Rand Fishkin (@randfish) has been doing something a lot of founders are afraid to do: He's blogging about the coronavirus pandemic directly from his company website, for all his customers to see. And it's working! Not is he providing useful advice for founders and marketers, but he's also setting an example for how others can do this same. In this episode Rand and I sat down to discuss the changing nature of the online conversation around COVID-19, how founders and businesses can communicate effectively and empathetically in this environment, and the most important things to get right when preparing for the looming recession.
What’s up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How did they make decisions, both in their companies and in their personal lives? What exactly makes their businesses tick? The goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from the examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses.
In today’s episode, I sat down with Rand Fishkin, the CEO of SparkToro, who is perhaps best known as the founder of Moz, and he’s one of the world’s foremost experts at searches and optimization.
Rand and I are also good friends in real life, so we decided to sit down for a casual chat and just talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives, how we’re dealing with this COVID-19 pandemic and making business decisions as a result of it.
Also how he’s grown his company, SparkToro, in the last two years since he was on the podcast. I hope you enjoy the episode.
How’s life otherwise? How are you personally?
Like everyone else, some days are good, some days are really emotionally hard and personally, relatively unaffected. Geraldine and I both work from home, as you know, and we have a relatively sizable house so I can be out here in the shed and she’s in the house and we’re not sort of stepping all over each other like my friends in New York apartments right now are kind of nightmare situations.
Bay area, too, I’m sure. We’re very social. We have a lot of friends so I think we’re missing out on a lot of going out and seeing people and having people over. We don’t have kids, so we don’t, we aren’t impacted in the way that a ton of parents are right now.
Yeah. We both have careers that are, I don’t want to say unaffected, but have a lighter effect from a broader, kind of secondary, tertiary impacts of the economic market rather than directly impacted by healthcare things or physical things. Even, I do a ton of conferences and events, right.
I canceled a tremendous amount of travel. Thankfully, with one exception, everything was refundable. The net-net of that is basically SparkToro saving a bunch of money on me and probably reaching more people through a lot of online events. Because I think I’ve been asked to do two or three video events every week for the next six weeks.
So that’s been kind of nice, but I think Geraldine and I are both very empathetic people. We have a lot of friends all over the world and so we kind of experienced the wave of, “I should read the news and I should pay attention to my social networks and see what my friends are up to. Oh my God, everything’s so horrible and so overwhelming and so many people who are being hurt by this. How can I help? Let me do a million things and donate to charities and support this person’s efforts and go amplify this and reach out to this person and do a call with them.”
Then, “Oh my God, I feel overwhelmed by all of that and I just need to crawl under a rock and play video games and watch TV for a day.” Then, the cycle begins again.
It’s pretty stunning how such a global crisis can affect all of us so differently. I’ve had kind of the same experience, where personally I’ve been just not nearly as affected as so many other people. I mean, I’ve got an online job.
I already worked from home. I’m not worried about my job security, I’m not worried about – I just got a lot of things I’m mostly worried about like my family and keeping them safe. But business wise and personally, it’s just not affecting me that much.
A lot of my energy is spent outwardly on other people, but then there’s still this weird psychological effect, where just knowing what’s going on in the world still can tire you out and exhaust you and affect you psychologically and emotionally.
I don’t think there’s any way that a rational, kind, empathetic person can read the news or follow their friends’ and family’s stories and be unaffected. It doesn’t matter how resilient you are, you will understand the depth and breadth of both the crisis itself and the economic challenges.
Yesterday, I was watching the video of the trenches, the mass graves that they’re digging in New York. Seeing coffin after coffin loaded into these pits that are dug out of the earth and just --
I don’t know. That is an overwhelming experience. It’s like reliving a plague from hundreds of years ago.
It’s unreal. It’s almost unimaginable. It’s crazy because this happened so fast. Four months ago, this was not on anybody’s radar. Now, the entirety of society has shifted. It’s basically the only thing that matters anymore.
I think in the United States in particular, the tragedy is just how preventable it was compared to a lot of places. We have a lot of friends and family in Italy and I think for Italians it hit them so early and so hard and it was so poorly understood.
There was bad information. Various people can debate whether some of that was intentionally misleading or just ignorance. Italy, I don’t think they had much of a choice and probably a lot of Europe, as well, but the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, a lot of other places did have that option of taking it seriously and responding thoughtfully.
We had time, we had data, we had information, and we ignored a lot of it. There’s a lot of this weird denial going on. We see things on the news and it’s not happening here, so it can’t happen here. I also canceled a ton of travel. Obviously, we were going to be in Italy. I did go to Mexico a week before everything shut down.
It was so interesting talking to people there about what’s going on because they have this huge concert. This is right after they canceled South by Southwest. Then, there are quotes from the people at the concert that are insane. They’re like, “This is a serious situation and we need to be careful, but at the same time, you got to have fun.”
I was just thinking, “This is the one time in probably your entire lifespan where that is not true. You don’t have to go to this giant concert right now. Literally every other year, it’s fine. This is not the right time.” There’s this resistance to changing.
I talked to some friends as well, who were saying, “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue in the United States. We have common sense, we know not to go around sick people.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Then, in Mexico I heard the same thing. “Oh, in Mexico, we’re very hygienic people. We know how to stay clean,”
The number of excuses and rationalizations for not taking this thing seriously. It’s almost exactly like a monster movie or a horror movie or a disaster movie, where you know what’s coming because that’s what the movie is about, but all the characters are oblivious and they’re doing all the wrong things and apparently that’s realistic. That’s what happens in real life too.
Rand Fishkin: [00:06:48} Oh God, I hate those movies. I hate watching that, where granted, there’s something that could kill us at any time. You have the gun, but why don’t you go down that way and I’ll go this way?
It sets up the plot, but it always seems so unrealistic until it happens in real life and you’re like, “Oh, I guess this is exactly what people do.”
Yeah, pretty wild. I don’t know how close to the numbers you are, but part of my curiosity around strike more broadly is whether the sectors that are experiencing increased demand right now are making up for some of the sectors that are experiencing loss demand, especially online.
Because my sense is so much of what’s happened, in-person commerce has gone away entirely. We don’t really have the option other than maybe take-out or grocery and pharmacy. Everything else has to be done via the web.
