Paul Campillo (PC): My name is Paul Campillo. A few years ago, I was helping people from some of California's most notorious state prisons find jobs.
PC: Today, I'm the Director of Brand at Typeform. More than ever, business is fiercely competitive. So, what can you do to stand out? Today, we're talking to Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and SparkToro. Rand built the small, struggling consultancy into one of the most recognizable brands in the software industry.
Rand Fishkin (RF): What are SAAS-Socks?
PC: That's a gift from us to you.
RF: Sockware as a service?
PC: Join us as we discover what it takes to build a meaningful brand.
PC: What's up, my man?
RF: How's it goin'?
PC: Pretty good, come on in.
RF: It's not through this way?
PC: No, no, no, no, no, no, it's okay.
PC: So, I found myself in Seattle. I was homeless for a little bit, and I'm doing these odd jobs, I'm doing security downtown. And then, eventually I'm like, oh, I need to go back to school. And that failed miserably . I went to college three times and dropped out all three times, and...
RF: I only dropped out once, but I know the feeling.
Lost & founder
PC: I read your book, actually, I heard your book.
RF: Oh, okay, you did the audio version, yeah.
RF: Oh, thank you.
PC: Excellent job, no really, how you read it and the emotion that you put into it.
RF: Back then, I was so close to it. All that stuff was very emotional for me, right? I don't know, you tie your identity. Yeah, for your whole adult life to certain things, right? It's well, I'm this person and for me that was, I'm the founder of Moz. And then, as that changes, disintegrates, sort of you give it away slash it gets taken away.
PC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RF: Your identity changes and I think that is hard thing to go through. I'm really glad to be at the other end of it. But whoo, no fun at the time.
PC: Going on that thread, how did your identity change? That's such an important part of what we're gonna discuss today, which is how do you build a meaningful brand. And it seems like you've done both. You've done the personal brand, and...
RF: I think personal branding comes in two varieties. One is there are people who are trying to accomplish things, and along the way, a brand grows up around them. And then, there are people who are very thoughtful and intentional about the construct they're building around themselves. And that can feel very authentic, but it can also feel very inauthentic. I think a lot of folks in our world look at the world of influencer marketing, and kinda go, that's not real anything.
PC: I admit I have struggled with that too.
RF: Yeah, for me it's a constant challenge to have this, okay, I need to have empathy for the hundreds of thousands of people who might be following whatever this person who takes off their shirt at beaches around the world, and then that's where they all wanna go, and they wanna pay attention to that person.
RF: And that mindset doesn't connect with me at all, but as a marketer your job is to get into people's heads and understand how they think and feel, and why they're paying attention to this. And so, that's been a good learning journey for me too.
PC: Yeah, but this also ties in short game long game, how you approach it, right?
RF: Yeah, I think so too, right? It's a personal brand, I think is incredibly valuable for kind of the stuff I'm doing now, right? Early stage company building. Starting another company. It gets more challenging as the business scales, and you realize how intricately your personal brand is tied to a company brand, and how hard that is to separate over time, and that's exactly what I had to do with my previous company, right?
RF: That was hard for me to separate. I think it was also painful for that company, right? In terms of the brand it had built was so Rand centric that then separating the two gets hard. And so, for an institutional investor, there's some risk.
PC: Do you see other companies or like SAAS companies, for example, employing that kind of approach?
RF: I would definitely advocate for not tying a brand that needs massive growth, right? Has to return hundreds of millions of dollars to investors or is trying to get to that level. I would urge them not to rely on a personal brand.
RF: There are outliers. I recognize a lot of people point to whatever, Apple or Tesla, and they say, "Oh look, you can build a person," but those are the exceptions, not the rule. And I would not rely on being the exception.
Challenging the status quo
PC: Going back to that point real quick, the long game short game, I get the sense that you're more or less building a long term relationship by exposing yourself in a way that's atypical in this industry, right?
RF: My ethos around why I do what I do has changed dramatically, right? In my early days with Moz, it was, I want to get us out from under the threat of bankruptcy, right? 'Cause my mom and I were deep in debt and all this, just nasty crap that we were always worried about, right? Just constantly stressing about.
RF: I think that's true for a ton of Americans, right? They're just very financially insecure, they don't know what and how they're gonna make things work, and that sucks, I know that feeling. And so, early Moz was just make money any way we can. And so, when the blog started up and it started to attract clients, great, we doubled down on that, and some speeding events came from it. It was not intentional or strategic, it was just scrambling for anything you could get.
RF: Now suddenly, we are on a very structured path. We know that our job is to return 10X or more of that capital back to our investors over the course of five to seven, maybe 10 years, hit their investment targets, make them look good. And at the same time, hopefully have a great exit and outcome for us and for our team.
