Rand Fishkin: Inbound Marketing Lessons for Startups
This is part 2 of the interview with Rand Fishkin. In this episode, we talked about inbound marketing, some of the common mistakes that startups make and what he do differently if he will be launching a new company today.
If you missed part 1 of the interview, then here’s the link:
Part 1: How Rand Fishkin Built an 8-Figure SaaS Business
Rand Fishkin is the Co-Founder of Moz, a Seattle-based SaaS company that sells inbound marketing & marketing analytics software. The company was founded in 2004 as a consulting firm and shifted to software development in 2008. The Moz website has an online community of more than one million digital marketers. To date, the company has raised just under $20M in funding.
TranscriptClick to view transcript
Host: Omer Khan
Guest: Rand Fishkin
Hi, I'm Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and you're listening to the ConversionAid podcast.
Welcome to the ConversionAid podcast, where we help software entrepreneurs to take their business to the next level. Each week we interview proven industry experts who share their strategies and insights to help you create software that sells! Here's your host, Omer Khan.
Omer: Hey everyone, welcome to the ConversionAid podcast. I'm your host Omer Khan and this is the podcast for software entrepreneurs and companies who want to grow their business to the next level and create software that sells! Okay, today's episode is part 2 of the interview with Rand Fishkin. Rand is the co-founder of Moz, a Seattle-based SaaS company that sells inbound marketing and marketing analytics software. The company was founded in 2004, as a consulting firm, and shifted to software development in 2008. The Moz website has known like a community of more than a million digital marketers and today the company has raised just under $20M in funding. In this episode, Rand talks about inbound marketing, some of the common mistakes that startups make and what he would do differently if he was launching a new company today. So with that, let's get back to the interview.
Alright, let's talk about inbound marketing and you know, hopefully what lessons that we can learn from your experiences. Just for folks who aren't familiar, can you just take a second to just explain how you define inbound marketing?
Rand: Yeah. For me, inbound marketing is simply a phrase that I guess, collect all of the channels, tactics, processes that you use to drive non-paid, earned media traffic to a website, right? So this is everything from…and through a funnel, so everything from email marketing, which, you know, can be a wholly earned channel assuming you are not kind of buying lists to organic search, the non-paid side of search results, social media, content creation and marketing, community building, conversion rate optimization and a whole host of others and essentially, these tactics and channels work best when they are combined with one another. You start to get that 1 + 1 = 3, a fact, when you combine these and that's just because there is a very beautiful flywheel that a lot of people have built with inbound marketing and that flywheel of functions fairly logically. So I produce some piece of content and that content could be my actual product or you know, my kick-starter page or my ‘Beginner's Guide to SEO' or a new blog post or whatever it is, and that piece of content is on my website, I promote it through social media, through email outreach, through my content, through my network, they help amplify it – that means that it earns, hopefully, some links and some other kinds of ranking signals for Google and it also earns me brand awareness and attention and interest and then the next time…
And then that piece of content, now that it has those ranking signals, has the ability to rank in search engines, which sends kind of an ongoing longtail of search traffic and if I keep doing this process, over and over again, I slowly, over time, build up my social network, I build up my brand, I build up my ability to rank for content, like my domain gains authority and that means every piece of content that I put out there has a little better chance to rank well and so you build the flywheels. It's very hard to get those first, you know, few dozen turns of the flywheel going, but after a while, it's a really smooth process, you know. Suddenly you can hit ‘Publish'; you can, you know, share on your social channels, and sit back and kind of watch all the good stuff rolling and that, you know, that's a very exciting opportunity. It's particularly exciting for entrepreneurs, I think, in the software field because cost of customer acquisition is such a big challenge, you know. If you were spending $500 to acquire a new customer and their lifetime value on average is $2000, you know, that's 25% of lifetime value of customer that you spend, just to acquire them, never mind whatever your margins are on serving them, and providing that software and then your overhead for paying, you know, paying your engineers and that kind of stuff. At Moz, because we built such a great flywheel with inbound, our cost to acquire customer, I think right now, is about $101 and the average customer is spending about a $109 with us per month. So we basically have a customer pay back period of less than 1 month, which means, you know, that our growth engine, especially for our first, you know, 6 years was just easy. We never even paid until…I think 2010, was when we hired our first paid media marketer and before that, we never spent a dime to acquire a customer.