I have this curiosity around whether, “Yeah, Stripe has maybe seen some sectors that have suffered, but there’s so much more online activity that overall business is up.” This is what I heard from some of the analysis from folks like HubSpot and SimilarWeb, I’m trying to remember who else. The New York Times was looking at the shift to online activity.
I have a lot of curiosity around that because it seems very plausible to me that even if the economy overall takes a 25% hit, 30% hit, which is just massive, that’s Great Depression levels or worse, that so much activity will shift online. Folks who would have been and are online providers will actually see similar levels of business or increasing, depending on what you’re offering.
Yeah. We know the answers to this and we know it even on a country by country level. I will find out what I’m allowed to share and get back to you and hopefully maybe share some stuff in public, too, because I think it’s fascinating.
I would love to see that. I think that folks who are aggregating data and sharing that out right now, that is hugely valuable. I know the team from ProfitWell, which analyzes and is connected to a lot of Stripe accounts and so, they aggregate data from you folks.
I’m not sure if they do other payment providers as well, but they’ve been sharing some of their stuff. I got their email newsletter last week and that looked really interesting. We’d love to hear what you’re seeing. If you share that on Indie Hackers or your Twitter account, that’d be awesome.
This is actually what I really want to talk to you about today, which is communicating while we’re in this time of crisis, about the crisis itself. You’ve been doing something that I think a lot of people are afraid to do, which is you’re blogging very directly about the Coronavirus on your company blog. I think a lot of people are afraid to do it because quite frankly, it’s hard to do it right whereas, you are prolific.
Like I said earlier, you’ve been blogging every single week. Previous to this, I saw a new SparkToro blog post every month or two, but you’ve been going at it. Tell me about that. Why are you blogging so much about it and how are you approaching it?
Geraldine, my wife, says that that keeping busy right now is like a coping mechanism for me. I think that’s probably true. I think there’s also an aspect of feeling overwhelmed by the pain and hardship that other people are experiencing and getting asked questions via my social channels, via email, on calls, all that stuff and wanting to spread whatever knowledge I have or whatever opinions I’ve got in ways that can be helpful.
There’s people in need, I have something that can help, but it’s marketing advice, which is admittedly not quite the same as going to the hospital and saving lives, but if it can help anybody, I feel an obligation to do that.
I think that’s the right thing for businesses, organizations, individuals of all kinds to be doing. I was on a webinar type thing yesterday or a big group Zoom Hangout for startups and I was asked the question, “Should I feel ashamed or embarrassed to do marketing right now? Is now the right time to cut it off and bring it back later when the world isn’t in crisis?”
Because it feels really odd to be like, “Are you or your business struggling right now? My law firm can help.”
I get it. That feels awkward. I think people are right to have some hesitancy around that and I think the only way to do it correctly is to have empathy both for your customers and audience and also an ability to read the broader situation and then apply that thoughtfully with your words and wording and positioning.
I think there’s probably people who don’t know how to do it right, who just feel like, “I don’t trust myself to be able to do that, so I’m going to pull back entirely.” Honestly, that’s okay. I think that’s fine and you can leave it up to other people in your team, consultants, an agency, or folks who can help you with that.
You can run it by people before you publish. If your business can sustain it, you can hit pause on a lot of this stuff, but for me, I think I am reasonably good at being able to read a room and be thoughtful to folks.
So far, what I’ve put out there has been received very thankfully and non-promotionally and so that’s the way I want to lead. I think that’s one great way to avoid the problem of being seen as exploitative or overly promotional is to position whatever you’re doing as, “I am not going to personally or directly benefit from this, but here is this work that I believe will help someone.”
I think you’ve done such a good job blending what you do as a marketer and what SparkToro offers with the messaging that you put out because you’re not just like, “Here’s a helpful thing for Coronavirus.
Here’s how you can get tested. Here’s how you can protect your family.” You’re specifying, “Here’s how you, as a business, can take part in this conversation effectively.”
I don’t think now is a time to, everyone become professional epidemiologist or amateur epidemiologists and go give advice about numbers and stuff. I can’t remember the tweets I saw a few weeks ago that were like, “If I see you tweeting about coronavirus numbers and you’re a tacky [inaudible] living in California, I know not to listen to you.”
My sense is if you have expertise and authority and experience in an area and that area can be helpful to people, that’s where to lean in. Not trying to become something that you’re not overnight.
I wonder how much of the principles you put into this have changed from now or from earlier before this pandemic to now because some of the things you’re talking about are being aware of what your audience wants, reading the room and being helpful. Is that something that you’re thinking about only now?
Is that something that you’re always thinking about when you’re blogging and marketing or do you sort of shift the ratio?
I would say that I personally have almost always been in that pocket, but my advice has not always been that way because historically, I’ve recognized that you can be more sales focused, more directly selling, promoting and positioning your products that can do very well.
Even though that’s not the way I like to do marketing, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work or it didn’t work. I think what’s interesting about this crisis we’re going through is that if this is to help people and then rely on the branding that you build with them to mean that they’ll, in the future, think highly of you, check you out, and want to work with you.
On this other side, it’s go direct sell the thing that you’re offering to people, it’s paid, and you’re shameless about it. Both approaches have worked. In most sectors, both approaches can and have worked for different people. They resonate with different audiences differently, but both work. Now, this sales side is working a lot less.
It’s like the window shifted over from one side to the other and it’s going to cut off the very salesy side and now that just seems super taboo and tone deaf.
I think less effective also because right now people are so budget conscious. There was really good data from HubSpot’s email marketing. So Dharmesh had tweeted about it, I saw it maybe yesterday, the day before, but basically HubSpot was analyzing their 70,000 customers looking at the emails that were effective for them and the ones that are direct sales outreach, which lots of people send those types of emails through HubSpot system, those were down a considerable amount, in terms of their effectiveness.
People were sending more of them and they were working less and less effectively over the last six weeks. Conversely, marketing education, free content, essentially what you might want to call content marketing types of emails, those had higher open rates than they did six weeks ago and we’re consistently trending up and we’re driving more actions. You can see it in the numbers as well as feel it in the room.
Talk to me about your reading routine because when I’m reading your blog post, you’re constantly quoting these different reports from HubSpot and from SimilarWeb and you just seem to be on it.
You know all the numbers, you know all the stats, and you’re putting a lot of this information into what you’re putting out there. How often are you reading? What are you reading? How do you stay informed and learn what to share?
