Unconventional Ways to Win with Rand Fishkin
Hey everybody, what's going on? It's Chase. Welcome to another episode of the Chase Jarvis Live Show here on Creativelive. You guys know this show, right? This is where I sit down with the world's top creators, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, and I do everything I can to unlock their brains with the goal of helping you live your dreams in career, in hobby, and in life. My guest today is a serial entrepreneur. He's founded a couple companies, one of which I know you will know called Moz. It revolutionized SEO back in the day. He's also been 30 under 30 for Business Week's top entrepreneurs, and he's got two new things to talk with us about today; one new company called SparkToro and second, a new book that just dropped. My guest today is is Rand Fishkin in the house. (gritty rock music) (audience applauds)
They love you.
Great to see you, man.
This has literally been more than a year in the making, and we spend, I spend a good bit of time in Seattle, mostly San Francisco, but ...
you're here, and we still have taken this long. You're a busy guy.
I guess yeah, I'm on the road a lot.
Yeah, and building companies and writing books, of course.
Yeah, yeah, and among other things, trying to be a good husband to my wife and trying to be a good person to the world.
It's a full-time job these days, right? The world needs great people to step up.
Oof, more than ever.
Well, I'm super happy to have you here on the show, and one of the things that I was most interested in in your new company, I mean, A, that you've started something is a big deal in the entrepreneurial community in Seattle. I know you've got a lot of very popular backers. Kudos to your new round.
Oh, thank you.
But I was interested in the mission and the vision that you have for that company, because the audience that we have tuning into the show, by and large, they are trying to build their own audience, whether it's for a company or as individuals, and it's a huge part of building business today online. And my understanding is that that's what SparkToro is all about, is helping people and companies find where there tribe hangs out online.
That's exactly right. So if you're, you know, let's say you're an artist. Maybe you're creating a new video game or a new tabletop game or something like this, you might say, gosh, one of the challenges I have is that there's not a lot of people searching for, okay, what's the new game coming out in this field. That just doesn't get a ton of interest and attention passively, or actively. People might be interested passively. They might say, oh, I would love to find out about it. But in order for them to find out about it, you have to be in the places where they hang out.
And discovering those audiences, if you aren't a sort of highly knowledgeable, well-networked member of that community already, is a pain. You know, I mean, I'm very unfamiliar with the world of video games, but, not that, I mean, I love playing. But I would have no idea, if you and I launched a new game tomorrow, I would have no idea where to go promote that. I don't know who we should be talking to or what podcast we should try to get on or what YouTube channel we should try and be on.
Who should you collab with, what should you, yeah.
Yeah, is GameSpot still popular? I don't know, it was when I was a teenager. So, all those kinds of questions are really tough to answer. And so SparkToro is trying to build this massive database of here are all these publications and sources and people that influence these given audiences, and if you wanna discover who influences your audience, you can just search, right? You can say, okay, tabletop games, or interior designers, and you can get back a list of the places that are most paid attention to by those groups. Or you could alternatively say, I can't really describe my audience, but I know that they all follow this person on Twitter. So give me that Twitter username, and I'll tell you people who follow this person also pay attention to this podcast.
It's amazing to me that this tool doesn't exist.
How does it not exist?
Yeah, totally. It's crazy.
I'm totally with you. So when I watched people, you know, doing this, which is something you do as an entrepreneur, right? You try and watch your customers or potential customers do the work that you're gonna help them with. And when I watched, it was literally people go to Google, you know, open up an Excel spreadsheet, and then copy, paste, copy, paste, copy, paste.
Here's the number of followings. Here's the other people that they follow that I know. Yeah, that's brutal.
Yep, here's how much traffic. You know, whatever similar web estimates their blog gets. Oh my God, you're kidding me. You have to do this by hand?
Yeah, let the machines do it.
Oh, yeah, of course. The only thing that, you know, does anything like this is some or the PR databases out there, right, for journalists. And I had this like, okay, it's not just journalists who influence the world anymore. What about the rest of it? So yes, that's where SparkToro comes from.
So, I wanna put a pin in SparkToro, 'cause I think that's fascinating. It's huge for the audience that is paying attention.
But it's also a year away from existing.
Yes, that's fair. You just launched your, you just raised your new round. So we'll talk a little bit about that. We'll talk about raising the round and how you went a very alternative route. And I also wanna talk about your new book Lost and Founder.
So, the short version there, give us the one-liner, and then we're gonna go back in time for a second.
One-liner. So, my opinion is that the startup culture centered around Silicon Valley's universe biases startups and entrepreneurs, even ones who aren't part of that startup world, to make a lot of dumb mistakes, and to do a lot of dumb things that we shouldn't be doing, and Lost and Founder is here to try and dismantle some of those myths.
Awesome. It's been a recurring theme, despite having, you know, Bransons and Reid Hoffmans and, you know, Joe from Airbnb, you know.
Oh, sure, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And, you know, huge, huge companies and a lot of venture folks. There is a resounding theme; I think Cuban said it best. It's if you raise money, why would you celebrate? That's your first loss. (both laughing)
I mean certainly.
Cuban's his own man.
He is, he is. For Lost and Founder, one of the funny things that I did is I looked at the statistics, right? So United States government keeps statistics, the Small Business Administration, on, you know, companies that, of different varieties and how, what their five-year survival rates are. So you could look at, for example, restaurants, which supposedly are one of the worst businesses you could possibly get into. I think their five-year survival rates are just under 50%, right? So you flip a coin; you're not gonna last five years. Consulting businesses are actually one of the longest lived. So people who do services, right, whether that's photography or web design or SEO consulting or whatever it is, those businesses have, I think it's about 70%. So they're doing quite well on the five-year survival rate. Startups? Tech startups, like the day that you raise money, either, you know, convertible note, traditional convertible note, or a venture round, your five-year survival rates drop below 30%.
Like they just, they just don't survive. I think it might be under 25. It's just awful.
And that's part of the mechanism that you're trying to disrupt with the book, right, is that that's just not, it's not your best option.
Well, I think, I think one of the problems is we all, like, I don't know about you, but one of the biggest reasons that I raised venture capital for Moz and then went out and tried to raise another, another big round, and failed for year and years and then finally got this $18 million round done and all these things is because I thought that was what made you a real entrepreneur, right? I thought that was, that was what was suggested to me by popular culture, by business culture and entrepreneurial culture, right? That's what we celebrate. That's who's on the cover of Inc. If you want your face on these magazines and books, if you wanna be on, you know, the hot podcasts, if you want the people that the press covers to talk about you, you gotta raise a lot of money from impressive people with, you know, these brand name firms. And then once you go down that road and experience it for yourself, you're like, wait, wait a minute. This is not, I get that that, I'm sure that that is what makes some people happy.
And some businesses successful.
Yeah, and some businesses very successful, right? But it's definitely not right for everyone, and I think if we can change the narrative, like, as a culture, if we can change the narrative to support other ideas of what success means and what it can be and stop glorifying this one path alone, I think that we can do two things. One, I think we can build a much healthier entrepreneurial environment where lots and lots of different people try to do lots of different things, which would be awesome. And second, I think we change who gets to be successful. Like, do you know how many black women founders have received venture capital funding in the last 10 years?
It's gotta be less than five percent of the total, the total deal.
I think I saw that it was eight.
Eight, there you go.
Eight. You can count them on your hands. That's insane. I can't count the number of white guys who were funded yesterday.
I mean, that's a bigger number.
And that's also crazy and wrong and messed up, right? And so I think there's work to be done all around this. Lost and Founder is just me, you know, throwing a pebble into the ocean, but hopefully, you know, hopefully that pebble will urge a lot of other people to throw their own rocks.
Well, that's one of the reasons that we have several mutual friends who have tried to connect us over the last, let's say year or two, I think specifically because our aspirations are similar, personally and professionally. We wanna, you know, CreativeLive exists to help be a champion for creators everywhere, and creativity being, you know, what I consider to be the new literacy and if we over-indexed on creators, my, what a more amazing place the world could be. And I'm trying to also align with that, that there are so many paths. I think my personal example of I started pursuing professional soccer and medical school and all these other things and still found my way to this world, like that's just a testament to like, you can be anywhere and you can make a 90-degree left turn and do the thing that you wanna do, so.
So now I like to, we've set the table a little bit. Now I wanna go back, and I wanna go back in part because I wanna explore what your background was for getting to here, but also to sort of connote and share to anyone who's listening that doesn't matter if you're at home in your underwear in Ohio right now listening to this or you're on a treadmill in Uzbekistan.
That there are similar elements to all of our backstory. And we've all got plenty of skeletons, and we all have our own history, but I try and unpack every person who's on the show and unpack a little bit of their background. So, gimme a little bit of yours. Start me wherever you wanna start me, but take me back.
