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

Hey Rand,

Long-time follower here and really excited about the session! :slightly_smiling_face:

Among the earliest content efforts that I took up at Chargebee, was a video series modelled on the consistently insightful, Whiteboard Friday series. Although that was a short-run effort in itself, a lot of the research behind it and the maker’s confidence (isn’t that a thing? :)) bled into our blog and led to some much-needed early wins. So, thank you for that and all the thought-out education you’ve long facilitated!

This is a great segue for my question, too. You’ve always been at the forefront of digital marketing, so to speak. You’ve championed the new things at the edges and have seen them become the centre, time and again. With that heft of perspective, what, do you think, are some of the factors that can help early-stage founders determine how they should be portioning their attention and resources across demand generation and demand creation initiatives?

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Hey Rand,

Thanks for doing this!

So glad to have you here. :slightly_smiling_face:

I’d love to get a peek into what starting up again has been like and what all of us can learn from that. As a first-time founder, one is building the house room by room, floor by floor, not knowing what necessarily lies ahead. How different has the second outing rendered that experience? Did you go in with a floor plan and all the other macros of the house all set, this time around? Where has the clarity helped and where have you felt the unknowns remain still as glaring?

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Hi Rand,

I read your book - and was amazed at your grit and the story of rags to riches :slight_smile: In the case of the first company the content strategy & execution was a few years ahead of the product. How are you dealing with it this time around? What is your advice to someone at a 10-person company stage trying to figure out what to prioritize in terms of a content strategy:

  1. SEO
  2. Thought leadership content
  3. Content on other platforms e.g. LI/Quora etc.
    Other stuff e.g. video, podcasts etc.

The goal is short term and mid term growth both.

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Dear Rand

Firstly, amazed by the book and how honestly it was written. Moz has been a go-to-guide for content marketing & SaaS marketing in general. Things like “Beginner’s Guide to Content Marketing” etc. were the first pieces I read while building marketing practice at my SaaS startup.

My question is around Founder as a first time Marketer. I have been the first programmer & first sales person for my startup both practices now being led by others ably. 2Q back I have taken up role of leading marketing efforts -

  1. Any starting advise to building a marketing mindset for the founder & initial growth teams ?
  2. Good primer & advise on marketing stack e.g. we use MixPanel / HubSpot / GA for building a good tracker for MQLs & demand gen from start
  3. For Mid Market ( $10K - $50K ACV ) hunting any special advise on early marketing strategies ?
  4. What to look for in an early growth teams & qualities of a Product Marketer you will recommend ?

The goal is to build a marketing growth mindset in the company.

Look forward to hearing from you.
Cheers
Abhi

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Hi Rand,

Thanks for taking time out do this AMA. My question is:

How do you think about community marketing in relation to content marketing?

Do you think startups should focus on one those first? Or are different sorts of products or industries or businesses or founders more suited to community vs content?

Looking forward to hear your thoughts.

Neil

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Hi Rand I recently emailed you about product adoption struggles in the SEO world.

In the email, you said you never understood why one product succeeded while others didn’t.

And so, looking back to the past of Moz, is there anything you would have done differently today that might have helped with the product adoption by other SEOs?
Also do you believe that having great product/service (objectively, truly) is still not enough to succeed even at first stages of the launch?

And third question,
If you have a billion $ to invest in remaking a remastered version of an old video game, which one would it be.

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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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