I have to admit, I am unhealthily addicted to reading content on the web. There’s no doubt about it. There’s that Star Trek Picard meme that comes up sometimes, every morning you wake up, damage report. You look around the ship and I’m very much in that world. I would say I probably consume no less than 40 or 50 articles a day.
Sometimes more than that, even on weekends. I’m the kind of person who hits refresh on the new Hacker News submissions.
You’re one of those, huh?
SparkToro Trending, which is like a little free tool that we built that tracks everything that web marketers talk about, I visit that six times a day. I’m subscribed to a bunch of email digests. I read Pocket all the time.
This is always. This isn’t just since the pandemic became a big thing?
I would say the volume since the pandemic started is probably up 3-4x for me, so maybe it was 5-10 articles a day that I’d read and now it’s 30 or 40.
Which aligns with some of the numbers you’ve sharing about how many more hours people are spending on the internet, how much more traffic media and news websites are getting. Everybody can’t stop reading.
I’m not alone, right? For sure. A different kind of world. The New York times piece I found fascinating in there. I think other people had identified this before I had thought of it, but desktop is way up for the first time in 10 years and mobile is down for the first time in 10 years.
Because we’re not going anywhere.
Because they’re not going anywhere and we all have to be on video all the time, so we’re on our laptops and our desktops, not our mobile.
I’m trying to get my mom to use her laptop more. She apparently has some huge bulky laptop and every time I talk to her, she’s on her phone. I’m like, “Mom, just call me on your laptop. It’ll be faster.”
She’s like, “I don’t want to move it.” There’re a few holdouts, but the rest of us are on our desktops. Another thing I’ve noticed in the way that you’re writing and communicating, I don’t know if this is different now than it was before, but you’re very personal.
I think there’s always going to have a divide between who you are as a founder and the message that your business puts out and for you, it seems like there is no divide. You’ve taken that blurry line and just erased it. Even your SparkToro Twitter account has no tweets.
It all comes from you, personally, Rand Fishkin. How do you think about communicating through your business and the line between that and who you are as a person?
I think that for a certain kind of audience, that very human, very personal touch resonates nicely. That is not, again, true for everyone and there are certain sectors and certain kinds of companies where I don’t think it’s worked well, but for me, for the audience that I want to build for the business that I want to build, it works extraordinarily well and I think it creates far more engagement of the right kind.
I think that a business tweeting, posting, sharing, putting out content when it is disconnected from an author, it feels corporate, which can mean professional and polished, but can also mean inauthentic, difficult to empathize with, inhuman.
Now, in particular, like we talked about earlier with this sort of empathy and read the room stuff, the tone has shifted worldwide and so that stuff looks like a very smart, strategic and tactical move, not necessarily that it always has been or that it’s the only way to go.
I don’t know how intentionally you’ve done it, but with Indie Hackers, the voice has always been one of, “This is just us.” There’s no big corporate umbrella organization. It’s like you and your brother. There you go. That’s, that’s what you get.
Even after we got acquired by a corporate. I think it’s particularly useful in any sort of business endeavor, where you need a connection with your audience and especially where there’s some education going on because people just feel a lot more comfortable learning from a human who is flawed and who struggles with things and he’s reasoning things out and can identify with them when they’re stuck.
You do a lot of education on the SparkToro blog. You’re educating people how to be better marketers, how to be better humans. It makes a lot of sense. I’ve seen this with other educators that are brought on the platform, too, to the people who talk the most about audience.
I have to ask you, how was it? In several scenarios, I acquired three companies while I was CEO of Moz and they acquired a couple more after I stepped down, one after I left, and have also observed, had a ton of friends whose companies were acquired and brought into businesses, and 99% of the time, the tone, the leadership, everything changes.
There was that big piece just this past week about Instagram’s acquisition by Facebook and how Zuckerberg sort of drove away the founders. I don’t know how completely accurate it was, but there was definitely a tone of truth that rang true for me. I’ve messed up plenty on this front.
How is it that Stripe was so, and continues to be, so hands off, so smart about keeping away from ruining this wonderful thing?
I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people who’ve been going through acquisitions, on the founder side, asking me for advice based on what happened with me. I’ve found that I’m unable to give advice because every situation is so different.
So much depends on the exact interplay between the two companies. I think in Stripe and Indie Hackers’ case, the fact that Indie Hackers exist, it’s such a smaller scale than Stripe, is actually really advantageous.
There isn’t as much of an incentive for Stripe to need to come in and meddle with things and change things because it’s going to move the numbers at Stripe significantly. If only Indie Hackers would do X, it’s sort of a less of a temptation to put your hand in the cookie jar and change things.
I think some of these underlying, lack of incentives, can really help you make wiser decisions. I think for Facebook, for example, Instagram was a potential existential threat. It was a massively successful company.
If you make an acquisition like that for a billion dollars, or however much it was, you want to start doing things, you want to start mucking around and if you could sort of justify doing it because you can tell a story about how it will make your business better if you do.
Whereas at Stripe, I think Indie Hackers is more aspirational. Indie Hackers could grow to become a thing that really helps Stripe, but it’s not quite there yet in terms of just size and material numbers-based impact. There’s less of that incentive.
Then, the second thing I’ll say is that Patrick Collison and the Stripe leadership team are just very smart people. They’re very thoughtful people. They’ve read all the same stories that you and I have read about horror stories of acquisitions and I think they also have had the discipline to avoid making those mistakes even when it feels like you might want to you.
This is one of the superpowers of running a company, is being able to learn from other people’s mistakes instead of just your own.
I don’t know why that is so difficult, why we all have to stumble through it. You would think that we would be able to internalize the mistakes that other people have made, the way we do in other situations.
We’re not touching hot stoves.
Right, I don’t have to screw up every recipe in order to learn to follow recipes. I don’t have to do a terrible job of building furniture before I read the Ikea instructions.
I don’t have to know that it’s going to be difficult for me to rewire my own electricity and thus hire a professional expert. Yet, somehow, once Moz got to a few million dollars in revenue, I was like, “I’m going to buy this company, I’m going to do this with it and I’m going to buy that company. I’m going to do this with it because I’m a genius.”
Maybe there’s something to do with being in charge and just like, “I must be a genius. I’m at the head of this ship. Look at how great has done so far.” That blinds us to it.
