E9: Rand Fishkin, Wizard of Moz – Interview

March 17, 2016


Rand Fishkin is the founder and Wizard of Moz, a great platform for SEO and contact marketing and analytics. Rand is kind of a legend online. He is a prolific blogger and has in many ways changed the conversation about the value of transparency online.

I was quite pumped that Rand agreed to be interviewed. We talked about the time before founding Moz (at that time called SEOmoz) and then how he started and grew Moz. It was organic and a day after day commitment to educating people about SEO. Then we talk about his transparency online. How it’s helped Rand, and the one post he wish he would’t have written. Rand also has been very open about his depression in the past. We touch on that as well.

Rand is quite good at talking about business but also transcending it, providing a transparent view into his world. It’s great.

Enjoy and savor.



Dave: Hi everyone. Welcome to another podcast for Flyover Labs. This is Dave Kruse and today our guest is Rand Fishkin and in my opinion he is quite a legend online. He is the Funder and currently Wizard of Moz which is just a pretty brilliant title, Wizard of Moz, he just works on so many levels. So Moz, what is Moz? Moz is a great platform with tools for SEO and content marketing analytics and Rand started what was then called SEOmoz, which is now called Moz, back in 2004. So, coming up on 12 years, if not already, so Rand, thanks for coming on this show. We definitely appreciate it.

Rand: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me Dave.

Dave: Great! So the reason why I’m so pumped for having you around is that not only did you start and grow Moz, which is very impressive, but he has also been very open online about really personal issues and business issues what I almost call online leadership, like people who have really gravitated towards his writings and his thoughts, and so I was very excited when you agreed to doing this show because it’s not easy, it takes guts to what I call almost bleed yourself online. So, let’s get right into it. So, first of, maybe we’ll talk about a little about your background, and Moz, a little about SEO; this isn’t going to be SEO tutorial, but then we can dig into more about kind of what I said there, your online leadership.

Rand: Yeah, sure.

Dave: So, first of, yeah what’s your background and what led you to start SEOmoz back in 2004.

Rand: Yeah, so I have been doing web design and development and some usability work back in early 2000s, mostly for small local businesses in the Seattle area and we were subcontracting some SEO providers, but we were not very good at this whole business thing and maintaining cash well and so, couldn’t actually afford to pay them anymore for their services, but still needed to deliver this work for our clients and so, I took on this role myself, kind of learning SEO and trying to practice it, and I found it to be really tough. At that time, the world of SEO was even more opaque and secretive than it is today. You know, the search engines were incredibly tight-lipped about how things worked, and I had a tremendous amount of frustration trying to learn the practice, trying to understand why certain things worked and didn’t, trying to understand why certain websites seem to do well and others didn’t do well, and that practice is what got me into wanting to start a website and I started this blog called SEOmoz, which was sort of taken from the Mozilla foundation, DMOZ, and Chefmoz, Mapmoz at the time who were all around opening information, right and so, I thought I want to open information around SEO and that turned out to be a blog that after a couple of years garnered a little bit of success. I would say the first couple of years I was blogging 5 nights a week, was not getting a ton of traffic or attention, but I eventually got into this groove of it, built a web site that a lot of people were visiting, and then that actually transitioned into the business as more and more folks started coming to us for consulting after reading about SEOmoz online.

Dave: Interesting, and what year was that when you started when you were blogging for 2 years, what’s the time period?

Rand: Yeah, so 2004 is when the blog officially started. I actually had been writing on a different site that migrated over SEOmoz in 2003, and yeah probably by 2006, we were getting some substantive traffic, I think that’s when we actually formally changed the name of the business as well, that was maybe end of ‘05 or beginning of ‘06.

Dave: Okay.
Rand: And then, in 2007, we switched away from being a consulting company to a software and tools company and I think a big part of that is because we built some tools, we launched them, we had a little bit of success and our community, these folks who had been reading the blog for months and years, started amplifying and sharing and using these tools and helping them spread. That was a very powerful thing to kind of build up a passionate community and then let them sort of take your product and run with it and evangelize it.

Dave: Yeah, powerful and difficult to create that… I’m sure that you spend a few hours, as you said, 5 blogs plus a week, on and on that’s impressive, that’s what it takes.

