Note: This AMA is closed for new questions, but you can check out the existing conversations below.
In this AMA, we had Rand Fishkin — the co-founder and CEO of SparkToro and (prev.) Moz — share his thoughtful insights on marketing a product right, the beauty of the early days of hustle, and what he is doing differently at his second venture. Dive in!
AMA Index (Rand’s brain pickings)
— Where should you start marketing a new product (hint: think in flywheels)
— On starting up again: “The low lows aren’t there, but neither are the high highs.”
— Thoughts on founder as a first marketer; “Frustratingly, the best marketing is often serendipitous, inconsistent in rewards, and hard to measure.”
— Why the industry/product shouldn’t necessarily dictate your choice of channels
— "Great product ≠ success. And terrible products ≠ failure. It’s more complicated.”
— How to decide on building an acquisition water hole and introducing a product-led approach in a services-heavy market
— Encouraging individuals to be candid and vulnerable
— What to look for as you staff content marketing roles
— Crafting a content-marketing engine; don’t assume you can build one quickly
— Advantages of being non-VC backed; “You can make incremental (instead of only exponential) progress and reap the rewards.”
— Why Rand raised funds — albeit, in an unconventional way — with SparkToro
Further reading/listening/pondering from the interwebz /
(Other insightful excerpts drawn from blog posts, interviews, and conversations)
On why product-market fit is a broken concept:
Founders and product builders ignore many of the real inputs that go into gaining market traction, selling their product, or earning users, especially pricing, positioning, and brand. It’s often the case that investments in these tactics—modifying price points, positioning your product’s solution differently or to a different market, and/or earning more brand recognition, likability, and trust—will have huge impacts on growth. But magical belief in a “product-market fit inflection point” shifts all the weight onto the product itself, and limits creative ideas around what might solve the company’s issues.
The real question should be: is there any value in thinking about product-market fit as a true or false statement? Does the startup world glean greater survival rates or make better products or prioritize their team’s time better by thinking about this problem as a binary? Should we listen to firms like Andreesen Horowitz (1) or startup marketers like Brian Tod (2) or influential investment partners (3) simply because they’ve watched, advised, or invested in lots of companies who’ve failed at this (and a few who haven’t)?
To me, it’s a clear no. I cannot see a benefit or value-add to product development, gathering of customer feedback, marketing, or any aspect of the company’s strategy or its tactics. The only way fit-vs.-no-fit is helpful is in its simplicity. And by now, I should know better… We should know better than to trust simple > complex when it comes to building and marketing things to people.
Source: Product-Market Fit is a Broken Concept. There’s a Better Way.
On the two biggest things Rand wishes he’d learned earlier as a leader:
I think one of the biggest things that I failed to understand, it’s two things. I think one of them is the economic and power structure that comes with financing of different kinds for a business. Initially, I raised some debt with Moz and then, some venture capital and then a whole lot more venture capital and I could carry it for some extraordinary, truly wonderful people, some of the best people in that field. I don’t think I have a good understanding of just how that structure works and who it’s empowering, and who is helping, and how they contribute to the world.
I think the second thing is and I think this is probably true for a lot of people who like me, started a business in their early 20s, which is that I don’t think I had a strong understanding — a solid understanding — of myself and what I love and what I like to do and how I want to contribute to the world and how I really didn’t. The mash up of those two things created a lot of the strife and stress and when those things were most aligned or when I was most ignorant of them and paying no attention to them — things went very well. That’s a challenge I think that a lot of founders, especially over the last 20 years or so, as venture capital has been put forward as not just the best, but almost the only way to build a company in the tech world. Either you are raising or you want to raise or you’re trying to do something that you think will interest investors so that you can raise and the number of companies and entrepreneurs who think, “I like to do this in a different way. I want to raise money in this other way. I’d like to think about alternatives,” is infinitesimally small and that’s frustrating.
Source: Know Your Team’s Interview with Rand Fiskin
On founders’ baggage:
The conventional wisdom that you should bolster your weaknesses with great hires who can give you that strength isn’t totally wrong, but every time this advice is passed on, it should contain these three caveats:
- Lacking deep knowledge and understanding of an area means that you are less likely to have connections in that field, less likely to identify right versus wrong hires in that field, and less likely to successfully recruit and convince great talent to join. You might not even “realize which knowledge you lack (unknown unknowns, amirite?).”
- A founder’s weaknesses are often baked into the company’s DNA and create a figurative kind of debt (nonideal practices or systems) that must be addressed before progress can be made. If you lack engineering skills, this often manifests as technical debt that must be remedied through re-architecting and rebuilding core systems before adding features or enabling scalability. If you lack people management skills, it’s likely organizational debt that requires months of digging into interpersonal and intra-team conflicts, letting go of some staff, rehiring, and creating processes for engagement and teamwork that build trust.
- When you rely on someone (or several someones) to bolster a weakness, their departure from the organization creates risk that the wound will reopen. This risk is greater in smaller and less-experienced teams where the senior leader is often the glue keeping things together with their presence, and lessens as organizations grow (so long as that leader has created consistent quality through redundancy of great people and great processes).
Source: (Rand’s insightful, deeply personal book) — Lost and Founder, Chapter 5: Startups Carry Their Founders’ Baggage
On the long-haul demands of doing content right:
I started blogging in 2003 about SEO. It wasn’t really until 2005 or 2006 – 100’s of blog posts in – that I started getting a feel for what resonated with the audience, what was actually useful, what made sense to publish (and not). If you go back, you can still see in the archives those early, early days of SEOMoz, you’ll see that those posts are not particularly great or useful, they’re not all that readable, the writing isn’t terrific, the topics and headlines aren’t great, but then it slowly, slowly, slowly gets better.
I think that’s a part of why so many content marketing campaigns fail is that a company says, “Okay. Now we’re going to invest in content marketing,” and expect that 6 months in they’re going to have ROI. Nope, that’s crazy! You know, I don’t expect to have ROI day 1 with any sort of inbound or organic marketing practice. Those are things that you build up slowly over a long period of time. You start to grow a brand, you start to get good at empathizing with your audience and figuring out what they want, publishing good stuff, getting better as a writer and publisher, getting better as a promoter of that content, building up a network that will help you grow out that content. It’s a flywheel, and it’s very hard to get it started, and once it gets turning, it’s relying on inertia to keep moving faster and faster.
Source: Startups.com’s Interview with Rand Fishkin
Stay in touch:
You can follow Rand to stay updated with his discoveries and insights:
- Rand on Twitter
- Rand on LinkedIn