17 years ago, I dropped out of college to work with my mom, Gillian, on the business that became Moz. For 7 years (from 2007–2014), I was that company’s CEO. For the last 4, I’ve been in a variety of individual contributor roles. And today, for me, that journey ends.
On a scale of 0–10, where 0 is “fired and escorted out of the building by security” and 10 is “left entirely of his own accord on wonderful terms,” my departure is around a 4. That makes today a hard one, cognitively and emotionally. I have a lot of sadness, a heap of regrets, and a smattering of resentment too. But I am, deeply, deeply thankful to all the people who supported me and Moz over the last two decades. The experience of building a company like this, of helping to change and mature an industry, of learning so much about entrepreneurship, marketing, and myself has been an honor and a privilege.
- A new software company! I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and a lot to prove — mostly to myself. That’s always been a superb motivator for me (even if it’s not the most emotionally healthy reason to take on the crazy risk that is startup-building). SparkToro is in a different field of marketing: influencer and audience intelligence. I’m hoping we can solve the thorny, painful problem of discovering where a given audience spends time, who and what they listen to, and where they engage. Some folks call this “influencer marketing” but I’ve found that terminology to be too limiting. It’s often exclusively associated with paying Instagram and YouTube celebrities to post about a product, and that’s not where this product/company is going. In the next year, I hope to have a product I can show you :-)
- A book! I’ve spent the last 18 months writing and polishing Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World with a terrifically talented team at Penguin/Random House’s Portfolio imprint. The book’s central tenet is this: A ton of traditional Silicon Valley startup “wisdom” biases companies and founders to do a lot of dumb stuff. This book will help you avoid those pitfalls. It’s told through stories from Moz’s years of growth and struggles, paired with advice and hard-won experience that’s helped us. If you’re a contrarian, or a skeptic of valley startup culture, you’ll probably love it. And if you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, or technologist who believes all the hype, maybe it can at least help you know what to watch for.
- A non-profit project to help makes conferences and events safer. It is un-fucking-believable what women (and some men) have had to put up with at events in the marketing and tech worlds. This is a hard arena in which to make a dent, but I’ve been working with a pro bono legal team from Davis Wright Tremaine on a structure that can hopefully help give codes of conduct more teeth and bad behavior more consequence. More to come on this in the months ahead.
Of course, I’ll also be speaking at a number of events, blogging a lot more, and spending a lot of quality time on phone calls with state tax offices (because startup life is glamorous, yo!).
Are You Totally Done With Moz?
No, not entirely. You’ll still see me on Whiteboard Friday (I filmed a good dozen episodes before departing and will likely be back in the office to shoot some more). I’m still working with one internal team on a big product release that didn’t get finished before my departure (a project I’m really proud of and excited about, with a team of people I love). And I’m still on Moz’s board of directors as the chairperson, and still the single largest shareholder (Geraldine and I own ~24% of the outstanding shares).
Thus, I still have a lot of reasons to cheer for, support, and keep my fingers crossed for Moz. I have high hopes that in the years ahead, the product will once again be the leader in its field and the best solution out there for many in the SEO world.
This seems to be the first question I get when folks hear I’m leaving Moz, so I’ll address it here. Slight spoiler for the book, but it turns out being a startup founder, even if your company has tens of millions in revenue, doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of liquidity. Dollars are at a premium, my severance will only last so long, and thus I need to get this next business off the ground as fast as possible. Perhaps someday Moz will have a liquidity event and I’ll take a few months to relax and unwind. Or maybe this next project will go so well that I’ll have the flexibility to do that (although, knowing myself, I suspect a few weeks > a few months).