Sure. So I actually grew up in the Seattle area, in unincorporated King County, way out in the boonies. My parents had a house behind which was just woods, so, you know, when I was.
The Renton/Issaquah border.
Oh, yeah, sure, sure.
Up in Squak Mountain.
Yeah, my wife went to Woodinville High School.
Oh, okay, yep, so north of there, yeah. So, you know, a lot of my childhood was spent hiking around a forest all by myself and watching out for mountain lions and watching frogs. I was obsessed with frogs when I was a kid. (Chase laughs) We had a big frog pond like a quarter-mile hike into the woods, and I was obsessed with that. But, so, I, I didn't have a ton of friends growing up, because I was in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn't, nobody wanted to drive out to our house, right?
Birthday party, you're like, no, it's like, you live 45 miles from anything.
Yeah, so I, and I've taken some of that with me. You know, I'm still, I can be extroverted for a few hours, but I need a lot of self-care time, alone time, to recuperate from that. And my mom, interesting enough, so she started a business in 1981. I think it was called Outlines West, and it was a, you know, one-woman marketing consultancy shop, right? Probably really similar to a lot of the people who are members of CreativeLive today, right? So she would design logos, and she would take pictures. You know, she would go around to local businesses and help them get their yellow page ad and their business card and their letterhead and all that kinda stuff. Worked with all these print shops. And so I spent my, you know, my childhood, after school, every day, I would go to her office and sort of, you know, live there watching her on Photoshop.
That was like, and PageMaker and all this, all this PageMaker, right, back in the day. And when I went to college, I got three years in, had a big fight with my dad, and he stopped paying for my tuition, and so I paid for my own tuition for a couple quarters. This was back when you could still like, work a minimum-wage job and pay your way through college, which I feel terrible that like, the current generation, that's impossible.
Yeah. Not at all. And the next, I think my last quarter of school, I dropped out. So two classes away from graduating at the University of Washington, dropped out to work with my mom building websites. Fast forward a couple years. As you might imagine, a 21-year-old web designer is not the most fiscally responsible individual. (Rand laughs) And so, we went pretty far into debt. By 2004, we had $150,000 of like credit card debt and equipment loan debt and all this kind of stuff.
And then we stopped being able to make the minimum payments on the debt, which means by 2005, we were half a million dollars in debt.
And the logical thing to do, right, of course, is you declare bankruptcy. You're like, okay.
It all goes away.
Start clean, right? There's no more debtors prison. Like, we don't have to worry about that. But we had never told my dad that we had any debt. So we'd been, you know, keeping this like, huge, nasty, like, the business is not going well. In fact, it was so bad that even though we had these debt payments, my mom would bring home some money to like, make it look to my dad like we had a real business going. And I think I was making $800 a month. My girlfriend, Geraldine, who's now my wife, was paying my rent and all my bills.
Right? And I, yeah. The only thing I had going for me was this website I had started called SEOmoz. And SEOmoz was something I started when we stopped being able to pay our subcontractors, including our SEOs, right, we had to do it all ourselves. And so it was like, okay, Rand, well, we promised this client we would do SEO for their website, so you better learn it and do it. And the world of SEO back then, I'm sure you remember.
Super secretive, super weird and sketchy, and, you know, no one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole, but powerful, because, you know, Google was on the rise. Microsoft and Yahoo were still competing with them pretty heavily, and search was growing. And so, ranking number one for, you know, whatever it is, Seattle photographer, could just blow up your business. And so we had a lot of clients like that, and I was learning SEO. I started this SEOmoz website hoping to make, you know, a lot of SEO advice open-source. That started doing well and attracting clients and ranking well, getting me invitations to speak at conferences, which I could barely afford to do. I had to like, stay with my grandparents in New York and, you know, go into the city, that kind of thing. But yeah, that ended up turning the business around, and by 2007, we paid off that debt.
Wow, didn't do bankruptcy.
Yeah, you could.
We couldn't. If we had, A, my dad would have found out. I think my mom was scared that he would divorce her. I think she was also scared that her mother, who passed away a couple years ago but was alive at the time, my parents owned her house, and in a bankruptcy situation, the bank might have taken her house. So, just a lot of nasty, impossible to work around stuff.
But you emerged.
We did, yeah. I mean, 2007 rolls around. I remember June of 2007, my mom and I are high-fiving in the back room of the office in the University district because we paid off the last of our debt, which is just.
Just incredible. And that same year, we launched, so we had a bunch of tools that, I don't know if you know a guy named Matt Inman.
He's now the Oatmeal, like a comic guy.
Oh, of course, yeah, duh. I was like, hmm, I know him, and I think he's buddies with Brandon Stanton, the Humans of New York guy.
Oh, okay, yeah, cool.
I'm good buddies with Brandon, and I think when Brandon was out here, he was trying to get together with Matt. But really respect and admire that. He's really fascinating.
Yeah, he's an interesting dude. And so Matt was our developer for five years, right? So Matt and I would build these websites, and he built a bunch of these little SEO tools for us to use so that we could automate a lot of the functions of SEO that were very manual at the time. So, and Matt and I were friends too. He'd come over to our apartment all the time, and, you know, we'd mess around. We'd play Counter-Strike after work and that kind of thing. But, so, he had built these tools, and I was like, okay, I wanna share 'em with everybody. And Matt's like, no, man, our servers couldn't handle the traffic, and like, we can't do it. So I was like, okay, what if we put up a PayPal paywall, and you have to like, PayPal us 39 bucks a month to get access to the tools? And he's like, all right. So over the weekend, he did that, and in February of 2007, we launched these tools, and by August, July or August, the subscription revenue from the tools was doing more revenue than our consulting business. And we went, hang on a second. What is this, right? We didn't know what software as a service was. I got an email from Michelle Goldberg from Ignition Partners and I Googled venture capital, right? What does that mean? (both laughing)
Who is this woman?
Yeah, exactly. And what do they do, right? And so, at the end of that year, November of that year, we ended up raising a $1.1 million round with Ignition and also Curious Office. I don't know if you know Kelly Smith.
Sure, of course.
But, so, they ended up co-investing in this company Moz, and we started growing. You know, we kept building software. I became the CEO at that time, so I had a tough conversation with my mom that was fairly intense. It was like, okay, they wanna invest in us, but.
This is an actual business, and there's fiduciary responsibilities and investors and SEC and these.
Yep, yeah. And so, you know, my mom had obviously been president and CEO since 1981, right? And so here was this thing. I think she felt both, you know, pride, like, oh, my son's taking this over, but also kind of this frustration of, gosh, I'm not in charge anymore.
And if this were, if this were a novel, that would be foreshadowing. (both laughing) So for the next seven years, I was CEO of Moz, and we grew from, you know, a few hundred thousand dollars in software revenue to $30 million and had sort of a, you know, an exciting experience. Built a company that I felt really proud of and loved. Went from I think there were six of us when we raised the round, and gosh, when I stepped down as CEO, maybe 120, 130, little more than that. Similar to this.
Yeah, really similar to CreativeLive.
Yeah, to where CreativeLive is today. And yeah, so in 2013, and going into 2014, I got a really nasty episode with depression. And I don't, you know, I was not really familiar with what that's like, and certainly unprepared. I think no one's prepared for it, but, you know, I didn't have the knowledge or tools or resources to know what to do or how to react to that. But I did know that I was messed up.
And so in 2014, I stepped down as CEO and promoted my long-time chief operating officer, Sarah Bird, to the CEO role, with my investors' permission, of course.
And then over the next few years, I did, I think I did get better on the mental health front and developed some strategies, worked with, you know, therapists and coaches and did all sorts of, tried everything from acupuncture and massage to physical therapy to, all sorts of things, and found some things that worked for me. I think the things that, things that work for me won't necessarily work for everyone.
Yep, there's some pattern there.
It can be different for everybody. But ended up having a lot of conflict with the CEO, you know, a few years into that, and I think that professional conflict led into personal conflict, and so, at the beginning of this year, left the company, and started something new.
And wrote a book in the process?
And wrote a book.
And that's what we're talking about here. So I wanna put a couple of pins in there and go back.
Yeah, let's do it.
We're in the time machine now. We went back. A, I think fascinating. B, thank you for sharing sort of some of the hard parts. I'm gonna go into that for a second, 'cause I think there's a, historically, there's been a culture, in popular culture, we don't talk about that stuff.
Like, you right now to allowed to have, you know, emotional health problems, right? That's not a real thing that men. I mean, obviously, we have it, but we're not allowed to talk about it or make it a thing.
And I think disproportionately, I don't know the math, but but creators and entrepreneurs, there is, it is more vocal in that world than others. And so what we're trying to do in the show, one of the things is talk about that stuff whenever it comes up, 'cause it is a recurring theme, and just so happens that you're not alone, and that's one of the messages that we wanna send. So, you mentioned a handful of strategies. You tried a bunch of stuff. That's after you figured out that you were not doing well chemically and otherwise depressed. What were some of the things that you felt like worked to help you uncork some of the challenge?
