Unlocking The Lessons And Pain Of A $50MM Company With Rand Fishkin

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Episode Overview:

Rand Fishkin, the former CEO of Moz, shares his story of leaving the company and starting SparkToro and Snackbar. He discusses the challenges he faced at Moz, including tension with the new leadership and struggles with growth. After leaving Moz, Fishkin received an overwhelming response from the community, with thousands of messages expressing gratitude for his impact on their professional lives. He emphasizes the importance of transparency, vulnerability, and empathy in his work. In his new ventures, Fishkin aims to continue these principles while also being respectful of his co-founder's perspectives. Rand Fishkin discusses the importance of building an audience and how it removes the need for aggressive sales techniques. He shares lessons learned from his previous experience and emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge and maintaining control in business. Fishkin also talks about his emphasis on the people aspect of running his companies and his goal of creating a more inclusive and diverse funding model. He provides an overview of SparkToro, an audience research software tool, and Snack Bar, a unique video game set in 1960s Italy. Fishkin also mentions Spark Together, a conference focused on transparency and vulnerability.

Additional Resources:

* Website

Skot Waldron (00:00.014)
on me, but it's still record on your side. So record on, but it's just like, I don't know. It, it kind of tries to do its thing. So I am recording because sometimes when I hit record, then it gets glitchier. So we're just going to see what happens.

Rand Fishkin (00:07.012)
Hit us.

Rand Fishkin (00:12.598)
I think that's a great way to go. And if it loses visual fidelity, no problem, because I think the recording on either side will pick that up.

Skot Waldron (00:21.614)
Yeah, it's high res on both sides. can you hear the cicadas in the crickets in the waterfall in the background or no.

Rand Fishkin (00:29.092)
No, your mic must be amazing. I can't hear a peep other than your voice.

Skot Waldron (00:32.878)
good. Either that or my mic is horrible because it's not picking up anything, but maybe it is good because it's picking up just my voice. So, so cool, man here. I'm gonna, I'm going to do something, man. I, October 16th of 2018. Is that date significant to you at all?

Rand Fishkin (00:53.028)
Bye.

Let's see 2018 I had left Moz I was had started spark twirl maybe nine months earlier six months earlier No, it's not it's not coming up

Skot Waldron (01:09.422)
You were at unbound man. You were at unbound.

Rand Fishkin (01:14.916)
Hey.

Skot Waldron (01:16.75)
You were speaking. Was that the unbound conference you are speaking at? Is that where I saw you? I think it was. it was inbound, inbound, sorry. It was inbound.

Rand Fishkin (01:23.492)
That sounds inbound. Okay. Yep. In, in Boston.

Skot Waldron (01:29.358)
Yeah. And, I saw you there. I was sitting in the audience. I was like, because I've been following you for awhile. Anyway, I've been using Moz and all kinds of stuff, right. That I was doing. And then hearing you speak, I was like, my gosh. So I still have all your notes from that session in my, notes app on my computer.

Rand Fishkin (01:49.828)
That is remarkable. Amazing.

Skot Waldron (01:52.782)
Isn't it? Isn't it? It's just like the impact you have. Not only was your mustache amazing, but your notes and your, everything else you did was amazing. So I appreciate it, man. I appreciate it. well, thanks for doing this. I want to, again, the show is all about unlocking the potential of people. I just kind of want to know, so I'm going to, I'm going to have a little more of a people angle on this thing. when we finally start.

Rand Fishkin (02:06.212)
my pleasure.

Skot Waldron (02:21.966)
start going, but I want to serve you where I can. So how can I best make sure this show serves you? I know you're going to serve me and my audience. So how can I serve you?

Rand Fishkin (02:31.044)
gosh.

Rand Fishkin (02:34.692)
Yeah, so that is actually my big goal. My focus, anytime I do anything like this, is always give the most value to the people who are listening. And you know your audience better than I do. So you tell me and guide the conversation. If folks try out Spark Toro, that's great. If they sign up to get notified when our video game launches, that's fine too. But that is not my goal. My goal is...

have them have a positive association with you, your show, and me as a guest.

Skot Waldron (03:07.886)
Okay. Well, that's my goal too. So I think we're aligned. We're aligned, man. video game. Did I just hear you say video game?

Rand Fishkin (03:18.884)
Yeah, so I run two companies. One is SparkToro, which I think you're familiar with. And the other one is Snackbar, Snackbar Studio, which is,

Skot Waldron (03:22.158)
Yeah. Yeah.

That's right. Okay. I didn't read too much about it, but,

That's awesome. That's really cool.

Rand Fishkin (03:31.652)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We just had a big game call about the, we're working on the investor trailer right now and planning to raise some money this summer and then go, go build a, build a heck of a game, I hope.

Skot Waldron (03:46.222)
What, what have you launched any games yet, or is this your first initial go?

Rand Fishkin (03:52.292)
This will be the first one that I've done. Everyone else on the team has done games before, lots of them. But since we sort of founded this studio together, this will be my first one.

Skot Waldron (04:05.934)
Cool, what is it?

Rand Fishkin (04:07.94)
it is called, well, tentative title is, is something around snack bar, but the, you are a chef in a magical version of 1960s Italy. And you go out into these sort of dangerous wilds around your hilltop town and you forage for ingredients and bring them back to your restaurant and cook sort of traditional, authentic Italian dishes for your customers and, make lira and use the lira to sort of make the town better.

your restaurant better.

Skot Waldron (04:37.678)
No way. my gosh. Platform. What platform is it?

Rand Fishkin (04:42.596)
It'll be Steam Switch Xbox to start.

