S2 E1: Rand Fishkin: MOZ, Activism, Depression & Writing a Book

What You’ll Learn…

  • How Rand Fishkin came to create the global company Moz, what Moz does, and what SEO (search engine optimization) really means today.
  • How venture capitalism works and what VCs are really looking for when deciding to back a startup company.
  • Fishkin’s opinion on the novel Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and the message it sends to women in today’s job market (especially in tech).
  • How Fishkin’s role as CEO of Moz played a part in his struggle with depression and why h3 ultimately stepped down from the position.
  • A bit on Fishkin’s activism and personal life, his SEO tips, and his hopes and concerns for the future of Seattle.

As a leader in search engine optimization, or SEO, Rand Fishkin knows what it takes to be seen online. Started as a blog in 2004, his marketing company Moz has helped companies around the globe develop tactics for becoming more visible within algorithmic search engines like Google. Fishkin originally dropped out of the University of Washington in order to help his mother build websites for clients. When this venture failed and they could no longer afford to pay subcontractors to provide SEO services, it was up to Fishkin to learn SEO himself. Through this, he discovered how truly secretive the SEO world was at the time and had a strong desire to get this information out to people on a more open and transparent basis. He wanted sites like Google to be kept in check and wanted to be able to get information out to people that others were trying to keep under wraps. Thus, Moz was born.

For those who are unfamiliar with search engine optimization, Fishkin explains it as the ability to earn a top position on search engines organically. There are two basic types of search results that pop up anytime someone types something into the Google search bar: paid advertisements (which only receive about 2.5% of the clicks on mobile devices) and results pulled through Google’s sophisticated algorithms (which account for about 60% of mobile clicks). Fewer than 5% of Google users ever click through to the second page of a search, so being as close to the top of the first page as possible is certainly desirable for a greater chance of visibility. Through software, blogging, and other services, Moz gives companies necessary inside information in order to better their odds of receiving traffic to their sites and getting that coveted first page position. Fishkin is all about being himself and this is the mentality he built into Moz’s transparency model.

In 2007, Moz received its first bit of venture capital: $1.1 million from a firm called Ignition Partners (firm partner Michelle Goldberg is now a Moz board member). Moz also received $100,000 from Kelly Smith of Curious Office. This was Fishkin’s first foray into the world of VCs, and he has since learned quite a bit about how they operate.

Last year, Moz grew about 10% from the previous year and while this may be amazing for a private company in general, from a VC standpoint it is equivalent to “knocking on Death’s door.” According to Fishkin, the basic VC model is that if you are a company that is not going to break through and make millions of dollars, it would be best if you’d just fade away. This is because venture capitalism is a high risk market, so VCs are not allocated a lot of funds to begin with. Place on top of that the desire to have a VC return a profit of 150-1,000% in an average fun life cycle of 7-10 years, it is no wonder why they are more apt to want to put their money into a company that is quickly skyrocketing. In an average VC investment, if there are 10 companies, it is safe to assume that by the end of the funding cycle 7 will be dead, 2 will be doing okay, and 1 will be skyrocketing. If you are not that one company, the unfortunate truth is that you will probably not receive the attention you deserve.

Another conflict Fishkin notes is the tendency for VCs to want to invest in high risk situations in order to possibly attain a high reward. Though no longer the CEO, Fishkin still sees Moz as his baby and believes that it can make a lot of money, without the risk of investing everything into one area only to have it go belly up. A lot of people often wonder why VCs back so many seemingly insane entrepreneurs and Fishkin’s answer for that is that because while sometimes they tank a company, there’s always that 1% chance that they can produce a moonshot.

Since gaining capital and building Moz up to where it is today, Fishkin has certainly received notable attention. For example, he mentions an email he received that invited him to Sheryl Sandberg’s house for dinner. Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and the author of the popular book, Lean In, which discusses women and the job market. While Fishkin thinks it’s great to encourage women as this book does, he feels that it also puts far too much pressure on women to work harder to improve their lot without mentioning the social, historical, and other factors that systematically work against them.

