On this episode of Office Hours, SparkToro founder Rand Fishkin talks about how he turned his fascination with SEO and his gift for teaching into a thriving company, his model of “chill work” and his critique of venture capital.
Fishkin has always had a knack for teaching which he credits to a dysfunctional home life — in particular, a father who was quick to get angry.
“And so a ton of my emotional energy and training just growing up was like, ‘Okay, how do I inform this person and keep them happy and, like, not let them get upset?'” he said.
That experience caused Fishkin to approach problems differently. Early on, his teachers would draw on this skill to encourage him to teach his classmates one-on-one.
“I can see it in myself even now. right? When I'm around people I can engage them, I can make them feel good about themselves,” he added. “Thanks, Dad.”
That skill would serve Fishkin well when he delved into the world of search engine optimization, one of the early web practices that would help companies get a leg up on their competitors. He founded a blog, SEO Moz, which would later become Moz, a leading software company in the search engine optimization space.
As the importance of search engines grew, he said, a number of “snake-oil salesmen” seized on the interest, selling tightly held secret practices to deliver better results for their clients. SEO Moz went the other direction.
“At the time, the SEO world was filled with those kinds of folks, and filled with a lot of people who believed that it was important to keep what they knew secret,” he said. “Not realizing that that is not what consultancies are about, right? You share your knowledge openly. And then people will hire you because they're not going to do it themselves.”
As the consultancy expanded, Moz developed tools to help check and optimize websites’ performance in search. Fishkin, always the teacher, suggested the company make them public.
“And [our developer] was like, ‘No way. No way. Like, our servers will crash.’”
Fishkin suggested the company charge users a nominal fee to use them in order to offset the costs. In doing so, Moz became one of the early software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies, growing to 130 employees and crossing $30 million in annual revenue at its height.
Now, as co-founder of audience research software startup SparkToro, Fishkin said he’s trying to rethink basic assumptions about startup culture. In particular, he wants to move away from the idea that to build a great company, you have to burn yourself — and your employees — out.
“Chill work means we prioritize our lives over our work life,” he said. “We try and build a business intentionally that never demands — we sometimes put in more hours — but never demand more than 30 hours a week.”
That means being lean and focused, and discouraging employees from taking their work home with them. It also means growing at a sustainable pace and making sure the company has the right investors and that they can deliver on the promises they make to them.
“And so chill work in a ton of ways is to say, how do we keep Rand and everyone else who works here happy and healthy and able to contribute for decades, rather than, ‘You think we could burn this kid out in like six years and maybe get a huge home run?’”
So far, it seems to be paying off. Fishkin said SparkToro’s growth is just behind where Moz was in its first two years and profitability is much higher.
“I tied my identity to that company [Moz], I want to be able to do that again. And I want to be able to do it in a way that I love—that doesn't feel like I'm a prisoner to it,” he said.
Office Hours host and dot.LA co-founder Spencer Rascoff is an investor in SparkToro.
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