lie the most disgusting, despicable, provably untrue, and yet, absolutely enticing lie.
Robert Craven 38:17
Well, dare I say, let's not be political, dare I say that's sort of, I mean, we have Thatcher here. And you had Reagan there. And they were pouring that stuff down people's throats.
Rand Fishkin 38:31
Very successfully. I was a little kid, you know, when Reagan and Thatcher were in office. And I remember distinctly growing up believing these things being told by you know, my parents, my dad was a staunch believer in this stuff. And yeah, incredibly effective. false propaganda, but now it infects all of our minds. And so I think one of the challenges that you see in the world of entrepreneurship is a lot of entrepreneurs who take this leap, right, they start their agency, they start their product, they try to grow their business, and they find it incredibly difficult and they don't have success, and they assume that they alone are to blame. They assume that it is their fault that if they had been smarter, harder, working better, faster, hired a better team and made better decisions, that they would have had that success. And in fact, the reality is that this is a risky thing to do and it is uncertain, and 100 people who all you know have the same skills and put in just as much work or even less, there will be 5 or 10 who are very successful and it will not absolutely not have anything to do with their work ethic or their decision making. It will have a lot to do with Right Place, Right Time, Pick the Right industry, something else was growing had the right connection was born to the right family that happened to have money when they came out. Right.
Robert Craven 40:09
Yeah, I mean, at the beginning of the year, I spoke to Tom Peters. And I said to him, what's the one recommendation you make for someone to be successful running a business? You were born to the right parents.
Rand Fishkin 40:30
There is statistically speaking, no better advice.
Robert Craven 40:34
I'm afraid. Yeah.
Rand Fishkin 40:36
And this is why I think that we have an obligation, right, we have an obligation to say that over and over again, to make that to do exactly what Reagan and Thatcher did, right, and to pour that down people's throats. Because that knowledge will change the mentality of future generations, it will help to absolve the guilt and the stain of failure that so many entrepreneurs feel and have them recognise, I think two fundamental realities, one, it is not entirely your fault. And that mind change will open you up to a possibility of infinite new futures, and a reconciliation of your past and your mistakes. And second, it will open our minds to the idea that we can be generous to those who haven't succeeded, that those who have had luck, and success can and should be generous to all those who haven't. Because the differences between us are small. And the kindness that we show each other is the greatest kind of success.
Robert Craven 41:49
And I think there's something really interesting in that, I mean, two things I just like to add one is, when I get when I basically can't see the wood for the trees, I kind of remind myself, you know that this is a game. This is a game where there are some rules and we are going to try and figure out what the rules are. And other people are trying to figure out what the rules are, and it's a game. And then there's something else, which is about how it is that we get our identity? So confused with our job, you know, I mean, like, it takes over. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, because we're doing something that we love, and we're obsessed with it. And we're thinking about or imagining and dreaming about it. But we also kind of need to be aware that we have family and we have friends and is this the most important thing we've ever done? Probably not the act of kindness that we can do elsewhere that are far more important. And our children and our grandchildren, our nephews and nieces won't remember us for what we did at work. And I just think we kind of get you get stuck. And I think COVID has kind of emphasised the fact that there. There is more to it than being a great CEO. I certainly don't want that.
Rand Fishkin 43:18
Yeah, I really hope so I have this. Geraldine my wife likes to say that I am a short term pessimist, but a long term optimist. Right? I always believe that in the short term. People can be particularly terrible and make some really awful mistakes. COVID is a great example of that. And that in the long term, we do learn and evolve and become better than we were 50 years ago or 100 years ago, in all sorts of ways. And well, you know, economics and capitalism may be an area where we've fallen down in the last 50 years. I think that human rights is an area where we've improved dramatically, right? And health is an area where, broadly speaking, the world has improved dramatically, even if the United States and UK are falling a little behind. But these are, you know, these are ideas those of us who have people listening to us have an obligation to spread. So I'm excited that we get to talk about this stuff, Robert. This is not usually I'm sort of asked like Well, tell me about what if I want to get the Featured Snippet in one box?