Fishkin describes a conversation he had with a female engineer at Moz wherein he expressed his concern that she was not being taken as seriously as she should have been in meetings and wondered if that was because she is a woman. He notes that this employee agreed and seemed unsurprised by this fact, as it has probably happened to her before at other jobs. He also notes the socalled Weird Science theory, which explains that prior to many movies of the 80s like Weird Science appearing and depicting the engineering field as primarily made up of men, the percentage of women entering Computer Science fields was on par and even rising above the percentage of men. However, following these films that percentage began to drop precipitously. When we think of software engineers, we immediately default to the image of a young white or Asian male, highlighting a key problem in the tech industry that needs to be addressed.

Moz began very much in the style of a family company, as both Fishkin’s mother and grandfather worked with him. Through this experience, Fishkin’s grandfather taught him an important lesson in humility. As a CEO, it would have been easy for Fishkin to assume that he should be trusted and could speak haughtily simply because he owned a popular blog. Instead, he has learned to take a more humble approach to how he presents things, making him much more personable and down-toearth.

It was previously mentioned that Fishkin is no longer the CEO of Moz. Fishkin’s step down as CEO was precipitated by a period of depression that caused concern among board members. Fishkin notes that people who start their own projects are more likely to experience severe bouts of depression and anxiety than those who do not and for Fishkin specifically, he felt that Moz was beginning to slide downhill (especially when the company’s growth went from 100% to 50%) but couldn’t tell anyone, for fear of worrying his employees. As a CEO, there is the constant pressure of feeling like everyone’s job is in your hands and you have to keep the balance between not doing anything stupid to lose people their jobs and doing enough stupid stuff to keep the VCs satisfied. Fishkin admits that he has never been good at hiding his emotions, so upon a conversation with one of his investors, he decided to step down and promote Sarah Bird to the position of CEO. Fishkin hopes to describe the expectations of being a CEO in his next book, so as to give people some insight so they can be better prepared to handle such a difficult role.

While Fishkin does attend numerous events and conferences and speaks on podcasts, he notes that he hates acting like he has some sort of fame or recognition. He is simply a guy who loves to write and help people better understand the world of SEO. When he attends conferences and events, he does not expect payment, but if the venue does offer payment, he asks that it be given directly to those in poverty who need it the most. While many don’t believe that giving money directly to the poor makes a difference, statistics show that only 4% of donated money goes to personal vices, whereas the rest goes toward education, shelter, and other necessities—surprisingly, Fishkin notes, poor people are actually quite good at recognizing what they need to improve their lives and communities. Outside of work, he is a passionate liberal on many topics and attends protests (such as the recent protests against President Trump’s travel ban on refugees).

Fishkin has three basic tips on how to use SEO to your advantage for your website. His first tip is to type into Google words and phrases that you believe people may type in to find you and see what comes up. The results and auto-complete mechanism will give you insight into what people are searching for most often and will help you better plan out SEO-friendly titles for webpages or blog posts. His second tip is to ask friends or colleagues you know to link back to you on their sites; the more links you can have out there, the more likely you are to be bumped up on the search results page. Fishkin’s final tip is to get your brand name locked down on social media sites, even if you don’t think you will ever use them; you never know where the future of this technology may end up.

As the economy continues to rise, Fishkin has big hopes for the future of Seattle. He wants to see Seattle invest in density, continue the liberal path in terms of making efforts to redistribute income, and possibly become more diverse in the coming years. He encourages others to check themselves when they see new buildings go up and wish for the “good old days;” do we want stagnation or a growth of opportunity and equality? Finally, Fishkin is concerned that certain areas of Seattle are becoming too dependent on one or two companies (like Amazon, for example). He encourages city planners to be cautious in how much power they give a single company, as past success does not always guarantee future success.

About the Interviewee

Rand Fishkin is the founder of the Seattle-based SEO company Moz. He was born in New Jersey and raised in Seattle since he was 3 months old. He currently lives on Capitol Hill with his wife who runs a travel blog called the Everywhereist and has written a book called All Over the Place. In 2009, Fishkin was ranked among the “30 Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs Under 30” by BusinessWeek. Fishkin is currently writing his own book, which he hopes to have published by April of next year. You can find Fishkin at @RandFish on Twitter and @randderuiter on Instagram. You can also find out more about Moz at www.moz.com, @Moz on Twitter, and @moz_hq on Instagram.


University of Washington


Moz Blog