Sure, yeah. I think that one of the biggest things certainly was sleep, and that's a really hard thing for me to recommend, because it is so incredibly hard to sleep when you, when you have severe anxiety and depression and those kinds of things, but some drug stuff, right, helped me on that front.
For sure, yeah.
And that was, that was worthwhile, and I certainly urge folks who are comfortable with that path to pursue that. And I also, working with a therapist, right, found some sort of mental partners that I could walk through over and over again before I went to sleep that would help. Not surprisingly at all, getting off of screens an actual 45 minutes, an hour before I went to sleep or before I tried to go to sleep was a big deal and could help me a lot, and then, I'm actually someone for whom ZzzQuil works really well. (Rand laughs) So I was thrilled when that product came out, 'cause then it's like, oh, great, I don't have to buy NyQuil anymore.
ZzzQuil is NyQuil without the drug part?
Without the cold medicine, yeah, exactly. So it's just the part that makes you sleepy about it. So those things all helped. Physical therapy was actually big for me too.
Moving the body.
Yeah, I got a Fitbit, and I know this is not true for everyone, but for me, this, you know, I'm a little bit of an OCD kind of person, and the Fitbit, hitting the, you know, 10,000 steps, hitting the 30 minutes of elevated heart rate exercise, all that kind of stuff, really did help quite a bit.
This is a theme that there are, that sleep has been a huge theme in the show, not just for entrepreneurs and like, go get 'em types, but as a tool to relieve anxiety and depression and stress. Sleep and exercise and eating well. Surprise, right?
Oh, I'm totally shocked. I can't believe all the things that. But I think the thing that I dislike, and this goes back to, you know, our earlier conversation about Silicon Valley sort of, you know, tropes and biases, I mean, the glorification of the I don't sleep, I work all the time, there's nothing in my life except work, that's literally, not just terrible for us, but it's also proven to be ineffective for, you know, people getting good work done.
It is not the case for 99% of us that the hours that we work between, you know, hour 45 in a week and hour 80 in a workweek do anything but negatively, you know, detract from your business's outcome.
Or the next week, or the week after, yeah.
Yeah. So, you get into a nightmarish thing. I remember at one point during, I think it was 2013 or 2014, some things were not going great with Moz. Our growth rate had sort of slowed from 100% year over year to 50, 55%, which is still great, I know. (Chase laughs) You know, it's one of those like, I felt that very strongly, right? I was like, this declining growth rate is my fault, and I need to step it up, and so I took away my, this thing called anti-work night, where I had one night a week where I didn't do any work, right? I'd get off at five p.m., and that was it for the night. And I remember one of my employees emailed me and was like, yeah, that's probably a good idea, given where we are. Like, you need to get back. And that is probably the dumbest thing I did. I should have made four anti-work nights. That almost definitely would have been better for me and better for the business.
It's fascinating business the narratives have sort of reared their heads at different times, and now we're seeing a huge backlash. I mean, I was one of those people that, I never glorified it, but I stated it, and it seemed to me to be fact, but what it was is I had a lot of passion for what I was doing.
And so when you're working on something that you love, then, you know, you're happy to defer sleep, because there's not enough hours in the day for you to do all the exciting stuff. That's the way that I looked at it. And then only recently, probably in about 2016, I shifted gears at the suggestion of a lot of my peers that, hey, try getting more than five hours of sleep. It's gonna be awesome. And it was. It was incredible. My health, because when you're invigorated by work and you're only sleeping four or five hours a night, it's over time that that actually taxes your system. Of course, different people are different. But over sustained periods of time, like, we're capable of a lot as a human, but that erodes that capability pretty quickly. So I had fallen into that trap as well.
And your decision making, I mean, you know, statistically speaking, right, like you go in and take just general logic questionnaires and, you know, try and sort out the social situation and what you should do correctly.
It's something along the lines of being drunk, I think.
Yeah, right? And so, you know, you think, well, I'm working really hard, and so I am a good CEO, and in fact, you are, when you're getting less than eight and a half hours of sleep, you are harming your business. Yeah, statistically speaking, harming your business, because the primary job of the CEO is not get this specific piece of work done, right? It's not crank out this code, or, you know, edit this video or whatever it is. It is make good decisions.
Yeah, make good stuff.
Be good to your people, right? Hire correctly. Yeah, help upgrade your team.
And that's, I think it's also, there's, it's one of the things I wanna caution against, is it's not like you don't have to work hard in order to succeed. Like, it's what are you doing with all the other time, which is, like, if you're spending it in front of screens that are unhealthy, or if you're crushing, you know, entire seasons of Lost or whatever the, you know, the thing is, and I find that it's not about not sleeping; it's about, how can you set up a framework for yourself where you're able to get enough sleep and eat good, and that's why I track 10 behaviors that I try and do every day. One of 'em is to not do that other stuff and to get sleep. And I feel like I'm working harder now than ever before.
And how much did you really need to know about season nine of Lost?
I'm not a TV person, so I need to know zero.
I don't actually know if there was a season nine of Lost.
Yeah, me neither. I know nothing. I don't even know what you said. It just sounded like blah blah blah to me, Lost. (both laughing) But I think the point, that's one of the reasons I'm sort of trying to put an exclamation point on this is it's, it's not like we're saying don't work hard, because it's a requirement in order to be successful that you put forth effort. But there's smart effort, and there are the other things that you cut out in your life, and sleep is not one of those things, nor is this other list of like, taking good care of yourself.
Yeah, and I think, another thing I worry about tremendously is the, so after I wrote this book, and it came out 45, 50 days ago, something like that, I've been getting, you know, all these emails from people who read it, which is, you know, super rewarding and feels awesome, but the stories that people have about the, not just their own sacrifices and losses, but the people in their lives, right?
Spouses and family members.
Yeah, you know, my mom had cancer, and I thought the right thing to do was bury my head in my company, you know? My, you know, my husband was telling me that he needed more time from me, and I invested that in my business instead, and my marriage collapsed, and, you know, now what's going on with my kids?
Yeah, huge, huge, deep, real stuff.
Yeah, what is the point? Who are you, who are you doing this for, right?
Well, let's assume that people's intentions are in the right place. Like, you wanna build a business.
I think they are.
And I'm not trying to judge. Let's just assume that people's hearts and minds are in the right place and focus on the thing that they want to do. How did you, and I think one of the reasons I'm asking this questions is trying to get how you decided that SEO was interesting or helping people describe or find their tribe or help drive traffic or build an audience, and especially now with SparkToro. Like, what's the, what's the juge? 'Cause I think it's easy to tell people that when you find the thing that you're supposed to be doing, oh, it just feels awesome. It's like everything's, the skids have been greased and away you go, but what you said in your sort of, in your historical lookback was like, it was necessity for survival of our business. And I do find that, but presumably, you liked it.
Because you did more. So how did you, how did you decide that you liked something?
Yeah, I think that accidentally stumbling into things by having a diverse group of people in your life and doing lots of different things, especially, you know, especially when you're young or when you have the freedom to be able to potentially pursue an entrepreneurial journey is an awesome way to do that, right? So I fell into SEO by necessity, and then found that I loved aspects of it. I actually hated other aspects of it, but I knew that at the core of that hate was passion.
Right? Like, oh, I despise that this is how this is done. Can I change that? Can I make that into something else, right? So, you know, one of the things that was true in the early SEO world was that lots of consultants, lots of people who were experts in the field, were very secretive about their knowledge, because they believed it to be their secret sauce, right? Like, I can't tell you how or why I know that this thing that we're gonna do is gonna make your rankings go up because that, that's how I sell my services, right? And of course anyone who tries to do that to you in a consulting world, you should be pretty skeptical. But in SEO, that was really common, and I hated it. So whenever I found something that worked, I would blog about it. I would put it on up SEOmoz, and I would make it public. And as a result, I made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies, right? (Rand laughs)
And I think it was sort of interesting to see how, over time, of course, like any maturing industry, it changed, right, as Google became this behemoth that dominates, you know around the world. There were a lot more people who started blogging and writing more openly about SEO and how it works. Google themselves became more open about it. But that, I think that passion for making things transparent is what gave me a career.
Yeah. It's very similar to mine with photography, for what it's worth. That's one of the reasons that TA, our mutual friend, was like, you guys basically sort of pull the wool off for a lot of people in respective industries. And so, I think, what I'd like to hear about, so, you talked about finding passion, and the passion's really for making things transparent in a world that hadn't seen transparency around SEO, for example. I wanna shift the discussion a little bit, and I might be taking a liberty here, so forgive me if I do, but the term SEO, not a sexy term.
So true, not a sexy term.