Skot Waldron (04:45.23)
Okay. Okay. Cool. that's fun, man. That's really fun. well, good for you. Good luck with that. All right. So let's get rolling. I won't respect your time. I really appreciate you doing this. You have a hard stop top of the top of the hour. That's where we should, where we should go. Is that for you? Okay. I'll try to give us.

Rand Fishkin (05:00.356)
Yeah, 1 PM I think it is. So, no, actually I can go a little over if we need to. I don't have anything to 1 .30, so yeah.

Skot Waldron (05:07.278)
Okay. Well, I'll try to respect that. if it's just so good, I might keep you a little longer, but that's just cause you're so good. So don't be good and we'll have it stop right there. Right.

Rand Fishkin (05:17.924)
I'll give you miserable answers to every question I can.

Skot Waldron (05:19.95)
Yes, start just dropping off, dropping off. All right, man. Well, we're going to start. I do want to talk about your story. I do want to talk about, that transition from. Maz to spark Turo here, just reading your stories was captivating for me. just the blog posts that you were writing and cause I just didn't know the story, you know? so we'll go, we'll start off probably with that a little bit. I want to.

capture people with the story first and then we'll carry on from there. Cool. All right, man, let me know if, if you need anything other than that, but, if not, we're going to get ready to go. I'll do an intro and outro after this too. So you don't have to worry about that. Cool.

Rand Fishkin (05:53.572)
Sounds great.

Skot Waldron (06:06.254)
All right. Here we go.

Skot Waldron (06:12.206)
Rand, it is so good talking to you, man. I'm thankful that you're here.

Rand Fishkin (06:16.388)
Yeah, good to be here Scott. Thanks for having me.

Skot Waldron (06:19.374)
There is a, I have a, I, we have a long relationship, a long history together ran. You don't know that, but we do. We do. your, your years at Moz shaped a lot of what I did in my own agency business, running a design firm and helping my clients market to the world. and then leveraging your platform at Moz to do that.

was, was something that was really impactful. I learned a lot from you. Your educational tidbits, you've got a blackboard Fridays like blow blew my mind. Like just the simplicity, the tactile nature of that was just brilliant. So thank you, man, for being who you are.

Rand Fishkin (07:02.276)
So that's very, very kind. I don't take praise well, but I'll try and suffer through.

Skot Waldron (07:07.534)
Okay. Accept it. It's a gift, man. It's a gift. So there you go. tell me about, so you're no longer at Moz and, tell me, tell us about why, tell us that story. Just give us a snippet background and then go into your days now at spark Turo and snack bar. And that's what you're doing now.

Rand Fishkin (07:32.388)
Sure. Yeah. So, yeah, for folks who don't know, I started a company called Moz, which is in the SEO software space. It was originally a blog and a consulting business, then transitioned to a software company, raised lots of venture capital, grew very fast and very large was sort of a market leader in the, in that, that specific sector of SEO software for a good number of years. And then, I, well, the, the company sort of struggled. It, it,

plateaued in growth a little bit, which is not good when you have a venture capital backing. And I stayed there until 2018 and left and started Spark Toro the next day. So yeah, went through that sort of VC wringer at a time in tech when that was obviously very popular and very lauded and.

My experiences were like most people in venture backed world, pretty frustrating and fraught. And even though many people would consider, you know, Moz sort of a success, you know, grew to $50 million in revenue and 200 employees and tens of thousands of happy customers. From a, from a venture perspective, it did not meet its investors minimum return requirements. And yeah, that, that disappointed me a lot. I like to, I like to make promises that I can keep and.

With SparkToro, that is part of the goal, Snackbar as well. So both those companies use, or in Snackbar's case, will use a funding model that is kind of an alternative. It's something we invented ourselves, sort of put together with our attorney. And when I say we, my co -founder Casey and I, Casey's our CTO. And we structured SparkToro basically such that we have 35 angel investors, a lot of folks like yourself, Scott, people who ran agencies or...

knew me from the marketing world, tech world, and they put in between 25 and $100 ,000 each. And we raised 1 .3 million in total in 2018 with the goal of basically using that to get to profitability, paying our investors back, and then being able to make dividend payments every few years to give them a return on their investment. And actually last year we did repay our investors their full

Rand Fishkin (09:56.324)
1 .3 million and now going forward, we can hopefully make those dividend payments. Yeah, so that's kind of my story from a broad perspective. We get into what the companies do if that's of interest to your audience.

Skot Waldron (10:11.502)
Well, I, I, I will want to hit on that. I think that that's really important. I think that, people need to know about your platform. they need to know about what you do because I think that there is a, an important factor of what it builds into the network of, of marketing and how we pitch ourselves, how we understand our audiences. What I do want to hit on is, your, your days at Moz and how you led that company.

people be like, well, why is he gone? You know, like what happened there? Why, why is he gone? And then I want to hear, I want you to talk about the transition and the impact of what you heard the day after you left. Like you wrote about it in one of your blogs, as far as some of the things that you were hearing from the people. I want you, I want you to talk to that just a little bit as well.

Rand Fishkin (11:11.46)
Yeah, so let's see. The first question, what caused me to leave the company? So in 2014, I had stepped down from the CEO role during a bout with depression and I handed the reins over to my longtime chief operating officer who became the new CEO. And we'd always run the business very much as a partnership, right? The two of us together making a lot of decisions.

You know, if she had strong opinions on something, I almost never would overrule those opinions. And so we, I think I perhaps foolishly assumed that that would still be the case going forward. And even though we had lots of discussions about it, I think once she became the CEO and growth was more challenging, right, the growth rate was...

falling at that time and the company was sort of plateauing, lots of tension emerged between us and between myself and the board of directors. We had a painful round of layoffs that we did in 2016. And I think in my opinion, those could have probably been avoided if the company had done some things differently. And so lots of tension and...

anger and hurt feelings and feelings of not being listened to. And I think, I think from the board's perspective and from the CEO's perspective, they viewed me as sort of someone who.

was problematic, right? Like quite influential, seen as sort of an industry leader in the specific field of SEO, but also...

