Transcript of Honest Startup Advice From Somebody Who’s Been Through It
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John Jantsch: If you’re a founder of a startup, maybe you need some brutally honest advice from somebody who’s been there. For this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast, I visit with Rand Fishkin. He is the founder and former CEO of Moz, and he’s written a book that you’re going to want to get into because it’s got some really practical and heartfelt advice of what he learned along the way.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Duck Tape marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Rand Fishkin. He is the founder and former CEO of Moz. I think people used to call him the Wizard of Moz. He actually has a new venture called SparkToro, which we’ll touch on today. But we’re going to talk a lot about his new book called, “Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World.” Rand, thanks for joining me.
Rand Fishkin: John, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
John Jantsch: I said off air but I’ll say it on air as well, I’ve been doing this podcast forever as a lot of my listeners know, and I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve had you on. It’s a treat for me. We are going to talk about your book, but I got to ask one SEO question. It’s a really broad one. Where does SEO sit today?
Rand Fishkin: Where does SEO sit today? Well, it’s at an interesting point in its history in that, in a lot of ways, search has become a mature industry and SEO has, too. That means that it’s more competitive than it’s ever been, and for the first time I think, thanks to the growth of voice search and how Google is displaying answers, there’s actually not the same acceleration rate of increasing opportunity in SEO. It’s sort of everyone is warring for more competition but with less potential new opportunity. So interesting timeframe.
John Jantsch: I’ve been coaching a lot of business owners that I think there’s a element of SEO that needs to be much more strategic. As we plan the website, they’re messaging their content, even SEO has to be a part of that, even how we structure their entire business to some degree before we even start talking about, as you said, the technical aspects. I think that’s a message that’s starting to make sense to people maybe because it’s gotten so competitive.
Rand Fishkin: I think it’s going to be very, very tough for businesses that tack on SEO as an afterthought to compete against the folks who baked it into their marketing DNA.
John Jantsch: I’ve been doing this a long time. I can’t tell you how many small business owners would get a website built, put some form of content on it, and then come to me and say, “Would you SEO this?” You used to be able to do that.
Rand Fishkin: You did. I mean that’s the problem. The problem is, I think, that the perception of the industry is also going to be five to 10 years behind where the industry actually is.
John Jantsch: You used the word ‘startup’ in the title, or at least the subtitle of the book. That’s such a term anymore that gets bantered around. I’d love to know what you consider … if you have a definition of a startup.
Rand Fishkin: I think it’s a company that is striving for rapid growth and seeking to find a scalable, repeatable business model that works.
John Jantsch: Isn’t that every business?
Rand Fishkin: Well, I would hope that most mature businesses are seeking to maintain their growth rate or maybe grow it a little, and most of them have already found a scalable, repeatable business model, so startups are unique from both those aspects.
John Jantsch: So the culture’s unique, the point of view of the founders is unique, maybe even the decisions they make from a profitable standpoint are unique?
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, absolutely. In many cases, a mature business, the founders are not involved anymore. In many long-standing businesses, the founders are retired or passed away. In many other businesses that are mature, founders have left and they’re off doing other things. But typically in startups, founders are still heavily involved and so that changes culture and a whole bunch of other things, yeah.
John Jantsch: This book is certainly a guide for somebody who’s starting a business, so in that way it’s kind of a how-to book, but it’s also very much a memoir. I’m curious if there was something that really compelled you to include the painfully honest part.
Rand Fishkin: I think that’s something that I’ve always been passionate about, and part of that is the catharsis that comes from the release of writing about something. A big part of it, also, is that when we share something that is not often shared, that the painful parts of journey or the hard issues, we help people to feel like they’re not alone in their journey. That is a really, really important aspect of all the work that I did at Moz and that I think I’ll ever do is trying to hopefully forge a path for other people to follow in and to be able to feel less [inaudible 00:05:49].
John Jantsch: Of course, while that is obviously an awesome contribution to the world of entrepreneurship, I suspect that it also in a lot of ways … you’ve got a new venture going, in a lot of ways I guess the question is what do you learn from it.