Robert Craven 44:31
There are reasons to be Cheerful. Let's switch over to some of the audience questions because I think they will release certain stuff. So question from Dixon Jonesy, who knows you Dixon Jones was at Majestic. You mentioned Majestic in the book is a really big interesting bit where you're going. Yeah, we were going along singly and then suddenly people from Majestic appeared from nowhere and we worked even harder but the Majestic thing that's like really enjoyed nothing really too. But his question is, what in business makes him most angry? And how does he handle this? Maybe a bunch of random questions here.
Rand Fishkin 45:18
Anger is an emotion I try to generally avoid and the biggest reason is just because my father growing up was an extremely angry person, I think he still is. I don't really have a relationship with him anymore. But as a result, I am conditioned to avoid it. And so I think a lot of my anger comes from structural unfairness comes from, you know, reading about hearing about seeing people and companies and organisations who should absolutely no better abuse their power, influence and wealth to disadvantaged people who desperately need something, anything. Right? When I see people who have millions and 10s of millions of dollars fighting against, you know, taxes and welfare, and lines of cars stretching for miles at a food bank, I get very, very angry, right and the equivalent of that in our world, right. And I think, especially in the marketing world, is millions of websites and small business owners attempting to just make a little dent to sell a few more products to get, you know, a little bit more rankings and Google, especially Google, but Facebook to sort of taking their information and presenting it to consumers without attribution or entering their spaces. Whatever it is, you know, Google Finance, Google credit cards, Google bank loans, Google mortgages, Google Flights, Google hotels, Google Maps, YouTube, all these different things where they essentially say, Oh, that looks like an interesting sector that you're trying to build something in, it's too bad that you'll never rank again, because we built our own service. It's not as good as yours. But don't worry, give it a few years, and it'll be better than anybody else's, because we'll get all the traffic, and we'll get all the data based on that. And then machine learning basically wins, based on who has the most data. So that makes me very angry. What I do about it is I try to recognise what's possible for me to solve personally, and what's not. And to let those things go that are not possible for me to solve and to be active in the ways that I can be active and that includes, you know, giving a hard time to those organisations, in some cases, I hope making a dent right. I didn't know. Robert, if you saw about last year, I guess it was almost about this time last year, Sundar Pichai was called before Congress and had to testify and some of the congressional representatives actually used some of my research and work and criticisms to, you know, to ask pointed questions to Google CEO, and then to follow up and to disprove some of the BS data that they sent. That, you know, it's a small thing, but I hope maybe it can make a dent in how Google's behaviour is curved in the future. I saw that the EU this morning is trying to regulate exactly these kinds of things. I don't know if they'll be successful, but I think that, you know, someone has to keep having these conversations. Otherwise it's not. We're not going to make progress.
Robert Craven 48:51
That's right. That's right. Okay, well keep going because David Gilroy, he runs a really great agency specialises in doing marketing for lawyers and solicitors down in Bristol southwest. He says, the question, you know, which is If he could do just one thing differently as he was building Mars?
Rand Fishkin 49:18
Oh, Mars, yeah. I sort of want to cheat and say two things. But if I had to pick only one, it would be to focus extremely exclusively on just SEO data, gathering data for SEO having the best quality indexes in terms of, you know, link data and SERP data and rankings data, keyword data on page optimization data and making that a be exclusive priority of that company. So if I had two things It would be to do that and not raise a venture.
Robert Craven 50:06
Very good. Laurie Robin says, what's his personal plan for 2021?
Rand Fishkin 50:17
Yeah, let's see, the biggest thing that I want to do is see a whole lot of my grandfather who's 94 years old in January. As soon as he got the vaccine, which I think might be relatively early, because he's in a long term care facility, my grandmother passed away during COVID. And I didn't, I barely got to see her at the end there, which really breaks my heart. So that's big on my list of personal things that I want to do in 2021. My grandfather is still incredibly lucid. He tells all sorts of stories about Brooklyn in the 40s. It's, you know, he joined the Army as a paratrooper. So during World War Two, he's an incredible guy and fought against, you know, all kinds of discrimination for Jews during the 40s and into the early 50s. fascinating character. And the professional thing that I would like to do is I am a huge believer that the data that Spark Toro gathers today about people and publications, and what people pay attention to online is just scratching the surface. And I think that if we play our cards right, we have the opportunity to crawl and aggregate a vast amount more data, both, you know, new, different sources, and also more geographies and make this product something really special. I think we figured out that we're onto something, you know, we have, I don't know, 500 customers as of a couple days ago, and 200 of those 200 Plus our agencies, which is pretty cool. And yeah, the reality has been that a tonne of people are getting a lot of value out of it. So I'm excited. I think we might be onto something even though it's a completely new world of a different way of thinking about marketing data.