RF: And then, we raised another $18 million, and that pressure, it 18X'd overnight, right? From 1.1 million that we raised to 19. And so, coming out of that experience, I had this stark realization that the venture capital field, right? The institutional capital field venture, private equity, all those things are essentially, it's a sophisticated tax dodge.
RF: If you're an investor, it works fine. Play a bunch of companies, and most of them fail, but that works okay for you. If you're an entrepreneur, right? That sucks for us. It's this terrible, terrible deal. And so, hey, my current thinking is along these lines of, let's just question all the structures. Let's question how we're funded. Let's question how big a team we need. I don't know why we need an office, why, why? How does that make sense?
PC: When I look at the trends, when I look at technology, when I look at competition, when I look at all these different things, and all these different factors, the one thing that sticks out to me is how does a brand become more meaningful? And what does that mean going forward? Is meaningful really the future of business?
PC: And so, I started thinking about it more and more, and I was like, yeah, we need to talk about this, we need to talk about this long game, and this is what brings me to you, because you gave a talk at Distilled, and you were talking about this Tweet that you got, and the Tweet basically said what's the most ignored effective SEO strategy out there? And I'm gonna read, if you don't remember what you said.
RF: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, please read.
PC: You said, "Building a brand "that has more search volume "than all the unbranded keywords combined."
RF: There you go. You're building a brand for Typeform, I'm building the brand for SparkToro.
PC: Where does that leave us?
RF: Where does that leave us, right? In our day to day jobs, the thing that we have to do is get traffic and attention to our companies, build our brands. And I think what the frustrating part of that means is SEO has turned from an opportunity that is the biggest and best opportunity for traffic that you can get to one of many that's challenging and potentially, especially, in the future has this potential to dry up a little bit.
RF: And one of the best ways to protect against that is instead of thinking about hey, how do I come up, how does Typeform come up first in the results when someone searches for online surveys, and instead ask yourself, instead of getting people to search for online surveys, how do I get 10 times as many people to search for Typeform? And so, that is where my thinking is evolved to, and it's how we're building our brand.
RF: It's way less content marketing centric, way less SEO centered, and a lot more how do we get people excited about this conversation? How do we make sure that our brand is front of mind when people think of this problem space?
PC: Yeah, and the problem specifically is I need to find my audience.
RF: And I need to figure out what, once I know who my audience is, how do I figure out what they read, watch?
PC: Hashtags they're using.
RF: Hashtags they're using, who they're subscribed to on social, what conferences and events do they go to, so that I can do marketing in all of those places, rather than putting all my eggs in the Google and Facebook duopoly basket.
PC: Yeah, which ties to the whole idea of this meaningful thing, how does a brand kickstart that?
RF: Yeah, if you wanna build a brand in a space where people pay attention in those sorts of ways, and that's not true for every brand, right? But in a b2b world, like you and I are in, right? For the types of customers that we have, a ton of that is that meaningful relationship, how do I think about how you solve the problem versus how I can solve the problem without you.
RF: And I think to do that requires a mode of depth of understanding of your customer and their experiences around the problem set, and their pain points, and if you could speak to those frustrations, especially if you can speak to them in a meaningful way, a way that resonates beyond purely tactical and technical, you can build those long term relationships.
PC: When you were talking about content marketing in the beginning, that you said there wasn't really any strategy or just trying to get out there.
PC: But I didn't get that sense when I heard you talk about this in the book. It felt like there's another value there, and I think this ties into the transparency thing. I'm just wondering how deliberate and how intentional your approach has been.
RF: On the transparency side of content?
PC: Yeah, but I also see that as the ultimate relationship builder.
RF: I think people, fundamentally, can tell the difference between you're being transparent in order to do marketing, right? In order to reach me, and break through the noise, and whatever, and sometimes that can work, or you're being transparent because it comes from the heart.
RF: And whether people read it or not and have a positive opinion or not, that doesn't matter to you know. This is about you telling an authentic story that is painful that other people can relate to. That's something real, that's resonant. I think despite the fact that marketing has become incredibly sophisticated, people can still tell the difference between the two.
PC: That's right.
RF: You really can, right? And I think one of the keys to that is when you have those conversations and you think, God, I don't want anyone to ever find out about this.
RF: You share that stuff, that's transparency, transparency is not, "Hey, here's our monthly numbers, "they look better than ever. "Look at us, we're being transparent "by putting them all out there." It's fine, it's good, but there's a big difference between that and things that you're embarrassed to show.
PC: Oh, struggling with depression or.
RF: Yeah, I'm struggling with hiring.
PC: You're struggling with hiring, yeah.
RF: Managing, I'm struggling with managing my own emotions at work, I'm struggling with imposter syndrome, I'm struggling with institutional biases against me or my team or the things I wanna do, yeah.
