Rand Fishkin on Authenticity and Shattering Growth Hack MythologyBy Zachary Yuzdepski
The glitzy image we have of entrepreneurship often obscures the years of effort and failure that preceded the success we see.
The reality is that starting a new business comes with a lot of difficulties and obstacles that can seem hard to overcome:
What is the best way to truly grow my business?
How do I balance work and ‘real’ life?
How do I make authentic connections with clients?
How do I maintain my physical and mental health throughout the struggle?
Many successful entrepreneurs acknowledge the struggle and effort required to achieve your goals but remain silent about failures, questionable tactics, and the toll entrepreneurship takes on your life.
Our latest guest on the Conquer Local podcast, Rand Fishkin, is not like most successful entrepreneurs.
Rand, is the founder of Moz and SparkToro and is one of the most recognizable figures in the digital marketing world. The former ‘Wizard of Moz’ is most notably recognized for his considerable contributions to search marketing and SEO.
But Rand wasn’t always an SEO virtuoso!
In fact, (as you’ll hear in the podcast) he sucked at SEO and his journey actually began as he learned and documented his struggles along the way. As he flips the page to the next chapter in his career, Rand looks to take on a new challenge at SparkToro, helping people with influencer marketing and audience intelligence.
In this podcast, Vendasta’s CRO George Leith dives into Rand’s experience growing the enterprise we now know as Moz from the ground up, the entrepreneurial journey, common struggles with starting a business, and the importance of always conducting business with authenticity.
This podcast is sure to entertain and educate! To get a recap of Rand’s top six insights, keep reading. To listen to the whole podcast, click below:
Table of Contents
6 Founder Insights From Rand Fishkin
1. The Glitz and Glam of Startups: Not What it's Cracked Up to Be
The startup world is one that outsiders look at and envy. From the outside, people see the young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs who build bean bag chair-filled castles and make millions of dollars. If you’re just seeing the results without understanding the struggle, it’s easy to be jealous of the life of a startup founder.
But is this the case for every young entrepreneur? No.
The reality is that starting a business is extremely difficult, and the struggles of working out of a garage while acquiring a mountain of debt are seldom discussed. Rand Fishkin’s new book, “Lost and Founder”, speaks directly to people who want to see past the glitz and glam of startups. His "field guide to the startup world" examines the struggles and long nights that go into building large SaaS enterprises like Moz.
Rand’s transparency to his readers is welcome and refreshing, as he dives into his deeply personal story about his entrepreneurial journey. As the cover states, the book is “painfully honest” about the trials and tribulations of forming a start-up.
“I made all of these mistakes, please don’t make exactly these same ones.”
While Rand’s journey isn’t typical, it’s important to remember that all entrepreneurs will face challenges and a grind along the way.
Recommended Reading: From Side Hustle to Not Selling Out with Agency Owner Rich Brooks
2. Navigate The Entrepreneurial Struggle While Making Room for Vulnerability
There are certainly challenges and dark times when trying to build a business or a brand. Often times what is advertised to the world about famous entrepreneurs is the cars they drive, the houses they live in, and the money they’ve made.
Type in a famous entrepreneurs name on Google, and the search automatically fills in “net worth.” Or better yet, Google some famous entrepreneurs and seek out the image search results.
You see individuals who are decked out in thousand dollar suits, driving beautiful vehicles, or talking at major conferences across the world. It’s a lifestyle that everyone envies, but as a society, we tend to ignore the struggles that these individuals may have gone through to get where they are now.
The entrepreneurial struggle is extremely real, and Rand opens up about the unrealistic expectations that come with being the leader of a multi-million dollar SaaS enterprise.
“There is a hyper-masculinity centric culture in the startup world, especially the tech startup world, that says ‘You are only ever strong, aggressive, crushing it - which I despise. There is no room for weakness, there is no room for vulnerability, there is no room for anxiety, for mental and emotional struggles, for depression. These things are considered unacceptable for leaders to have. These are considered not the qualities that a startup or funded entrepreneur is allowed to talk about or to be open about, and I think that’s crap.”
Rand highlights the pressure that society puts on the leaders of startups and the idea that you need to appear invulnerable to succeed. Both of these pressures make it really hard on individuals starting companies when facing the daily grind.
Building off of what Rand says, you (the entrepreneur) will experience struggles, there will be tough times, and it is COMPLETELY NORMAL.
Rejecting that ‘hyper-masculinity centric culture’, as Rand put it, opens the door to ask for help when you need it and may help lessen the silent suffering that many entrepreneurs experience.
Recommended Reading: How Grant Leonard Was Fired From His Job and Launched His Agency on the Same Day
3. Go Beyond Direct Sales by Building Authentic Connections with Clients
As George Leith continually emphasizes in Conquer Local, the days of a successfully using a blanket approach to selling are (thankfully) over. Today, sales is all about building authentic relationships with prospects and clients. Now, the people who will really win are those who get to know their customers best.
Why? Because there are other options everywhere. If you sell something to someone who doesn’t need it, they are going to churn quickly, and they’ll probably be pissed at you and use customer feedback channels to tell the world why they had a bad experience with you.
Rand expands upon this concept:
“The most shameless salespeople are not the best ones. It is often the ones who are self-aware, and humble, and feel the discomfort of the awkward relationship that happens when one person is trying to sell something to someone else. Those folks do very very well because there is an authenticity, a humanity, an emotional connection that bridges the temporary awkwardness of the reason the relationship exists to form a deeper kind of connection. I think that that is not necessarily a bad thing.”