One thing I’ve seen with Indie Hackers, and honestly just trying to look into like SEO for Indie Hackers and noticing that outside of really specific things, founders actually don’t do a lot of searching for “how do I do this?” type stuff.
What they do is they ask around specific people or they just try and fail and I think from what I’ve seen on the forum and how people behave, I think people all believe that their company is special in some way. The variables don’t apply to their company. I think it’s hard for them to see commonalities.
They say, “I have this specific situation, well I’m bootstrapping, or I’m located in this country, or I’m in this industry,” and there’s so many variables. Whereas if you’re making a recipe, you have the same stove as everybody else, you have the same utensils as everybody else, and so you’re just like, “Copy, paste, map that onto this.”
Maybe that’s some of that going on, where people just don’t believe that other’s experiences apply to them.
I think you must be right. I think the other challenge, certainly some of the time and in my early years for sure, was the lack of examples. Now, I feel like, “there’s so many people sharing so many stories. If you’re not paying attention, it’s your loss.”
I don’t know if we’ve done a perfect job with that, but I’ve definitely tried to listen to a lot of folks. I think one of the best things we’ve done with SparkToro, for sure, it has been to hire consultants and agencies and not assume like, “Let’s hire and do that in house.”
No. I want someone who deals with people like us all the time and has seen a million things go wrong and right and have them tell us what to do. That feels so much smarter than trying to reinvent a wheel.
That does sound smart. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do with Indie Hackers is put a lot of stories out for people to learn from so that they can not have to stumble through these mistakes because even just a few years ago —.
The whole thing of Indie Hackers is basically, “Here is a database. A massive list of people who are like you experiencing your same problems and a community where you can go and if anecdotes are the way that you learn and internalize, it’s magical.
That’s what I thought when starting it. Now, I’m more convinced that the purpose of Indie Hackers is you’re going to go out and make all those mistakes without reading anything and then once you’ve made those mistakes, you’ll show up at Indie Hackers and be like, “I need to read some of this stuff because I messed up not reading it earlier.”
You can still save you a lot of future pain because you only have to have that one moment of realization to come over.
Let’s talk about your story with SparkToro and add it to the database. The last time you were on the show was two years ago. April 2018. Back then, you were just getting started. Remind us what SparkToro is and why you started it.
Sure, it’s a market research and audience intelligence tool. It’s software as a service, so it’s very familiar to your audience and the Indie Hacker crew. Like most Indie Hacker businesses, it is not institutionally funded.
We did raise money, but in a very unique way. Just a couple months, actually, after you and I chatted. In June of 2018, we closed around 1.3 million. We hope it’ll be our first and only ever round. It’s from Angel Investors, who put money into an LLC that pays them back through profits.
If you’re listening to podcasts, that was me opening my mouth wide and surprise. I know. Profits, madness, sounds crazy in the startup world. For us, we knew we wanted to build a long term profitable business that could essentially get to profitability as quickly as possible and then exist for a very long time and pay out dividends and not be forced into a growth at all costs, or if we only grow 10 or 50x, that’s not nearly enough.
It has to be 100 or 500 or 1,000 in order to make our investors money. I think even though after leaving Moz, I certainly could’ve gone the venture path again, I raised about $30 million with that business and built up a reasonably successful company there, maybe what a venture capitalist might consider a base hit, I think to use their terminology, but with SparkToro, we did not want to do that.
I’m not a big fan of the venture ecosystem for a ton of reasons and I won’t get a ton into that. Basic story, after you and I last chatted, so we raised that round, we spent the next about year building our product.
We kept the team, just Casey and myself, we used a few contractors for a couple of things, mostly on the visual design, art, UI, UX side. We launched an alpha-y version for just a small number of people, including our investors in probably about a year ago, around April of 2019.
Worked on improving that, did two rounds of beta over the summer and then in December we basically did one more big redesign of the whole system after we’d gotten a lot of beta feedback. We did betas with about 500 people total, maybe 400, and then we’ve been doing early access launch in February and March.
We were just about to launch when Coronavirus hit. Now we’ve been pulling back and trying to read the room, figure out whether and when we should go forward. As of right now, the plan is to launch in a couple of weeks here.
It’s funny how often it’s said that to be a founder, you need to be nimble and you need to be able to react. but I’ve found it’s actually pretty rare that something happens that makes you have to change all your plans.
There’s a global pandemic or a competitor releases a crazy product, it’s possible to go five or six years without ever having that happen. Has it been easy for you to delay things or change up your plans? How much thinking has gone into that?
I would say it has actually been very easy. One of the things that’s wonderful about having a very small organization, just two of us and we have, I would say we have overarching pressure from investors and customers and a large community of marketers that pays attention to me and what I do, that has not seeped into our day to day operations.
Casey and I are very independent. Even in normal times we’d get together maybe once every two or three weeks in person, go through our task lists, and it was often the case that we could go two weeks without even having a single conversation.
Maybe a few emails back and forth, but we are extremely independent operators. We put our heads down and go do our work that we know is going to contribute and that’s great. It’s like, “Rand build up our email list for early access, talk to all the beta testers, get all the feedback, put it all to the doc. Blah blah blah. Casey will build all this stuff.”
Super independent. A lot of people don’t know this, but you work from a shed in your backyard.
That is what you’re looking at right now.
Oh, this is the shed?
This is the shed.
Oh, this is incredibly fancy.
Yeah, there you go. A little airport private action there.
Wow. It’s got a bookshelf behind them and then a nice seat and it looks like did inside of a house.
It’s rough in the summer because the shed gets very hot, but in the winter, I have this nice space heater. We’ve been, like I said, largely unaffected by this, but we did recognize that trying to launch in the midst of the conversation being about anything but market research tools right now was not going to go well for us.
We could actually see that in our early access data. Courtland, I think we did one early access invite to a couple thousand people in late February and that cohort performed extraordinarily well for us. The numbers coming out of that were nuts.
I sent an investor update email that was like, “I think you have made a very good choice putting money into SparkToro,” because we are as of pre-launch one year ahead of our projections. That was pretty exciting. The next early access email we sent, which was two weeks later, now middle of March, that performed about a quarter as well.
That’s been the trend with our last few cohorts. We’ve been giving people early access anyway, but seeing that cancellation rates are much higher, conversion rates are much lower, which is okay. We’re going to be fine.
