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How Rand Fishkin applied lessons learned from Moz to the launch of SparkToro (Inbound Success, Ep. 165)

How Rand Fishkin applied lessons learned from Moz to the launch of SparkToro (Inbound Success, Ep. 165) Blog Feature

October 19th, 2020 min read

"If I only knew then what I know now..." We've all wondered how we would do things differently if given the chance for a do-over. Here's how Rand Fishkin applied lessons learned from the past to the launch of his new startup, SparkToro.

Rand FishkinThis week on The Inbound Success Podcast, SparkToro Founder Rand Fishkin talks about starting over.

Rand rose to marketing stardom as the Founder and CEO of Moz, where he became known as one of the foremost experts on SEO in the world. 

When he exited the company a few years ago and founded SparkToro, he reflected on the lessons learned from his experience at Moz to develop a fresh new approach to everything from raising investment funding, to speaking out about issues some might consider controversial, and the development of a marketing strategy for his startup.

Check out the full episode, or read the transcript below, for details.

Resources from this episode:

 

Rand Fishkin and Kathleen Booth
Rand and Kathleen having a little fun while recording this episode

Transcript

Kathleen (00:00): Welcome back to the inbound success podcast. I am your host Kathleen Booth. And this week I am incredibly excited to tell you that my guest is none other than Rand Fishkin. Welcome Rand.

Rand (00:26): Thanks for having me, Kathleen. Great to be here

Kathleen (00:28): To say that I'm excited is an understatement. I, this is, I'm just going to throw it out there and this is embarrassing, but I have had a marketing crush on you for a long time.

Rand (00:39): Marketing crush. One of the most unusual types of crushing.

Kathleen (00:42): I mean, you have to really be a marketing nerd to develop like marketing crushes and I truly have one. So I will just tell a brief story about how and why I developed this crush.

And then I'm going to ask you to tell a little bit about yourself. So I, I started reading your content when you were at Moz and I always just loved, loved it for two reasons. One is, it was incredibly substantive. There's a lot of crappy content out there and I've been a marketer for a long time. And I don't like to waste my time with stuff that isn't going to teach me something new.

Kathleen (01:17): And I just always felt like I learned something when I read your content, but I loved also your delivery and the fact that you let your personality shine through and you, weren't afraid to be kind of fun about it. And that's what first you know, turned me on to the content you were creating. But then I think what really cemented it was actually when you left Moz and you wrote your book Lost and Founder, I was a business owner for 11 years.

I owned a digital marketing agency and I had what I would call a less than glorious exit. You know, there were a lot of failures along the way. I even actually toyed with writing a book. It's the first time I've ever said this to my podcast listeners.

I toyed with writing a book called full frontal failure about like how important it is to just own it and put yourself out there and how, like being an entrepreneur is so lonely and nobody talks about the bruises and the, you know, the bad parts and I saw your book and I read it and I was like, Oh my God, this is what I'm talking about.

Kathleen (02:18): So it really spoke to me and then you started SparkToro and I was so fascinated and impressed by how you built the audience first. And really again, what putting out incredibly substantive content, I loved everything you did with Jumpshot while it was still available. Anyway, so I mean, I could go on and on and on, but that was kind of my journey following you.

And I've always just loved how unflinchingly, honest you are. And the most recent example of that is the amazing blog you put out about why you left Moz's board of directors and, and you've always been a champion of diversity, and I love that it made room for two women of to join the board. So I'm going to stop now, cause this is getting a little awkward.

Rand (03:04): No, no. I mean I think what's, you know, what's wonderful, Kathleen is I always felt like the the contributions that I, that I wish, you know, resonated more in the world are exactly the ones you're talking about, right.

Transparency around entrepreneurship and around the hard parts of broken relationships and broken systems and you know, work around diversity and equity and inclusion and those kinds of things. And yet, you know, mostly for better or worse, right? Mostly what I'm known for is like, Oh, you really helped me learn keyword research.

Kathleen (03:45): Whiteboard Fridays.

Rand (03:49): I'm, I'm very grateful and honored to have helped people with those things as well, of course, right. That, that built my career and, and helped build Moz. But I think there are, there are lots of places to get that information and to your point, it, it can be pretty lonely and challenging to find real people telling real stories about the painful and hard parts of work and life and and recognizing what opportunities they've had and which ones maybe they didn't earn. Which, which has certainly been the case with me too. So,

Kathleen (04:29): Yeah. And I would add to that and helping other people perhaps avoid some of the pitfalls you did. I love that you shared your term sheet and lost and founder. You know, I, I actually sent that to a friend of mine right after I wrote it. He said he was starting to look at maybe taking on investment.

He had a completely bootstrapped, very, very successful software company, but he didn't have a succession plan. He didn't have children who wanted to take over and he wanted to retire. And I said, I have a book, you have to read, read it before you take any investment. And I just think that's, so what a gift to be able to like, pass that on and allow people to, to avoid some of the things that you've had to encounter in your journey. So thank you for that.

Rand (05:09): Oh my gosh. I'm honored. Thanks.