The most shameless salespeople are not the best ones. It is often the ones who are self-aware, and humble, and feel the discomfort of the awkward relationship that happens when one person is trying to sell something to someone else. @randfish #ConquerLocal" quote="The most shameless salespeople are not the best ones. It is often the ones who are self-aware, and humble, and feel the discomfort of the awkward relationship that happens when one person is trying to sell something to someone else. @randfish #ConquerLocal
Your prospects need your help to solve their business problems. But you have to understand them first to be able to do so.
Taking the time to listen to your prospects needs, struggles, and aspirations, then propose solutions to those specific needs—that’s the long-term approach. It’s an approach that positions you as the trusted expert—an advisor or consultant to your prospects.
4. Reject the Silicon Valley Growth-Hack Mythology
There are books, articles, and numerous references to growth hacks that originate from a silicon valley style ‘hockey stick’ growth. A growth hack is essentially hacking (or experimenting) with different ways to market or advertise to lower the cost of acquisition over time.
The reality for a lot of businesses is that chasing growth hacks may actually mean you never find what truly works for your business or your advertising needs. A business’s advertising needs change over time, and you can spend four years perfecting a growth hack that only works for four months, as Rand mentions on the podcast.
“You find the one growth hack, and suddenly your user acquisition funnel will widen and growth will follow. Numbers go crazy and up to the right. Not only is that mythology incorrect for most companies, in fact, even some of the most famous growth hacks didn’t work in the way we think they did.”
For example, Rand’s book describes a moment when Moz acquired 5000 customers in a matter of hours and although this growth strategy worked in some ways, Rand has admitted that it may not have been the perfect formula. Growth hack? Yes. The right strategy? Maybe not.
“A hack-finding culture around marketing can take a lot of the wind out of the sails of an organization.”
A hack-finding culture around marketing can take a lot of the wind out of the sails of an organization. @randfish #ConquerLocal" quote="A hack-finding culture around marketing can take a lot of the wind out of the sails of an organization. @randfish #ConquerLocal"
There is a hack-finding culture in the start-up world, but not all startups should be chasing the hack. Businesses should focus building the right flywheel for their growth and keep fine-tuning it for LONG-TERM sustained growth, not just a short hack for success.
5. Amazon Won’t Eat Up Your Local Business Clients
Amazon is eating the world right now.
In fact, four out of every $10 spent online in the U.S. is with Amazon. This is certainly affecting local businesses, but it may not be the businesses you think:
“It is not the case that small local businesses are dying; it is very much the case that local-centric national and regional chains are struggling, and many of them are closing.”
It is not the case that small local businesses are dying; it is very much the case that local-centric national and regional chains are struggling, and many of them are closing. @randfish #ConquerLocal" quote="It is not the case that small local businesses are dying; it is very much the case that local-centric national and regional chains are struggling, and many of them are closing. @randfish #ConquerLocal
What Amazon is actually doing is eating the lunch of all those chains that already destroyed so many local businesses in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“When you see the death of the local business, look at: Sears, Macy’s, Toys ‘R’ Us. Those are the kind of local businesses that are really struggling. I don’t see, in the macroeconomic data, the dog groomer, the car repair shop, the yoga studio [as struggling], those seem to be doing just fine.”
“The ability to target businesses in a ‘one size fits all format’ fails really fast.”
6. Building a Startup? Build Your Personal Brand as Well
In order to scale a company brand, you should focus on the personal brand that you sell as well.
Rand became a master at building his personal brand, and it is no surprise that he is/was known as the ‘Wizard of Moz’. Rand Fishkin is still synonymous with the brand of Moz, and even as he moves on to a new chapter with SparkToro, his personal brand as an SEO thought-leader remains.
Rand wasn’t always a thought-leader and SEO expert though,
“Very early in my career, I struggled immensely with SEO. I was a web designer, I was building websites for local small businesses here in the Seattle region. We were subcontracting SEO and then we couldn’t afford to pay our subcontractors - we were literally on the edge of bankruptcy. So I had to learn the practice myself and do it for our clients.”
“Learning SEO was so painful and so hard that I started my own website (SEOMoz) where I recorded my struggles, failures, and attempts so that I could basically share what I was learning and basically help other people.That desire to help people, I think, resonated.”
“If I can help other people [with SEO] I bet I can help myself as well. So, my best advice is to find people who are experiencing pain - and to help them with it.”
This theme that Rand continuously touches upon, helping others, is a great place to start with your brand-building. In fact, it’s a way to combat the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many feel when putting themselves out there on social media.
Recommended Reading: The Cosmic Two By Four that Launched Johanna Voss’s Consulting Career
When you think of being active online (via videos or blog posts or podcasts) as a service rather than as promotional work, your mindset can change entirely. Plus, things can start to take off:
“When you help one person, and you help them publicly (Twitter, Email, LinkedIn, Blog Post, etc) that can be amplified or seen by more people than ever before. When things are TRULY helpful, they tend to resonate.”
When you help one person, and you help them publicly (Twitter, Email, LinkedIn, Blog Post, etc) that can be amplified or seen by more people than ever before. When things are TRULY helpful, they tend to resonate.” @randfish #ConquerLocal" quote="When you help one person, and you help them publicly (Twitter, Email, LinkedIn, Blog Post, etc) that can be amplified or seen by more people than ever before. When things are TRULY helpful, they tend to resonate. @randfish #ConquerLocal
This advice from Rand reflects the need-based selling model that we at Vendasta recommend. We don’t advocate pushing products but rather becoming a marketing consultant. The key is to become the resource on all things digital marketing that your prospects and clients come to rely upon.
As you build your brand and reputation, people will come to you for help, rather than the other way around.
Want to learn more about Rand’s transition from Moz to SparkToro and his advice for burgeoning entrepreneurs? Tune in to the Conquer Local podcast to hear straight from Rand Fishkin himself!