PC: Does that imposter syndrome, does that seep its way in still, or is that still there?
RF: Occasionally, yeah.
RF: I have...
PC: It seems like you've transcended a little bit, no?
RF: Yeah, I think, in a way, yes, right? One of the ways that I don't gonna say transcended, it's almost like here's the world where in which I feel like an imposter, and I've just made a hard right turn to not go into that world, right?
RF: And now, that world is sort of the the world of people who build extraordinarily financially successful tech companies, very sizeable financially successful. One thing that has absolutely helped me avoid that imposter syndrome has been media and cultural narrative around big tech, which has been very negative the last five, six years. And so, that in a way, makes me look at that world and say, "Oh, why did I worship these people?
RF: "Why did I think "that building WeWork, or Uber, or Amazon, or Google" was the best thing in the world "that I could possibly do "and the only thing that would make me valuable "to this planet or to the people around me?" Other than some institutional investors and, frankly, a lot of rich people who are not the kind of people I wanna be friends with, I don't think I want that world.
RF: That's not not my crowd. Right, I want these authentic, real people who care about other human beings, who are empathetic. That's who I want for friends. That's who I want to think highly of me. And so, yeah, I'm an imposter here. I'm never gonna be part of this group. And maybe I can be proud of that.
PC: Or maybe you're the realest guy in the group.
RF: Yeah, you can try to change it from the inside, right? I think those people who try to do that, but I think as you get older too, right? I'm sure you have this, right? You start to recognize, oh, these are things I'm good at, and these are things I'm not good at. And maybe instead of feeling terrible about these things I'm not good at and comparing myself to people who are good at them, I'm just gonna double down on this stuff.
PC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is another point that you made, the importance of self awareness.
RF: Yeah, oh man.
PC: A I felt like there was another thing that came right after that. It wasn't just being aware, it was that next step of honesty. Can you tell the truth about what you see, right?
PC: And you said something interesting in the book too. You said, "People aren't self aware."
RF: There's no, yeah, there's no such thing. There's not like a binary aware, not aware.
PC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RF: Yeah, it is a journey. Right, it's a constant ongoing process. Every day, you are a little bit of a different person, every day you have more to learn about yourself and how you operate. And so, that that journey is one that lasts your whole life. If you choose to invest in it, right? If you choose to go on that journey.
PC: When you may be more susceptible to imposter syndrome, the less self aware you are.
RF: I almost wonder if a lack of self awareness can help you. If you have the arrogance, right, to back it up, then you just sail through life, right? You're Michael Bloomberg, you're just like, what? I'm the best.
PC: But that component of self awareness tied to honesty, I think if you're really good at it or if your degree of self awareness is very high, and your degree of honesty is very high, and I just had this thought as you were talking, maybe that's a way to mitigate something like, because you're more likely to tell the truth.
PC: You're more likely to say, well I don't know about that. Instead of pretending that I know about that, right?
RF: Yeah, and oh my gosh, it is so freeing to have that ability to get into a room with smart, savvy people, and have them start talking about something and say, "I don't understand what you're talking about, "can you explain that to me? "I'm not familiar with that acronym. "I don't know that concept," that is a superpower, right?
RF: To just feel comfortable in your own skin, saying, hey, I don't have to be knowledgeable about everything. I am who I am and how am I gonna learn? I have noticed that people in the professional world, especially, have this weird sense that by asking those questions, you will look dumb. And in fact, it often is the opposite. People in the room are like, oh, yeah, let's back up and explain that to you.
PC: That's a great point, I think that awareness of ignorance, is key, ignorance of ignorance is a problem.
RF: Absolutely, and yeah, that goes back to that confidence and arrogance, and maybe the difference between the two.
Culture & scale
PC: Yeah, and so, I do wanna talk about culture. I see it as more the inside game to brand.
PC: And kinda how it powers everything, and gets everyone. I don't know how you see culture.
RF: I think my understanding of this has evolved quite a bit. I think that the start of culture comes from structure.
RF: More than anything else, structure, and trajectory, it's true in in social work, right? How are you trying to change people's behavior at an aggregate level, on an individual level? It's true in a metropolitan area, it's true in a city, right?
RF: And it also it's true insides teams and sub teams within those companies. And so, when you create incentives, rewards, and when you message those and how you message those, that fundamentally determines how people will build the culture.
RF: And I unfortunately, I think that there is a mythology, especially among entrepreneurs, founders, management, leadership that they can build or implement a type of culture that doesn't necessarily relate to or match with the outcomes they're demanding of the team or the incentive system or the rewards or perceived rewards.