Our goal is, “We know we need to get this thing out there in the market and give people access to the tool and eventually when they need us they’ll come to us, so let’s be a little more generous with free access. Let’s be a little more generous with our content and how we’re helping and let’s worry a little bit less about our revenue.”
We still have about almost half of our investment dollars still left so we can power through the next 12-18 months. No problem.
I have like a million questions I want to ask you. The first being, it’s hard to launch obviously in any sort of environment, where there isn’t room for excitement.
It’s hard to be excited now. With Indie Hackers, we did a thing at the beginning of the year where we started counting how many Indie hackers have gotten started this year, and then we like tweeting about it and being excited like, “It’s 5,000 and 6,000,” and, I don’t want to say anything that makes me seem super excited when all the other news, every other tweet in my timeline is negative.
What’s your plan for how you’re going to go through with this launch if the mood out there is still so somber?
I think the right way to play that is to express the appropriate level of excitement, as in, “My excitement is still high around the product that we already have built and the launch of it, but it is totally dampened to recognize this really challenging environment that we’re in.”
I think the way to play that for us is to have lowered expectations around how much amplification and sharing we will get to be less, I want to say, demanding of our audiences, of the people that we ask to help to promote it, of people who might do case studies.
I think it’s still fine to ask, “Courtland, did you want to check out an account with SparkToro? If you have some bandwidth to write about it, awesome. If not, no worries. Hope you’re staying safe and well,” as opposed to like, “Hey man, I really need your help. We’re doing our launch this week.” It’s not two different messages, but it’s two different styles.
Someone had commented on LinkedIn and they were like, “I feel like we’re at a funeral. Like we are all attending someone’s funeral because literally so many hundreds of thousands of people have died,” and I like that analogy a lot.
Not just because I thought it appropriately captured the sobriety of tone that we’re seeking, but also because a funeral is a place where if we go, when we go, we don’t exclusively talk about the person who has passed. The death itself is not the only topic of conversation. We ask how each other are doing.
We talk about food, we talk about our hobbies, we talk about our work, we talk about our friends, we talk about our loved ones and families. We talk about adorable things that kids are doing. We might talk about a museum we went to and that’s all fine. It’s just that the tone is a little different.
It’s not as gleeful. It’s not as bright, meaning in the light source site kind of way and I think that’s right. That’s exactly how I would say we’re planning to approach the launch. We know we’re having a conversation during a funeral. So we’re going to take the temperature and the tone, but we’re not going to not have the conversation at all.
That’s such an insightful analogy and I love your point about lowering your expectations, having less demands that you put on other people, which I think is crucial because if you go into this with the same expectations you’ve always had, that’s the mindset I think that drives you to make gaffes and mistakes and to feel bad.
I think you just have to understand if we’re going into recession, you’ll probably make less money than you would have otherwise and that’s okay. If we’re dealing with a global crisis, you can’t be as excited and expect as many shares as you otherwise could get and that’s fine. Just lower your expectations.
It’s still okay. Make sure the financials work out, but other than that, you’re probably going to make bad decisions if you think everything’s going to be the same as it was before.
Absolutely and I think that there’s really good ways to do marketing right now that’s still helpful to other people. I have agreed to a ludicrous number of webinars and interviews and all these kinds of things.
One of the things that I’ve talked to a lot of the webinars that have invited me, a lot of the events that have turned into webinars, is I just say, “Instead of travel costs or offering me an honorarium, just donate. Can you send that money to give directly?” It’s kind of cool.
I think we’ve already tallied up $1,500 so far and have another $500 or so coming from this thing that I’m going to do with Will Reynolds in a few weeks and more after that. That’s another way, “We’re going to do this announcement, we’re going to do this launch and, also, with some of our revenue, some of the attention that we get, some of the community that we’re building, we will help people who are in need.”
Another thing I really want to talk about is the super cool fundraising mechanism you had, where you only wanted to raise money once and so far you only have, and you’re directly incentivized to turn a profit so you can pay back your investors.
You’re not incentivized to just grow as fast as possible and bring on more investors, which is exactly what all my high growth startup friends are talking about right now, the fundraising environment and how hard it’s going to be to raise more money, etc., but that’s not your concern.
How has that work so far? It’s been two years. Do you feel like you have any regrets, any changes you would make if you could go back in time? Any comments about other founders who might be considering doing the same thing?
I think it is still, unfortunately, a little early for me to be able to answer that fully. As of right now, I have absolutely loved the pressure to stay low costs with a high potential margin business, as opposed to a high potential growth business.
Coronavirus makes us look like geniuses in this design of our business aspect because we set up a system whereby we would be one of the startups most likely to not need any future funding to get through it, be able to survive the crisis effectively, have a business that was long-term built for a recession or even a depression.
Yes, I’m thrilled about that. I would say our investors have generally been, not even generally. You know what? To a person, they have been somewhere between quiet and extraordinarily supportive. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.
I also love the fact that the group that we assembled tended to be people who could be very helpful to the business, and so that means that at any time, I can reach out to them and I have several times. About a month ago, when COVID was overtaking every conversation, we had a conversation.
Casey and I emailed Ben Jesson and Karl Blanks, who run Conversion Rate Experts out of the UK and they’re investors in a SparkToro. We were like, “Hey, Ben and Carl, would you guys be willing to jump on the phone with us for an hour or 90 minutes and just talk through all the scenarios of launch and conversion rate optimization and positioning and all this kind of stuff that we’re thinking through because it is very different.”
We recognized once we hit that second cohort that performed so much more poorly than the first one did, we knew that we were going to hit headwind and that was great. Essentially, I don’t know what that conversation would have cost thousands of dollars if they weren’t our investors, but awesome.
We get their help for free and they’re incentivized to help us. That’s been true with a ton of folks across the web marketing world. I think one of the other unintentionally smart things that we did was to raise money from people who were in our world and our customers’ world because that gave them both empathy for us as entrepreneurs and also the ability to help us reach our market and better target our market, all that kind of stuff.
Ben and Karl on the call, Karl is describing to me, “Hey, we’ve been users of SparkToro over here at CRE and our ‘aha’ moment came when we did this thing for this client. As soon as we did that and we sent them the results, we did a ton more for them, but we were able to charge them this much,” and that was the thing that stood out in their minds.