Omer: So let's say…let's go to a hypothetical situation. You are starting Moz in 2015. It's a new company. How would you go about in 2015, tackling inbound marketing? I presume the first thing would be, as you said, is around content marketing and starting to blog.
Rand: You know, I think if I were going to do it again today, because the field has become much more saturated and there is just a, you know, a ton of competition, specifically in our sector, there are so many people producing content, specifically, you know, blog post and guides and that kind of stuff, I think I would go one of two routes. I would probably go – either we build lots of free tools, free kind of interactive tools to help people and then kind of upsell you from there or I think I would go with a very visually focused blog or content system. I think…you know, the kinds of stuff where you could crop all the visuals we make and put them on Instagram or Pinterest and they would do really really well or Facebook, because I think that that kind of old-school blog content, which we still do a lot of, and I think because we are leaders in the field already, it works great for us, but I think it would be tough to start out new and try and compete. So, you know, I think that's a piece of advice that I would give for any entrepreneur in any field, is, if you see that your field is already saturated, you know, in the content world with type of content ‘x', don't just try and copy everyone else and do type of content'x'. You will probably have a much better shot if you build something unique and different.
Omer: So you had a great Whiteboard Friday video talking about unique content. I'll include that in the show notes because I think there is some really valuable information in there for folks. But one of the websites that you gave us an example, I'd never heard of, ‘WaitButWhy.com' …I just love…there is a great post there about procrastinators and what to do about it and that's definitely me, but what I loved about it in addition to all the great information there was, there is really kind of, you know, amateurish pictures that they'd included in there with them; you know, what's going on inside your brain and there's this little monkey that's basically, you know, pulling you away from doing the things that you really want to do, and yeah, sure. I think I could probably find tons of great blog post out there telling me about how I can stop procrastinating, but I think it was as visuals, just like you said, that I think really stuck in my mind.
Rand: Absolutely, and they can spread like wildfire, right? People put them in their presentations and reference back to it, they post them on social networks and you know, visuals are really likely to get a lot more amplification on those, and so I think there is…yeah, there's true power in that stuff. What's interesting about ‘WaitButWhy', they do something that I also love to do, which is make graphics that are amateury, but authentic, right? So there's kind of…like there is a difference between amateur graphics that are stock images or crappy photo-shopping and amateur images that are, “Well, this person can't really draw, but the stick figures have kind of an authentic quality to them” – xkcd being the prime example in the technology field, right? People just love those little stick figures, those word bubbles…and they really resonate. So I think that there is something powerful about authentically amateur visuals.
omer: Okay. So you are starting out Moz again, so you're going to either focus on some kind of free tools or visually focused blog. Let's talk about SEO. What would you do differently with SEO in 2015?
Rand: I think there is a…the strategy we have been following at Moz for the last 6 or 7 years is actually kind of where Google has gotten to today. I always thought, you know, even in 2004, I thought that form of search of SEO, was only a year or two away and it ended up taking probably more like 5 or 10, but they've been directionally going this path for a long time and that is to be able to include…more so than just raw links and you know, the number of unique linking domains that point to you and the diversity of those, those things are still important, and it still is somewhat important in that you use the right keywords and phrases, but Google is getting much more sophisticated about their natural language processing and about being intent-driven with the results that they return, essentially saying, “What did this person mean when they enter this query? What is the answer they're looking for? What is the question they are asking? This serves up…this page serves up the best results, not necessarily this page keyword matches, the keywords they enter at the best.” There is still a little bit of that, and that's still an SEO best practice. I think it probably will be for a long time. If you enter some words, you actually want to see if the person, you know, the title tag of the page that you're clicking on has those words in it because that tells you, as a searcher, that it's relevant too! But for those reasons, I think I would begin by saying, “What are the 50 to a 100 phrases that, when someone searches for them, we really want to come up?” We want to be, you know, in those top 3 spots for these phrases, and then I would say, “Okay, now which among those could we produce something that no one else has produced, provide really unique value that no one else produced, has given?” and as a result, earn a lot of traction and attention to that piece, because if you can't answer all three of those, I don't think you can have success, especially as a new website. It's just really tough to break out of that.