RF: Those are not true, right? I think you're fooling yourself, you're paddling against the current when you attempt to build something without considering the structural elements. So for example, Moz, in its early days, first 50 employees, maybe even 60, 70 was very special. It was the kind of magical company that occasionally you see across, not just companies, but I don't know, sports teams, or high school classes, or whatever it is, right?
RF: Where there's this group of people who come together around a shared not mission and vision so much as shared belief about the world, shared values, and frankly the lines of communication were really open.
PC: It's very familiar, by the way, this story parallel, in Barcelona too.
RF: Oh, really, yeah, right? It has that feeling, right? I see it across agencies and companies where that culture gets built up. But it has elements of informality that don't scale well.
PC: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
RF: Right, and communication lines that don't scale well. And so, when you wanna build a company of hundreds of people and are looking toward a company that hopefully will reach into the thousands, you have an unsustainable set of pillars that you've built the strength of the culture on that won't last, can't last.
RF: They have to either be disassembled and rebuilt in new ways, or they're gonna crumble, right? Of their own accord. And in our case, I think it crumbled of its own core.
PC: This high growth, fast growth startup mindset culture is it sustainable and is it really, is business really ultimately about these relationships that we have and?
RF: I think this is a challenge that a lot of people inside their teams and organizations face, right? They might wake up one day and realize gosh, we are held to these kinds of standards, we have to hit these sorts of targets. But that doesn't feel sustainable or achievable, or...
RF: Yeah, human, or the right thing to do, is that the life that we are trying to build for the people at this company? Is that the right thing to do for our customers and our industry and the world at large? And if the answers to that are no, why are we locked in this game? Why are we playing like this? Because there's another way to play.
PC: Yeah, okay, today's Friday. And let's do a Whiteboard Friday.
RF: Oh, this is gonna be, oh gee Whiteboard Friday.
PC: Yeah, oh gee Whiteboard Friday.
RF: Like 2007 again.
PC: I guess the last big question is how should people think about content marketing now?
RF: I think we have moved from a world where individual pieces of content marketing could stand out to a world where that is not gonna be a differentiating factor. I believe the future of great content marketing...
PC: Could you jot these points down?
RF: Yeah, yeah.
PC: And this is our Whiteboard Friday.
RF: I think that old days, you had this I produce individual pieces of content, and I target keywords, and if they're really great, or if they hit some notion of whatever is amplification worthy or viral worthy, that can really transform my content marketing. And now, what I believe we're in is sort of the, maybe it's fair to call it the Netflix world of content marketing.
RF: And what I mean by that is Netflix content marketing is essentially not individual points, but rather episodic content, something that gets produced over time. And then, you get addicted to it, and you love it, and you share it, and it starts with often, a very small audience, but grows to a bigger one, right?
RF: And so, it's not these individual pieces of content, but rather instead it's X, and then X2, and then X3. And so, this episodic content world, I think is where we are headed. If you wanna build great, sustainable, long term content marketing.
RF: It's not about getting one piece of content in front of the maximum number of people, but rather, finding an audience that content over time, episodic content that you can repeat and grow with and keep producing, that they will stick with and amplify, that they will grow that group, that word of mouth, and all the other forms of sharing will spread it.
PC: This turns into that flywheel.
RF: Yeah, it turns into, right?
PC: That gains steam over time.
RF: Exactly, right, 'cause you have a few people who are watching, and that turns into a bunch more people watching, and then they tell their friends, and suddenly you get this big group of tons of people watching, and they become fans. And that I think is a powerful addition to the content flywheel, to the content loop, right?
PC: So, we're creating, we're being more collaborative as far as building products.
PC: But what about marketing, do you see this is happening now?
RF: Marketing should be a product. Marketing is a product, right? Content is absolutely a product, and should be thought of the same way. So, you've gotta be having those interviews and conversations with your audience about hey, what are we producing, what do you pay attention to, what do you like, what do you watch and listen to, why do you do it? And then, you can make stuff that you know hits their triggers.
Define your brand
PC: Yes, so last question, whatever you think about Jeff Bezos, he had a nice definition for brand, and he said, "It's what people say about you "when you're not in the room." And what do you want people to say about you when you're not in the room?
RF: Boy, it's changed. It's changed a lot. It used to be I wanted them to say that guy's an incredibly successful entrepreneur. And now, I think I want people to say some combination of, I feel like he's making the world a better place and he helped me to see something that I never saw before. That, I'm pretty sure I can retire happy if that's the case.
PC: Yeah, Rand, the conscious CEO. Thanks again, appreciate it.
RF: Yeah, my pleasure, thanks for having me here.
PC: After talking to Rand, I can't help but wonder, is this the CEO of the future? Honest, transparent, vulnerable, and what those traits mean for everyday relationships, because that's what business is ultimately about, right? This is Paul, thanks for watching this episode of "Meaningful." And don't forget, let's make every interaction count.