Kathleen (05:11): Yeah. Well, the big reason other than the adulation I'm pouring on you, that I wanted to have you here was that I, the thing I think is so interesting and what makes me want to ask you like a thousand different questions is that you are somebody who has started and grown a very successful business in Moz and learned a lot along the way and SparkToro's a more recent journey.

And you know, we always say like, Oh, if I had only known that, then what I know now, and you kind of had that opportunity a little bit with SparkToro. So that's really what I want to dig into as someone who has been there, done that and seen both the good and the bad of growth and what works with marketing and what doesn't when you decided to start SparkToro, can you, can we, maybe we could start by having you walk me through, what were the lessons you pulled from your earlier experiences to put together? What, in your mind was the plan that would work for a brand new company from a marketing standpoint? Because of course we talk about inbound marketing on this podcast.

Rand (06:16): Yeah. let's see. I had a bunch of things that I really wanted to do very differently. And some of those, some of those, I kind of outlined at the end of Lost and Founder, but you know, I wanted to fund SparkToro differently. I knew that I wanted to raise investment because I didn't, you know, to your point around leaving a company and not having a financial exit, right. I didn't have a financial exit from Moz.

And so, you know, I needed to I had a nice severance agreement, but otherwise right. Had to start getting income pretty darn fast. And I knew that I wanted to build a company that could be successful, successful, meaning for its employees and its customers and its shareholders be successful for all three of those groups without having to be hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Rand (07:16): And so the VC model just does not really allow for that, right. It is you know, Moz is a company that got to $50 million in recurring revenue and is considered kind of a, like frustrating mediocre plateau, you know, of a, of a company, because it just won't, it won't go away and die, which would be fine, right. In venture capital world. It's fine. If 98 out of a hundred companies that they invest in die or right. Or could it get to a fast growth rate and North of a hundred million dollars in revenue? That's fine, too. Everything in between is no good. Right.

Kathleen (07:56): That's so funny because I feel like if you talk to any startup founder, well, I don't know any, but most 99% of startup founders would say $50 million company. Yeah. Sign me up. Like that sounds great. It's weird.

Rand (08:09): And I think almost all of us, in fact, all of us should feel that way, but the venture capital asset class has biased a lot of people to think like, Oh yeah, that's, that's not good enough. And that's pretty, that's pretty dumb, right? Because what we want, what we want as a society and as people, and as human beings who are familiar with how capitalism and economics interact and politics, we should want lots of little companies, right?

What makes a sector robust? What makes an economy vibrant is competition and lots of diversity of, of, you know, different companies owning parts of the market and innovating as a result of that. What you absolutely don't want. The last thing you want, if you want a healthy economy and a healthy politic and a healthy sort of income equality you want, you do not want Facebook owning 90% of social media, Google owning 95% of search Amazon owning, you know, whatever it is.

Rand (09:16): Percent of e-commerce 50% of e-commerce, right? Those are negative externalities and the results of you know, a sort of system that gravitates toward the most powerful. And that is bad for everybody, right? Bad for entrepreneurs, bad for employees, bad for consumers, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Right. So I knew that I wanted to build a company that could be successful without the forced venture type of outcome.

I knew that I wanted to keep the team really small. I don't like building big teams. Casey doesn't either, both of us have worked at, you know, companies that are like at Moz when it was like 20 people and 25 people. That was great. 50 people. Okay. Still, all right. 75, Ooh. I'm not feeling as great about this hundred, 200 plus really I'm not a match for what the kind of working environment that I like. And so, yeah, that was another intentional decision to long term.

Keep the team small. We knew we wanted to build an audience before we launched a product. We knew we did not want to launch an MVP. We wanted to launch a very robust sort of impressive product. That would be remarkable to a lot of people. The first time they tried it. So all those things are very different.

Kathleen (10:40): Yeah. Let's talk for a minute about building an audience before you build a product. That's something that I'm personally passionate about. I, I spent two years as head of marketing at IMPACT. And I, after I exited my agency, I always said I would never be in an agency again.

But I stayed in IMPACT because that was Bob Ruffolo, the CEO, his vision was to build a media company around the agency. And I was like, that is interesting to me and that model was build the audience and then, and then we'll have products we can roll out to them. So it's not exactly what you're talking about, but it's that same mindset of, if you have a really passionate audience, it unlocks so much opportunity.

I'm interested in knowing like, how did you go about that with SparkToro? I kind of saw it from a reader standpoint. Cause I think I've read every one of your blogs since the beginning, but maybe explain to my listeners a little bit about why you chose that approach and then how, how you approached it. Because I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding how exactly you would go about doing that.

Rand (11:38): Yeah. Yeah. And I did it quite differently than with Moz, right? So Moz was like blog five nights a week you know, try and get traffic to all those posts, try and get good at SEO earn, you know, links to those posts. And then, you know, slowly build up this sort of content and SEO, flywheel and SparkToro was essentially built on the back of what I call social media marketing and digital PR. Right.