Robert Craven 52:27
This leads directly onto there's a couple of quickfire questions, otherwise, we won't get them all done. Can I see that in his reading of the recent Twitter storm, he was arguing that the importance of SEO is back and the majority of traffic today is generated from search. If this is true, what should marketers learn to tap into this new trend and behaviour?
Rand Fishkin 52:51
Oh, gosh, let's see. So I'll take a little issue with the question. I think this is not a new trend, searches dominated traffic sent on the web, but for a decade and a half, if not longer. It is even higher today than it has been in the past because Facebook and other organisations Reddit, for example, have tried to keep traffic on their sites. And so now Google is the only one really sending stuff out. And in terms of taking advantage of it,you should practice SEO, my friends, you should invest in SEO, you probably should hire an agency or consultant because very frankly with a very small number of exceptions I think most businesses that try and build big in house SEO teams should instead use agencies because they will get better service more efficiently and more effectively for an actually better cost structure.
Robert Craven 53:48
Cool. So Chris Hanson I mean during this obviously people who've read the book because it's not a lot of stuff here about stress mental health stuff. What is he doing differently to manage stress when he was running his old company mas?
Rand Fishkin 54:04
I mean, the biggest thing is I don't have a boss that helps a tonne. So I get to determine sort of the future and the direction of the company, which is incredibly liberating the neck the other big things that I'm doing. I have shared this on Twitter as well but I started religiously doing physical therapy. I've had a bad back for a long time. I have a condition which is very common among Jews called degenerative disc disease anyway, blah, blah, blah. But every morning when I wake up, I have about 20-25 minutes of exercises that I do that helps a tonne. I take some medication that helps, I eat relatively healthy, I get my daily walk. I wear my Fitbit and track all my steps. I get decent sleep those things. To manage stress, like we were talking about, Robert, so much better than then you think.
Robert Craven 55:06
Right. So Merrick Mesa says, we've answered that one, what motivates him to build his businesses. But he then goes on to say, this is a group of agency founders. And sometimes things can get stressful and crazy. Perhaps Mr. Fishkin for a respectful person can show his own tips on how to cope with these ups and downs.
Rand Fishkin 55:29
Who, yeah, I have experienced the same challenges that he has that we all have. I had a conversation with my co-founder this summer, where Casey was very stressed about how fast we were growing and how we were going to repay our investors and get to a place where we wanted to get to. And I said, Yeah, man, I feel you, you know, a huge part of being a startup founder or co-founder is managing your own psychology. And Casey's responses, one of my favourite things ever. He said, I hate it. I hate managing it. I don't want to do it. And so I think one of the best pieces of advice that I can give you is to have people in your life, a romantic partner is a good one. A business partner is a good one, people who can both hold you accountable, while also giving you unlimited support. Right to say, Robert, I believe in you, Rand, I believe in you. I'm here with you. I will sit on the couch and play video games with you all night, I will order Japanese food with you, I will, you know, just sit in silence if that's what we need to do. I will talk you through this problem if that's what we need to do. But I'm here for you. And then tomorrow, if you feel better. Go Go do your work. And if you don't cancel your meetings, we'll go on a long walk. And you'll do it the day after. That is a great way to get through these, you know, these these challenges, I think is to accept that it's okay. To be broken inside for a day or two.
Robert Craven 57:09
Absolutely. And Merritt goes on to ask What's the book that's recently impacted you the most recently?
Rand Fishkin 57:19
Ooh, yeah, gosh, I think it might be just one, which is actually on a lot of the topics we've been talking about. It's called No hard feelings. By Liz, Duffy and Molly West Fosslien. And I think this is one of the best business books that you can find. It's all its management and teams and psychology and people and getting through life and stress. It's great
Robert Craven 57:46
Cool. Rumble all over the planet at the moment. It's down in Monaco. My rumble nearly says, What are your marketing techniques? What are your views on nofollow? Did Google leading questions Google always follow nofollow links despite saying they didn't? Was it a conspiracy which they backed out or recently?