Rand: Yeah, It takes years to get good at something, especially in the world of content.

Dave: Yeah, that’s a good point, and you raised your first series A, was it in 2007?

Rand: Yeah, at the end of 2007 November that year, we raised around with Ignition Partners. They had actually reached out to us. Michelle Goldberg from Ignition thought you know, we were on to something and we had a few coffees and lunches, and I sort got excited about it. I think that was really good for the development of the business as well. She helped us formalize a lot of things, get way better with our analytics and metrics and understanding how the business should work and building a board of directors and having quarterly board meetings, setting kind of cadence for the company, getting good at all these things that we had to get good at, finance and compliance and regulations, you know hiring and management, training, on-boarding, all those kind of stuff, you know it was great to have someone who had seen that at a lot of companies and help us through it and she was also very empathetic, very thoughtful investor. I always really, really found her friendly and yeah, it’s become a great relationship over the years.

Dave: Interesting, so you already had some tools built before you raised some money.

Rand: Yeah, yeah, we had probably about 600 or 700 paying customers, I think when Ignition invested.

Dave: Okay.

Rand: Yeah, but we used to remember I mean it was like 29 or $39 a month at that time, still…

Dave: Still.

Rand: It didn’t represent a ton of revenue, but yeah, yeah…

Dave: Showed potential, and so what was the platform back in 2007 at SEOmoz. How was that platform compared to what you have now at Moz? Pretty much the same?

Rand: Yeah, yeah, sure. We really haven’t changed much. No, I would say if you really do a comparison to TV shows, if you ever turned on the TV and seen like the weird local broadcast where they just let anybody on the air like with their guitar or whatever, it was the local access cable versus an HBO show.

Dave: Nice… so a little better. What’s one example of a tool that now you have is really polished and friendly compared to maybe what it was; not as friendly back in the day.

Rand: Oh man, I mean.

Dave: I put you on the spot.

Rand: Let see, I think way back in the day we had a tool called the page strength tool and it would like go out and fetch data from like the Google toolbar PageRank and like Alexa score and maybe something from Quantcast and I can’t even remember a few other sources, maybe like it did a Yahoo link command lookup back when I was still a thing and then it would pull all these numbers and calculate some, score from 0 to 100, just tell you how strong your page was. Yeah, that was pretty amateur hour. Now, we actually have an index where we crawl the web, hundreds of billions of pages, crawl the web index doors, build our own version of PageRank because, Google took away their PageRank toolbar a few years back. So, we calculate our own graph matrix including PageRank and our own version of TrustRank. We use some machine learning against Google’s rankings many, many thousands of results to try and build a model that successfully, you know correlates well with how Google is ranking pages and then we expose those scores called page authority and domain authority through a tool called open side explorer and it’s massively more polished under the hood and you know, on the front end.

Dave: Yes, I guess your comparison stands well with that example. Its just a bit different.

Rand: Yeah for sure.

Dave: Just a couple more questions on the business side. So, you’ve raised quite a bit of money, I think, it’s about $29 million, I saw. What I am always curious about is how do you keep raising follow-on rounds, and what I mean by that is, you know is where there certain milestones that essentially you had to hit it in order to be able to go out and say, hey! We are doing well or when you talking to investors and look hey! Once you hit this many paid users, call us up. Was there anything like that?

Rand: No, I won’t say it was…yeah it was much less formal than that. Much more of a situation where, you know, I tried to raised rounds in 2009, 2010, and 2011 and failed in all of those, I’ve written about that online. I think if you looked up, failed venture capital, there are hundreds of them now, I will come up to that, but the second round we did was not until 2012, so 5 years later, it was with Brad Feld in Foundry Group and essentially I had built a relationship with Brad through my wife Geraldine who runs a travel blog that Brad and his wife, Amy, had been reading and I think Brad and Amy are big fans of Geraldine and we sort of built a relationship and then I’d reached out to him talking about starting the fund raising process again in 2012, and this was really just a thing where at board meetings we’d have, we’d identify like hey! we know we’re being held back from growth by lack of cash and there are also these things that we want to do but we can’t do because we don’t have the money and the process for that was pitching a lot of investors and creating relationships and maintaining those dialogues over the years and I pissed off a lot of investors when I wrote about our failed process right. They really did not like being mentioned in blog posts and Brad was sort of the opposite right, he and Foundry were like, we love this transparency thing, like we are super into that, that’s awesome, we think it’s cool that your calling out these bad actors in the space. In one case, we had actually signed a term sheet and gone down the diligence path with an investor and then they pulled out of the deal and funded not a competitor, but like someone in our space a little bit and that was that.