I probably also, in addition to that, more…you know, hardcore SEO process that's keyword and rankings-driven, I would probably also try and do some content marketing that is designed purely to earn me links and ranking signals and attention, so the kinds of things that are going to get…it's not clickbait because Clickbait is not good enough. Clickbait is very transient, right? I don't think anyone cares whether they go to YahooNews or to BuzzFeed or up worthy for, you know, the latest piece of Clickbank, but I think there are ways that you can build brand with you know, what I call certain…maybe like brand defining content and I would try and come up with some of those brand defining pieces of content that I feel like people would refer to over and over again. So at Moz, a few of those today are things like you know, our ‘Beginner's Guide to SEO, to link building, to social…' Our industry survey every 2 years is very popular. Our ranking factors every 2 years is very popular. We sort of alternate those year-year. We've had a number of quizzes; over the years, have been really popular. We just launched a local SEO quiz that was really popular. So I think those kinds of brand defining pieces are something I would do to…
Omer: Would you blog a lot less frequently than you were doing in the early days of Moz? I mean, would you focus just on ‘less frequently, but create bigger and more higher value, unique content'?
Rand: I think if I had the staff to do it, I would probably myself personally try and blog every night, but I will do that visual blogging things, right, that xkcd or the WaitButWhy kind of style; you know, I'll try and learn how to actually make some visuals and the reason that I would do that is because it would take me a year or two, but a year or two in, I bet I'll be really good at it. Like, I bet I could start being able to crank out a piece of visual content that would really sail across the web after a couple of years of trying three or four nights a week, and that practice makes perfect is why I invested in, not necessarily because I thought that was going to have a huge content marketing or SEO or social…like smash success from Day 1.
Omer: Let's move on to social media. So how would you use social media in 2015 with all new Moz company?
Rand: So we talked about the visuals thing, but you know, I'll mention that again; I think that's a great way to go. Another thing I think I would do is I would…I think I would probably try and build up or be intentional about what my social accounts were producing, rather than just…So I think, for example, today, Moz's social accounts primarily promote Moz stuff, like Moz events – they promote content that we produce, they keep in touch with our customers and provide some forms of customer service and support over social media. I might still do some of that, but I would also…I am not exactly sure, I might have the…you know, Moz…this is a silly example may be, but I might do like the Moz graph of the morning and graph of the afternoon and you know, I'd stay subscribed to a lot of places like Emarketer and MarketingCharts.com and you know, all of the stuff that like Andreessen Horowitz puts out about the tech sector and you know, I just have, what is, comScore puts stuff out, Nielsen put stuff out, Pew Internet and American Life Project, put stuff out and I think I would agree with all that stuff and say, “Okay, what's interesting to my audience, I'm going to have two graphs every day that we share,” and so you know, if you subscribe to Moz's Twitter channel, every morning, every afternoon, there'll be a graph for the morning, graph for the afternoon, you know. I am not sure that will be the one, but I have something like that, that I came to be associated with our channel and I think promoting other people's content is something I would invest heavily in over social because when you promote the work of others, they come to know and respect you and they want to promote you as well! So there is like a beautiful reciprocity that happens.
Omer: What's a common mistake that you see many companies making with social media these days?
Rand: I think half of them are really boring! [Laughter] People are just…you know, they share on social media thinking…not being empathetic, right, not thinking…everyone out there subscribe to, you know, somewhere between a 100 and a 1000 people on Twitter or they are following, you know, 50 fan pages on Facebook or they are…you know, they follow 20 companies on LinkedIn, but then they see, you know, 500 things from their contact every day. Why would they give two craps about what I'm producing? And I think a lot of them don't…they think that people who subscribe to them are special and unique and like, “Well, I think if they subscribe, they must love us. They must want to see everything we ever do.” I don't think that's the case; so I think the biggest mistake that folks make on social media is not having empathy and not figuring out how to be signal rather than noise to their audience.
Omer: That's great advice! Okay Rand, it's now time for our lightening round. I am going to ask you a series of questions and I would like you to answer them as quickly…
Rand: Like crackling effects in the background and…can you add that in post-production?
Omer: [Laughter] Alright, are you ready?
Omer: Okay. What's the best piece of business advice that you ever received?
Rand: I think it was from Dharmesh Shah and he's given me a bunch of really good pieces of advice, but several of the best, he told us not to, well, to use a different payment platform provider than what we used in 2009 or '10; I think we were with InfusionSoft and he said we should have done with SalesForce and we should have…He also told us that we shouldn't try and raise money in 2009, because that was just really bad time, so right after the market crash and he was totally right about that. I think I wasted six months, may be nine months, trying to fund-raise and it didn't work! [Laughter] So he's been great source of information over the years. If only I had paid attention to it!