So I did lots and lots of and continue to do lots and lots of podcasts and webinars and conferences and events and guest contributions and you know, get interviewed for other publications platforms, blogs, media channels, research reports get quoted in news, like all, all that kind of stuff. Right. Essentially leverage the power of other people's platforms because SparkToro, when it launched had none of its own and also leverage the social media platforms that I carried over from us.

Rand (12:40): Right. So I didn't, I didn't get to carry it over, like my, you know, my content library and all the search traffic, but I got to bring with me, you know, some of that social media presence and, and that following on like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram that essentially kickstarted the SparkToro audience and the sort of what, what started as our beta invite list and then became our early access customer list.

I think for any startup, for any business that's trying to build its audience and email addresses the most important thing to capture, you know, getting website visits, getting social followers yeah, those are okay. Not, not like a problem or anything, but an email address is so incredibly valuable. You can do so much with those direct communication, you know, broadcast communication. And of course all sorts of, you know, stuff on the ad platforms too.

Rand (13:43): So we, over the course of about 18 months, which was essentially the development time, the R and D and testing and beta process for SparkToro we had about 15, 16,000 email subscribers who said like, I want to get notified at launch or like I'm interested in being a beta tester if you'll have us.

And that helped us. And even though we launched in April of 2020, like the worst possible time in the last hundred years to launch a company we did manage to get our first, I think almost 150 ish customers via that, that list of folks. Right.

Who said, like, I'm interested in what you're doing. And so that platform has done through, you know, social broadcasting. I published probably, I mean, you, you, you read them all. So I think over the course of 18 months, I don't think I published 30 blog posts even right.

Fairly small limited number, but I probably did a hundred. Yeah. You know, interviews and conversations on other people's this sort of digital PR approach to things. And I would do that again. I think that's a, that's a great way to play it. I mean, you know, obviously we're having a podcast conversation.

Kathleen (15:01): That's very meta.

Rand (15:05): Yeah. Which is a little bit of the reason that's so valuable is because when you don't have an audience of your own finding the audiences that are, that potentially will resonate with you and leveraging them from other folks, platforms is a super valuable way to go. It also worked really well because we had that sort of free signup funnel, you know, before launch, it was give us your email address to get notified at launch.

And after launch, it was tries searching SparkToro for free, and then, you know, register to create a forever free account. And that that funnel has also been very successful for us. So, you know, I'll be on a webinar, I'll be on a podcast. I'll, I'll do a video live stream or something I did when a couple of days ago. And you could see like the spike in Google analytics, right.

Cause lots of people are paying attention to podcasts. We're having a conversation and they're like, Oh, let me go try this SparkToro thing. Right. So it works really well. As long as you've got your funnel optimized for that type of acquisition.

Kathleen (16:05): It's interesting that you say, you know, you, you were successful because you essentially identified other people who had audiences and you were able to draft off of that a little bit. I'm going to put a pin in that. Cause then we're going to come back to what SparkToro does. Cause I feel like that's the perfect segue before we get there though.

So I want to make sure I understand correctly. You had about an 18 month development period during which the product was not publicly launched. You mentioned you wrote 30, let's call it 30 blogs. In addition to doing your digital PR, I do want to add as the reader, that, that sounds simple, but it wasn't because these were not just opinion pieces or, you know, 10 ways you can write a great subject line.

These were blogs that included a lot of original research that you did in conjunction with the Jumpshot data, as well as some real thought leadership around what was happening with Google and, and being able to get clicks in search results. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that because I do feel like that was one of the reasons that I avidly followed you, was the quality of the information in those blogs was not to be found anywhere else. I couldn't find that information elsewhere.

Rand (17:17): No I didn't. Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. So, you know, part of my thesis around building a successful whole marketing flywheel is going and finding a way that you can contribute unique value that your audience cannot get elsewhere. Right.

And you know, I've written about this and I talk about it all the time and when you know, startup founders and marketers ask me like, Oh, well, where should, where do you recommend that someone new to marketing start building their their funnel, their channels, their, their, their flywheel.

My recommendation is always something you're passionate and interested about somewhere where your customers actually pay attention and somewhere where you can add unique value that no one else is providing. And so this was, you know, this was sort of my stab at what, what can I do uniquely? I had this relationship with Jumpshot.

Rand (18:07): I had been using their their data at Moz. I've been really impressed by their click stream data quality. And so I continued that relationship sort of helping them by being a vocal supporter and proponent of their day of using their data. And in exchange, they gave me a bunch of, you know, research time.

So they, you know, they had someone super friendly guy named Sean who worked with me on their, on the R and D side of Jumpshot. And I'd be like, Hey Sean, can you pull this data for me?

And he'd pull it, send it over, I'd put it into Excel and play around with it and produce some nice looking charts and graphs and publish that and try and try and tease out the interesting bits of like, Oh, here's the distribution of where web traffic is coming from? Like, you know, more than two thirds of all web traffic is controlled by the alphabet corporation, right.

Rand (19:00): Between Google and YouTube and Gmail and Google maps and yada yada, yada, that entity was referring more than two thirds of all web traffic to sort of the top. I think we pulled the top 20,000 or so websites.

