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

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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And a huge thanks to @wingman4sales, @Shay, @ncameron, @aballabh, @Vengat, @raviramani, @Kvivek05, @aditi1002, and @jimmyrose for taking the time to join in today and making this a wonderful discussion! :rocket:

We’ll see you around for the next AMA soon. Stay tuned for more details!

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I’d love to hear why you took funding at all for SparkToro. I assumed you would have done well out of Moz and been able to roll it into the next venture!

What was the thinking behind going after funding at all?

Edit: Oops looks like I was too late. I was waiting for my Relay invite :frowning:

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Hi Jimmy - no worries! Short answer is no, I did not do well out of Moz. Have a few hundred thousand in savings, but that’s it. Without an exit, and with no buyer for the stock, there’s no path to a financial exit, so all that stock is worth something on paper, but not IRL.

That said, SparkToro’s funding was also a form of validation for us AND, even more importantly, I wanted to pave the road for alternative kinds of funding for startups outside the classic venture model. Fingers crossed, if we prove successful with SparkToro, more investors will consider making investments this way (and more startups will think about fundraising this way, too).

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Damn man I’m sorry to hear that. And thank you for your honesty. I hope in the future something changes for you there.

That’s one hell of a funding model, especially the “we must first return all of our investors’ capital via profit distributions”. Very cool way of looking after the people that invest.

Makes me think one day I’d like to be an investor in something like that.

Congrats Rand and hope Sparktoro goes well. I’m a paying user and have found some pretty cool insights so far

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Thanks, Rand! Makes sense. From what I’ve learned, this intersection is difficult to achieve but definitely possible by staying very close to the customer problems and finding the mediums through which you can reach your customers. And I feel it’s also hard to identify/cultivate if a founder is attempting something for the first time. But you’re right. “Dry analysis of opportunity vs. returns can’t compete with actual desire to invest.” Experimenting to get to this personal alignment can be so important in the early stages as the founder is the marketer.

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