But let's refresh it, and I wanna connect a thread from what SEO, I'm just gonna put my own, I'm gonna ascribe a, conceptually, it's like helping people find you on the internet, which, in a growingly complex internet and culture becoming more complex, that is more important now than ever before, and if you go back to trace your roots in non-sexy SEO, we're subbing in helping people find you on the internet, to this new art that you're working on now is not only helping people find you on the internet, but you finding other people.
So, talk to me, 'cause to me, this is a core thing that this show should elevate, that our conversation should help people understand what they need to know in order to become successful, because people are, they wanna create things and help people see their creations for whatever purpose, whether it's to make money or to, you know, unlock potential in human beings around the world.
To share their art, yeah.
Yeah, or just share their art and have an impact to help, you know, people get help or whatever. There's a million. We're just gonna assume they're all virtuous. Tell me why you think these people should be doing, and be specific. Don't be afraid to, don't overqualify your answers.
Tell us, like, if you're thinking, I'm a creator and I'm starting a business or whatever, like, how am I supposed to make, and your tool's not out yet. You have a new company. It's today; help me.
So, I mean, the biggest thing, the biggest mistake that I see people making is that, especially creatives and folks who sort of are solo business owners or small business owners is they try and build their platform on someone else's land, meaning, you know, you go out there and you say, oh, well, Facebook is how I get a lot of my traffic. So my Facebook page is where I'm gonna invest a bunch of my energy or effort, or, you know, I make beautiful visual things. I'm gonna make Instagram my primary channel. Or I'm a writer and, you know, Twitter is how I connect, and I'm gonna make my Twitter account my primary place. That is fundamentally a mistake. And I don't, I cannot recommend highly enough that you register your own website, start putting your work, whatever it is, on your own website in your own user experience, in your own design and package, and using these other channels, leveraging these other channels, whichever ones make sense, as ways to draw people back to your site, and making, the two things that you try and capture be visits to your websites, hopefully people who come back again and again, giving them a reason to, and email addresses. Those two are vast, I would take, I literally would take 10 email address from potential customers and customers of mine over a thousand more Twitter followers, a thousand more Instagram followers. Which might sound crazy to some people, but I guarantee that that is a better return on your investment for your own ability to market and to reach people, because an email address is such a stronger connection. There's so many more things you can do through marketing, and many people might not know about them. So if you have an email address, you can use a tool like FullContact to plug that email address in and to get, here are all the social profiles, and now I can get a lot of demographic data, and I get a lot of statistical data about who my audience is. If you have an email address, you can now reach out to those people. Email open rates, even for pretty bad email newsletters, are still between five and 15%. Facebook reach numbers are between 0.3 and 0.7%. So, which one are you gonna take? Instagram has the highest. I think it's four percent. You know, an average of four percent of people who follow you on Instagram will see any given picture that you share or story that you share. Oh, God, four percent? And that's going down, right, because of course these businesses, they're not trying, Instagram and Facebook are not there to promote you. They're there to promote Instagram and Facebook. So, yeah, I would strongly urge folks to do that. I think another really good thing to think about is having a great answer to the question, any time you build something or launch something, whether that is, you know, your own website or work that you're doing, a blog post that you've written, a new project you're putting up, a new tool you've created, is to ask the question, who will help me amplify this, and why? And if you have a great answer to that, a great answer to that is here is a specific list of 20 people who are influential to the audience that I wanna reach and I have a, you know, I have some connection to them or they care deeply about this issue. I know that they've amplified stuff in the past. They've seen this before it launched, and they told me it was awesome and they wanna help share it. Fantastic. That is the answer that you want to that question. You have that, a lot of the things that you do will be very successful, compared to, I think unfortunately, there's sort of a marketing obsession with, I'm gonna put this out, and I hope it goes viral. (Chase laughs) Aw, man!
Yes, said no one who ever built a business sustainably over time.
Well, and the problem is, yeah, exactly. The problem is that there's a few outliers every month, every year, who do have something that goes viral, and that's what gets press, and that's what gets amplification, and that's what sort of earns our attention, and then we think, oh, that must be the way to do it. And that is not the way. You know, the way to build a great, a great, you know, sort of marketing machine is to have a flywheel. And a flywheel, fundamentally, right, so it's this machine from the.
Yeah, I understand it, but for the folks at home.
Machine, right, from the Industrial Age, right, and it's this giant wheel. It's extremely heavy, and, you know, electricity would come into it, and the flywheel would start turning, and then it would turn faster and faster, and once it gets going, it's going on inertia, right? And so now, you can generate electricity from it, okay. But in a marketing sense, the problem is turning that flywheel initially, right, getting your marketing going, whatever kind of marketing you're doing, content marketing, social media marketing, influencer marketing or email or advertising, right? Whatever you might be doing, events. Getting that turning is insanely hard. I mean, you know this well, right, CreativeLive. The first few revolutions, getting the first thousand customers, was so much harder than getting the next thousand customers today, right? And that's because of inertia. Now the CreativeLive marketing flywheel is turning, and so I think that recognizing that and then getting comfortable with the idea that oh my gosh, I'm gonna have to put in a tremendous amount of energy to turn that flywheel initially, to find the mechanisms that'll create growth for me, as opposed to, I'll throw this out there and see if it works. Throw that out there and see if it works. Toss this out there. That would be my big, big picture advice, and then we can certainly get into other things like, if you would like to rank number one in Google, I can also talk about that.
Sure. I wanna touch on that. I think that that is a valuable pursuit. I wanna talk about it generally one more time in a slightly different axis before we go into the specifics. So, generally knowing that the tools that we use to point people are owned by other folks. I don't think you're saying don't use those channels.
No, absolutely use them.
But use them to bring people to places that you own, your website, your email list. Don't use them as the central hub, right? So whenever I, you know, I go to a restaurant and I see them, like, oh, follow us on Facebook and get a discount, ah, ask for my email address to get that discount. I will open that email you know, 10, 100 times more likely to open that email than I am to check your Facebook page or to ever see your Facebook messages in my feed.
Even if I did decide to follow your Facebook feed, right, I'm not gonna see those message.
Okay, so, I think it's, I'm gonna try and make a counterpoint here. So, what we see in pop culture is people who have substantial followings, and they have attributed doing great work to build that following on a, say they're a YouTuber, for example.
Which is a very real thing, and it's a way to have a job now in a way it wasn't before. Is it that you're suggesting that people don't aspire to be a YouTuber because that is a 1/50 of one percent outcome, or is it that you aspire people to, like, what is it, what kind of business. Maybe this is a little bit too leading.
Sure, sure, no, no.
I guess this is what I want people, like, what do you wanna build a business? Like, what does that business wanna be? What do you wanna wake up and do every day? And then there's all these other channels, and if, by accident, like, my influence socially, purely accidental. I wanted to build a great photography business, and I started sharing stories about it, and I just turned around, oh my gosh, I have a million followers across all these channels, accidental.
Helpful, but what about, I'm trying to decide if telling people, I've had the idea that telling people to chase social status online as the end in itself is potentially catastrophic. I wanna know your point of view. Throw rocks at what I'm saying or validate it.
Yeah. So I think that, I think that it is, if your goal is to become someone who is well-known and well-regarded and well-followed, leveraging multiple networks and building your base in a home that you own, right, which is a website and email, is the wisest possible way you can do that. And that does not mean, I'm not saying that you shouldn't consider your YouTube channel and your YouTube subscribers as a great place to start building that brand. What I think is insanity is relying exclusively on that and saying, oh, my, I am not going to capture any attention outside of this one network, and if YouTube tomorrow decides to ban your channel, or decides that.
Change their algorithm for how you become visible, change their system for, you know, what is allowed to be shown, if governments come in and say basically, you know what, YouTube, you are a monopoly in Europe, and we need to break you up, and oh, suddenly, you lost 50% of your subscribers. Well, my friend, guess what? If you had had your own website and you were building most of that following there, YouTube is just a channel where you're, you know, posting content and potentially getting that amplification, but for your hardcore fans, right, the people who follow you the most, you own that relationship rather than YouTube owns that relationship. You have vastly more ability to control the level of influence and to keep that audience with you as you grow and as these networks change. You know, I think about the people who, in the early 2000s, had a million followers on Friendster. Oops, right? (both laughing) Didn't go so well, or hell, just a few years ago, you had 50,000 followers on Vine. Shoot, they're gone, right? And I think that it is not impossible to imagine that those kinds of things will happen, whether that's the result of YouTube changing, governments changing YouTube, people shifting their habits. That's my suggestion. So I agree with you that, you know, if you wanna build a business changing the dream of being a YouTube star or an Instagram celebrity is probably a poor way to do that. But also, even if you wanna be those things, have a home base.
