Built a $50M/yr SaaS Biz (that didn't work out so great), So I'm Building Another One. I'm Rand Fishkin of SparkToro (prev. Moz) AMA

Dear Rand,

Thanks so much for doing this AMA with us. Its great to read about your journey, congratulations on your success! Your note on founders baggage resonates very strongly :slight_smile:

We, kriyadocs, are a document workflow solution focused on publishers. We have transitioned from a services company to a product company with services. Almost all of our current customers come from the services route and we are now trying to recruit self serve customers. I have a couple of questions I would like your perspective on

  1. How do we identify the watering holes that our prospect might visit? What are your thoughts on creating the watering hole ourselves?
  2. Our space is almost entirely serviced though the services route and we are trying to introduce the concept of self serve. What do you suggest that would help in creating this new category?

Thanks so much for your thoughts.
Best regards
Ravi

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Hi Rand,

Thanks for doing this. Big fan of your book and blogs (many of which shaped our approach to SEO at Klenty).

As the founder of a bootstrapped company, I fully resonate with your philosophy of being very thoughtful to raising the right amount or limited amount of capital at the right terms.

The question, however is: as a bootstrapped or lightly capitalised business, how do you compete in a crowded Saas market with other heavily funded competitors. What are the advantages that a David has against a Goliath in the Saas space ? And how does one exploit them - especially in the early days? Any tactical (or philosophical :slight_smile: ) thoughts would be great.

2nd question, Marketing for early stage saas businesses: what are some saas companies/ examples that you admire for their approach to marketing. Especially the ones that punch above their weight class - when it comes to mileage vs size of company. And why?

Look forward to your thoughts!

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Hey Rand,

Thanks for doing this AMA! :smiley:

At Locale.ai we are building a product in the geospatial space that makes spatial data accessible and interactive for businesses. Now, because how new and nascent the space is right now, we have come to realize that a big piece of the puzzle for us is awareness and education that then leads to customers.

Given you were in a similar space when you started Moz, do you have any suggestions or tips on what we should do and what we should avoid as we play the content and branding game? Especially when selling to orgs with limited risk and exploration appetite than startups.

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Thanks Krish! Very kind of you, and glad to hear WB Friday helped you find some content marketing success, too :-). In terms of factors for where early stage founders should start marketing, this post might be helpful: https://sparktoro.com/blog/where-should-you-start-marketing-a-new-business-or-product/

Basic story is that I’d suggest starting with tactics and channels at the intersection of these three things:

The other factors I’d consider are where you feel you can build a flywheel – a system in which you’re consistently investing and always improving (in efficiency of production, quality of the marketing you’re putting out, and the ROI you earn). For a lot of founders, content marketing through a blog is a solid place to start, but social media, ads, digital PR, community, SEO, events can all work, too.

At Moz, I started with a blog+SEO. 18 years later, with SparkToro, I started with mostly digital PR (aka “other people’s platforms” like podcasts, webinars, YouTube channels) and events.

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Dear Rand

What are the resources & books you would recommend for the following areas esp Company Culture :

  1. Team Culture & Values
  2. Aligning product, engineering & sales teams across company’s belief system.
  3. Making sure we identify cultural misfits & how a founder can constantly evangelise & learn about cultural inconsistencies & something other founders have done.

I believe marketing is just not extrinsic for revenue in general but also intrinsic to your company’s brand & attracting right kind of employees.

Happy to hear your thoughts, resources or few book recommendations for first time founders.

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Hi Rand - Been a follower from the days of SEOMoz.com. I am Vivek - Founder at iZooto. We are 4 founders and getting everyone on the same page is a real trick thing. What I loved about your the book and the recent post about your rapport with Sarah is the candidness. It takes a lot to be vulnerable and candid at the same time but this in my experience is a key building block. What can founders do ( or avoid ) to make build a culture that encourages individuals to be both candid and vulnerable.

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Great question Rajaraman! I wasn’t entirely sure how much my previous experience would help on the planning and structure sides of things, but honestly, it’s been much, much easier. I can definitely see why many investors want to back 2nd and 3rd time entrepreneurs, because when I compare this journey with SparkToro to my first few years trying to build Moz, it’s night and day. The path is not just clearer and more obvious, but also easier. I don’t have nearly as much of the rocky emotional ups and downs.

Casey and I certainly went into SparkToro with a lot of the “floor plan” set. We knew how we wanted to raise money, how we wanted to build, how to get our initial email marketing list together for launch, how to structure our workdays and balance that with our lives (well, at least until Covid). I have a lot less fear and uncertainty this time around.