If you can get other customers like us to have that ‘aha’ moment with your product, this thing’s going to be huge. That’s what you should focus on. It was great.
It’s one of the best things about having investors or, at the very least, mentors or advisors or colleagues, as you can hit them up and they run companies, too, and they can tell you about what’s going on or give you the customer’s perspective. Also, I think they’re pretty motivating.
It’s not easy to run off nothing but intrinsic motivation all day, every day. Your mood changes, your energy changes, but I wonder, do you feel a sense of obligation? Do you feel like you’re more efficient, that you care more because you have other people that you’re trying to make whole?
I am someone who cares deeply about other people and that applies in the broader world, but also applies internally for me. I know that if there’s people who care about my performance and progress and they’re watching that, that’s a wonderful motivator for me in a healthy way.
Where it got really painful with Moz was realizing, maybe about a year or two years after I stepped down from the CEO role, that two things became true. One, I could see that that business was never going to, I don’t want to say never, probably never going to hit the 10-30x returns mark on the $30 million that we had raised.
It just wasn’t likely to sell for a billion dollars sometime before the event horizon of when it needed to return money to the funds. Secondarily, that I no longer had the power to influence it. There is obligation and expectation and commitment without power to influence.
I think it’s the same way. I don’t know if you’ve ever or recently worked with a boss who said, “Courtland, I need you to do X,” and you’re like, “Fine. I’m happy to do X, but you have to give me the power and authority to do X. No, I’m sorry I can’t do that.”
It sounds frustrating.
Yeah. Just a little bit
Just a little bit. You feel like because you’re obligated to other people – maybe not obligated, but you care about other people and you care about what they think, you’re maybe working a little bit harder.
Well, and the obligation is there, but so, too, is the power and my investors do not have the power to remove me or to change the direction. They can’t all get together and say, “We want you to charge a lot more for SparkToro.”
They can’t do it. They could and I’d be like, “All right, input noted. Thanks for the feedback.” It’s my call and that is a great thing. I would encourage a lot more entrepreneurs to structure their rounds in these types of ways to get creative around it.
Just because Venture Capital is marketed to 99% of us, does not mean it’s right for 99% of us. It’s wrong for most of us, even Venture Capitalists will say that.
Let’s talk about your approach to growing SparkToro, specifically. You said it is a market research and audience intelligence tool. That’s almost a new category, in a way. There’s a lot of stuff you’re doing that no one’s done before.
It’s hard to, when you’re doing that, explain what you’re doing and find out what’s going to resonate with customers. How have you gone about solving that problem? Because I know so many Indie Hackers are trying to figure out, “How do I explain what I do in a way that customers understand because I know it’s good for them, but how do I get them to understand that?”
That is a great question because that has actually been one of our biggest challenges. One of the frustrations I had, even back in April of 2018 when you and I first chatted about SparkToro, and then over the next nine months, I interviewed so many people who are our target customers, people who were doing the manual version of the work that you need to do to get our Spark Toro’s type of results, or the thing that we’re trying to help people with, but in a programmatic way.
And ask them, “OK. You know how you go and try and figure out what your customers and your audience pays attention to. You try and figure out, “Hey, what are the podcasts they listen to so that we can get on this podcast and advertise on them. What are the events that people go to? What are the YouTube channels they subscribe to? Who do they follow on social and what do they follow on social? What do they read and listen to on the web?”
All those questions that marketers have about their audience. We talked to tons of people who did that work and ask them, “What do you call that?” The most common response by far, 95 out of a 100, said, “I have no word for that.”
Right? It’s almost maddening to realize that there’s this huge practice in the marketing world and in product development and entrepreneurship, as well, because it crosses over into all of those.
Yet, we don’t have a name for it. It’s not easy for us to position ourselves as, “We solve that problem.” We call it audience intelligence, but most of the time if you say audience intelligence, people are like, “What’s that? I don’t know what that means.”
Those are two words smushed together.
“It’s a big fricking category. It could mean a million things.” On the other hand, if you say, “I help with SEO,” everybody knows what you do, or email marketing or content marketing or video hosting, or video conferencing.
Everybody knows, but for us, it’s a little more challenging. Essentially, we’ve had to take this approach of much more individual marketing, as opposed to, we can do broadcast amplification and have lots of people get the idea of which problem we help them with.
We understand that we have to draw them in through something else that they care about, educate them, and inform them, and then rely on them to come back after having learned that. That’s meant a lot more things like broader content.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been talking about problems like Google’s Zero-Click Searches, the shift in internet use toward the internet giants and monopolies and control of that ecosystem. Talking about imbalances in online advertising, talking about broad marketing tactics and strategy, talking about helping people through COVID and marketing through that.
These are very broad types of things that we hope will be useful and helpful to our potential audience. Then they will come and learn more about us. A very second order effect content marketing type of thing rather than, “Come to Zoom, we do better video conferencing. Come to SparkToro, we do better – hang on, this is going to be a long sentence, blahblahblahblahblah.”
What does your funnel look like? I’ve used one of these tools that you’ve built, which are super useful by the way, or I read one of your blog posts, which are also super useful. At what point do I learn more about SparkToro or enough so that I convert into a customer?
Most of the time, we get that through one of three channels. They end up following usually me personally cause I do most of the sharing on a social channel and then they see messages around SparkToro and go check that out or they visit a piece of content from us and go directly to the blog--sorry, to the product page and see our stuff there or they learn about it.
This was especially true the last 18 months at conferences and events when I got up on stage and give a like, “Hey, here’s who I am and what I’m doing and now here’s the presentation,” or the other way around. “Here’s the presentation,” and then buried somewhere in there is, “and there’s this hard to solve problem around marketing. That’s what I’m working on. I don’t have anything to sell you, but eventually I hope to,” and then move on through that.
Those all tended to lead people to the SparkToro product page or homepage, which then has the “Get an email when we launch or sign up for early access.” That’s how we built our beta list. We’ve had, I want to say maybe a total of 30,000-ish people come through and put their email addresses in there.
About 400 of those were part of the beta, so we basically selected from the around-15- 20,000 who were in there when we started doing the beta last summer, and then took that and most of those people have now been sent an email for early access and then that’ll be part of our launch list as well.