Dave: That’s a nice free look for them.

Rand: Yeah, that was a really shitty experience and the Foundry Group folks were just really different. After one phone call, 7 days later, Brad invited me to come out to Denver to Boulder and we did it with him. He took us out to dinner, sat us down, dinner was like, you know what, we love you guys, we are in, I want to do this deal and we had deal terms settled by Sunday night, so it was pretty amazing working with them, and then we just raised another $10 million round with Foundry, that was an inside round, so Sarah who is now our CEO, she just had a phone call with Brad and said hey! Here is what we are looking at, Brad said, you know what, screw it, don’t even bother talking to people like, here’s a nice offer and we thought it was a great offer and so we took it.

Dave: I’ve never met Brad, but I think I read pretty much every blog post and he is good guy, seems like.

Rand: He’s a great guy and he never wanted Foundry. He actually just left off of our board. Foundry changes things up on occasion with their board of director’s positions and Levine from Foundry stepped on and I’ve known Seth for a very long time. Actually, I pitched him once in 2009, and he is a great guy and just joined our board, so looking forward to having him in.

Dave: Interesting. That’s great. So, let’s switch focus a little bit and talk a little bit more of your online, I guess, openness and transparency, and there are a lot of ways we could take this, but first of all I’m curious…so your blogging a lot, it sounds like a lot back in 2004 or 2005, but when was the first post that you remember, where will I go? Should I really send this out to the world? This might hurt some feelings or it might be too personal to me or do you remember when that was?

Rand: Not specifically. I do remember a few posts that I put up after conferences and events in the SEO world where some of the speakers and participants that I mentioned were very upset that I had essentially exposed the things they were talking about there, so I tell you that happened at the conference and I mentioned it there, but I did not intend it for public consumption and some of it was like here’s a tactic that really works well or here’s a practice that I’ve been using or here’s a piece of data that, you know, that we have collected and I think over time, I got better about asking people for permission rather than just begging forgiveness after making a mistake, but, yeah, transparency is always a double-edged sword. I think in my mind it is a very, very powerful way to build a great communication between people, it’s the way I wish the world worked in every aspect and it’s something that I’m personally very passionate about, but I don’t think, even its most ardent supporters, myself included, would not argue that transparency doesn’t have its downside, you know, I mentioned, hey! I read about the venture capital process because I wanted other entrepreneurs who were going through that process to understand how it works and to have this perspective and to know what they were in for and know the kind of objections and challenges they might face, to know what it was like walking in those rooms, but at the same time, you know, I burned some bridges with investors and had some people who didn’t want to talk to me after that and my ___16:13___ sort of goes, well that’s okay, I don’t like you anyway, but you wouldn’t be a good match for Moz. I think that’s one of the other aspects of transparency. What I do love is that if you are self aware and you know who you are and what kind of business you’re trying to build or what kind of organization you’re trying to craft, by being transparent, you attract people who are authentically interested in what you are doing and care about you and like what you are up to and you turn off people who are not good matches, that’s actually a wonderful thing right?, because you don’t want to find out 6 months into a professional relationship of any kind, you know what, we actually really don’t like each other and we don’t believe in the same things and we don’t share the same core values and we don’t prioritize things in the same way and we don’t like to work in similar styles and damn it. Now, we’re up a creek.

Dave: Yeah, no I didn’t think about the wetting process; that makes a lot of sense. You can flush people out quicker by doing that. That’s interesting. What made you so transparent? or was there something that, kind of, what’s prompted you to kind of push yourself out there and as I said, let yourself bleed a little bit, and by the way for audience I’ve put some links, you know we are talking about the transparency, so we won’t get it into every single article Rand has published, but…

Rand: No, there’s no problem

Dave: We’ll put some links.