Rand Fishkin: Oh, sure, absolutely. I think “Lost and Founder” is really exactly that. It’s kind of a, “Hey, what are all the lessons that you’re taking away that you wish you could have known before you started Moz?” and trying to pass that on to a next generation of entrepreneurs but also to myself. When you sit down and collect your accumulated knowledge and put it into a written form, I think you process it in a way that you would not otherwise be able to do. So this is a very positive learning experience for me as well. I hope it’ll have a good impact on SparkToro.
John Jantsch: I’ve written five books now, and they are me postulating ideas, I suppose, which hopefully brings some value to the world. The idea that I would also share things that were painful that showed that I was actually vulnerable, that I didn’t have all the answers maybe at some point, was that scary at all for you?
Rand Fishkin: Yeah. I think it’s always scary. I mean the difference between transparency and marketing or honest marketing at least is that when you’re doing honest marketing, you are not telling any lies and you are showing off the good things that you’ve done and things that you’ve learned. When you’re being transparent, you are both being honest and embracing, wholeheartedly embracing the hardest, toughest, nastiest, ugliest parts of yourself and your journey and exposing things that other people would normally want to hide, things that could embarrass you and make you look bad. I think there’s actually more power in that one, certainly from a representation and a helping people feel not alone part of it. The, “Oh, I’m going to tell you the Facebook story of how I became the third richest person in the world,” neh, it’s not that interesting to me.
John Jantsch: You have a lot of fans. Obviously your Whiteboard Fridays … Is it Friday? Am I getting the day wrong? I forget.
Rand Fishkin: Yeah, yeah, Whiteboard Friday, sure.
John Jantsch: Sorry, sorry. Had a momentary lapse there. Your Whiteboard Fridays obviously had lots and lots of fans. How has that fan base, if you’ll call them that, reacted to the book?
Rand Fishkin: I would say people who have known me and followed me for a long time, this book probably was a very good match. I think the one frustration, which Andrew Warner from Mixergy noted when I talked to him, was that there’s maybe two or three chapters that touch on SEO and web marketing kinds of things, but this is not an SEO-centric book. Of course, most of the people who’ve followed me historically over the last 17 years have done so because I’m in the SEO world and I help people learn more about that topic. So I think it’s a departure on that front and I think for folks who have read it, which is a few … I don’t know. Something between two and 7,000 people, I think, have bought the book so far. For those folks, it seems to be doing well. I get a lot of nice comments online so far.
John Jantsch: That’s good.
Rand Fishkin: So we’ll see.
John Jantsch: Again, the world of what … maybe it’s a misperception about what startup life is really like. Do you feel like a lot of people who are starting businesses look at the Silicon Valley common advice and common model and really fall prey to that in a not so positive way?
Rand Fishkin: I think one of the challenges is that Silicon Valley startups are built for a very specific asset class, venture capital, which is an asset class that’s designed to invest in 100 companies and three or four of them will return the entire fund and another 10 will be doing okay. The rest will hopefully die because the partners don’t even have time to engage with 100 companies. You don’t want to be putting money toward an investment that’s not return 5X, 10X. The advice that the Silicon Valley startup world gives to companies is very good if you fit that model, and it’s pretty bad if you don’t fit that model. I think the challenge is that popular media and culture and all of the focus of entrepreneurship especially over the last two decades has been so heavily centered, so heavily biased toward that model that the vast majority of businesses, which are not in that vein and shouldn’t follow that advice, can’t helped but be seduced by it.
John Jantsch: Yeah, especially since that’s really all the media will talk about is that 1% that does it.
Rand Fishkin: Right. Yeah, yeah. This is a big challenge. It’s a challenge in all sorts of things. If all the toys are geared towards, “Well, if you’re a boy, you have to play with Army toys. If you’re a girl, you have to play with princesses.” Well, no wonder kids want to dress up as certain things for Halloween and act certain ways when they grow up.
John Jantsch: I always remember when-
Rand Fishkin: You lose some of that freedom.
John Jantsch: Years ago I’d take my kids to McDonald’s … Okay, I’m just going to admit it. We got the odd Happy Meal every now and then. They would always say, “Do you want a boy toy or a girl toy?” I was like, “What does that mean?” It drove me crazy.
Rand Fishkin: What does that mean? Why am I not allowed to play with dolls, and why are they not allowed to play with Transformers? I don’t get it.
