October 21, 2015 | Sarah Danks


Here it is, folks:

The first-ever Jumpstart Podcast episode, by Jeff Sauer. If you don’t already know, Jeff’s made quite a name for himself within the digital marketing world with Jeffalytics (Depth of Knowledge), a Google Analytics consulting and training business.

Jeff’s mission is to share his digital marketing wisdom with the rest of the community. Not only that, but if you want to jumpstart your Google AdWords prowess and be able to generate revenue for your business, you can take his online AdWords course that takes you “from zero to Google certified in 30 days.

While Jeff’s been listening to podcasts for years, he’s just now biting the bullet to jump in and get his feet wet with his own podcast. And who better to start it all off with than Rand Fishkin of Moz?

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown of Jeff’s first podcast episode


Jeff begins by telling everyone he’s a digital marketer as well as a digital nomad — at the time of the recording he was residing in New Zealand but by the time people would listen to the podcast he’d be heading to the island territory of Caledonia (don’t worry, even he’s barely sure of where in the world that is).

Sauer said his own initial approach to digital marketing was: “Create your own experiences, even if it means working for free.”

As an entrepreneur curious to learn more, Jeff started asking his fellow marketers — over happy hours, naturally — “How’d you get started?

Hearing all these stories led him to create this Jumpstart podcast. Essentially, the point is to tell others how to jumpstart their career by listening to successful marketers and answer the age-old question:

“How do you get into marketing with no experience, contacts, or formal education?”

Having following Rand — and reading the original SEOmoz blog — for years, Jeff’s finally getting to ask The Wizard of Moz some erstwhile-unanswered questions.


JEFF: So I know you dropped out of college to be in your mom’s company. When’s the first time you realized you have a gift for getting people interested in products/services?

When did you first know that teaching others was something you wanted to do?

RAND: In highschool I volunteered at an elementary school teaching in science class at a private school, assistant-teaching a science class. Since it was at a private school, I didn’t have to jump any hurdles…

…or maybe it was totally illegal — no clue.

I was able to get kids really excited about science — astronomy, physics, etc. — which in turn got me excited and made me want to teach. It made me want to create things that would make people see the world in a new way.

I actually didn’t have a particularly great experience with high school OR college; just wasn’t engaged by classes.

I had started doing web design/devopment contract stuff on the side — for my mom’s small business clients (did animations with flash) and thought it was really cool. I loved taking information and conveying it across the web, and having anyone being able to access it.

After all, the web was “hot” in 1998/99 (before the dot-com crash). I thought, “I should stay in school, get a finance degree…”

…but instead I ended up dropping out of college, because:

“I’m just gonna do this web design thing.”

JEFF: Somewhat similarly, I realized in college people would pay me to do websites for them.

As a teen, when people give you money to do something, you think, “This is gonna happen forever! Money is easy! People will always pay me!” And the opportunity seems like it’ll always be there.

But it’s not great to think that — if the website industry crashes and/or budgets get lower…

…we then realize we’re working with a light mastery of technology but we didn’t develop a long-term sustainable skill.

You said things didn’t go as well as you thought, can you elaborate more on that?

RAND: We were working primarily on web design for small- to medium-sized businesses in the Seattle area. There wasn’t a demand for what we were doing. We started to go belly up; weren’t able to find new clients, or they were picky about price. The competition was increasing, clients weren’t paying, etc. We struggled — and went deep into debt in 2000 – 2005.

This led us down the path to SEO. We’d been building on spec — we’d build it, hoping it’d convert for our clients and then we’d get a share of revenue gained.

Honestly that’s a terrible model! Twice we actually got paid anything.

JEFF: Working with people who want to do revenue share doesn’t work out — if they’re making a ton of money, are they really gonna give you a million dollars? Probably not.

That’s not how business works. It’s THEIR money; not yours.

So your debt was basically due to market conditions — did debt itself go towards paying employees/office?

RAND: Nearly every expense we had was non-necessary — didn’t need fancy office space, web hosting/tech expenses, etc.

My salary was $1600 per month, and sometimes I only made $800. My mom wasn’t taking any salary! Even into 2006-07, there were times I was only making $800/month.

I worked with Matt Inman (now known as The Oatmeal. *author butts in* He is my FAVORITE!!!). We played a lot of Counter-Strike and Matt wasn’t making much either.

Our debt went to pay mostly rent + people.

The big problem was, we were 120/130K in debt and weren’t able to make minimum payments. Then the interest rate spiked, we incurred penalties…

…by 2005 we owed $500k.

JEFF: This is a great lesson for everyone to learn: Everything comes down to revenue.

You shouldn’t be going into debt because you THINK something will happen; you need to have a plan.

Similar story: I was about $20K in debt, and could only make minimum payments. All I’d ever be able to do is make that minimum payment. So I started freelancing. I gave up TV, began working nights & weekends.

I turned it around, but it was a valuable lesson.

I’ve been following the Moz community for a long time — about the time you segued away from web design, etc., how did you transition from working on spec ?