Rand: Yeah, I think the thing that made me transparent was actually that I kind of grew up in an environment that was not very transparent, where there was a lot of, you know, don’t tell your mom we did this, don’t tell your dad we did this. I really, really hated it, kind of drove me bananas and made me scared a lot as a kid, and frustrated and angry, and trying to keep lies straight, there were never big things, it was those little stuff that was like, don’t tell your dad we did use a coupon, don’t tell your mom we went here, you know like, just dumb silly stuff, you know tell the guy taking tickets that your under 12, but I’m 13 dad, well tell him your under 12 because we aren’t going to pay … you know.

Dave: Yeah.

Rand: It’s like aaah geez, you know that kind of stuff. I just hated that. I hated even the little white lies, I hated and so I think that that’s what made me someone who is just very transparent. I have to put myself out there. It’s almost like a defense mechanism, like, hey! You can’t impugn and malign and ascribe bad and evil things if all the details are already public right. There is no behind the scenes because the scenes are in front now.

Dave: Definitely, and do you think it also frees you. you know like, once you get it out there, like it’s off your chest a little bit or does it…

Rand: Yeah, there is an element of catharsis for sure, I mean, I have written about that a few times right, it’s sort of sharing deep frustrating emotional experiences for me, really hard ones, and I’ve had plenty in my professional career. That is a way that I work through a problem and a way that I take some of that emotion and frustration and angst away.

Dave: Have you regretted any post that you sent out saying oh! I shouldn’t have sent that one or have you always…

Rand: Yeah, I have actually. In fact, probably just a few years ago, I wrote a blog post that was very critical of the growth hacking movement and the term growth hacking and you know, it’s one of these like, oh! man this is just marketing like, but why do they have it growth hacking, why can’t you know …blah, blah, blah, all the stuff and the next day, I think I wrote a blog post saying I really regret my post from last night, and the reason I regret it is that because it didn’t do anything positive, like it was just a compliant, it may be how I was feeling but it wasn’t thoughtful and empathetic. It wasn’t truly transparent either, because I think real transparency is recognizing…Yeah, just because you got pissed off about this term that is riding to prominence does not mean that it’s not valuable for other people and you didn’t take the time, you Rand, didn’t take the time to understand why did this term come about? Why is it valuable for others? How is it being used? How should you think about the perspective of other people rather than just your own perspective, and you now, so I think I tried to …. even when I regret things, that I’ve written, I’ve tried to be transparent about that too.

Dave: Well, that makes you think more deeply about topics too than the…

Rand: For sure.

Dave: Because we are putting it out on to the public. So, there are just a couple of posts and I’ll post these online, but there is one couple of my favorites, not that they are super exciting, but they are really interesting. You know, when we talked about, I think it was 2014, we talked about things weren’t going very well with Moz and you talked about your depression and stuff, so for me that was like this is really cool that you’re putting this out there and so everyone should read it because I think everyone learns something from it and they’ll feel, I mean, you’re a good writer, you know you put it out there and can feel your emotion, so like before that post, did you have reservations about putting that one out there and what was the response to that post.

Rand: I would say it was almost universally positive with maybe a couple of exceptions and I think it was less, I didn’t have reservations about the post. I just didn’t have the mental and emotional energy to write it and I didn’t have the perspective, like I think one of the things that depression does to you is it sort of traps you in that state of mind where you feel powerless to control your own thoughts and emotions and feeling and to have the intellectual structure that is necessary to write about something. You have to almost have a little bit of distance from it and in this case it is self distance which is something I’ve been able to achieve over my career usually, but in this case I really just couldn’t and I think that’s why I took so long and I had to write it only as I was coming out of it. I had written an earlier post called “caught in the loop” and I think if you read that post knowing oh! Rand had depression, you can see it, you can feel it very strongly in that post, it’s in there, it’s just not fully self aware yet.

Dave: Interesting.

Rand: Yeah, I mean, look, mental issues and emotional issues like these are tough things. They have a lot of stigma around them. I think that’s one of the reasons that people are hesitant to say that they have these issues. It is certainly why especially a lot of founders and CEOs who do have them sort of stuff them in the drawer and never talk about it because they fear their employees, team, investors, markets will run away. It’s very often perceived as weakness which is in my opinion “bullshit” right, like I think that when people are experiencing these things, it’s our job as the rest of humanity to have sympathy, empathy, and support not to go well, that person clearly is not qualified to do their job anymore so get rid of them.