Rand Fishkin 58:11
Let's see. If I had to guess I would say no. I think when they initially created nofollow, they probably intended it to really be something that they didn't count or consider. And then noticed a pattern over time where some nofollow links were valuable, and then the machine learning system came in. And they fed the data into the machine learning system. And who knows, right at that point the engineers could stare at, you could stare at a deep learning system and basically never figure out how much it's weighting any given element or how it's using the transformations. And so I think they, I don't know, decided to be more honest and say like, Hey, just because the links nofollow doesn't mean the machine learning system might not decide to wait for it somehow. So I think I actually believe Google on this one mostly. It was probably the case that nofollow links were valuable for many years before they announced that they were valuable, But.
Robert Craven 59:14
Peter Jones has got a couple of questions. What is Rand really think about Google and how they operate as a business?
Rand Fishkin 59:24
I am torn. I think that a lot of people at Google have good intentions. I think they are fundamentally good people. I think that many of Google's creations and inventions and innovations have changed the world for the better. I think having a great search engine is a huge of huge value to all of us. I think that having a great mapping systems of huge value, I think having a competitor to Apple's iOS and Android is of huge value. So there's a lot of things that I like at Google, there's a bunch of practices that they've done and also Oh, they, in my opinion, could be with more effort and thoughtfulness and not that much extra work at a company that is 10 times better than they are. And so that is where a lot of my criticism comes from, you know, Google does not need to fire people like to Mitch Abreu and be, you know, talking out of both sides of their mouth around diversity and equity and inclusion issues, they do not need to be engaging in, you know, entering space after space with their own products, they do not need to be stealing traffic from content creators by building, you know, widget after widget that extracts data from our websites, they don't need to be talking about both sides of their mouth around, you know, anti competitive monopoly practices with their browser or with their operating systems with Android and Chrome and all that. They don't, they could just be the good guys, and they probably would lose this much revenue, it just be so infinitesimally small, and the goodwill that they'd Garner and the people that they'd attract to their ecosystem and the fan base that they build from all of us. It seems worth it. So I'm gonna keep giving them a hard time.
Robert Craven 1:01:31
Another Google question from Peter, is Google the future? Or can rent another platform dominating search in the future?
Rand Fishkin 1:01:39
Hmm. It's a really good question, Peter. I've been asked about it by a lot of folks, journalists and reporters and all sorts of folks. I believe that until or unless there's either an entirely new paradigm about what we mean when we say search, meaning we're not crawling web pages and indexing them and returning them and the information that's on them, but rather some other way. I think Google will remain dominant until or unless they are regulated or broken up in some sort of anti antitrust activity. And the reason for that primarily is not because no one can build a decent search engine, or no one else can crawl the web, blah, blah, blah. The biggest reason and Robert, I'm sure you know, is that Google has decades of data about what people have searched for and what they have preferred and not preferred in the search engine, right in the results. So when 10,000 People perform a search for COVID-19, King County testing site, what did they click and what did they not click? And what did they click on? And click back on? And then choose a different search and then billable, and what did they and from all that data, Google has built an extraordinary machine learning system, even if you had all of their tack, better tech than they have better. Billions of dollars more funding than they have everything, all their engineers, everything they have, but you didn't have their history of data, you could not build a better system. And that's an impossible to overcome barrier in this particular type of field.
Robert Craven 1:03:27
And Peter's final question. If Rand was doing SEO himself, where would he spend most of his time voice content, link building?
Rand Fishkin 1:03:41
Brand is where I would spend and do spend most of my time and the reason I spend most of my time on brand is because I believe it is far more valuable, short and long term for me to get 100 people searching for Spark Toro every day versus rank number one for 1000 terms around audience research and market research and audience intelligence. I will take those 100 Spark Toro searches any day or the direct traffic to the website. Brand is so valuable because in a machine learning world, Google learns that people prefer a company and a website around a particular topic and space. And what I saw with Moz in the later years, and what I've already been seeing with Spark Toro is that when you build up that brand preference, and that branded search volume, you give yourself a huge leg up over every competitor for every related search that you might want to rank for now or in the future. So that's where I spend all my time.