Omer: Yeah, exactly. [Laughter] What book would you recommend to our audience and why?
Rand: I really like a book called ‘The Billionaire Who Wasn't' – it's about Chuck Feeney who started the duty-free series of stores, you know, you see them in airports all over the world now and you know, made billions and billions of dollars and then ended up giving it all away and it's a pretty, it's a fascinating read, from every perspective, from entrepreneurial angle, from a philanthropy angle, from a human being angle. I really liked it.
Omer: What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful entrepreneur?
Rand: I am going to come back to kindness. I think that entrepreneurs who are kind are far more successful than the ones who sold their company for more dollars and I think…yeah, hopefully history and humanity will remember that in time.
Omer: What's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?
Rand: It's actually email. I know it seems, sounds crazy because everyone is talking about how email are so unproductive these days, but I love having every single thing in my life come through email. If it's not in my email or not on my calendar, it doesn't exist! And that means that, you know, everything from messages that I receive via Facebook, I completely ignore them. I have never checked my Facebook messages, haven't checked LinkedIn, but all my profiles have my email address in there and they say to email me. My voice message, if you call my phone, it will say, “Don't leave a message. Email me because I will never check these messages.” And having everything go through that one channel means that I can be very focused and I know that when my, you know, Inbox is clean and my calendar is open, I have time to work and when there's stuff to address, that's been…it's been sort of a super-power for me. I think one of the things is I am very fast on email and I like it a lot, so…
Omer: If you had to start over tomorrow, what type of business would you go and build?
Rand: I think I'm addicted at this point to software subscription businesses. Software, because I actually know the challenges I think starting over a new type of business like hardware or eCommerce or retail or something like that, food services, like I just don't know those worlds. I have to learn all the challenges again. I'd rather…[Laughter] If you ever played a video game and then, you know, you play it like halfway through and you are like, “You know what? I am just going to start over like an entirely new character because if I do, I bet I can kick the game's ass, because I know all the hard spots and where to look around the corner to the left and there's a bad guy.” And I feel like that with software subscription, so I think that's…I would stick with this business. I think my second character can be even better.
Omer: [Laughter] What's an interesting or fun fact about you that most people don't know?
Rand: Most people don't know? I don't know if it's interesting, but may be fun. My first name is actually not Rand. My first name is…I don't know what it is; on my birth certificate, there is an ‘S' before Rand, so it's like ‘S' space ‘Rand' space ‘Mitchell'- my middle name space ‘Fishkin'. So there's like an ‘S' sitting in front of my name and occasionally, you know, if someone sees me like sign a document, they are like, “Hey, what's that?”
Rand: I don't know where it came from and well, I tried. I didn't know where it came from, but yeah, boom! It is not a lightening round where it came from!.
Omer: And finally, what is one of your most important passions, outside of your work?
Rand: Definitely my marriage! I mean, yeah, I'm crazy about Geraldine. I think if you read her blog, you can see why anyone would be crazy about her. Yup, that's me!
Omer: Great answers. Okay. Rand, I want to thank you for joining me today and sharing your experiences and insights with our audience and thank you for letting us get to know you better personally as well! Now, if folks want to find out more about Moz, they can go to: Moz.com, and if they want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that?
Rand: Well, if you want to see the stuff that I'm sharing online, most of my sharing is done on over Twitter, so that's: @randfish. I also run a personal blog on Moz's website, that's it – Moz.com/Rand. And then if you want to get in touch for any reason, my email address is rand [at] moz [dot] com.
Omer: Awesome. Rand, thanks again and it's been an absolute pleasure!
Rand: My pleasure Omer. Thanks for having me.
Omer: Cheers. Alright, I hope you enjoyed that interview with Rand Fishkin of Moz. You can get to the show notes for this episode by going to ConversionAid.com/38, where you'll find all the links and resources that we discussed today. If you'd like to get in touch with me, you can find me on Twitter: @omerkhan or email me at: [omer AT conversionaid.com] and if you enjoyed this episode, then I would really appreciate you taking a couple of minutes to submit a review on iTunes and subscribing to the show, if you haven't already done so. Just go to ConversionAid.com/iTunes. Thanks for listening. Until next time, take care.
- “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
- “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune” by Conor O’Clery
Links & Resources Mentioned
- Rand Fishkin Personal Blog
- Wait But Why
- Whiteboard Friday: How to Provide Unique Value in Your Content