Dave: Yeah, exactly and I don’t know if you started it first, I mean, and Brad also talks about his depression. You guys are just really open.

Rand: He does, yeah.

Dave: In conversation and probably have changed quite a few lives without even knowing it because I mean for one… well go ahead.

Rand: Yeah, the reason I wrote mine is because he wrote his right, so I think that mine was probably, you know, a good year or year and half later, but I don’t think I would have had the courage and willingness and even recognition to put it out there if I hadn’t read Brad’s post and I think that’s why I felt it was still important to write because he showed that by writing about it, he could pave the way for me to feel better about my own transparency on this situation, and I thought, hey, I need to do that for other people, I’ve got to pave this forward.

Dave: Interesting, and do you think the writing those helps like you’d made one comment about how… which is interesting; you have to always distance yourself in order to write a post and to me that sounds very meditative, you kind of distance yourself from what’s going on. Do you think writing about it helps you deal with the depression?

Rand: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I don’t know about depression specifically, but I think in general writing about something, especially writing when you know that lots of people are going to read it or when you’re writing it for public consumption, like I said, you need to build these structures around it and that requires you to have structured thought, which I think is just a healthy practice in general when considering big problems or issues that you or other people might be facing.

Dave: Yeah, makes sense and we are almost out of time here, but I’m curious to know, how do you work through like when you have depression. How do you kind of work through it all?

Rand: Oh! My God.

Dave: Is that even possible or…

Rand: I don’t know honestly. I think there is that famous comic, I think it’s by Allie Brosh where she writes about the character who is depressed in the comic, finds a kernel of corn under the fridge after months and years of depression and starts laughing maniacally and it sort of like cracks the depression, but there is no rhyme or reason to it. There is no why a kernel of corn, why underneath the fridge, why that matters at all, no idea, but I think for a lot of people that rings true and certainly for me too right. It was unexplainable, no particular process, just you have to wait for that thing to break you out of it and I don’t know what it is or why it works that way.

Dave: That’s great for anybody listening to this. I think that would be quite helpful, the response you know, there is no perfect answer which is perfect.

Rand: Yeah, there really is not.

Dave: One last question before we end this, well maybe I want to bring up one other post which is actually a current one. You were taking about, just couple of months ago I think you were talking about stepping down as a CEO because of course you were CEO until, was it 2014 and about?

Rand: Yup.

Dave: And so you started to step down and this post was about how you felt about it and something, I think you said that someone asked if you regretted it and you’re like, yep! So how would you have done things differently before you know, so you won’t step-down. You talked about it a little bit in the article, but just curious to get your thoughts on what would you have done differently?

Rand: Yeah, I very much wished I had made different decisions around how we build software around here, you know, more iterative, more monitored building small things fast and then launching them, even it was just internally and then building off that work rather than trying to do this huge big bang development. I have a lot of regrets around the hands off approach that I took to engineering, you know, I have sort of been only mildly technical my whole career and that I think really hardened my success but it also made me fearful of kind of engaging more deeply with engineering and that was, I think a mistake as well and, then I think that some of the artificial things that I did around, trying to craft deadlines and having really drop-dead dates and pushing out a product that wasn’t ready because I felt like it had been too long and we needed it. Those are all artificially created problems that I wish I could take back and I don’t know which way cause and effect runs, but obviously, you know, I did have that with depression around those same times right as we were in the few months before we were launching this product and then after for a year and I think that I wish I could have been in a healthier mental state too.

Dave: Yeah, that makes sense, okay. Yeah, well you can’t control that always, but I mean I’m impressed that you’re actually still going strong at Moz, despite some of your regrets, you’re like essentially the face and soul, well at least from the public’s perspective or my perspective of Moz, so we are lucky to have you.

Rand: Oh Thanks, yeah. I think Sara is doing great job as CEO and she was a great POO for 7 years before that, so I expected no less, but yeah I think Moz has a strong future ahead of it as long as we can execute and learn from our mistakes in the past, I think it will be a better company.

Dave: Definitely. Alright we could keep going, but I think that’s it for today. So see everyone this is why I wanted Rand on the show. He is pretty brilliant and talks of lots of different issues. So, I definitely appreciate you coming on this show today.

Rand: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Dave: Alright. Thanks.