Rand Fishkin (13:07.78)
somewhat challenging to internal authority. And I can completely understand that. A lot of people that I talked to said, hey, if you're not the CEO, you step down, you leave, it's fine to stay on the board of directors, but you should leave the company. Because it creates problems and tension inside the business. The board didn't want that primarily because of my marketing influence on the rest of the industry. But I think that probably would have been the wiser move.

And so as a result, you know, things kind of came to a head in 2017. And during that year, we negotiated a sort of a departure for me. And I think you could, you know, reasonable people can disagree about whether that is Rand chose to leave. Rand was asked to leave somewhere in between those two things.

Skot Waldron (14:02.126)
How did you read, how did you lead? Moss, what was your philosophy when you were there and what happened to cause you to have this like contention near the end, this misalignment, this disagreement with the new leadership.

Rand Fishkin (14:19.684)
Yeah, I mean, I, well, first off, I want to say I was very young, you know, becoming a CEO in your twenties and getting millions of dollars and, you know, sort of leading a company at those ages, I think is challenging. And I can see why some investors, many, many more mature investors prefer more mature companies and CEOs. I think that.

As with age comes wisdom and softening in a little bit, you know, rubs down those sharp edges, which I certainly had. I think a big part of my philosophy when I was CEO at Moz was that we were there to help people do better marketing, but also to kind of challenge Google specifically, right? That Google was keeping...

their ranking systems and all their algorithmic elements secret and that our job was to uncover those and reveal them to people and make that kind of marketing more transparent, more accessible to people. And I took transparency to an extreme in a lot of ways, writing about lots of things that other people would not generally write about their businesses. And that earned us a lot of...

tension and followers, and I think some fans as well, and also some detractors and people who did not resonate with the things that we did. And certainly it created some tension between us and Google, perhaps less necessarily than it needed to be. My tension with the new leadership was often around issues of product direction,

resource focus and management and, process. So I was, I'm a very process light person. I think a spreadsheet can do 99 % of the processes that you need and setting up lots of check -ins and tools and systems and meetings and layers, is antithetical to the way I work well and to, I think the way a startup can grow fast. Moz.

Rand Fishkin (16:41.508)
was always behind its marketing in terms of its product features. And that was something I desperately wanted to catch up on. I don't think it ever really got there. Yeah, there were lots of investments that I believed we shouldn't make, things like enterprise sales, which I didn't and still don't. Not that I don't believe in them, obviously it can work, but I don't think I or the companies that I've built are the right ones to pursue that channel. And that became a big focus.

for many years after I stepped down as CEO until they finally shut it down and decided it wasn't worth doing. But I think I'm a little bit more instinctual and my successor was more wait for the data to come in, study things for a long time, build consensus among leadership and management and the team, make decisions more slowly, which I think is actually probably works well in a mature, larger business.

but not in a startup that's attempting to scale.

Skot Waldron (17:46.158)
Can I read something from your blog?

Rand Fishkin (17:49.156)
Absolutely.

Skot Waldron (17:51.534)
in this post, you say my last day was one of the worst in my career topped only by the layoffs. My company had done 18 months prior. The next day, February 28th was one of the best. Not because I had some personal epiphany or found joy in the freedom of starting again, but because of what happened after I published this blog post, I woke up to literally thousands of messages in the comments.

on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and my new inbox thousands. It took me almost two weeks to reply to all of them. Almost all were overwhelming well, mainly positive.

Skot Waldron (18:32.974)
Why? Why would so many people send you thousands of messages? And why would RAND, why would you spend so much time going through each one of those?

Rand Fishkin (18:46.148)
Well, I'll answer the second question first. When I was a kid in the industry, just coming up in my early 20s, I would often write to people that I really admired, that I found online, in the marketing field, SEO field, or before that, even the web design field. I almost never got a response. Nobody wrote back. And I thought that was terrible. Here I was, a kid expressing, like, my God, Scott, I love your work.

I think this is so amazing, often without an ask, right?

Skot Waldron (19:18.35)
I would totally, I would totally respond to your end by the way, if you wrote me that I'll totally respond. So go for it.

Rand Fishkin (19:23.748)
Yeah, I mean, I'll just say that, you know, of the dozens and dozens of people that I emailed, very, very few responded ever. And I sort of made a promise to myself that I would not be that person if I ever achieved a profile where people wanted to write to me and express their, you know, anything, right? Ask questions, ask if I would do something, even if the answer is no, I'm sorry, I don't have the bandwidth to help your thing. I'm going to reply with that, right? I'll at least say, you know, you deserve a reply.

And that is why I went through all of those thousands of messages, at least the ones in email, which was a good couple thousand just by itself. But yeah, it was a very emotional process to sort of see and feel all these lives that had been at least professionally, you know, positively influenced by our work.

Skot Waldron (20:20.59)
Why did you get so many? Well, I mean, why would people take so much, take that little moment of time to write you a message? I know you don't take compliments. Well, ran, as you said earlier on, but let's, let's I, I, I, you know, coaching leaders and doing what I do in developing culture inside of companies. There's a brand associated with a leader. There's a brand associated with the team. There's a brand associated with a company and it's not what you look like. It's how I, how.

You make me feel and people felt something. So they wanted to respond to that moment in your life. Cause it was a moment in theirs and they wanted to express something. I guess I'm wondering what did you do earlier on? What was your philosophy on the people that you serve, the people that you worked with and led that would drive people to write messages like.

Rand Fishkin (21:18.276)
Yeah.