Right. so that feels a little monopoly. Yes. Great. It's sort of, yeah. Sorta dangerous. And then you look at, you know, web search as a whole, and of course, Google at the same time was trying to claim to who was at the attorneys general of the United States who were looking into it from, I think like 40 some odd States, quote your research as part of that. Right.

So, you know Congress through what's his name? Congressman David Cellini I think is the, the representative who's looking into an a, on the house subcommittee for antitrust and, you know, they're, they're asking Google, all these questions and Google is giving them these clearly obviously BS lie responses.

Rand (19:59): And so I'm able to call that out, right. I'm able to look at the data and be like, Nope, you're lying to Congress. I don't know if there's consequences for that. Apparently there's not, but yeah. Let's not go down that road right now.

Cause I'm yeah. If you would like to take away women's rights, apparently it is totally cool to lie to Congress, but, you know but yeah, so being able to call out, you know, Sundar, Pichai, Google CEO, and say like, look, the thing, the thing that you told Congress under oath is provably false.

Maybe, maybe Congress wants to do something about that. Right. You know, maybe that's going to come back to bite you in the butt. I hope it does. Cause I, you know, I don't think that's acceptable behavior. And I don't think any of us should, should, should accept that, but, but these are kinds of things, right.

Rand (20:47): That it did, it did two things, right? One, it brought a lot of folks like yourself to SparkToro subscribing to the, the blog, paying attention to the publications. And it also helped create in my opinion, a very accurate narrative around how do we, as marketers break free from the duopoly of Facebook and Google, like, can we do other things, other marketing things, can we pay attention to other channels?

Can we spend our dollars and time to go find other publications in people and sources of influence that reach our audiences and not exclusively rely on these untrustworthy and potentially risky partners. And that obviously serve SparkToro's interest as well, because fundamentally at the core of SparkToro is I'm trying to solve this problem. Right? The, the reason I created the company is because I'm frustrated with the Google Facebook duopoly. Over-Marketing

Kathleen (21:51): Well, let's take a minute and actually have you explain what SparkToro does cause we kind of skip that part in the beginning and I'm gonna make sure we don't completely miss it.

Rand (22:01): Yeah. Fair enough. I, I don't love to be self promotional, which is a little,

Kathleen (22:06): But I mean it's germane given what we're talking about. I'm the same way, but yeah,

Rand (22:09): Yeah. Right. Is that weird? You, you like, you should, that, that's the goal of marketing and you know,

Kathleen (22:16): I always say marketers are terrible at marketing themselves. I'm I'm, I've been trying to get a personal website launched for the last two years. And I don't know if it'll ever go live because having to write my own website copy is like the most insane form of torture about myself.

Rand (22:33): Open offer. I have been working with a wonderful technical writer. I'm a woman out of the UK on some of our case studies for SparkToro. And she is amazing. If you want someone to interview you and then turn that into your copy,

Kathleen (22:47): I will get her name from you because I can't, I cannot write about myself.

Rand (22:51): I love working with consultants and agencies. I know that's weird. Like startup founders is supposed to want to build that strength internally. I don't, that's one of the things I did at Moz that like, we always tried to hire instead of work with consultants and agencies. I think that was a really dumb move. At SparkToro I'm using tons of agencies anyway. You would ask, what does the company do?

This is very fair. Right? So trying to solve this problem around Facebook and Google's do-opoly over online marketing and advertising. And if you're in e-commerce Amazon sort of makes how to try opoly. Essentially what we realized is that the, the challenge comes in when folks are asked to understand where they can reach their audiences outside, they're outside those platforms. So like, Kathleen, if you and I start a new company to sell, I don't know bone broth, we're like, Oh yeah, let's, let's do the, the, the bone broth thing.

Rand (23:53): And like, w we'll we'll we'll make lovely stuff and then we'll sell it online. And where do we reach people who are interested in things like, you know, paleo and keto diets, right? Cause that has a big overlap with it. And people who are big into like college enrich foods and people who are big into cooking. I don't know the result though. And where do we, where do we find those communities?

Like, okay, I, I know a few recipe websites, but are those the right places or not? And so what you want to be able to do ideally is go find all the people online who are talking about whatever bone broth or collagen or keto diets, or I don't know, maybe you have a big affinity overlap with yoga instructors or something, right? You want to go to those communities, go find those people and then figure out, probably figure out like their home address so that you can break into their house and steal their phone and log into it, right.

Rand (24:55): Get their unlock code, log in and then see all the things they were browsing and reading and watching and listening to and following. But of course that's illegal and super unethical. And so the next best thing to do, because surveys and interviews don't work for this.

Like that's the way most marketers get this data. That's how I got it before. And it does not work because people just can't. It's not that they don't answer, honestly. It's just, they can't remember. You know, if you ask someone like, Hey, tell me a hundred people you follow on Twitter. What? No, I can't. How am I supposed to remember that? I can tell you maybe like five,

Kathleen (25:34): Right? The classic story. When I used to own my agency, I had a client I worked with who said, Oh, we, we train all of our sales people to say, how did you hear about us? And one of the most common answers we get is, Oh, I saw your ad in the Washington post. And my client was like, I have literally never advertised in the Washington post. You know?