30,000 people is a remarkable number. What do you attribute most of that to? Because I think most people who are trying to get people on their list will be happy to get 1/10th of that number.
Honestly, most businesses would be fine with it. I think SparkToro, this is one of our huge strengths, is the fact that we have a big audience who cares about, “Let’s see what Rand does after Moz,” and I think that is a big driver.
That’s probably a driver of almost half of it. Then, I think the other half is through content marketing and presentations and descriptions of the product and having a long lead time. We got, basically, almost two years from funding to launch to build up our community, build up our marketing channels.
You almost never get that in startup world. Once you raise money, it’s like, “All right, you better get to launch in nine months, maybe.”
It’s crazy how much patience your fundraising model has allowed you to have because even if you’re going this pure bootstrapping Indie Hacker route, where you don’t raise any money, there’s still some time pressure.
There’s only so much time you can work without having a job before you need to be employed or your spouse goes crazy cause they’re supporting you or something like that. You’ve taken this sort of middle road where you get the best of both worlds.
You don’t necessarily have to answer to anybody, but you also don’t need to have some sort of rocket ship growth out of the gate. You can take two years to get your product right, figure out your messaging, etc. It seems like you’re chilling in your shed.
That was an intentional move. Casey and I knew like, “We could fund this ourselves for maybe six months, but we don’t think we can validate the market and the product and build the actual product in that amount of time. It’s just going to take longer.” We also knew we have a strength, which is this huge list.
We also have a weakness, which is everyone on that list and thousands more people who are our core customers and audience are going to check this thing out sometime in week one of launch. As soon as we go live, many marketers and especially a lot of the most influential people in the marketing world will go and check out the tool and product and whatever they think about it that first time they use it, that is what will stick in their mind for a decade to come.
I saw this with Moz. I know people who today, when they think of Moz, they think of the product they tried once in 2008. That’s their only benchmark for what does Moz make. I know people who think Moz still does SEO consulting, a business we shut down. Moz shut down 13 years ago.
That’s how long brand impressions last. I know that on day one, SparkToro has to be very polished and so we wanted this patient approach, where we could have a long period to build, to beta test, to early access test, to get feedback, to improve and then finally get to this launch point that was going to be well received.
I often tell founders that there are billions and billions of websites and the fact that somebody is on your website instead of any of the other billions of websites is always a minor miracle. It means you’ve done something right and if they come back twice, more major miracles.
You’re right, I think you can’t take for granted the fact that people’s first impressions matter. You’re not necessarily going to get a chance to change that. One of the other things that you’ve done that a lot of founders struggle with is you’ve built a very general purpose tool. There’s lots of different ways that you could use SparkToro.
There’s lots of different customers who could use SparkToro, which is great because I think the potential upside is huge. You could be used for so many different things, but it also makes getting traction harder because you don’t necessarily have one specific customer.
You say, “This is for you and here’s the perfect use case,” and it’s not that easy to get it off the ground. What’s your advice for people in that situation and how are you handling that at SparkToro when there’s so many different ways to use what you’re building?
I actually think that unless you have the unfair advantage of a huge community of people who are going to play with it and then experiment, learn, apply, adapt, and then broadcast, which we kind of do. I would say we have a lot of that. Not all of it, but a lot of it. If you don’t have those advantages, I would go market by market.
If I did not have the brand presence and audience size and ability to promote that I do, if I were starting out fresh with SparkToro, I absolutely would be starting with probably something small to midsize PR firms in the United States. That would be my one beginning market or it would be content marketing firms maybe.
One of those two because those are the most directly applicable, that’s where we’ve seen a lot of customer success, and then maybe I later go to B2C lifestyle companies that do a lot of content promotion and PR in house themselves and that would be my second market.
Then, I’d go to entrepreneurs and founders of early-stage businesses who are trying to get their marketing strategy right. Then, I’d go to SEOs and then I’d go to email marketers and event marketers on and on.
But because you have an audience, you don’t have to do that?
I have to do it less. We definitely started with, essentially, four primary customer targets that we were going after. That’s who I did most of my in-person interviews with.
A lot of that was visiting people’s offices all around the country when I’d go to speak at conferences and events and jumping on the phone with them, that kind of thing, and those four customers targets ended up being the ones that we primarily built the product for.
When we got feedback from those kinds of customers, we took it, I would say, more seriously than we took the feedback from other folks. A lot of the suggestions that changed the product came from those kinds of people.
Then, we found, during early access, even during beta testing and then into early access, that another three or four groups of customers were having equal or even greater success with the product as they were trying.
It’s kind of learning as you go along.
Yeah. Learning as we went along and being able to simultaneously hit four of those markets instead of starting very exclusively with one. The other thing we probably would have done, if I didn’t have a big audience, is we would’ve charged a lot more and sold a lot less.
We probably would have started pricing more enterprise grade and done sales more one-to-one, like, “Hey, here’s the secret sauce for your agency. It’s a few thousand dollars a year a subscription,” as opposed to, “$150 a month, anyone can sign up.”
Charge more is advice that I rarely hear people not get. It usually works really well.
It usually does it for us. I think it could work fine, but Casey and I, neither of us are interested in or willing to build a business that’s reliant on one-to-one sales and this choice.
Marketing is your skillset. A lot of the best in the world are reaching lots of people with a message, so why waste that?
I have built a self-service, software as a service business previously. I know that world quite well. I have an audience for it. I think we are one of the rare cases where charge more, sell fewer but higher value to higher revenue companies is the wrong move for us.
What’s your long-term goal with SparkToro? This is a small business, there’s very few of you working on it, you don’t necessarily have to answer to your investors. Why are you doing this and what do you hope the eventual outcome will be?
I would say there are three things that I’m trying to do. One, you know me a little bit personally, right? I have this chip on my shoulder about my previous position with Moz and disagreements there.
I definitely have something to prove. I think, probably, more to myself than to my old board of directors. That’s almost definitely the case, but I wouldn’t totally mind getting on a Moz board call and being like, “We’re doing amazing.” That would not bother me.
That is one thing. I would love to build a business that essentially looks like a lifestyle business from the outside but with the growth and revenue numbers of venture backed business and I think SparkToro has potential to do that. If it lands somewhere in between, that’s fine. It’ll be what it’ll be.
We’re really comfortable with that. Casey and I work, I would say, very responsible hours. We are smart workers. We are not “kill ourselves” workers. I think there’s rarely been a week where one or both of us have worked 50 or 60 hours.