Gosh, okay, I'm gonna say, I'll say a couple of things on that topic. One is,

unusually, I think that, and perhaps problematically, I often prioritize the community of marketers and professionals that followed the company and sort of learned from Moz and subscribed to our blog and came to our events and our webinars and watched Whiteboard Friday, the video series. I often prioritize them over kind of everything else in my professional.

world. And that includes employees and team. So I think that there are a group of people who would say, gosh, Rand was wonderful to work for. But I think that that group is probably small. And the larger majority at Moz would sort of be like, well, he wasn't around all that much, right? Like he did a lot of travel and conferences and events. He did a lot of filming his whiteboards and writing for the blog. And he'd only come in for

meetings. He didn't really want to have meetings. I think I was a I was an ideal remote employee before remote became popular thanks to COVID. I do have I'll pull it up for you.

Rand Fishkin (22:41.892)
I do have this. This was made by one of the people I worked with at Moz, a woman who I think had worked at a hair salon before coming to the company and then she'd been an admin and then took product management and UX courses. She now runs the checkout experience at Nike, which is just incredible.

And there are a few people who really...

who I really resonated with. But in the broader community, the people outside, Moz's customers and fans and sort of followers and that kind of stuff, that's where almost all those messages came from. It wasn't employees. And those people, I think, felt that our work had a positive influence on their professional lives, which in many cases, according to their emails, had a very positive impact on their personal lives, right? People who, whatever, dropped out of high school or dropped out of college or...

were struggling in their careers. They found something on Moz. It resonated with them. They were able to apply the learnings to their processes. They grew their agency. They grew their consulting business. They got a promotion at work. They got hired for a job they wouldn't have gotten otherwise. They binge watched a bunch of my videos and then went in for an interview and got the job. And they were, I think that.

created this resonant connection. And I hope, I hope too, that many of those people had seen that over the years, I'm someone who kind of wears my heart on my sleeve and would react and respond to their messages, right? So I think many of them knew that if they emailed me, I would see it, I would appreciate it, I would respond.

Skot Waldron (24:29.262)
There's something about your, there's something about your posts as I was reading them and kind of your story that to me speaks a lot to vulnerability. It speaks a lot to transparency and that philosophy that you had early on starting Moz of like, Hey, we're going to be really transparent about all this. Google may not be, and we are going to.

We're going to reveal, we're going to talk about it. We're not going to hide behind this. And that's what got you so, so much respect, I would think, based on what you said. But I hear even in your personal world, that philosophy carrying over to what you are and who you are now, of transparency, openness. And as I was reading these blog posts, I'm thinking about that and I'm thinking about. I hear, I hear out of these blog posts, I hear frustration. I hear pain.

I hear anger. I hear a little bit of remorse. I hear like appreciation. I hear a legacy, this chapter of my life. I mean, 17 years you were there and that's a, that's a huge chunk of your adult life, you know, and you built your baby up to be this thing that you had expectations and dreams for. And it didn't go quiet as you'd hoped. And it's shaped you to be the person you are today.

Rand Fishkin (25:38.82)
It's a long time.

Skot Waldron (25:54.062)
And now as we train, as you transition now into starting two new companies, what are those things that you are going to carry on with you that you've learned that you're going to carry on to spark Toro and to snack bar that you believe are what helped you be so successful, but also some things. So let's start with that first. What are some things that you think that you're going to take on that have helped you be successful?

Rand Fishkin (26:20.121)
Let's see, I think both the transparency and vulnerability are definitely pieces that I continue to believe in. I would say my current belief on transparency is that I temper it a little bit with.

Rand Fishkin (26:40.772)
Empathy and thoughtfulness both for the people around me. So for example at Moz I often revealed things that I think people That I worked with maybe wish that I had not And I want to be more respectful of that going forward For example at Sparctorra. We don't publish our revenue numbers, which I always did at Moz because my co -founder Casey is quite uncomfortable with it Sparctorra is doing nicely. It's it's in a good place but you know, I'd love to

I just default to putting that out there, but Casey kind of has a different attitude around it. And I want to be respectful of that, right? He's my co -founder. He helped build this thing. So tempering that transparency, maybe a little bit of that maturity that we grow to have as we get older. Also, I think one of the big things that I learned is that...

by building an audience of people who care about the problem that you're solving, you can have.

Rand Fishkin (27:48.74)
I would say it removes the need for the...

tougher, sort of outreach focused, aggressive sales type of building that many software as a service businesses need to use, right? Either in terms of large advertising spend or huge marketing budgets or aggressive sales people or pitch focused sales techniques. Those are things that don't resonate with me. I don't like them. They don't hit me in the right spot. And...

I feel uncomfortable doing them or recruiting people who would do them. And so my strong preference is to have people come to us, right? Essentially say, I associate SparkTorah with solving the hard problem of audience research, right? In this way, when I need that, I'm going to go to them because I know them. I like them. I trust them. I've heard of them. They're sort of top of mind for me. That's the way I like to build a, a marketing and sales funnel. So that's.

that's definitely sticking around too.

Skot Waldron (28:53.518)
And lessons learned lessons learned from your previous experience that you want to not take with you or that others that are starting a journey can learn from your 17 years at Moz.

Rand Fishkin (29:10.756)
Yeah, I think two things are true. One is I can be a decent CEO, but probably not a great employee. So I have included clauses in Spark TORO's documentation and snack bars as well that I...

Rand Fishkin (29:27.94)
I can't be removed without my own decision, right? And I probably will remain at companies while I'm the CEO of them and not so much otherwise. I think the other thing is, and that sounds bad even to me, right? Like, you must have a control problem. I think maybe I do, yeah, maybe, but I'm kind of gonna lean into it, right?

Skot Waldron (29:52.654)
Maybe.