Rand (25:51): And this, this speaks to another fundamental problem, which we found with a ton of you know, agencies and consultants who would work with businesses. And you, you go talk to the executive team and they'd be like, all right, I want you to get us placed in the wall street journal. Why the wall street journal, like we're selling bone broth here. I golf with our customers every weekend.

They read the wall street journal. You get us covered in the wall street journal. Like, no, my friend, I look, you you're getting super biased responses. And like you and your golf buddies, I'm sure do read the wall street journal, but that is not sample size of three. Yeah. Right. And so apart from breaking into people's houses, what the other way to do that?

We saw a few really, really smart businesses marketing teams and customer research teams who had their engineers basically take a list of their customer's email addresses, send them through a service like full contact or Clearbit and get all of their social accounts.

Rand (26:54): So like, you know, here's Kathleen and here's Rand and here's, Rand's LinkedIn account. And here's his Facebook page of it's public. And here's his Instagram, if that's public and here's his Twitter and here's, Kathleen's, you know, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Quora, Medium, blah, blah, blah. And then they would crawl those social URLs.

If they're public and extract all the data, they could like everything that's publicly shared by that person online just like Google. And then they would aggregate it together and be like, okay, our customers follow these social sources. They listen to these podcasts, they're sharing these YouTube channels. They're sharing these articles and websites. Now we can put our data together and go advertise and market in smart ways in smart places. And Casey and I were like, Oh, that's genius.

Kathleen (27:44): Amazing. What is incredible? And also, are you kidding?

Rand (27:48): You custom built with like three engineers on your team over nine months, this process, just to get that one piece of data. No, that's unfair. We should build that for the whole internet. Right. Let's just build that for everybody. So now you can go to SparkToro and sort of instantly, you know, search for any audience and discover what they read, watch, listen to and follow

Kathleen (28:11): It's awesome. And, and I can, I will add, as we go through this conversation, I am a customer currently. I was actually one of your beta users at a different company. So your funnel works because I am the living breathing example of it. But now going back to, so you had 18 months, you created this awesome content.

One of the things that really struck me that you said was you partnered with Jumpshot and, you know, they have this data and they assigned a researcher to you. And, and the reason that struck me is that I imagine there are probably a lot of people listening, especially if there are people who are engaging in, in creating a startup who are saying, that's great, Rand Fishkin could do that because he's around Fishkin. And he worked at Moz and people are going to give him anything.

Kathleen (28:57): But I think the truth is though that the, at least the, the lesson I extracted from what you said is about partnership. Like if you are somebody who doesn't have a huge following, if you are somebody who doesn't have access to a ton of proprietary data, who out there is in an adjacent space to you, is complimentary, who does.

And I mean, I did this in my last job because I worked for a small cybersecurity startup that had like no web traffic. And we put on a, a four day virtual summit on IOT security and the partners we had were unbelievable. Nobody had heard of us, but they had all heard of our partners. And my whole deal was, I'm not going to charge you to be a sponsor. You're going to get a speaking slot. All I ask is that you promote this and am going to put in all the elbow grease, right?

Kathleen (29:43): Like I'm going to do the marketing. I'm going to get like 500 people to come to this thing or whatever it was. And I think to me, like, I love that example of Jumpshot because you don't have to be a Rand Fishkin. I think you just have to understand what's in it for the other partner and the fact that you were able to shine a spotlight on their data and give them visibility. You know, there's, there's something for everyone out there in terms of figuring out the right partnerships. So I feel like that's a really valuable lesson.

Rand (30:10): Yeah. I was going to say a lot of, a lot of amazing data is public or publicly available. I a guy just emailed me in the, in the SEO space. Jeff, what's his last name? Jeff Baker, I think. And he had put together this study where he analyzed a bunch of SEO tools. It just use their public, like, you know, he subscribed to the free trials or paid for a month of access or whatever.

And then like did a big comparison and published it on. He pitched it to search engine land, which is a big publication in the, you know, search marketing world. They accepted it, you know, despite that he didn't, it's not like he had a big history with them. He didn't have a big following previously. He pitched it to them. They published it. He emailed me and was like, Hey, I think you'd be interested in this.

Rand (30:51): Would you share it? I was like, yeah, this looks great. And did really nice work here. Right? It's small sample size, but excellent methodology. Sure. I'll share it with my audience. Right. I posted it to Twitter and LinkedIn, it got picked up by a bunch of more people like great, you know, he had no special, you know, relationship previously.

I think there's opportunities like that to find unanswered or unasked questions in virtually any topic and field, and then expound on that take advantage of that, that opportunity in the market, underserved opportunity in the market to create unique value that your audience can't find elsewhere. And if you do that even just a few times, you know, I am not talking about publishing every night or every week, you can publish, you know, five times the year and be very successful with this kind of thing. If you become known for providing that source of information, data opinion you know, analysis that is unavailable elsewhere.