Geraldine and I do have a short trip to Portugal planned with our dear friends, Wil and Nora, in late April. Maybe that kinda counts :-)
A Massive Thank You to Nicci Herron
If you’ve worked to schedule something with me in the last 5 years, or visited the Moz office, you know that I’ve been supported by an incredible EA, Nicci Herron. Every week, Nicci does an immense load of work to help not just me, but people all across the Moz organization. She’s so detail-oriented that across thousands of days and no fewer than 20,000 unique events, meetings, and calls, I think she’s made fewer than 5 mistakes total (and most of those were probably her just apologizing for someone else).
When she heard the news that Moz and I would be parting ways, she elected not to stay with the company. Her words to me were “if you’re not here, I don’t want to be either.” I have thought about that loyalty and kindness hundreds of times over the last year when feeling down.
Nicci doesn’t yet know what she’s planning to do next, which means there’s a tiny, brief window where a very lucky organization might snap her up. If you have need of someone with her extraordinary skills, please drop her a line via LinkedIn (or ping me directly and I can connect you).
Five Tidbits of Advice
Not many people stay with one job or one company for such a huge percent of their lives, especially not in the technology world. To some degree, this has almost certainly had a myopic impact on what I can see and perceive of a professional career, but it’s also a unique position to be in. I suspect that, with time and distance, I’ll be able to see the experience of Moz more clearly, but some things I can take away now (that aren’t already covered in Lost and Founder) include:
- The best skill I’ve developed and the one that’s served me best as a founder, a CEO, and a marketer is empathy. Being able to put myself in the shoes of other people and imagine their pain, their problems, their workflows and speed bumps has been invaluable both on the product side and in creating content. Side note: this does not come naturally (or at least, doesn’t *only* come naturally). Spending lots of time with people I want to learn about, getting to know them personally, and asking questions, listening, and watching has been huge, too.
- My number one tip for marketers seeking to grow their career opportunities is this: specialize. Specialize deeply. I don’t mean “SEO” or “Email marketing,” I mean specialization like “I’m the best link-focused SEO for the mobile gaming world.” Expanding from a specialization (if you so choose) is vastly easier, in my experience, than becoming known for a broad practice. This is equally true for companies as for individuals.
- Video served as a dramatic accelerant for my personal brand, vastly more than I ever expected. Whiteboard Friday begat more conference invitations and interviews and awareness than even my most successful blog posts. I think the branding and stickiness value of video means that every viewer is worth (in the marketing sense) 10X more than a reader of text content (maybe more).
- At Moz, weighting powerful, important, high-profile people’s opinions higher than our customers opinions inevitably led to doom. That was usually me putting more stock in what a handful of VCs who turned me down for investment thought over what hundreds of customers and potential customers were telling me they wanted. Granted, when you’re a VC-backed company, paying attention to investors matters because your next round is crucial (unless you’re profitable, in which case you don’t necessarily need to raise more, even though the startup culture will convince you it’s the only way). But, I also over-indexed on what highly influential authors and bloggers thought, and what I heard from a few folks I hoped might be potential acquirers. Dumb. When building a company, customers (and potential customers) > almost everyone else.
- Tricks, hacks, and individual point solutions never made a big impact for us (and honestly, they’ve never made a big impact for any other company I’ve worked with or advised, either). Coming from the SEO world (and being bombarded by the emergent culture of “growth hacking”), this hit hard. For years I thought that the one right move would accelerate growth or the one right feature would make everyone love our product. But in fact, it’s when the whole became better than the sum of its parts that magic happened. That proved true in marketing, in product, in internal culture, even in recruiting. Crafting holistic, consistent, high quality experiences always beat out that “one magic trick” for improving… whatever. I think this is equally applicable in one’s personal life. The house, the car, the boyfriend, the vacation — none can, alone, produce the “and now I’m finally happy!” result.
Thank you again to everyone who’s been so kind to me and to Moz. I hope that I can continue to return those favors and to help many more people do better marketing.
p.s. Moz is shutting off my old email address there; if you’d like to reach me in the future, drop a line to rand at sparktoro.com.
Originally published at sparktoro.com on February 28, 2018.