Yeah. And what I find bonkers is that you have to ideally have something that you are passionate about. In YouTube land, it can be making films, and then it's a great natural fit. But, seeking the ability to be known and therefore charge for your services of sharing your audience is a really quick, it's on the rise as far as a desired outcome for most of the people that I hear, which I caution against. Like, you wanna be known for a thing. Like, I make cool films, or I'm, I am a designer.
Or I am a, fill in the blank, because it allows you to have something for people to rally around other than just your pretty face.
I mean, I worry a lot, if you can't say, I am a...
Fill in the blank.
Yeah, I am a designer, I am an artist, I am a, you know, whatever it is, a graphic designer. I am a visual artist.
Novelist, a philosopher.
Yeah, exactly, those kinds of things, and I'm well known for that, as opposed to, I'm well known on this particular network, which controls my destiny exclusively. Whew, and you don't, you don't own that network. You're not a shareholder there. You don't get to vote at the board meetings, right? (Rand laughs) You're not lobbying, a lobbyist there. That's dangerous, my friend.
Yeah. All right, so now, tell me how to get on the front page of Google. (Rand laughs)
So Google and YouTube actually have a lot of similarities, in terms of, you know, how the ranking systems work. There's lots of differences, but Google in particular, so, the organic results are driven largely by just a few inputs. So it is how authoritative and well known is your website, and that relies a lot on who links to your website. So other people linking to your website from their own websites tends to enhance your importance in Google's eyes. The more important the people who are linking to you, the better, right? If you can get a link from the New York Times or from, you know, randomchasesshadysneakers.info, (Chase laughs) you should go for the New York Times, right? That's where you want that link. Another big piece of that is certainly the using the words and phrases that people search for. So, you know, if, for example, you are a graphic designer and lots of people are searching for, you know, graphic design Seattle, but you wanna be creative, and so you've chosen to describe yourself with these other words and phrases. You're like, no, I'm a.
Yeah, I'm a technical master of VisualTURN 2D. Oh, no. Like, you know, you wanna have your unique brand. I totally get it, but no one searches in that way. One of my favorite examples was actually, this was years ago, but the New York Times, there were types of people, do you remember this airplane landed in the Hudson River, right, and they made a movie about it? Captain, was it like Sully J. Sullenberger.
Sully, yeah, Sully.
Or something like that?
Played by Tom Hanks.
Yeah, played by Tom Hanks, right. And, you know, so lands in the Hudson River, and this was one of like, the New York Times's wake-up calls on SEO, because they wrote something to the effect of, you know, a creative headline like plane lands in the river and captain saves the crew, that kind of thing, and of course the Washington Post wrote Hudson River plane crash averted, right? And what is everyone searching for, right? Hundreds of thousands, millions of people that day, are searching for Hudson River plane, Hudson River plane crash, right? And Washington Post outranks the New York Times. The New York Times goes, okay, maybe we should think about using the words and phrases people are actually searching for. So, that is certainly something to do, and that requires doing some research, right? You have to research what keywords, what words and phrases are people entering into Google. Google has a sort of free tool through AdWords that you can look up, but even if you just start typing in Google, then you see the dropdown, right, and they show you which things are coming up more popularly. That can help. They have related searches that they show at the bottom of the search results; that can help. And there's some tools. Moz has some tools; so do some others. Another big important one, solve searcher's problem. When someone enters a query, what they're saying is, I have this problem right now, and I want you to solve it for me. And that problem is often bigger than just the question they're asking with the words they enter. And Google has gotten extremely good at recognizing when a website and when a particular web page solves that problem for people. And if you solve that problem better than anyone else on the first page, that is, that is a true path to ranking that was, if we were having this conversation five years ago, that would not be the case. Google wasn't that sophisticated and advanced. So that's a big, powerful part of that.
Is the definition of solving a problem measured by bounce time, by engagement? What are some of the ways that, how does Google know that you've done a good job?
It's pretty sophisticated, actually. So, Google is tracking sort of ongoing, long-term user behavior. So let's say, for example, you and I are looking for the best sushi restaurant in Seattle. And so, you know, we both, we and a thousand other people go to Google, and we search for best sushi restaurants, and, you know, we visit the TripAdvisor page and the Yelp page and, you know, the Seattle Times page, and statistically speaking, what happens is what Google sees is that many of us, after visiting, you know, let's say the Yelp results, go back to Google and search again or click a different result. But the people who end up Eater's website, they stay. They don't come back to Google. If they do come back to Google, they search for different things. Over the course of the next week, month, year, they don't perform that search or related searches again. Oh, wait a minute.
They found their home.
They found their home. They found an answer. They have been satisfied. They don't need to ask this question anymore, and therefore, Eater must be a great place for people to get the solution. So even if it doesn't have great links, even if it's not using keywords perfectly, maybe we should put them up at the top. So it's not necessarily bounce rate. Some queries are solved very, very quickly. You know, if you wanna search for, you know, Seattle home price growth 2016 to 2018, right, a website should be able to say, okay, the average home price increase was 45% over that period. Boom, answered, done. I got it in four seconds. I'm outta there. My bounce rate is incredibly high, but I'm not going back to Google and searching it again, right? And so, they call this pogo sticking, where you jump to a website and then bounce back to the search results and choose something else. And a low pogo sticking rate will give you a great chance to rank well on Google.
Hmm, I'm taking some notes here for our team.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is definitely a big one.
Picking your brain here for my own. No, I think that just conceptually, there's a lot of folks, obviously finding success on the internet is an important part of being a creator, whether that's at your own website or blog or whatever. So, I think the short answer, if I'm gonna put words in your mouth, is that there's a handful of these things and behaviors.
Yeah, and there's another half dozen that we could talk about, but we don't have to get deep into. But, yeah, you can. In fact, I would urge folks who want to, you know, you could search Google for learn SEO, and if you pick up just the basics from some of those free guides, you know, there's a good one on Moz. There's a video class that I did on Skillshare and Whiteboard Friday, and stuff like that. Just a tiny bit, an hour or two, will take you from I don't know anything about SEO to, okay, I know enough to be a little dangerous, to at least get started on this path, and that can be transformative.
Yeah, helpful. All right. So, now, again, we're toggling back and forth between past and present, specific and general. Now I wanna go to something which is the problem that you're trying to solve now. Again, product's not out yet. What are the things, a handful of behaviors, not dissimilar to a handful of SEO things you need to know about where your people are. Where my people at, Rand?
Yeah. So this is, this is actually an incredibly hard problem to solve today. I mean, one of the reasons that we wanted to build SparkToro is because, as I described to you the process that, you know, sophisticated marketers go through to solve this, you'll be like, I don't wanna do that.
Yep, nobody wants to do that.
That sounds so hard. But, if you wanna, if you wanna have a really good idea of where your audience is actually hanging out, and this is truly important, because there's kind of, I almost view it like there's these two ways to reach people. If people are already searching for the thing that you offer, right, there's a bunch of demand. People go to Google and they search for this thing. Great, SEO is awesome for you. What if no one's searching for the thing that you make? What if you're making something totally new? An example, in fact, one of the ones that inspired SparkToro was here in Seattle. A couple of friends of mine who you might know, Joe Heitzeberg and Ethan from Crowd Cow.
Ethan Lowry from Crowd Cow. Okay, so Crowd Cow, you know, this idea is Ethan was like, I wanna provide high-quality, sustainable, you know, Japanese-style graded beef in the United States that anyone can order online. But of course, Americans are not used to ordering beef on the internet. (Chase laughs) Like, we went and did, I did the research for them, and I was like, okay, yeah, there's about 50 people a month who are looking for buy steak online. Like, it's just, (Chase laughs) that is not gonna move the needle on your business, 'cause people, when they want steak, they go to the grocery store. They don't think of it as like a, it's a commodity, right? It's not thought of as like a high-end product. There's no craft beef movement like there is with beer or whiskey or, you know, all these other things.
We're gonna rank highly for the search term craft beef.
When we put this transcript on the internet. (Rand laughs) Craft beef.
It's not a hyper-competitive thing until Crowd Cow. Yeah, so, so basically, they're trying to create this movement, and they're working with all these farms, and it's awesome. Like, I got to try some of the beef. It's different. Like, it's truly different in the way that a great scotch is way better than Johnny Walker, right? (Rand laughs) It really is a massive, massive upgrade. And so, we talked about this, and I said, you know, I think that the only way you're gonna grow this thing is by finding the influential people in like, the foodie world, and not just people, but publications and broadcasts and channels and all these, events and all this kind of stuff, and getting Crowd Cow to be the thing that they're all talking about, right? If, you know, you go to a foodie event, and people are up there on stage, if you go to a restaurant and they say we serve, you know, Crowd Cow beef, if you go on Instagram and your favorite food journalist is posting about visiting farms and, you know, ranches and getting great Crowd Cow beef, okay, that's how you create this movement. But it's not gonna happen through search.
Yeah, it's not gonna happen overnight.