I guess you could say you want the best of both worlds. You want the lifestyle of a lifestyle business, you want the rewards and the bragging rights and the results of a Venture funded business.
We want to be an example not just to other startups, but to other investors. I am hopeful that we can start to change the conversation from the Venture path is the only way to make money as an angel investor to, “Oh no, wait. If I put money into a business that survives for a long time and is profitable and pays out dividends at the end of every year, I could make a lot more.”
Especially because angel investors, if they get lucky or if they’re able to put money into 1,000 or 2,000 companies, in which case they get lucky through law of large numbers, they don’t tend to benefit.
Most of the angel investors that I know in Seattle, in the Bay area, they’ve essentially are like, “I thought I’d be better at picking good companies, but I guess I’m not, and I can only invest in 30 or 40 companies, so my portfolio is just not big enough to capture the one winner that accounts for the 500 losers.”
What if you picked 30 or 40 companies that were like SparkToro, where essentially the model was “survive long enough to become profitable and start paying dividends.” Then, it’s like, “Every year, every company that survives, I’m making a little bit of money. This is amazing.”
Macro-economically and politically, I despise the rich-get-richer, income inequality distribution problem that the startup world reinforces by basically having 99 out of 100 companies fail. This is another model where it says, “Maybe we could survive more like the rest of small businesses, which have a 50%, five-year survival rate instead of startup world’s 15% or 17% or whatever it is. If we acted more like that, we could create a lot more businesses that employ more people to create more diversity in the economy.”
That sounds awesome to me, too. Those are my really big goals around SparkToro. For Casey and I and our employees in the future. Build a business with lifestyle like employment, but Venture quality metrics and serve as an example to other startups and industries.
Well listen, Rand, I hope you hit that goal because then I’m going to have you back on the podcast and broadcast it to as many people as possible. It’s my goal, as well, to see a world like that.
I love what you’re doing with Indie Hackers so much. You know this, right? I want the worlds of funding and the worlds of company structure to match the community of Indie Hackers. I want that whole journey to be possible for all those businesses. I think that would be a worthy contribution of my time in the free market.
I think we’re getting there, and I think we can get there and it’s not going to be a rapid overnight change, but 10 years from now, the world will look very different. The world of online businesses.
I think it’ll be pretty cool to look back and say that you played a part. To close out here, I’m always hesitant to ask people to predict the future on the air because this is going to be a recording that’s saved forever and we might just make a fool of you, but you’ve done some predicting the future and your recent blog posts about what the conversation around this pandemic and the recession might look like.
I think as a founder you have to, to some degree, make educated guesses about what’s going to happen so you can react before it does. What do you think the future has in store for us as founders and how do you think we should be making decisions now so that we can get through this recession and so that we can continue to communicate during this time of monotone conversation online where everything is about the Coronavirus?
I think we only have a few more weeks left of that. My suspicion is that while the Coronavirus has dominated and will keep dominating a lot of what I call “knowledge worker” and “online worker” conversation for the next two to six weeks, I think after that, it just becomes a habit.
It just becomes we look at the charts and graphs around the virus. We might look at the news, but it won’t be quite obsessive. We’ll be coming out from under that bubble, especially because in most major metropolitan areas, at least the United States, the peak hospitalization and death rates are coming in the next few weeks.
I think after that wave passes, “Okay, we’re all getting used to life online at home and we’re figuring out our setups and we’ve had a few weeks of this already, so we have some practice, so we’re familiar with it. We know what the economic picture looks like. Most of the jobs that are gonna be lost either have already been lost in the last three weeks or will be lost in the next three to six.
A lot of that picture gets clearer and then the uncertainty of, “When does the vaccine come?” or, “When do we have a solution to this problem?” I think that could last up to another 12 or 18 months and that means a lot more quarantining.
What all of that macro picture means for us as founders, in my mind, is how do we find ways to be effective and efficient with whatever workdays we’re given? Whether that’s with the kids are partners or alone at home, how do we find our new groove?
For some people, that will be much harder than others. I think we will all get there because that’s how people are. They find a way to survive and thrive in new environments after a while. The other thing that I think we’ll have to do is recognize that as founders, we had better be strategically considering how to change our products, our customers, and our marketing right now for that second wave.
Meaning, I know that my audience is going to move from however they were doing things to a new way of doing things. Maybe that’s just video meetings and calls, but it might mean a lot more different things.
Hairstylists are going to become video consultants, dentists are going to show, “Here’s a device that you attach to your phone’s camera and you stick it in your mouth and you take these pictures and then you send it to me,” and blah blah blah. A million just like that.
Who makes those? Who markets that and how does it work? What about cavities? A million stories. You and your business have to recognize you can serve that new world and make changes to your product strategy, your marketing strategy, and your positioning.
Which customers am I going to serve? Because there’ll be demanded that is huge and a bunch of areas and depressed in a bunch of other areas. You’ll have to go to these ones that are surging. That’s my prediction for the short term.
I don’t think that’s particularly controversial or surprising. I would be somewhat surprised if that aged badly. Knowing what will happen in wave three after the vaccine is developed and how things change, that’s something I’m not really ready to predict. I think that’s so hard to know.
Yeah, we’re all in the same boat. We have no idea. Honestly, I was worried about the coronavirus in January. I’ve chatted with friends asking, “Should we be getting out of big cities? What should we do?”
I couldn’t even predict something as simple as like, “What is the appropriate response to this oncoming pandemic?” Now, it’s much harder. I appreciate you coming on the show Rand.
Something tells me if you were president, Courtland, you wouldn’t have fired and ignore all your epidemiologists in January, but maybe I’m wrong.
That’s probably the last thing I would have done. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for many people, I’m not president. Rand, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story with SparkToro.
Tell us a little bit how we can communicate better in these difficult times. Can you let us know where we can go to find out more about what you’re up to?
Yeah, absolutely, so sparktoro.com is our website and I am most active on Twitter, where I’m @randfish. Courtland, I think I owe you an Indie Hackers profile with some numbers.
Oh yeah, you should make a product page.
Yeah, I gotta make a product page. I’m to put that on my to do list.
Okay. I’ll send you a reminder.
Thanks so much, Rand.
Great to see you, man. Take care.
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