All that said, the one thing I do miss from the early years of Moz… the excitement. The low lows aren’t there, but neither are the high highs. If we’d achieved at Moz what we have in SparkToro’s first 6 months, I’d be jubilant, elated, bouncing-off-my-chair… I do kinda wish I could still feel that way about hitting business goals. Now it’s more a sense of relief and “OK, got that done, time for the next thing.”

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Hi Shruti - I replied to another similar question with some details, but would definitely recommend this post: https://sparktoro.com/blog/where-should-you-start-marketing-a-new-business-or-product/. I’d also say that of the things you listed, there’s no reason they can’t all work in concert together. You make content that resonates (thought leadership), do digital PR (using other people’s platforms like LI/Quora/Podcasts/Video/etc), earn links and ranking signals (SEO), and build a pretty nice flywheel.

This post goes into more detail on that system: https://sparktoro.com/blog/why-marketing-flywheels-work/

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Hi Abhi, thanks! And yes, happy to help.

  1. Think long term. You’re going to make investments that take a long time to pay off. Frustratingly, the best marketing is often serendipitous, inconsistent in rewards, and hard to measure. That’s why most people give up and most orgs at scale aren’t willing to invest (because they need to prove ROI quarter by quarter if not faster).
  2. Honestly, use the stack that’s easy for you and your team. Low friction is worth a lot. Casey manages 99% of this for SparkToro, but we’re on Wordpress+GA+Mailchimp+Mailgun and it’s great for us.
  3. Unfortunately, I’ve never done enterprise sales, so don’t have much to offer here.
  4. Great marketers should be able to have clear, thoughtful positions on where to reach audiences, how, and with what. They should be right around half-data/half-intuition, and they should be humble enough to learn from mistakes (and successes) to keep re-orienting the marketing tactics & strategy around what works. Kindness and empathy are also markers of great marketers in my experience. If you get someone interviewing who sounds tough and hard-edged and incredibly confident, they’re probably gonna suck.

Hope that helps!

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Hi Neil - I’m not 100% sure I know what you mean by “community marketing.” That’s one of those lesser used phrases in the field that could mean anything from building a community on your own site to participating in other communities online to being a synonym for social media marketing or digital PR.

I don’t think that your product or industry should entirely dictate which channels/tactics you pursue first. It’s more about what works for you, what you’re good at, passionate about, and where your audience/customers are. Also, I wouldn’t think about content vs. community as being entirely separate. They’re often very similar and overlap. E.G. Relay’s community that we’re in right now has “content” largely dictated by whom the creators invite to the AMAs and how they structure the conversations, what they allow and don’t, how they nudge and start discussions, etc.

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Hi Shay - YES! So many things I’d do different that I wrote a whole book about them: https://sparktoro.com/book. And yes, I definitely believe that having a great product is not nearly enough to get adoption, even early. I’ve seen plenty of products fail in early and mid stages that were phenomenal, and plenty of terrible products go on to do well. There was a bookmarking+search tool called Trunkly in the 2010s that I absolutely loved. Amazing product. When I convinced folks to try it, they loved it, too. But sadly, it didn’t survive. Then I look at something like Soylent - terrible product. Generally worse than a slimfast shake. Gives a high percent of people who drink it diarrhea. Tastes bad (intentionally). But… It’s marketed toward a segment of folks who love the positioning, buy into the benefits, and wouldn’t consider the long-standing market alternatives like Slimfast or others because they’re targeted to women. Most every crypto-currency fits into this “bad product, but right timing, positioning, and marketing” paradigm. So do most conspiracy-theory cults. Qanon has had extraordinary success as a product, sold tens of millions of dollars or merchandise, overtaken people’s entire lives, but it’s obviously a terrible product.

So, yeah, great product ≠ success. And terrible products ≠ failure. It’s more complicated.

All that said, I’d definitely rather have a great product.

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Oh shoot! Sorry - missed your third question Shay.

$1B?? Hmm… Planescape Torment is a tempting choice. But $1B is probably overkill. The old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game was pretty amazing. Maybe I’d go for that :wink:

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Dear Rand

Questions around building a team for Content Creation.

Content creation across blogs, website copy, social posts, ad copies etc. is very critical to how your brand is perceived & you take a positioning.

We have tried with folks to write copy but often then not I have found it of average / poor quality. So, right now I along with one in-house marketer do the heavy lifting with discipline.

Thoughts on :

  • Where to look for good content creators ? Some good qualities to do a check when interviewing them ?

  • Can this be outsourced or shd be build in-house capabilities ?

Happy to hear your thoughts on this role of Content Marketer.