John Jantsch: Now that you’re starting another business … How long …? 17, 18 years at Moz?
Rand Fishkin: Yeah. I dropped out of college in 2001, so this would be 17 years in.
John Jantsch: Now you’ve got a new venture going. Would you say that your business point of view in general has changed?
Rand Fishkin: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
John Jantsch: I guess if so, how so?
Rand Fishkin: I’m one of those people who absolutely fell prey to the classic Silicon Valley startup, taking venture. That’s the ultimate challenge, and that’s the ultimate goal. That’s what every entrepreneur … If you’re a great entrepreneur, you seek to do that. Of course, now that I’ve been through that experience, I have the wisdom to say, “Hang on a minute. That’s a totally biased perspective.” There’s no one class of entrepreneur that’s so much better than another. If you start a bakery, you are no less an entrepreneur than someone who starts a tech company. If you raise venture capital versus getting a bank loan, you are no less or more of an entrepreneur. So I think removing some of that external input is certainly a big thing.
The other big one I’d say, for me at least, is having a lot more self-knowledge, so some of that’s being able to push exterior forces away and recognize what I want, but also some of it is being able to say, “Okay, I know that I often fall prey to these problems or these mistakes. I know that I’m good at this and not good at that. I know that I need to shore up these weaknesses, and I know that I have challenges with hiring,” whatever it is. I think that’s why so many more entrepreneurs who start businesses in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s tend to, on average, have higher success rates than those who start them earlier in life. No surprise.
John Jantsch: I’m not suggesting that you started Moz for this reason, but would you say that you are now more mission-driven than, say, innovation that could blow up and be a big deal?
Rand Fishkin: Oo, that’s an interesting one. Let’s see. I would say in my life personally and broadly, I’m a very mission-driven person, but as far as the business goes, SparkToro for me is not, “Oh, I want to solve this bordering on philanthropic problem.” It’s very much a, “Hey, this particular marketing problem that I kept seeing people have and that I encountered a lot when I worked with newer companies or companies for whom SEO wasn’t a good match.” That problem feels like there’s a great technological solution that could help with it. No, I think I’m still very innovation-driven when it comes to product market.
John Jantsch: Do you get, I’m assuming, a lot of startups or wannabe startups writing you and saying, “What should I do first? Where do I start?” What’s your one piece of advice that everybody always likes to … the one thing?
Rand Fishkin: Some combination or aspect of those questions I think I get two to three emails a day, sometimes more.
John Jantsch: Not necessarily how do you manage that, but do you have sage advice for the person that you decide, “I’m going to sit down and write a long, thorough fulfilling email back to them”?
Rand Fishkin: “Lost and Founder” has been great on that front because for a lot of the, “Hey, what should I do? What should I not do? How should I think about this?” there’s a chapter for a lot of those items in the book. That being said, I think probably one of the most common ones I get, no surprise because of my background in web marketing, is, “Where should I start my web marketing efforts, and how should I attract my first customers?” For me, the answer to that is always the intersection of three things. One, an area where you have personal passion and interest. I have never found, literally never found anyone who said, “You know what? I hate Instagram. Hate the whole platform. Ugh, it’s terrible. But I do get most of my business that way.” It doesn’t happen. People who are not interested in or passionate about or have some value they can just [inaudible 00:17:28] that they’re just not great at it. So I tell people to pick a marketing channel that they personally like. If you hate SEO, you hate content marketing, fine. Go for ads or PR or something else.
The second thing is somewhere where you can add unique value, and the important word in that statement is unique. Many people can add value. Many people can copycat other people who are adding value. It’s very difficult for a lot of organizations to recognize how they can add unique value. Why is this thing that you’re doing more uniquely valuable to the audience? If you have a great answer to that question and the first one, the third thing is you need to pick channels where your audience actually pays attention. So you find something at the intersection of those three.
John Jantsch: A lot of people really struggle with that uniquely valuable thing because they just say, “Hey, what I created, surely it’s valuable.” I find the best way to find those is find problems. What are people complaining about? What are they not getting? Like when they leave reviews with competitors and they talk about, “They didn’t show up on time,” or just whatever goofy things they’re saying, those are the problems that you need to figure out.