RAND: It all started with the SEOmoz blog (started in 2003). By 2004 it was on its own domain (.org). It built popularity in 05/06; I got invited to speak at a couple conferences I could barely afford to go to (had to crash at my grandparents’ place!).

Then inquiries for SEO clients — from the blog — started driving customer demand.

Instead of inquiries for web design we were getting inquiries for SEO. SEO clients already HAD a website; they had the money to pay for services.

People who wanted SEO already had a website; they knew driving traffic from search would get them ROI. We started getting better quality, paying-on-time customers. It was the blog that turned it all around.

JEFF: So, the blog was just a blog…

…it was a dot org!

What was the name of the company before SEOmoz?

RAND: My mom founded it in 1981, and until 2000 it was “Outlines West.” It was a one-woman business from ’81 to 2000; I was a sub-contractor. It became a business in 2001; she was president/CEO; I was just the “guy who makes websites.”

JEFF: I used to read SEOmoz blog and found stuff helpful — like how much to charge for services, difference between retainer vs minimum, how to charge per project, etc.

At the time I was working with Fortune 100 companies but just regurgitating what Rand said on Moz…

…it was an excellent resource.

RAND: It’d be hard to replicate because timing was crucial. SEObook came out about the same time; those 2 resources were talked about — frustratingly — because what we were sharing was “trade secret stuff.”

Transparency wasn’t looked upon with favor at that time. Danny Sullivan helped it to become not quite a secret.

JEFF: Everyone is resistant to change, but in the long-run, it’s now an industry — not just a niche area — and it only becomes an industry when the market is big enough to support it.

A lot of great things have come out of this.

The blog is a high-quality resource, but keeps getting better & better…

RAND: Yes, we’ve got a much better CMS, every blog post is edited, etc.

JEFF: Back then just having a blog was enough. Now, you need to be not just consistent, but push hard to get better and produce that 10x content.

There’s SO MUCH out there. It’s saturated — you need to be different to stand out from the crowd.

RAND: Agreed.

JEFF: Speaking of standing out from the crowd — what’s with the yellow shoes?

RAND: They were a “notice me” tactic to get people to talk to me. I went to my first conference in New York in 2005.

I had been on forums/chat rooms but my avatar wasn’t a picture of ME, it was Jon Stewart. I realized,

“I’m going to this conference and will see all these people I’d met online, but they won’t know me!”

So, I told everyone online, “Hey, I’ll be wearing yellow shoes — if you see me, come say “HI!””

Barry schwartz of SEO round table walked up to me within 10 minutes at the New York conference — “You must be randfish!” And we’ve been friends ever since.

So, wearing the shoes wasn’t an intentional marketing tactic but then became an association. (I always wear them at Mozcon.)

JEFF: Great lesson on personal branding. Now we use Twitter — but there’s something to finding an audience and getting them to notice/see you in a certain way. Other people have their signatures; it’s how I know them even though I’ve never met them in person.

What was it that really made it to the point where you were no longer concerned about “getting there”?

RAND: Interesting. Jeff, I still don’t think I’m there! There were so many turning points — but I only know that in reflection. For example, in 2005 we released two pieces of content (maintained over the past 10-11 years):

  • The beginner’s guide to SEO: Since then it’s been edited; a whole team of people work on it. But back then it was published on the blog and was featured in Newsweek magazine (like, the one on the shelves). Newsweek had a big distribution but there honestly weren’t a lot of people who read that article. Then it got Slashdotted and went to the top — soon it was on a bunch of other news sites, links, started ranking on page 1 for “SEO,” “SEO guide,” etc.;
  • Ranking Factors (6th edition now) — back then there were no correlations, no link data. Crazy times. It was a survey of 75 prominent SEOs that was read by hundreds of thousands of marketing people over the next several years.

Those documents brought subscribers, speaking invitations, etc.

JEFF: You just described several things you did above & beyond…

Yellow shoes, Whiteboard Friday, going after newbies — there are always those looking to get into it! Expanding the overall SEO market, then ranking factors.

So, in essence, 10x content.

How much time went into all this? Spending a lot of time on something, not knowing if/when it’ll work…

is it worth it to invest all this time?

RAND: It was worth it for us. But, both were investments of weeks/months of my personal time; Matt Inman was doing html/CSS for both. In each of those cases, 2 out of 3 people working at the company were putting in weeks’ worth of time working on speculative projects, with no clue about ROI.

The thing about 10x content is: you need to anticipate that you’ll try 5-6-7 things before something sticks.

JEFF: Everyone has one great piece of content in them. You can always be a one-hit wonder; it’s turning it into a business that’s the hard part.

“That’s what marketing is — turning one good idea into a sustainable business model.”

That’s what separates a company from an individual.

Let’s talk about the realization that SEO services wasn’t the way to go; you went from a services company with some tools, to a tool company with no services at all.

RAND: It wasn’t very strategic. We knew when we shared stuff, it sometimes did really well. We
wanted to share all the tools we’d built (6 or 7 tools) because it was a helpful collection.

But, we knew if we made it available publicly, web hosting + server costs will go up; have to gate the tools behind a pay wall. So, let’s make it $29/month.

