Before Moz.com, Rand Fishkin was just a college dropout, and his only previous work experience was working for nine months at The Wizards of the Coast game center where people played magic and Pokemon.
In 1999, he paid for college with his job which earned him $4.75 an hour. But he dropped out of college to work at his mother’s small business marketing firm as a web designer.
In the early noughties, there were a bunch of different companies using the Moz convention, such as Mozilla, DMOZ, MapMoz, and ChefMoz. They all had the same ethos of transparency and the open sharing of information. And Rand wanted to do the same for SEO.
He’d had such a frustrating time learning and doing SEO that he wanted to stop that from happening to other people with the open source of SEO. SEOmoz was born.
SEOmoz became a popular blog and consulting agency, before becoming the software company we recognize it as today, simply called Moz. But the success which Rand had enjoyed hasn’t been without its hiccups, and he’s been open enough to talk about those experiences.
Evolution Of Moz
In his mother’s business, he was doing the web design while she dealt with the finances and clients. And part of his web design work involved using SEO, and his blog was started to document and share what he learned.
When Rand started SEOmoz in 2004, he stood out because he openly shared his knowledge. When he tried something new to get a client a higher ranking, and it worked, he would blog about what he did so other people can try it as well.
At the time, it was unusual as a lot of the SEO consultants assumed what they had was secret knowledge which no-one else had, and protected it.
SEOmoz was the first place to open it up, and as a result, people in the SEO community were not happy. But at the same time, others were thrilled to be finding out this information and that led to a lot of visibility early on.
It took about two to three years before he could consider the website influential. And in that time he had failures and successes before finding a formula which worked for him in bringing more attention and awareness.
It was in 2007 people really knew what SEOmoz was.
When they made some tools for themselves to make things easier, they decided to make them available publically. People paid a subscription via PayPal, as it was the only way they could afford the bandwidth to support the people who may use the software.
Six months later, and the tools were making up half of their revenue.
When their consulting business was just becoming successful, their software was making them just as much money in a short amount of time. And that is when he realized that they were on to something.
SEOmoz then moved entirely to software over the following year.
Between 2001 and 2005, he and his mother were in debt by half a million dollars. She was taking home no paycheck and he was making $800 a month. It was so little that his girlfriend of the time (and now wife) Geraldine was paying all of the bills.
As Moz became more prominent, they began to repay the debt in 2006, and by the June of 2007, they had made their final payment. But he is still left with a terrible credit rating.
Last year, Moz made $42 million in revenue but had $11 million debt. With a debt of that size, he has noticed a change in the way banks treat the debt. He is now a customer, rather than someone they’ll send the loan sharks after.
Becoming A Software Company
When running Moz in the early years, he just went from day to day, figuring out how to solve problems. Or if there was enough cash, he’d hire someone to do it.
In fact, Rand even taught himself SEO in order to avoid sub-contracting out the jobs as part of his web design. The blog posts he wrote about that attracted the attention and were his marketing engine.
The consulting side of the business had been a long learning curve, and with the software side, they simply just fell into it by chance. And all of the software which Moz has created is the work of engineers they’ve hired to make it.
Rand’s PayPal account simply filled up off the back of creating software to make their own lives a little easier. As that happened and the business focus altered, it took years for him to become savvy about all of the things a SaaS company has to do.
Such things include getting your head around metrics like churn rate, which is the percentage of people who unsubscribe from your service.
If you’re interested in understanding SaaS metrics, then take a look at Nathan Latka’s SaaS Benchmarks Google Spreadsheet. It documents over 80 software companies with all their transparent metrics, of which Moz is included.
At the software company, Rand remained at the helm, replacing his mother in 2006 who had been CEO and President since 1981.
The Perils Of Software
SEOmoz was rebranded Moz.com in 2013 based on a theory Rand had at the time, which he since admits to being wrong, which is that SEO would largely go away as a practice. Instead, he thought it would merge with other digital marketing practices.
It was then that they launched Moz Analytics which despite having lots of different functions, did poorly as it wasn’t what Moz’s customers wanted.
Before this, they had enjoyed 100% growth every year for the previous seven years. Its failure to do well harmed with growth, and it took around two years from which to recover from.
The product had a great launch, with nearly 90,000 signs ups. And in the first month, 5,000 had given them their credit card details. But they didn’t stick around as they found that the product was no good.
Rand hadn’t listened to advice that software is developed iteratively to build up software in small parts. It’s no longer made in a secret basement for two years, as that way you can’t get feedback from the people who use it.
If you still want a big marketing launch, then you wait until all those components are built up.
On The Rough Road
Back in the early years, the fact that Rand wasn’t ‘bringing home the bacon’ was a great cause of stress and frustration. He felt the pressure of being the man who was socially expected to be the provider instead of his partner.
And then in 2012, his wife Geraldine was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Thankfully, it didn’t end up being a glioblastoma tumor, but instead a far less aggressive type which was incredibly slow growing.
This was after she had been let go from her job at Cranium when Hasbro purchased the gaming company. But she then set up a travel blog The Everywhereist and is due to release a book in May 2017 chronicling her journey.
After the bad success of Moz Analytics, Rand also then ended up stepping down as CEO in 2014 after suffering from a bout of depression.
In the summer of 2016, Moz was also in a position where it had to let some of their staff go, and for Rand, this resulted in the loss of some good friends.
Being a venture-backed company, Moz’s goal is to peruse growth in risky ways. The cost of its fast growth was that they needed to do it with someone else’s money and that gamble has to pay off for everyone involved.
And because of the success Moz had enjoyed, they’d never had to have any staff layoffs in the past. Perhaps wrongly, they painted a picture to the people working for Moz which was different from the reality.
So, despite all of the success, and the $42 million dollar revenue Moz enjoyed last year, the business is still prone to rough periods. Everyone has successes and failures, and what lies behind the curtain of big successful businesses is often different from you may expect.
Rand and Geraldine still rent an apartment, own a 2003 Kia, and he still walks to work.
You can find out more about company building by reading Rand’s personal blog at Moz. And to find out more SEO, check out the Moz blog as well as their Learning area which is full of useful resources to help you learn more.
Also, check out Rand’s weekly Whiteboard Friday posts which are fun, informative, and will help you get your head around aspects of SEO.
And obviously, discover the SEO tools that Moz has to offer which will help you to be found and drive customers to your website.