Rand Fishkin: Or problems where people are only solving them in one way. For example, lots of people are having this problem, and no one is helping those who prefer video content or those who like podcasts, or no one’s doing visual-centric content, or no one’s solving this in a way that’s accessible for whatever, an older demographic or that kind of thing.
John Jantsch: I’m certain because of your front of the leading edge, I suppose, SEO online stuff, you occasionally have people who say, “Okay, on this stuff that’s coming, what’s coming next?” Maybe just riff for a minute on voice search and assistance and AI and bots. That seems to be kind of the thing that’s got a lot of people’s attention but they’re not sure if they should pay attention yet.
Rand Fishkin: First off, my broad advice on this is that when you are investing in marketing, you do not need to and should not be leading your market. You should be following. That sounds weird because we have this culture that’s so innovation-centric, like what’s the next big thing? How do I make sure I don’t get left behind?
John Jantsch: First mover’s advantage.
Rand Fishkin: Right, right. There’s a first mover advantage. In marketing, there’s a first mover advantage but not until the market moves. For example, I know a bunch of companies that invested very heavily in chatbots over the last few years. They were sure three, four years ago that chatbots were going to be the next big thing, and they built a bunch of tech around this. Those have not paid dividends for very many companies at all. In fact, I would say the majority of folks I’ve talked to who’ve invested there regret investing deeply. They still think maybe in the next few years it will be something that consumers really want but so far, meh, not so much. My broad advice is follow the market. Don’t try and adopt something before it’s popular. Don’t be on, whatever, [Kick 00:20:49] who went out of business or-
John Jantsch: [crosstalk 00:20:54].
Rand Fishkin: … Periscope or something like that.
John Jantsch: Do you remember Plurk, I think it was called?
Rand Fishkin: Right. There you go, yeah.
John Jantsch: Awesome. I haven’t given you much time to talk about SparkToro, but tell us about what you’re trying to do there and who you’re trying to serve.
Rand Fishkin: Sure, yeah, absolutely. This is a product for a lot of different marketers who encounter a consistent problem that we saw which was basically folks who’d try and figure out, “I have this audience I want to reach. Maybe it’s a new audience because I have a new company, or I’m trying to expand my audience and grow. But I’m trying to reach this audience, and I don’t know where I should I go to reach them. Because of that, I spend all my money with Google and Facebook and the rest is sort of, eh, I don’t know what do to.” As a result, those behemoths become even more giant.
When in fact, if you dig into any audience, there’s almost certainly podcasts that they listen to and YouTube channels that they subscribe to and people they follow on social networks. There’s publications that they read and news media and blogs that they consume and online forums that they hang out in and events that they go to offline, places they actually go to and participate in. Discovery of those different people and publications and sources is an incredibly manual, challenging, often weeks or month-long process for a marketer to discover and uncover. If you have to do it every six months or every year, it’s even more painful. That’s what we’re trying to solve with SparkToro through technology.
John Jantsch: How niche can you get with that? Could you go down to some obscure form of engineering software company or something of that nature?
Rand Fishkin: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. The idea is that you could plug in something very broad like, “I’m interested in reaching travelers to Southeast Asia,” or you could go for something more niche like, “I want interior decorators on the West Coast,” or you could go for something hyper-niche like, “I’m looking for mechanical engineers who work in clean water facilities.”
John Jantsch: Wow. Obviously people can go to sparktoro.com and check it out. What’s the basic revenue play there?
Rand Fishkin: Well, since we just started, it’s going to be nine months maybe a little more away before we have any kind of product. You can go check it out certainly and read a little more about the problem. If you want, you can sign up and get an email when we launch, but there’s nothing there yet. The eventual idea, though, is that I want to do something very much like I did with Moz. I don’t want to charge thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to use this product. I want this to be something that anyone can subscribe to and use, sort of a search engine for marketers to learn more about their audiences’ affinities and where they pay attention.
John Jantsch: I think it’s a brilliant idea, so I will certainly be on that waiting list when you get it going.
Rand Fishkin: Well, thank you, John.
John Jantsch: Thanks so much for joining us. Hopefully next time I’m out the Seattle way we can meet in real life and have a beer or something of that nature.
Rand Fishkin: Ah, I look forward to it.
John Jantsch: All right, take care.