Kathleen (32:00): Well, and I would also say having a point of view, which is something that you've done consistently on everything. Yep. And this is a, this is something I want to explore just for a minute, because you know, having, having owned an agency, I've talked to so many business owners and, and, you know, heads of marketing having worked at other agencies like hundreds, hundreds over the year, the years. And there's a lot of, I feel like this is the third rail for so many of them. Like there are a lot of people who just firmly believe you don't take a position on anything period. End of story. I am not one of them, I believe in taking positions. But then there's this whole other gray space in between of like how, how firmly can you plant your flag in one direction or the other?

Kathleen (32:45): And a lot of business owners get very afraid of offending anyone and then kind of shying away from that. They become, I always refer to it as like the milk toast of marketing. You don't offend anybody, but nobody really likes you that much either. So I would love to hear your thoughts on, because I think I do think it takes guts.

You know, and what you take a stand on has to match your personal passions and what you truly believe in because you are putting yourself out and taking risks. So maybe talk through a little bit as the owner of the business, how you thought about this and, and how in your head, you reconcile the risks of taking controversial positions with what you see as the, the kind of things you could gain out of it.

Rand (33:27): Yeah. So let's see, I think about this in sort of three ways. I think about it from a an ethics and philosophy sort of perspective. Like, am I a good person? Am I doing good things for the world? Am I prioritizing the goodness that I do for the world over a personal greed, right. Making more money? And if the answer to that becomes no, then I am obviously the definition of evil, right?

Evil is not like I'm going to go murder people. You know, like that that's almost never happens almost all evil, at least in our society exists because people trade the courage of doing what they know to be the right thing for money or power or influence. Right. And that there's, that's evil. So I think about it from that perspective and on that vector, this is just an incredibly easy answer, right?

Rand (34:28): Like you, you should obviously do it the second way. I think about it is from a marketing and branding perspective, which is essentially what kind, what do I want to be known for recognized for appreciated for what kind of audience do I want to attract? Who do I want to you know, bring to my community and who would I like to keep out of my community?

And from that perspective, it, it also is a relatively easy answer, right? Like, I, I want people I'm happy to have you know, what would have been classically called political disagreements on like, well, what should the tax code look like? Or how should we do zoning and you know, a neighborhood or well, what about, what about investments in whatever it is, you know, military versus environmental spending versus regulation on mining, like, okay, those are all political conversations that I think are, are reasonable. And then there are unreasonable political conversations like, well, should we allow blacks and Jewish people to live? That's not a political conversation. Right? I of, that's not, that's just human, right.

Rand (35:42): That's not an open for debate conversation. Right. And I think unfortunately there has been a a rash of sort of, well, don't you want diversity of thought and diversity of thought just means a diversity of thought to me is like a look I'd like to be white supremacists and not get criticized for it.

And so can we just agree to, let me be like that? No, we cannot agree on that. That is an untenable well position. We're not, I'm not okay with it, so right. I'm I am, I'm happy to turn away those audiences and build a, you know, build an audience around that. That resonates with my perspective. I also think about it from a third perspective, which is what does the structure of the business that I'm building forced me to accept and allow me to work with them.

Rand (36:37): And so this was one of another really big reason. I didn't want to raise venture capital because yeah. Makes sense. Yeah. Right. Like in the venture backed world, you do not that you need to be milk toast, but you are absolutely pressured to build a giant market and building a giant market often means attempting to turn off almost no one. Yeah. Right.

Attempting to be uncontroversial in a lot of ways. And and I don't think that's a healthy or right thing. I am. I mean, I'll definitely say, I think probably a lot of Americans and a lot of people all around the world who are facing sort of this nationalist, autocratic surge in politics that we've been seeing globally.

Right. A lot of, a lot of those folks, a lot of folks are frustrated that like these sorts of issues have become so front of the top of mind for so many people all the time, I, I feel that frustration too, right?

Rand (37:43): Like I'm, I am absolutely in the world of, gosh, I, you know, I really disliked a lot of previous administration's policies and like things in the United States, but I never felt like they were going to absolve us of our democracy. And now suddenly we have to worry about that.

And that that's very frustrating. I don't like that. So I think that this these sort of three things have guided me towards an ability to say, okay, the structure of my business, the way that I want to attract customers and market to them and the audience that I want to build. And my philosophy and ethics are all in alignment. I don't know that every business owner gets to do that, but yeah, I hope I hope they do because they should. It's absolutely. It's, it's obviously the, the best way to go. I need more people

Kathleen (38:38): That hits the nail on the head, because I know I've always said this, like when it comes to taking a position, there's not like any one position everybody should take. I mean, that's where the owner of the company, the founder has to kind of a very much align with them as a person and you are going to attract the people that are naturally attracted to that same position. And so it is, it is interesting, but I think it takes a lot of guts and I really commend you for it. And, and you're right. Yeah. I don't think you could do it if you had traditional investment in your company.

Rand (39:09): Yeah. I mean, I certainly could, but it would put me in conflict with some of the goals and expectations. It could create strife and you know, who knows if I would be able to maintain that longterm. I think, you know, as a, as a key example, right.