Oh, no, it's a long process, absolutely.
This is another thing that nobody wants to hear, that you have to like, eat dirt for a while, and everyone wants this sort of quick fix.
Chase, I was, I don't know about CreativeLive, but I was blogging every night on SEOmoz for, you know, from 2003 to 2007, '08. So four or five years, between four and five years, four nights a week, Monday through Thursday night, sorry, Sunday through Thursday nights, and before I ever broke 2,000 visits in a day. It takes a long, long time to build. Now, granted, now that I know what I'm doing, right, it's faster with SparkToro.
But building that flywheel takes an incredible amount of time. And so, yeah, if you wanna get a great idea of where is my audience, you first have to know who they are. Who is the right audience for you, and I think that means figuring out people who are likely to have a high recidivism or retention rate, right? Recidivism meaning they come back to you, your website, your business a lot. Retention meaning they just stick with it, if you have a subscription or a, you know, a product that's multiple use or that kind of thing, or a service like that. And then, what you ideally wanna do is you sort of wanna steal their phone and their laptop. (both laughing) I mean this almost literally, because, so, you can survey your audience, and you can say like, okay, who do you pay attention to, who do you follow, what do you read, what do you listen to, you know, what do you watch, and they'll give you answers that are biased, right, by whatever, their own recent experience or a bunch of other things. But if you could actually like, take their phone and be like, okay, that's who you follow on Instagram, that's the YouTube channels you're subscribed to, this is the subreddits that you visit, you know, here's all your bookmarks, that's what you ideally wanna do. There are a few other manual ways of getting at that. One, if you have a lotta money, you can buy it through clickstream services like Jumpshot and SimilarWeb. This is what a lot of enterprise businesses will do. They'll go buy a bunch of clickstream data, and then like, narrow it down to, okay, people who visit these two sites, you know, whatever it is.
Let's assume that the listeners.
Yeah, are not gonna have access to that. You can, with SimilarWeb, they have a public version you can do like a trial with them. Then it becomes, I think, 500 or 600 bucks a month, but you can do a trial with them and go and see, like, okay, people who visit savoir.com also go to eater.com, also go to, you know, here's these other foodie websites. So that might be a way to dig in for a low cost. The other thing that you can do definitely is, and a lot of people do this, is they will go to Google and just start searching like mad, right? Search for, you know, what are the popular podcasts in this area? What are the popular YouTube channels in this area? What are the popular Instagram accounts? And then they'll try and filter that by, yeah, followers and visitors and all these kinds of things, and build up a big giant database. That's, that's how a lot of professionals do it.
All right, very general question. Art or science?
Both. Totally both, right? It is not, and SEO's the same way. You know, both of these, I think marketing in general, that's what attracted me to it, right?
What's the saying? 50% of your market dollars are wasted; you just don't know which 50%? (Rand laughs)
Right, right, yeah. And I think this is why, for years, I never spent any money on marketing. I was an organic-only kind of guy, right? I love that. I love content and social and search and that sort of thing. But, yeah, this is a, this is a practice where you'll do a lot of trial and error. You're gonna do a lot of muddling through, and building an audience is definitely, it's in high demand because it is challenging.
Yes. Let's talk about now what kind of content can build audience.
So, what we are, disproportionately, is an audience of creatures and entrepreneurs. And the people who listen to the show, watch the show, whether it's video, audio, whatever, and making is in their blood. We think of ourselves and one another, and I think of the show as in service of really cool part of the internet, because you're familiar with the internet triangle. You know, the bottom 90%, they are all leaned back. There's a nine percent, the top nine percent from 90 to 99, they are participators, and then there's one percent on the internet that actually make stuff. And so I like to think of this, the folks who are watching and listening, as this is, basically everybody's in that one percent.
There's a lot of engaged makers. And the challenge is like, well, how do I know that my stuff is different or better, or how do I stand out in a crowd, especially in a world where content, if we just think about photography, you know, there's trillions of photographs uploaded every year. And so, what kind of content, remember the audience, we're speaking to an audience of makers, what kinds of content, or is there a rhyme or reason or a pattern, or give us a framework for how to think about the content that we make?
Yeah, so the advice I always give folks around, you know, I wanna start doing, you know, marketing, I wanna start creating things that will grow my audience, and what I say is, let's imagine a Venn diagram with three circles. You are trying to find the intersection of these three circles. Circle number one is a medium that you personally are passionate about, that you are interested in. And I say that not just because, you know, you'll be able to sort of do better at things that you are passionate about or because following your passion is such common advice. I say it because I've never, I have never observed a creator, a maker, who's like, God, I know that I should be on Twitter, but I really hate Twitter. I've never seen them do well. It just doesn't, you know, like, if that medium doesn't resonate with you, if you are not excited and interested in it.
I hate bench press, but I'm gonna become really strong at bench press, says almost no one ever.
Yeah, I mean.
Or whatever the analogy.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. It's just, you need to find that area of passion first. So find something where you know you could get interested. Even if you're not super excited about it today, do you feel like, oh, yeah, I think Instagram or YouTube.
You're talking about medium right now.
So it's writing, photography, video.
Absolutely. Software, right? Like, I think I could write really cool tools and software. I think I could do really interesting visual representation of data. I think I could do really cool mixed media installation art. I think I, whatever it is, right, those kinds of things. And also the channels. I am excited about podcasting. I am excited about video creation and leveraging YouTube and potentially my own website, website for that, and I am excited about these other broadcast forms. I love live events, whatever it is.
Next one is area where you believe you can create something of unique value. So, there are lots of people creating photographs. What sets yours apart? What is the unique element? Why is it not just different, but valuable in its difference? Is it something that, you know, oh, it has this great resonance with this audience, or it appeals in a way that other photographs do not, or it's perfect for X, and no one else is. I think that that can be exciting. It exposes, you know, maybe you're doing journalistic photography that exposes some issue that no one else is talking about, or that needs attention and awareness, those kinds of things. And then the third one is an area where your audience actually plays, right? So, you know, going after, saying, hey, I am in the chemical engineering space, and I'm really passionate about creative photography. And Instagram is one of the places where I wanna do a lot of my broadcasting, and there's maybe a few other channels. Well, if chemical engineers don't hang out there, and that's your audience, and that's who you need to reach, you gotta cross that one off the list and find something else, right? So, if you can, if you can get all three of those aligned, and you can find an intersection of those, that's where I see magic happening.
Aha. So, I will use an example, a deconstructive example. I mentioned earlier my friend Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York. So, would his three areas, well, I'm gonna try and ascribe them. One is he was passionate about photography. He left his job as a bond trader, moved to New York to try and take 10,000 portraits, 'cause he was just passionate about that.
And particularly interested in specifically portrait photography.
Specifically portrait photography and specifically in New York, 'cause he wanted to catalog and put them on a map. And then he realized what his differentiator was, and this is like, unique value, was that he had the ability to capture people's stories auditorily. He was listening to them talk while he was taking their photographs, and when he put, it's pretty funny. He's got a presentation on CreativeLive where he talks about taking a picture and his first picture has like, one like, and it was his mom or something like that. And then when he started combining a photograph with a little narrative about, a little backstory about this person, that that all the sudden was like, exponentially more interesting than just the photograph. So he became his sort of value proposition was he became the best in the world at taking a picture, and he describes himself as a good photographer, not as a great photographer, but what he's great at is the combination of these two things. So that's his unique value add. So, what would his third be? Is it because people are on Facebook, and people are looking for human interest stories and for connection?
Yeah, I mean, and I think that also, he found, so I'm not massively familiar with this work, but I'm definitely familiar with his social accounts, right, the social accounts, which did amazingly well, and also, at a time when there was a rise in, you can easily combine a photograph and a block of text together into a bunch of mediums that have wide reach, right? So I think that helped, and then also, turning that into, you know, books and mixed media and, you know, interviews and other kinds of things.
Yeah, now he's got shows, he's got television shows. He's got a really successful speaking deal. But it's really about the art for him, and all the other things are, have become.
They're just ways for the art to reach people.
For sure. I think that's what I'm trying to distinguish there. So, I would ask you at home, if you're listening to this or watching it, like, what is your series of overlapping Venn diagrams where you find the thing that you're passionate about, you find the thing that you are unique. How do you exploit that, and where are those people?
And the word exploit, I use that term in the sort of conceptual term. Like what you wanna do is if you have a thing, a skill that you have, like, how do you manifest that, not trying to exploit any individuals. It's really how do you maximize the value of a particular skill or set of interests that you have. Okay, so, to me, we just traced a little bit of sort of the math and the technical about how you, I mean, you can get crazy technical.
We can do real deep, yeah.
Super deep. And for that, like, if this has been tintilizing, tantalizing, tin?
Tantalizing, yeah. (Chase laughs) Then you've got so many amazing videos.
Oh, yeah, sure.