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Hi Ravi - for identifying where your prospects hang out, I’d start with either a survey or a series of interviews. Try to get job titles, language your audience uses to describe themselves, things they regularly talk about WRT their work, etc. You can then use that to search https://sparktoro.com for things that make sense. E.G. I tried a search for “hidden gem” social accounts followed by people who use the word “publisher” in their profile/bio:

You can also try doing this manually by taking a list of your customers/prospects emails and sending them through a service like Clearbit or FullContact to get their social URLs and then analyzing what they follow/read/watch/link-to/etc. SparkToro has a “Custom Audiences” feature that does this, but if you’re long on engineering talent and short on budget, you can also do it yourself.

As to creating the watering hole vs. going to others, I’d think about opportunity cost, ROI, and timeframe – how long do you have to build that community/watering hole? If it’s a few years, I’d definitely go for it. If you need faster results, I might do more of the digital PR approach and leverage other people’s platforms for a while.

In terms of self-service vs. services… It’s a tough battle, especially in areas where customers are used to having managed services. That’s often not because products lack the right features or ability to self-onboard, but rather because folks want a person or team they can talk to and interface with. As much as self-service web hosting and publishing platforms have become popular, there’s still a lot of demand and need for people help. I might consider whether you can maintain a long-term hybrid model that doesn’t exclude customers who need that human touch.

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Hi Abhi - No Hard Feelings, Radical Candor, and Making of a Manager are all great books for these issues.

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Hi Vivek - I think it needs to A) start from the top (you and your fellow founders/execs), B) be recognized and rewarded, not punished (as it is in most orgs), and C) amplified internally and externally on a regular basis (i.e. call out folks who’ve been candid and vulnerable, talk about what makes their contributions such, but only do it with their permission). Hope that helps!

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Hi Abhi - I’d recruit from ex-journalists and fiction writers. There’s a ton of folks in those worlds struggling and out of work, but they don’t often position themselves or pursue more technical and content-marketing sorts of roles. The other thing I’d do is make sure your requests on topics and focus aren’t so boring and stale as to drive people away. Many marketers think they need to write on certain topics for SEO or keyword matching… Let your writers go beyond that stuff, be creative, be inventive, choose their own (relevant) topics, and you’ll attract far better candidates.

And yes! This is definitely something you can outsource. There’s loads of great copywriting firms and contractors out there, and almost all provide samples you can read and determine fit from.

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Hi Aditi - I know I keep referencing this post in this thread, but that’s only because it’s relevant :slight_smile: https://sparktoro.com/blog/where-should-you-start-marketing-a-new-business-or-product/

Things I’d do: gain a deep understanding of your customers, their pain points, their interests, what they talk about, read, watch, listen-to, follow, and engage-with. Go find publications that resonate with them and figure out why. Then determine what’s missing – what’s not being done well that IS of interest to them.

As for what to avoid: don’t assume you can build a content marketing engine quickly. It’s minimum 6-9 months to see ROI. Be prepared for that, and don’t get frustrated if your first few months are crickets while you’re trying to figure it out.

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Hi Vengat -

Biggest advantage of being non-VC backed: You don’t have to only target billion dollar markets or huge growth opportunities. You can do things that don’t scale. You can do things with lower margins. You can make incremental (instead of only exponential) progress and reap the rewards. You can invest in serendipitous, hard-to-measure channels. You can do things you LIKE to do, instead of only things that maximize investor returns. You can focus on surviving for a long time, instead of growing as fast as possible no matter the cost. All of these are huge advantages.

Early-stage SaaS businesses with impressive marketing… unfortunately, I don’t maintain a list. Off the top of my head, I’ve liked stuff from https://textio.com, https://checkmyads.com, https://meetedgar.com/, and others I can’t currently find/recall (sorry!)

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Hey @Rand,

Thanks for taking the time to address all the questions so thoughtfully!

What’s immediately evident in the questions here is how much your work has informed and shaped the way founders think about so many different aspects of starting up.

Today, too, each response gleams with years of insight. But I guess that just partly explains why your work has made mattered so much over the years. The other half is, of course, how personal and earnest it’s been all along. This lovely reflection is but one example:

All that said, the one thing I do miss from the early years of Moz… the excitement. The low lows aren’t there, but neither are the high highs. If we’d achieved at Moz what we have in SparkToro’s first 6 months, I’d be jubilant, elated, bouncing-off-my-chair… I do kinda wish I could still feel that way about hitting business goals. Now it’s more a sense of relief and “OK, got that done, time for the next thing.

Thank, again, for joining us and sharing your lessons so generously. Hope to have you join us for another session in the future! :slightly_smiling_face:

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