Robert Craven 1:04:55
That's the questions we had the first the final I've, firstly a huge thank you, this has been absolutely awesome talking to you. I kind of feel like we should break open a bottle of wine and a bottle of beer and talk. There's so many things we could talk about, but not today, I owe you a bottle of wine. Absolutely. So final question from me, you know, we do have that bottle of wine, we two bottles of wine after a really good meal. And we fall out of a bar, you know, and I turn around to you, and I sort of say so. So, you know, what would you recommend? If you're running an agency like all the people that are listening, you know, 10,20, 30,50, 100, staff independent agency, and if you were running an agency, what would be your pearls of wisdom? What gold nuggets? What sort of phrases would you be sort of imparting or sharing with those people? What are your sort of thoughts for those people?
Rand Fishkin 1:06:04
Yeah, I am actually in the middle of writing a blog post about this. Someone sent me a question over email. I promised them I would blog about it. So first, I want to say that I did not like running an agency, myself. And the reason was, I really despise doing the sales. The sales portion of it, not just new customer sales, was actually not as bad as ongoing customer relationship sales, right, where every interaction felt like a sales relationship, if I were serving you. Just, it didn't rub me the right way. I know a bunch of agency owners who are great at it, and that is wonderful for them. But if I were giving advice, my biggest pieces of advice for agency owners, the things that I hear them struggling with are almost always around three things. One is getting new business and finding a consistent way to have a good pipeline for new business. Two is retaining the right people on their team and incentivizing encouraging them to do the best work that helps you know the business succeeds. And three is customer retention right there, their client retention practices. And I have three small bits of advice for each of those. So on the first one, I think that far too many agency owners focus on chasing sort of the, whatever the tactic du jour for getting sales is, in many cases, that's like SEO plus content plus, you know, whatever, some digital PR, that kind of thing. I think you can build a very successful agency sales funnel through referrals, I think you can build it through one to one relationships, I think you can build it through community involvement and activism, I think you can build it through press and PR, I think you can build it through tons of different channels. And so I would just tell agency owners to choose one or two channels that you like that really work for you, rather than chasing what you think is working for everyone else. Second piece of advice on that piece around employees. My experience has been that many team members can be great at doing their work, but they're not always great at doing it for you. And so I think that the right people plus the right environment is the formula for success. So I think it really pays to just be very flexible and open with hiring faster, and also letting people go faster. Just being okay with a bigger revolving door, not beating yourself up because the last person that you got in didn't work out, not feeling upset with them, not being petty or bad to them. But basically saying like, Hey, Robert, it's great that you joined our team. I don't think it's working out. I bet you're going to do amazing somewhere else. I'm happy to provide some referrals. But here doesn't seem like the place for you. That being said, we really liked your work doing X and Y. Maybe we can subcontract you a little bit of that even after we let you go and no hard feelings and by the way, when you have that hiring discussion, tell the people the same thing. Hey, here's our philosophy. We hire a lot of people and let a lot of them go. They're happier elsewhere. Some people are a great fit here. If you turn out to be one of those wonderful, we were thrilled to have you on board. We have people who've been here for 10 years. Love it. Alright, third one last one. Here's my advice for that. Customer retention, client retention and their philosophy is a little bit similar to the second one, which is, it's okay to let people go where they aren't great fits. In fact, it will make you and your team happier, it will free you up to do more kinds of work that you're great at. I think it's okay to let a client or a customer go if they're not feeling it if you're not feeling it. And that it feels harder to attract a new customer than to retain an old one. But I think that's a philosophical problem. I think it's actually easier to recruit new customers than in many cases than it is to keep an old one. So just be aware, figure out the balance for you. Don't be biassed by this like our churn, customer churn is everything. We can't let someone go, we've got to bend over backwards to keep every customer not necessarily true.
Robert Craven 1:11:02
That is totally awesome. I just love it. I just love it. We could go on for hours.
Rand Fishkin 1:11:09
I'll have to come back, Robert, we'll do round two.
Robert Craven 1:11:13
That'd be awesome. You have given any given and I know that people are gonna just love this. Thank you so much for being a real superstar. Thank you so much for being open, honest, transparent for sharing stuff and for really rattling people's brains, which is always a good thing.
Rand Fishkin 1:11:32
My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.
Robert Craven 1:11:34
Thanks very much, Rand.