But let me, let me, let me, well, why, why should people consider that though is what I want to get to. What? I mean, sure. It could sound bad. It could sound good. It could sound like you have a control problem or not, but why should other people consider putting that into, their agreements?

Rand Fishkin (30:10.596)
Well, I think it's not about one specific thing going on. I think the lesson here is if you can achieve self -knowledge, right? Like I know myself really well. I know that these are things that frustrate me. I know that these are things that bring me energy, that bring me happiness and joy, that bring me down and make me upset. One of the things that really bothers me a lot is responsibility without control. So I...

Even after I stepped down as Mazza CEO, I was responsible for the success of the business, but I no longer had the control to make change happen in the way I believed would get the business to where I wanted to go. That was an infuriating and yeah, just heartbreaking process. And I don't ever want to go through something like that again. So my goal moving forward with my companies is...

Let's maintain that control so that I can feel responsible. If I feel bad about how things are going, I can make changes in direction that I think can help. And my decisions might not always be correct, but that's okay too. Yeah, sorry, what was your other question related to that, Scott?

Skot Waldron (31:30.286)
Yeah, more of the things that you lessons learned that others can learn from your experience those past 17 years that you want to change as you move into your new, new ventures.

Rand Fishkin (31:38.212)
Rand Fishkin (31:44.035)
Yeah, it's funny you say new, but these are, you know, it's six years old now. It's been around a while. Yeah. the, I mean, one of the other big ones for sure is a, is how we funded the business and how we plan to return money to investors. So I think that, I have this, this sort of core belief of that I should, that I should make reasonable promises. If I tell you, I'm going to join your podcast, I'm going to join your podcast.

Skot Waldron (31:47.31)
I know, I know, I say new, I say new, but yes, yes, yes, yes.

Rand Fishkin (32:12.772)
If I tell you I'm gonna be at this conference, you can count on me being there. If I tell you that I'm gonna return the $25 ,000 that you invested in my company to you and then I'm gonna pay you dividends after that, well, gosh darn it, I better do it. That's just how it is. I think I lived with this just absolute boulder hanging over me for a decade.

of I promised my investors, you know, a five to 10 X return. And I don't know how I'm going to get them even three X given our growth rate. I'm a failure. You know, this company is a failure. Everything we do is not enough. It never felt like enough. And, you know, that's the venture model, right? They don't mind that they put money into a thousand companies. Nine hundred and seventy of them are going to fail. Twenty five of them are going to be

mediocre, Moz -style successes, and five of them are gonna make the whole portfolio, right? They're gonna be the Googles and Apples and Amazons and Facebooks and whatever. And that's fine with them, but if you're the entrepreneur who's made that promise, it doesn't feel good for me. It doesn't work.

Skot Waldron (33:33.102)
And that is because of the, the person of integrity that I believe you probably are. I mean, we aren't best friends after the show. We will be, but you know, it's, it's that level of integrity that I can hear from your story and your writing that I've kind of seen and followed you through the years. And, I kind of what, what I hear now from you that I think is, is, is there, you know,

Rand Fishkin (33:49.444)
Yeah.

Skot Waldron (34:01.39)
As you go into, you know, doing what you're doing day to day, leading new companies and building new platforms.

What's your, what's your emphasis on the people aspect of how you want to run your companies?

Rand Fishkin (34:21.444)
Yeah, that's another change for me. I plan on keeping both SparkToro and SnackBar very small. So, SparkToro is three people, SnackBar is five, SnackBar might grow to seven or eight, even 10. But I don't think I'll ever have a company with 50 or 100 people again. My... I like building...

close sort of small personal relationships with everyone. I actually, I know this is not common, and lots of folks recommend against it. But I don't care. I'm gonna do it anyway. I like building friendships with everyone that I work with. And I believe that I and they have the emotional maturity to work it out if you know, should whatever the company not work out or you know, I have to lay them off or

something like that, like the friendship will persist. I often tell people like, when I build a friendship, I don't wanna lose friends anymore. I'm done with that. It's not interesting to me. And so you're locked in for life. And I hope my friends are ready for that. I try and make sure that they know. Yeah. yeah.

Skot Waldron (35:40.782)
Did you tell them that before they got to be friends with you? Like, I get a little clean you with the friendship thing. So make sure you're good for this because I am.

Rand Fishkin (35:50.66)
Well, so I probably don't get it very clingy because I I'm lucky to have a very wide network of of friendships personal and professional, and I mix the two abundantly, which I think is also unusual, but I don't I don't really want to Let's see. I think that if you depending on how you

build your company what you are aiming for, you can choose, you can decide, is this business's goal to maximize the amount of revenue and growth that it can achieve, or does this business have another goal? And I would argue one of the big goals of both my companies outside of revenue and growth, which are obviously important, right? They're important to build and maintain, but the other one is,

This is here so that we can lead the lives that we wanna lead. SparkToro exists so that Casey and Amanda and I can live the lives that we wanna live and our investors can too. And so can our customers, right? The idea is that, you know, SparkToro is gonna help our customers save a bunch of time and do a bunch of research that they couldn't have done otherwise that will help them do better marketing. It's also so that we as a team can do what we call chill work, right?

On average, working 30 hours or less a week, having lots of vacation time when we need it, having lots of flexibility in terms of, hey, if Casey needs to take two days off because his girls are sick and he's primary caretaker for them at home, so hey, he's not going to be around much for the next 40 hours. It's fine. The software runs itself. It's designed and built that way. It's very scalable. It's very stable. It takes longer to build, but it doesn't matter because that's the focus. If Amanda needs, she's on.