Where it's you in front of a white board. So speaking of, since we're talking about content now.
This is the perfect example of that.
This is perfect example. Share your own personal example.
Yeah, so we, again, was sort of an accidental discovery, but I started explaining to one of my colleagues at work.
He's a good explainer, as you can tell from this particular podcast.
I started explaining to one of my colleagues at work, you know, here is how a 301 redirect is different than a 302 redirect. You don't have to know much about them, but regardless, Google thinks about them differently, web browsers treat them differently, et cetera. So, I'm explaining this, and my colleague at work is like, hang on, hang on. I just got a new video camera. I'm gonna grab the camera. It was a cheap, crappy camera in 2007, you know, and film it, and then we'll put it on the blog. Well, we put it on the blog. It did not perform well. In fact, statistically speaking, we did it again the next week and kept doing it to try and get better at it, because we were sort of interested in it, and because frankly, it saved me a night of blogging, right? It was, I can spend 15 minutes in front of a white board explaining something to one of my colleagues at work, and now when I go home at night, I don't have to blog? Oh, this is great. So I went from five nights a week of blogging to four. And I think a year in, White Board Friday, which is what we called this video. We always put it up late Thursday night for folks to get early Friday morning in the UK and Europe. The video series did, you know, mediocre, not nearly as well as most our blog content. Fast forward three years. We built a studio into our new offices when we got new offices. We vastly upgraded the camera. We soundproofed the studio. You know, nothing as fancy as this, but really, really good for, we figured out how to not get glare and reflection on the white board. You know, all these kinds of basic things. And I got better at explaining things and being on camera and all that sorts of stuff. And so White Board Friday became this phenomenon where all these people in the SEO and web marketing world would sit down together for lunch on Fridays in their offices around the world, and they'd watch White Board Friday for, you know, 10 minutes, and then they'd talk about whatever subject matter was in it. And by I think three years into it, it was performing as well as, you know, the rest of our blog content. Five years in, it was consistently our best-performing content. So it had built up this following, and because of its serial nature, I think it resonated with folks. And of course, yeah, it was also very unique. There were not a lot of places, yeah, not a lot of places to go and be like, okay, how can I, in 10 minutes, understand a concept in the SEO world, and I wanna do it via video, because reading something in text, it just doesn't resonate with me in the same way. And there are lots of, you know, visual learners who learn better that way. Obviously, many of the folks watching this, right?
Yeah, yeah, which is awesome, right? I had this same experience recently. A friend of mine asked me to play Dungeons and Dragons, which I had never played. I wanted to when I was a kid, but when I asked my friends at school, I was like, shamed and embarrassed, so much so that I wanted to leave that school. Like, it was just terrible, right? 'Cause when we were kids, D&D was this awful thing. So for 25 years, I had never played, and then my friend earlier this year was like, oh, you should play, and I started Googling around to learn how to play. I found this guy's YouTube channel, and it was extraordinary. I had this like, oh, why am I watching, I'm just watching a talking head on YouTube, but I'm super into it. And it finally clicked with me, like, oh, I think I'm getting why White Board Friday worked for other people, right, because.
Yeah, years ago, and continuing to this day. You know, I filmed a bunch of 'em before I left Moz, and so they continue to put out some with me, and then they're trying to sort of backfill other hosts now. But yeah, that video series hit those three spots really nicely, right? It was something that I was passionate about. I love explaining SEO to people and helping make this mysterious world less mysterious. I was uniquely good at being on camera and filming in a single take and being able to draw something on the white board that made sense to people and resonated, and this was a unique format that people didn't have before, and we had a distribution channel where people actually hung out. So by putting it, so we did something very unique, which I would actually recommend to anyone who's a video creator. We put the videos first, using Wistia, which is a self-hosted platform, put it on Moz, on our blog, our website. After three months, we then upload the video to YouTube. And this is because we want everyone to know and to get into the habit of come to our website to get the latest and greatest first, and then yeah, we also want, if people are searching on YouTube, to be able to find it there, and many people did find White Board Friday initially through YouTube. We wanna be in there, right, in the recommendation engine and all those kinds of things and get that visibility. But it also meant that in Google's results, if you search for, you know, whatever it is, how to do a 301 redirect, the White Board Friday video that pops up number one is on moz.com, not on youtube.com. So that means.
Interesting. Do you think that's still the case?
Yeah, mostly, mostly still the case. Sometimes YouTube will outrank us, but pretty rarely.
Interesting. What about as a philosophy? Like, needing to go where the people are? You're just saying that you develop, could you only get that sticky because you already had a place where people were hanging out that was probably more valuable than YouTube, and part two, is is that still the case, that you can ever outrank YouTube for your own video content?
So, yes to both. So, I strongly recommend, especially for B2B, right? So if you, if your business does something in the services world or you're serving businesses or that kind of thing, putting that on your own site, and you don't have to do what we did and wait three months. If you want to.
Three days or three hours.
Yeah, you could wait, you know, a day, a week, and put it up on YouTube and sort of have your YouTube channel, and at the end of every video, say, if you wanna see the latest video first, go to mywebsite.com and subscribe there. We always put them up, whatever it is, a day, a few hours, and the people who are obsessed with you, they want that content earlier, they're gonna come. They're gonna come to you. They're gonna give you their email address. You're gonna be able to cookie them on your site. You get analytics about them that YouTube won't provide. You can see exactly how far they watched in the video. Like, there's all sorts of cool stuff that, you know, by using Wistia or a similar service and hosting on your own platform, it's awesome.
You talked about obsessed people. I think you're really making stuff for that group, right?
Is that a theme for you?
I think so. I mean, and obviously, I'm someone, when I find something new that I like, I get very, very obsessed, right? So I got obsessed with SEO for 17 years, right, and I got obsessed. Yeah, I got obsessed with D&D right in the last three months with my friend pretty fast, and I got obsessed with this world of sort of finding the publications and people that influence your audience.
Finding your tribe.
Yeah, obsessed with solving that problem. I'm a little bit fashion-obsessed.
You know, like, I get into things.
So, I think, I'm gonna now, I'm gonna shoot some darts. We're gonna play darts.
Excellent, love it.
So, most compelling, your personally most compelling idea that you believe is in the book.
Oh, gosh. So there's a story, there's a story that I tell in the book about my wife Geraldine, who, a few years ago, while I was CEO at Moz, she'd been having bad headaches for a long time. She went into her doctor's office. She got an MRI, and it turned out it was a brain tumor on her hypothalamus, which is like, you know, right in the middle of everything. Very hard to, very hard to access, and they weren't sure whether it was cancerous or not. There were worried it was something called glioma, and, you know, the survival rates are awful for that. So, for the next, you know, month while we were sort of waiting to figure out, going through all the medical stuff and figuring out what we were gonna do and all of that, you know, my mental just, existence was gone. I did not have the bandwidth to think about anything else. I mentioned I'm pretty obsessive. I have an extremely close, you know, probably codependent, but in a very romantic, loving way with my wife, who I've been with for forever, since '01. And this just shattered me, right? I had this like, I think I wrote about this. Like, I had this belief in my head. I was like, this is the price you pay. If you have a romance as good as ours, you don't get to have it for long. Like, I see how the world is. I was sure she was, I was like, convinced that this was gonna be the end. Maybe a little fatalistic on that front. And I went into Moz, into my company. There were maybe 60 of us at the time. And I called an all hands meeting, just impromptu, like in our lobby, and I shared this. Like, I told everyone. I could barely get it out. I was like, choking on my own tears, and just, you know, falling apart, total mess. And that experience was incredible. It was so powerful, Chase.
I'm feeling it.
Like, people were just like hugging me and just showing all this love and dedication, and I mean, the team was like, stepped up and fired up and inspired, and I don't know. It's a weird thing, right? Like, especially when you're told, hey, when you have that personal stuff, don't bring that to the office. And, you know, if you're a real man, you don't cry, and you definitely don't do it in front of other people.
People that work for you.
Yeah, people that work for you. They'll lose respect for you. They'll think that the company's in trouble 'cause you can't focus, all this stuff. None of that happened, right? Instead, what happened was people like, stepped up. And it was very cool, because over the last few years, Google and a number of universities have been doing a ton of research about what predicts whether a team performs incredibly well or not, right? What makes for an outstanding team inside of a company? And so, Google had all these theories, right? They go and test them and try and validate them, like they're made up of the smartest people or the best programmers or like, you know, if you were the strongest contributor on this team, you'll be, you know, and we put all our strongest contributors together, they'll do this, or maybe it's teams that are led by, you know, certain types of managers, whatever it is. The strongest predictor that they found was not any of those things. It was something called psychological safety. You could get together relatively poor performers who hadn't gotten great grades, who like sort of got through the Google interview process but relatively low that are somewhat new to the company, but if the social cohesion of that group, if everyone in the group basically said, you know, answered yes to questions like I feel comfortable sharing personal details with my team, I know that I won't be judged for my failures or my mistakes, I believe that I could share, you know, embarrassing things about my work or my personal life with every other person on my team, I believe that this is a safe place for me, that, not how good a programmer you were, not whether your code had done really well, not if you got straight A's in school and went to Harvard. Nope, that, psychological safety, was the strongest predictor of a team's success, and I not only love, I mean, I sort of love that idea, but I love how unconventional it is. I don't think any of us think about that when we, I know I hadn't when I was hiring and building teams and trying to coach people and upgrade them, and yet, I had this experience, too, right?