You can see with with Facebook and Zuckerberg, this sort of like and, and Larry and Sergei and Eric Schmidt and Sundar Pichai at Google, you can feel this sort of tension between like, they sort of know what the right thing to do is, but they're really scared about doing it because of fears of a combination of like political interference from, you know, people who's in who's interested is not, and market fears around, you know, where, what their users will do, what their customers will do, and the fact that they have to generate billions of extra dollars of revenue every quarter.

Kathleen (40:07): Yeah. Yeah. It's a prison that they've grown into over time. I think.

Rand (40:12): Yeah. I mean, we, we amplify that, like there's a lot of, there are a lot of people I'm sure there are people listening to this podcast right now who equate a person's worth with their productivity and their economic entrepreneurial contributions, right. And their financial success. That is a pretty terrible metric of a person's worth, right?

Like we all know we should be measuring people's worth in the kindness that they bring to the world around them and the way they build relationships and how they and, and fundamentally all human beings are worth while. Right. All of us have, that's why human rights exists. And, and reducing that to this late stage capitalist model of like, you are how much money you make. That's, that's a bad way to go friends.

Kathleen (41:08): And this is why you are widely known as the nicest guy in marketing. Is that, so that is the word on the street. I'm just gonna,

Rand (41:16): Or a significant number of people on Twitter who disagree.

Kathleen (41:19): Oh, well, there's a significant number of people on Twitter who disagree with everything. So so going back for a minute to, you made a point about digital PR and again, I'm going to just sort of put this through the filter of, there are probably a lot of people who think, Oh, well, that's easy for Rand Fishkin. Cause he's everybody knows who he is so he can get the interview. So any advice for founders who don't have the reputation as to how to go about doing that?

Rand (41:47): Yeah. Yeah. So this is an area where I think before you start your company, it is hugely valuable to build up your expertise in a niche and to build up a network as well. Right? So that doesn't have to be through, you know, blogging.

It could be through your social channels. It could be through video. It could be through hosting your own podcast. It could be through unique research that you do. It could be through one on one consulting and help that you give people whatever it is, right. But build your expertise and then use that expertise to build your network so that you are known for having that talent and being able to contribute in those ways.

Once you do that, then it is so much easier to do all of the forms of digital PR and, and earning amplification getting attention. I cannot recommend it enough, but I think for whatever reason, there's this sort of sense of in the entrepreneurial world. Like I start my company, I build my product and then I figure out how to market it. No,

Kathleen (42:52): Oh, backwards.

Rand (42:55): That's not how you do it. Right. First, if you build up a community of people who care about the problem you're solving, even before you have the product that solves it, your launch and your growth will be so much easier. Right.

So don't, you know, I'm not, I'm not saying this from the perspective of like, yes, I obviously have the privilege of, you know, the 20 years that I spent at Moz building up a, a reasonably sized following in this sort of niche of digital marketing world. But that, that can be a relatively easy, easily achieved, not necessarily the same degree, but easily started down the path of, and you don't need 15,000 people on your email list if you have 1500 or 150, that is still such a better starting point than zero. Yeah.

Kathleen (43:41): Yeah. Yeah. I love that. So when you think about the future of SparkToro and where you're going to go from here, what how do you think you're going to grow it moving forward? Is it still the same strategy of digital PR and really great content? Or are you changing anything starting anything new?

Rand (43:59): I, so I really, Kathleen, I really desperately want to invest in self hosted self created episodic content. Like what I did with whiteboard Friday at Moz, right? Like a series, probably something with video. Cause I'm reasonably good and experienced with video. Maybe involving a whiteboard too. I don't know. But the what's holding me back right now is, is time and bandwidth and investment dollars. Right.

So I know that, you know, if I was going to do something like that, I'd probably want a video producer that's super challenging during COVID just, you know, by for one thing. And it's also a really hard to make the time available when it's just me and Casey working on SparkToro. So I think, you know, it might be next year when we're, you know, able to grow enough, to be able to bring in another hire or to invest in a, you know, whatever a content agency that helps me produce that that content with some consistency.

Rand (45:00): But I, I do think that would be a very valuable thing. And even doing that something like once a month, you know, having a monthly episode of a, whatever, 15 to 30 minute video series on topics related to things that are of interest to our audience, that probably would do pretty well. So episodic content I think is, is very under invested in because it's hard to start. It's hard to get the motivation to keep going. It, it generally doesn't, you know, take off immediately. Like it's a, it's a slow burn, slow build process, but it is something we really want to invest in.

Kathleen (45:37): I love that. Well, I will watch it when it starts tell me then I'm in the Rand super fan club clearly.

Rand (45:47): What I love, I love what I love about it is like the, it almost works like the Netflix model, you know, where you, you see one episode of the show and you're like, Ooh, that was really good. I kind of want to binge watch all of them. Right. And if there's a big catalog, you just get all this engagement and yeah, I'd like that. I think that model has legs. I don't see a ton of people investing in it. So I'd like to do something like that. Nice.