Usually her I think it's her mother -in -law helps with childcare this week. She can't so Whatever long story short Amanda was like, hey, I'm not gonna have very many hours this week. No problem We're cool, right? We're fine. We can be flexible. We'll launch that thing. We were gonna launch this week We'll launch that next week. It doesn't matter. Not a big deal. There's there's no one that we're trying to You know impress to raise our next round We don't have to hit certain metrics if we have a down quarter or two. It doesn't matter much we

Rand Fishkin (38:18.148)
We had a really rough sort of last year before March for a variety of reasons. But one of the big ones is we used to rely on Twitter data. When Elon bought Twitter, things kind of got terrible over there. So we had to switch data platforms and blah, blah, blah. But we managed through it even in the worst months of that. And we're like, well, we're still profitable, still putting thousands of dollars in the bank. So this is kind of the dream.

And snack bar, similar story. So the, you know, the focus is just different. It is different from maximizing growth at all costs. And for our investors, I think that that's where people have questions. They go, how can you practice chill work? How can you not worry about having a down quarter or two? How can you think about this these ways? And my answer is we also do this for our investors. Our investors put money into us with the promise that we would get them their money back and then.

we would provide dividends, which does not mean growth at all costs. It means profitability and survivability long -term above everything else. And so what we've done is align the promise that we made to them and the way that we can raise money. When you make a promise to a venture investor or to the public markets, it's just, you know that almost everyone is gonna fail. They're just not gonna get there. Public markets,

sort of different story, but venture, almost everyone is gonna fail to live up to the promise when they sign those terms. And that is deeply weird to me. This doesn't match.

Skot Waldron (39:56.558)
I love that you brought up, chill work. That was something that, that was really cool to me to hear about your philosophy of hustle culture and to come up with this idea of chill work. just hearing you talk to me the way you're talking to me and being in the startup space. Don't don't mix, right? They don't, that's usually what you hear. It's like startups hustle, hustle, startup, hustle, hustle, startup.

And it's like, you're like, yeah, you know, we're just doing our thing. And everybody's like, sure. Ran. Sure. Not everybody has that luxury, but what would you say to that?

Rand Fishkin (40:36.388)
It's true. Absolutely. Not everybody has that luxury. I would say, I would say a few things. One is when you think about the people who raise venture capital, I think, you know, the dream is that this is someone who's sort of had great ideas, worked hard. Maybe they, they,

have done remarkable things in their life. And that's not untrue, but almost everyone who receives venture capital comes from a wealthy family already. And that is getting more pernicious, right? So the wealthier your family is and the more, sorry, the longer venture capital goes on, the more true that becomes. I think in the early 2000s, those numbers were a little more distributed.

over the last 10, 15 years, it's become, you know, top 10 % of wealth in the United States. Those families are producing almost all the entrepreneurs that get funded. That's not awesome, right? That kind of sucks. I think you have to believe something that's fundamentally untrue for that to feel fair. And what you have to, you have to believe that...

talent is not equally distributed, that somehow talent is correlated and talent potential is correlated with wealth and with sort of all sorts of groups, whatever racial and ethnic or religious or sexuality -wise or able -bodiedness or whatever that are also correlated with wealth. And those are things I don't believe, right? My belief is...

Talent is equally distributed. It's just opportunity that's not. The opportunity is not equally distributed. So I really bias to a world in which different kinds of people can get funding. And I think if we change the funding models, if we change the investment expectations, if we change what success means for a new company, for a startup in technology or otherwise, we change who gets to be successful.

Rand Fishkin (42:53.924)
That sounds awesome to me, right? That's a, that's a mission I'm sort of behind in that, in my dream scenario, Scott, right? 15, 20, 25 years from now, people point to Spark Toro and they point to Snack Bar Studio and they point to a few other companies that, that I'm involved with and have helped out with this funding model. They point to those and say, that's what I want to do. That's the right path for me. And investors also say, that's what I want to see in the world.

And I don't have the risk tolerance of being able to put a million dollars into 100 companies to get $1 billion outcome. I need higher, higher veracity rates of return from a consistent set, right? I need a failure rate that's more like 20 or 30%, not 90 or 95%.

Skot Waldron (43:47.054)
man. I love that. I love your heart. That's what I think. That's what I'm getting from all this, right? Is that idea of your heart being in something, your heart driving the way that you lead. And sometimes, you know, when we're younger to a fault at times, and then using that heart to transition into what you're now doing and taking the principles that drove that success of, of feels, right. Wearing that heart on your sleeve and a good way and drive in.

the future of your companies now.

Rand Fishkin (44:20.42)
Well, there's a lot of people who, you know, they have success in their career, this is particularly pernicious in startup and tech worlds. They have success in their career and they intentionally or unintentionally, they pull the ladder up behind themselves, right? They work at companies that build monopolies so that nobody else in the space can possibly compete. That sucks. They then invest in primarily, you know, the...

whatever the stock market, the S and P 500, which has lots of monopolies that make it harder for people to compete, right? Those companies are trying to take market share and you can see the big winners win more and more and more of the pie of at least the American economy. And the same thing's true in startup land, right? If you come out of your startup, you have a bunch of money, you put it back into the venture ecosystem, you put it back into sort of deals on AngelList that are trying to raise venture, you are.

perpetuating this, you know, one in a hundred winners, 99 losers model. I don't think that's mostly a talent game. I think that's mostly a luck game. And I think it sucks. I don't love that model. So what I want to do is not pull the ladder up. I want to build an escalator, right? Step by step. I want to make it easier for people who...

maybe didn't come from a rich background, maybe didn't have all the opportunities. I didn't come from a rich background, but my dad was an engineer at Boeing. He made a decent wage. My mom helped out small marketing businesses in the Seattle area. We always had enough to eat. We always had, I think my parents had two cars pretty much all my life and a house that we lived in. We were doing fine. We were very comfortable. And a lot of folks,

I think does have incredible talent, have incredible ideas, have remarkable work ethic, work ethic probably 10 times my own, and they deserve opportunity too. And I think models like this, right? Like what I hope we can do is, you know, we'd whack our way through this path in the forest and then other people can follow in the future.