This is a theme that I feel like I'm, I'm extracting in real-time from our conversation is this unconventional winning, and whether it's with psychological safety or when everyone else is telling you you shouldn't, that's when you're doubling down on the thing, like, for example, email. Everyone's like, no, man, it's all about the thousand more Twitter followers or Instagram followers. You're like, I'd rather have 10 email addresses. This kind of unconventional wisdom to me is almost, you know, I think about zigging instead of zagging. I've used it, you know, doing gallery shows when everyone's trying to build an online following, for example. And if that's a really powerful story from the book, I feel like what I know about the book, which is not all that much. It's very rare for me to sit with an interview and not having consumed the book and grilling you on it.
I'll make sure I get you one.
Is this me ascribing on you how you've won, or how you've been successful, or do you feel like this is actually a strategy that, what is the unconventional? And I mean, if I think about it, it's a little bit of my buddy Tim Ferriss. You know Tim. Just, what are the things that are creating outstanding results when you don't expect them to, and how do you?
I think there's a little bit of that and, you know, I sort of go a step further, which is can I reverse engineer and truly understand what are, why do these bits of common wisdom, whether they're true or not, right, whether they're myths or whether they're authentically part of the story, why do they exist? In whose interest are they? Why do we believe the way we do about these things? And I think by digging into that, you can find out which ones are, oh, this is best practice. This is a thing that lots of people do because it's a smart thing to do, right?
Yeah, getting eight hours of sleep.
And we should all do that, if we wanna get ahead. And then, I think there's also, when you dig into that, you often find these interesting, you know, nuggets of, that's not actually true. That's only applicable to these certain types of businesses or organizations, or it worked for these folks, but it doesn't necessarily work for everyone, or it's an outlier, or it's a myth that is propped up because it's very useful to this particular class of person or, you know, (Rand laughs) organization or whatever.
Rule makers are by and large making the rules so that you'll play by them.
Yeah, I mean, I think, I think Facebook knew exactly what they were doing when they said, hey, build your brand and business on Facebook, and we will get you in front of a huge audience, and for years, that worked pretty well, and you could reach regularly 10, 20, 30% of your audience, and then they were like, okay, now we are dominant. Now you get no reach at all, right? That's a smart growth tactic that serves them, and they knew exactly what game they were playing. And, you know, we sort of had the wool pulled over our eyes as a result. And so that, yeah.
Any other unconventional wisdom you can share?
Oh, yeah, I mean.
Just some one-offs. We're throwing darts here.
Sure, sure. So one of the other ones, one of the other ones that I think I made a mistake on and a lot of people do when they build a team is that we end up hiring, trying to hire, people who are extremely good at their particular sort of job role or function, and not necessarily that they're phenomenal sort of cultural and social fits for the organization. You know, things like do you share the same core values as our team, do you believe the same things about work like, I think, you know I personally have the belief that great work can be done from anywhere at any time, and that requiring, you know, oh, you should be in the office eight hours a day at your desk, because that's the place where you'll get the most work done. I don't think that's particularly true. Beliefs about who should we, who should we promote, who should we fire, why, those kinds of shared beliefs. That's not something people optimize for when they hire. I didn't. I mean, obviously, I didn't know what I was doing. I was a kid when I started this thing. And then, frustratingly, we also make the same mistake once someone gets onto our team. So it's like, okay, you're on a performance improvement plan, and we might have to let you go, because you didn't get as much work or as high quality work done as we need you to, as we expect you to. You, person who did get that stuff done but is sort of causing lots of strife and chaos and, you know, is generally perceived as a butt hole by team members, we're working with you on your social skills and your cohesion skills, and we'll invest a lot of energy into that, so long as you perform. What we should do is reverse those, because it turns out, it is vastly easier, what is CreativeLive all about? Improving and upgrading the skills, the actual skills, that everyone has, right, around their particular area of making and creating. That is a thing that is totally possible. That is a thing that is pretty easy. Social cohesion and cultural fit and getting people to share your values and ethics, you can work for a long time with people. You will not get those results. And so, unfortunately, what teams do is they don't hire and they don't keep and train people who lack the sort of fundamental core skills around their job, and they keep and retain and try and work on the people who don't have core value fit.
And are toxic. And if you could reverse those, you can get extraordinary results. And I've actually seen a bunch of organizations, especially I know a number of like, consulting shops and creative shops that basically take people who have very few skills, they train them up because they're a great culture fit, and as a result, they get them for, you know, a lower cost than a lot of their competitors, and they have more cohesion and more psychological safety, and, you know, and a team that's more aligned, and they get more done, and their margins are better.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
It definitely eats tactical execution for breakfast. Yeah.
So, what about in your personal life? What's a thing that you do that you find most other people don't do or that people would be surprised to know?
Oh, yeah. Gosh, I mean, I am, like we talked a little bit about, I'm someone who, I think many people who observe me and sort of, you know, feel like, oh Rand has achieved a lot of success and a lot of notoriety, whatever, with the companies he's built and all this other stuff. I think people would be surprised to learn how relatively indulgent I am with sort of personal me time, on all sorts of fronts, right? So I regularly get eight hours or more of sleep. I spend a good amount of time on just, you know, my wife and I having friends over and doing social stuff and traveling and having fun and probably, probably more than a lot of people who, you know, work 40, 45 hours a week, right? We watch TV; I play some video games. I'm not, I am not an overly obsessive, but, I will say what I've found that's odd for me, not odd. I think this is actually true for a lot of people, but I had a hard time recognizing it. So my least productive years were when I was working the most. Like, the most numbers of hours, right? And I had plenty of those 60-, 70-hour. I don't think I ever had an 80-hour week, but 60-, 70-hour weeks. And I could get very little accomplished. And now, with I think like a lower amount of stress lifestyle, when I have something I need to get done, I need to, you know, create a great talk for MozCon this week, and, you know, about marketing launches, put together this hour-long PowerPoint and, oh, and we're gonna launch this piece of software, this free tool at it, and all these kinds of things, I can crank those out like that. Things that would take me, during my 60-hour weeks, I'd be like, oh, man, I need like, three, four weeks to develop this thing. I can get 'em done in three or four days. I can just crank through it in, you know, four or five hours a day and get all of that work done. I am shockingly productive when I have more personal time.
Do you meditate or do you have any mindfulness practices?
Not formally, but I do have.
A lot of alone time.
Yeah, the alone time thing, and I worked with my therapist on sort of identifying just a personal practice for myself that I do regularly, which is to.
Like a talk track or something?
Yeah, like an internal monologue thing, where I just go through the, what are the things that I did today and this week? What are the things I'm sort of excited about for tomorrow and the next week? What are things that I was frustrated about, and can I let those frustrations go? Can I understand why I'm frustrated about them? And then, the next one, and this is like the help me fall asleep thing is the, what's something that has nothing to do with my professional life that I'm sort of like, interested in or thinking about? I'll think about a TV show or a game or, I don't know, some friends I'm gonna see or a trip we're planning, or D&D, or whatever it is, right?
Something that's different from work, yeah.
And I'll put that in my head, and that helps get me into kind of a peaceful place. So that practice is really healthy. Has been, rather, for me.
A, thank you. B, what's the best way for people to pay attention to you and your new work?
Oh, sure, sure. Yes, you should follow me on Instagram, no. (Rand laughs)
But you're basically, you're @RandFishkin on most things, right?
@RandFish on, yeah, on Twitter and most things. But yeah, certainly, if folks, you know, if creators out there have questions about, you know, SEO stuff or web marketing stuff and I can be helpful, I'm firstname.lastname@example.org. That's my email address.
Spark with an S-P-A-R-K-T-O-R-O.
SparkToro, exactly, yep.
And yeah, our website, you can find that on there as well. And yeah, I'm most active on Twitter @RandFish. I'm about 70% web marketing stuff and then 30% social issues, so if you're comfortable with that balance, great.
Sweet. Thank you so much for sitting down and talking to us.
Are you kidding me, Chase? This was awesome.
Long time in the making, and for those folks at home, pay attention this guy right here. Check out the new book, too. Congratulations on that.
Yeah, thank you.
I'll see you again probably, hopefully tomorrow. Bye! (dramatic electronic music)