We used the same login system as for the blog (Matt built this right before he left in 2007). We launched in February 2007…

…and the blog drove people to the free tools.

By August 2007 we realized we were making as much money from the software subscription as from all the paying clients combined!

JEFF: It wasn’t even a decision; it was made for you. Suddenly you’d found something that offered growth.

RAND: It kind of just grew on its own, it became a big revenue channel. Soon investors reached out — Kelly Smith from Curious Office; works for Starbucks in China now.

Then Michelle Goldberg, a partner at Ignition Partners. I thought, “This model seems very interesting.”

Of course, I didn’t know what venture capital was — I had to Google it! I wasn’t very sophisticated at the time.

We paid off our debt by June 2007. At the end of 2007 (November) investors put in 1.1 million dollars and I became CEO (at investors’ behest).

We were barely out of debt and had to change structure, but it put us on the path to MOZ & where we are today.

JEFF: Back then I knew the tools were useful; I was a paid member. But to see that big decision — maybe I second-guessed it. Why is SEOMoz taking capital?

Sounds like it surprised you as much as it surprised the rest of us…

RAND: What made me want to take money was: I’d heard Yahoo Site Explorer was going to take away its link info and shut down (2010 or 11); how would we understand how Google ranks pages??

I knew we needed a link index. I wanted to build the back end of the Google search engine; make the operations of Google more transparent.

I thought, “This tools thing — that’s a way to do that!”

I’ve got a non-profit mindset — no, no, our mission is to help marketers, figure out how google works, help people understand this stuff….

…revenue is just the way we’re able to pay rent on our apartment while we do this!

JEFF: Revenue comes from doing GOOD vs. trying to squeeze it out of customers. Be transparent with customers as to what they get.

The smartest thing MOZ did was create a metric that SEOs use as their replacement for Pagerank — Domain/Page Authority.

Getting that into people’s lexicon creates a stickiness with the product. If you’re THE METRIC people use and they need to pay to get said metric — you’ve just created a customer base. Brilliant move.

Was that planned?

RAND: MozRank was the initial version, then we built better metrics over time — domain/page authority — leading indicators well correlated with how well a page/domain performs based on link profile.

JEFF: You’ve built a well-respected company, great conference, you’re transparent with finance.

How’ve things changed? Are there new challenges?

RAND: Raising capital puts you on an interesting path: it takes away options private companies enjoy (hey let’s be profitable and have a great business); it takes selling the company off the table. You can’t change the company or move in a new direction if you don’t like the business model.

You’ve got 3 options when you accept capital:

  1. Fail.
  2. Sell to another company (most often investors are the only ones who make money; rarely do the employees. Plus you usually only hear about the HUGE awesome sales; not about the 15-20 happening the same day that weren’t great.).
  3. Make a public offering (IPO). For investors this is the dream scenario. You can maximize revenue; for founders it can sometimes be a dream — you’re independent, but subject to restrictions/requirements that private companies are not.

I think MOZ is past the point of dying.

“So that’s nice, to not be dying.”

Not to say something can’t happen (knocks on wood)!

We’re looking at a sale or IPO in the next 5-6 years. We will be doing a little under 40 million in revenue this year, growing 24-25% over last year. The growth rate can get back up to 35-40%; Sarah — current CEO — doesn’t want to be owned by someone else.

I’m a bit more agnostic.

JEFF: What a progression — from being an in-debt web design business to becoming a venture capital-funded SaaS.

RAND: I still rent an apartment, don’t own a car, walk to work…

…we’re not financially stable but would love to buy a house some day. It’s weird to have all these great things happening, but doesn’t affect daily life.

We’re still slogging it out — figuring out how search engines work. We want to make a better product, help customers, make better tools. The last 8 years have been very similar on that front.

But the reach of the company has grown.

JEFF: It’s a good lesson:

“Even if we want to get somewhere, it’s not always as satisfying as we think.”

We need to stay curious, expand our skills, take advantage of opportunities.

Just a couple more questions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received along the way?

RAND: Gosh. I think the best piece of advice we received that we didn’t listen to:

“Don’t focus on growth; focus on customer happiness and low churn first.”

Get people who love your software and will use it forever. Make a small audience very happy and grow slowly.

JEFF: That’s always good advice: don’t get too big for your britches.

Best piece of advice to someone looking to become digital marketer?

RAND: The key to being a great marketer is empathy.

Put yourself in the shoes of other customers/businesses and see world from their perspective. Then you can speak to what they want and need.

That way you can craft messaging that will resonate with them. Be in the places where they are — on AND off the web.

“Empathy is at the core of great marketing.”

JEFF: I couldn’t agree more. I think understanding people in what they’re going through and then having having a solution for them is a great way to get our products/services noticed.

Thanks, Rand!


Can’t wait for more installments of the Jumpstart Podcast!

 

PS: If you think heading to Caledonia is cool, check out the other super-awesome places Jeff and his wife have been to on his Jeffsetter Travel Blog.

Or, if you’re like me — DON’T go read his blog about all the awesome places HE gets to go to while YOU don’t.

Not that I’m bitter about it or anything…


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