Skot Waldron (46:41.55)
Tell me about spark Toro and snack bar. Give us kind of the overview of the service you provide there and how they're helping to, enable you to live the life you deserve to lead and live. And also the other people.

Rand Fishkin (46:58.212)
Yeah. Well, so, all right. Well, I'll start, I'll start with Spark Toro. Spark Toro is an audience research, software tool. It's, it's a subscription tool. it's got a forever free version. So if you, if you're like, I want to check it out, there's no free trial. You don't have to put in a credit card. You can just try it for free. and the way it works is you.

describe an audience to us in one of a couple ways. You say, my audience visits a particular website, could be your website, or maybe you have a client or a friend with a website. You could say someone who searches for a particular keyword on Google and we'll build an audience around people who search for that keyword, or people who have a particular word or phrase in their bio or their job title or their job description or interests or that kind of thing. So you could say, my audience uses this word in their bio.

You know, whatever drones enthusiast or Dungeons and Dragons or, chemical engineer or interior designer. And then SparkTorah will go out and find, you know, thousands of profiles, in our index. We use LinkedIn for the demographic data and a clickstream panel for sort of behavioral data, and some Google data as well.

And so we'd go out and say, okay, of all these interior designers, they tend to visit these websites and search for these keywords and listen to these podcasts and watch these YouTube channels and follow these subreddits and search for these keywords, all that type of data so that you could then say, okay, I know a lot about interior designers now.

I think I want my marketing mix and strategy to look like this. And I'm going to specifically have a focus on like these 10 YouTube channels. How do I get in front of them? And these two subreddits, I'm going to participate there heavily and these social accounts, I'm going to try and get them to amplify my work, whatever, whatever your specific tactics are. That product has been around for four years now, just about almost exactly four years and is,

Rand Fishkin (49:04.708)
Yeah, it has maybe 1 ,300, 1 ,400 paying subscribers. Over 100 ,000 people use the free version, which is awesome. We love people using the free version, getting value from that. And a nice community around it, too. We run a monthly webinar that's quite popular called Spark Toro Office Hours and an annual event called Spark Together.

that's happening for the first time in person now in Seattle in October. So that's, yeah, that's that business.

Skot Waldron (49:40.91)
I don't, well, can I hang on that for a second? I was going to introduce spark together because this, and cause it goes with the theme of what we're talking about. It does, it does man. And I don't know if you did this intentionally or if it's just because it comes from your brain, but spark together is built on the idea of transparency. Tell us about that conference and why it's so different.

Rand Fishkin (49:49.572)
It does. I was thinking about that too.

Rand Fishkin (50:05.828)
Yeah, yeah, it's definitely a weird format, right? So, you know, most conferences you kind of invite speakers and thought leaders and people who are who are practiced in the industry to come and sort of share best practices and new tactics and their knowledge and explain what's going on with a particular part of the marketing world. You know, here's how to get better results from your Google ads or here's how to do Instagram better or whatever it is. And Spark together is not that at all. Instead, what we ask people to do is bring

very transparent, vulnerable, emotional stories. So, you know, you, maybe you have some great tactics for Instagram marketing, but also, you know, maybe I know that your business went through a huge transition and you had to shut a part of it down and rebrand yourself and, you know, go into cockroach mode for two years and things were just awful. And then how did you dig yourself out of that? And what was, you know, what did the actual numbers look like when you went through that? That's something that.

Most folks are very unwilling to share because it's, it's, it can be quite deeply personal and also it doesn't always make them look great. Right. When you, when you reveal those, those tough things and spark together is all about showing the actual numbers and charts and revenue or, or lost traffic or, you know, lost businesses telling, telling that full story.

And as a result, we do no recordings, no sharing, no tweeting, no putting it on threads, no posting to LinkedIn, all that kind of stuff. So that the speaker can feel comfortable talking to this. It's a relatively small room, maybe, maybe 200 people, 250. and kind of getting this powerful thing off their chest. I think those kinds of stories when they are told honestly and vulnerably.

Those are the most powerful, most resonant, most lesson learning experiences that I've had in my professional career. And I, I think there are a lot of people who want that when they go to an event and not here's 10 tactics for better Instagram ads. So that's where we're building.

Skot Waldron (52:19.79)
So much, man. I love it. And then it was just like reading about that. I was like, that is real. Like that's gotta be life -changing in the sense that the discussions that happen, the vulnerability of them and the freedom that they probably feel the weight after talking about it on a stage. And then the trust that is built between the two, the person on stage is letting down their wall saying, this is, this is me. This is raw. This is where I sucked.

Rand Fishkin (52:41.604)
All right.

Skot Waldron (52:47.886)
At what I did and it broke things and, and this is how I've come out of it. And that story that we can all relate to, but we don't always talk about because maybe we're ashamed of it or it's embarrassing or whatever. And then that can, I let down my wall. Now you let down your wall. I let down my wall. Vulnerability breeds trust. And all of a sudden we have a connection and that I can't imagine the connections that are kind of come out of that conference.

Rand Fishkin (53:09.924)
Yes. Yeah.

Yeah, I mean, that's a big part of it too, right? We asked, this is, you know, speaker, speakers very often, myself included, I'm super guilty of this. You know, we're asked to come and show up for an event and be there for the one hour that we're on stage and then, you know, take off like us, that's fine, right? Show up, leave, great. I think it creates this, I think a lot of speakers also like it because it creates this perception of importance.