Kathleen (46:13): Well, we're going to come up to the top of the hour and I have a thousand more questions I want to ask, but we don't have time for it. So what I'm going to do is shift gears because there are two questions that I ask all of my guests at the end of every interview. And I don't want to end without having the opportunity to find out what you have to say about this. The first one is this podcast is all about inbound marketing. Is there a particular company or individual that today you think is really kind of setting the gold standard for what it means to be a great inbound marketer?

Rand (46:47): Ooh. Okay.

Kathleen (46:49): You can name more than one if you want to.

Rand (46:51): Yeah. I mean, there's a bunch of folks who have been really impressing me lately. Let's see. So I don't know if you follow Melanie Deziel. She wrote a, she, yes. Yeah. Okay. So she writes, she just published, I think earlier this year Content Fuel Framework which I think, Hey, look at that. Hey Melanie, look, I'm promoting your book. No, I, I, I think, I think the world of Melanie she's extraordinary and she just she just keeps contributing in, in such a remarkable ways. I think she's keynoting content marketing world, the digital version, this week.

Kathleen (47:30): Wow. That's awesome.

Rand (47:31): Isn't it incredible. So amazing stuff from her. I've also been really impressed with, do you follow Nandini Jammi on Twitter? She's @nandoodles.

Kathleen (47:43): I feel like I maybe even touched base with her about coming on the podcast.

Rand (47:48): Oh, amazing. Yeah. So she is my God. She's so impressive. Like she's kind of my hero. She's she's been working on kind of a, a, a new version of brand safety and advert and helping advertisers save money and optimize their spend away from manipulative and sort of trolling. And I don't know what you would you call it, like sort of non-factual you know, Macedonian creatives.

Kathleen (48:24): This is why, so I know her not through the podcast, but I'm in week four at a new job. And my company is, amongst other things, we solve for publishers. We have an anti malvertising software. This is why I know her.

Rand (48:40): Got it right. She was one of the cofounders of Sleeping giants. Now she's the co founder of check my ads. And so they, you know, she, but she writes about and talks about all these topics on, you know, national media and and, and online. And she's just extraordinarily smart. I think she, she's a what I would say she's like a very sharp edged person on Twitter.

And like many folks, right? She's, she's, she's much more sort of heartfelt and, and a little more, you know, leans into kindness off of Twitter, which, which we probably all do when we're not limited to 280 characters, but I think the world of her I'm super impressed with her work. Sarah Evans from, she's @PRSarahEvans on Twitter. She has a newsletter. She does amazing work in the PR field, especially for early stage companies. Super impressed with her. Yeah. So that's awesome.

Kathleen (49:36): I love all of those and none of them have been on the podcast. So I'm going to have to reach out to them now and ask them to come on.

Rand (49:41): I have so many recommendations for you Kathleen.

Kathleen (49:46): We're going to talk. Second question is the biggest challenge I hear a lot of marketers say they experiences is that keeping up with the changing world of digital marketing is like drinking from a fire hose. How do you personally keep yourself educated, stay up to date on all of these changes?

Rand (50:03): I built my own tool for it. I dunno. I dunno if you have checked out, but we have this thing called trending on SparkToro. It's just sparktoro.com/trending. And when you go there, it's basically like the 25 most diversely shared articles, every 12 hours by digital on Twitter. So we essentially just built a little system, you know, where people OAuth their account, their Twitter account, into the trending tool. It's free. It's not like part of our paid package or anything, but yeah, like, I don't know, seven or 800 marketers every day, read, trending, and check it out. And so, yeah, it's fun too cause people reply and be like, Oh, so cool. Our article was on trending today.

Rand (50:51): You can get traffic from it. And you can, you can go there once a week or once a month and click the, like, what was the most shared article this month, this week, any given day. And that has been super useful. Like really it helps Casey and I just kind of stay on top of everything going on in digital marketing world. With very little effort, like we don't have to scroll through a bunch of feeds. We can just like, Oh, all right. That one looks interesting. That's cool.

Kathleen (51:20): So it takes the firehose and turns it into a little garden hose for people.

Rand (51:24): Exactly.

Kathleen (51:25): I love that. Yeah. well we are now coming to the top of the hour and so unfortunately we're going to need to wrap it up. If people are listening and they have questions for you want to follow you or connect with you, learn more about SparkToro, what is the best way for them to do that?

Rand (51:42): Sure. So my email address is rand@sparktoro.com. I'm pretty fast on email. I am most active on Twitter where I'm @Randfish. And if you are interested in trying SparkToro for free forever, it sparktoro.com.

Kathleen (51:57): Awesome. All right, there, you have it. We, we could go for 10 hours, but we only had one. If you enjoyed this episode, as much as I did head to Apple podcasts or the platform or your choice, and I would love it, if you would leave the podcast a review because that's how other people find us. And if you know someone else who's a kick ass inbound marketing person, tweet me @workmommywork because I would love to interview them. That is it for this week. Thank you so much, Rand. This was amazing.

Rand (52:25): Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Kathleen.

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