Like, I'm so important. I don't have time to be at the event. I'll only be there for like the few minutes around my session or whatever, and then I'm out. And we ask our speakers to be there the whole day. That's part together. Join one of the tables. Be around for folks. Once you've shared your story, help chat about it. We think that's a powerful experience. And I think you're right. I think folks will...

open up in surprising ways. I think it'll be a very different kind of professional experience for the attendees.

Skot Waldron (54:18.894)
Amazing. All right. Tell us about snack bar.

Rand Fishkin (54:22.403)
Yeah, snack bar is interesting. So here I'm going to tell you a thing that I haven't talked about. I mean, I don't talk about a snack bar a ton for a variety of reasons, which we can get into the biggest one being all the data says do not market, do not start marketing your video game until six months before it comes out because people's attention spans are short, especially in games. And you don't want to create a bunch of excitement and then not deliver on it for two years or two and a half years, which.

snack bar is probably realistically at least two years away from watching. But that being said, I, so the core of a video game has to be intensely, immensely fun. It has to be just deeply enjoyable to do sort of the things that you do in the game over and over again. And there's lots of science and art to that. And certainly we're trying to lean into those things, but also I think one of the

keys to building a successful video game is uniqueness. It has to stand out from a crowded space. There are a lot of games out there. There are a lot of choices. And so you have to create a product that is resonant with a particular audience. And I think, my suspicion is, our audience is going to be older millennials and Gen Xers, and maybe even into the boomer category, right? That sort of...

35 to 65 age group who remember a lot of classic What I'd call chill action style games from the 90s and early 2000s like old Legend of Zelda stuff and Our our setting and our core concept are quite unique So you in the snack bar at the end of the world you are a chef in a magical version of 1960s Italy?

And so it's, you know, the music and the art and the visuals and the town that you're in, the surrounding wilds. If you've been to small hilltop towns in central or southern Italy, this will feel very familiar to you. It's all being done by an Italian artist and the team we all gather in Italy to work on the game together and try and keep the recipes that you forage for, the ingredients, the monsters and creatures that you see.

Rand Fishkin (56:49.124)
foliage, the buildings, the sewer grates, the streets, the cobblestones, like every little detail to us needs to be representative of that 1960s Italy experience. And in the game, there's sort of a...

Secretly and quietly we will be teaching you to speak Italian, but you won't know it and so my hope is after playing Snack bar at the end of the world You'll you'll be able to go to Italy and you'll be surprised when you can order in perfect Italian at your favorite restaurant And have a conversation with the waiter about the food. That's Sort of sort of sneaking it in there. This also saves us a bunch of money translating the voiceover because while we

Skot Waldron (57:31.95)
Nice.

Rand Fishkin (57:37.188)
While the text will appear in your native language, whatever you speak, all of the spoken lines are going to be in Italian.

Skot Waldron (57:46.862)
Look at that. I mean, everybody's reading subtitles now anyway, you know, with a lot of the Asian culture, things impacting the world now. you know, like.

Rand Fishkin (57:55.491)
Yeah.

Rand Fishkin (57:59.332)
especially in video games, right? Chinese and Japanese video games are huge South Korean as well.

Skot Waldron (58:03.662)
Yes. Huge, huge. so, so grateful for you. So grateful for your, first of all, for answering my email. So thank you for doing that. but, but for being on the show for sharing your heart, sharing your pain also, and some of these things can be hard to relive over and over again. And, but thank you for putting it out there to the world. I don't think enough people do. And, I, I appreciate that.

Rand Fishkin (58:13.764)
no.

Skot Waldron (58:33.294)
I appreciate, I hope people see that for what it is. And I, and you've said multiple times on your blog, this is just your side of it. Okay. So other people are not able to express their side on this thing. I appreciate that too, that acknowledgement of like, Hey y 'all, this is, this is Rand's viewpoint. This is my own personal, whatever. I know you're not hearing the other side. There's always two sides, right? But.

Rand Fishkin (58:44.036)
Absolutely.

Skot Waldron (58:58.446)
What I do appreciate is you putting it out there and be so thoughtful and intentional about the words you use. Even in this interview, I can tell there's gears turning up there, man. You're like, okay, I don't want to, you know, I want to make sure. my gosh. I can't even imagine. I can't even imagine. my gosh. but yeah, I just want to appreciate, I just want to thank you. If, if people want to talk to you, they want to hang out with you, they want to email you, they want.

Rand Fishkin (59:08.996)
You can tell I've been on the internet for a long time and have had lots of people critique the things that I've said.

Skot Waldron (59:28.398)
Whatever, to talk about your model of fundraising, whatever they want to do, how do they contact you?

Rand Fishkin (59:35.588)
Yeah. So thank you for mentioning that because I did want to say that SparkToro's funding model is open source. So we paid our attorneys a little extra money to make documents that you can download and use. So if you know entrepreneurs or you're someone who would like to use that funding model, you can search for SparkToro funding in Google, find the blog post. All the docs are linked to an open source. Yeah. And a few companies have used them successfully. Most recently a company here in Seattle called

Skot Waldron (59:55.406)
man, that's so cool. That is so cool.

Rand Fishkin (01:00:03.812)
Seattle Ultrasonics that's developing some new kitchen technology. If you want to get in touch with me, I am quite active on both threads where I'm Rand DeRoyder, my wife's last name, and LinkedIn where I'm Rand Fishkin. You can follow me in either of those places. You're also welcome to email me direct just rand at sparktoro .com.

Skot Waldron (01:00:26.638)
All right, man. Well, have an awesome day. Thank you again for being here and keep spreading the word and doing the good things you're doing. I appreciate you.

Rand Fishkin (01:00:35.46)
Yeah, my pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me. Take care.

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