Rand Fishkin: «Outsource Everything You Don’t Have Time For or Don’t Have Expertise In»

How to successfully market your company or product? Why is a big team an obstacle rather than a solution? How do you hire the right people? We’ve posed these and other crucial questions to Rand Fishkin, one of the world’s leading experts in SEO and digital marketing. 

How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m the cofounder and CEO of SparkToro, a market research software startup in Seattle, WA. I’m also the author of Lost & Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World and previously founded Moz.

Rand Fishkin

Established in 2018, SparkToro deals with developing market research software. As their mission, SparkToro is committed to helping businesses and marketers find websites, blogs, podcasts, and influencers to reach out to their target audiences.

Your SEO empire started with a small SEOmoz blog. Please tell us about the main challenges that you overcame while growing your business.

Oh man… We faced pretty much every challenge in the book. We had to learn how to operate a business, how to make payroll, how to choose clients that would actually pay their bills, how to do marketing for ourselves, what actually required investment vs. didn’t (fancy office space? oops).

I think the biggest hurdle for us was simply education about how to build a startup. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t the wealth of resources and guides from folks who’d done it before and were openly sharing. As a result, I often wish that I’d spent a few years at another company or two, just learning the process before jumping in myself.

SEOmoz (now known as Moz) is a company providing SEO and internet marketing services. Rand Fishkin has co-founded it in 2001 and worked until 2018.

In one of your books, Lost and Founder, you talked about the lessons you learned from running a startup. Can you share some of the key lessons with those who haven’t read the book yet?

That’s a very big question… I feel like the entire book is the answer, so maybe I’ll just pick one particular element that’s tough for a lot folks: hiring the right people.

In my first company, I thought everyone had to work at Moz itself. That was foolish. With SparkToro, the team is just myself and my cofounder Casey and it’s incredible how much more we can get done as a team of two vs. teams of 50+ I’ve built before. One of the keys is outsourcing everything we don’t want to do, don’t have time for, or don’t have expertise in. We’ve used more than a dozen agencies and consultants in our first 12 months, and I’ll never go back.

For more information on this issue, read «Why You Should Hire Agencies & Consultants  (for everything you can)» by Rand Fishkin: «In 20 years of experience, I’ve worked with fewer than five people (out of hundreds) who delivered as consistently on work promised as an agency. That’s not because employees are lazy or bad at their jobs! I myself often promised work to my team that I failed to deliver on time or exactly as requested. The reasons vary from the very good (e.g. while doing the work, I realized it wasn’t the right work to do) to the very bad (e.g. I realized I could turn in something a few days late, be quickly forgiven, and still keep my job) with everything in between (e.g. I found more pressing projects and prioritized them).»

What are the best marketing tactics for startups? What determines the choice of tactics in each case?

Every company is going to be different. There’s no one-size-fits-all for startup marketing, and I wouldn’t suggest following the advice of anyone who says you should always do «X, Y, and Z.» Instead, choose based on:

  1. Where your customers pay attention and how they’re influenced.
  2. What you personally are passionate about and enjoy doing (because I’ve never seen a company build marketing as a strength in an arena they don’t care about/like personally).
  3. Where you can provide unique value that’s different from what the competition is doing.

For a deeper dive into the subject, read «Where Should You Start Marketing a New Business or Product?» by Rand Fishkin: «Unfortunately, when people think about marketing, channels and tactics often precede strategy. That’s less putting the cart before the horse, and more duct-taping a rotary engine to a cargo bay and wondering why the thing won’t fly.

If you’ve got friends, family, coworkers, casual acquaintances, please, please don’t let them start thinking about Facebook ads or SEO or content marketing until they can thoughtfully articulate who their customers are likely to be, how those people behave, where to find them online, and what messaging resonates with the painful problem your associate’s product or service is meant to solve.»

Beginning entrepreneurs are often responsible for all processes, including SEO-website promotion. Do you think this strategy is justified? What are the top tips for the newbies?

Tip #1: Outsource! Focus your time and energy on what you do best. If that’s not marketing, and you can possibly afford it, hire someone who can do the work far more efficiently, with much higher ROI. Agencies and consultants are built for this, especially in the SEO and digital marketing fields.

Tip #2: Before you engage a consultant, or do it yourself, make sure the tactic/channel you’re investing in is absolutely the best one for building your company the way you want. SEO can be a fine tactic, but it’s incredibly competitive, and the share of clicks almost all flow to the winners in a space. Sometimes, tactics like digital PR, influencer marketing, content, social, event marketing, advertising, etc. can be better choices.

One of the most painful questions for entrepreneurs is hiring SEO specialists. How to check if there is a real professional in front of you, so as not to throw money down the drain?

Three tips here:

#1 Ask your friends and colleagues who they’ve worked with and recommend.

#2 Build connections through social media – follow and find people whose work you admire, whose voices and style resonates with you. Email them and ask for their recommendations.

#3 Interview at least 3-4 firms and choose based on the best match for the work you need done and their ability to perform it. Talk to enough firms and you’ll get good at spotting great sales teams vs. great performance. Speaking to a few of their past customers can help, too.

What SEO methods are outdated? What methods are dangerous to use and contain a risk of falling under the filters of search engines?

I haven’t been in the SEO world for a little over three years now, so you might be better off asking someone who still is. That said, I think link building based on raw quantity of linking domains and link metrics vs. finding sources of influence that actually reach your target audience is a relatively outdated (though still very popular) tactic.

The requirements of search engines are constantly changing. Where and how do you recommend keeping track of all the innovations in order to avoid mistakes?

I don’t! Thankfully, there’s an entire industry of consultants and agencies (and thought leaders/experts) who keep up to date with this stuff. You can generally follow those folks (Twitter’s a good starting point), use agencies/consultants, and thankfully, follow just a few best practices and you’ll generally be in good shape. SEO isn’t like it was ten or twenty years ago with constantly changing best practices. You’ll often cover the basics with SEO practices that have been solid for 8-10+ years in most cases.

Let’s sum up the key marketing tips for startups from Rand Fishkin:

  • instead of thinking about marketing channels, start with analyzing the needs of your target audience and the media from where they get information;
  • give a proper thought to your unique value proposition;
  • do what you feel passionate about and outsource the rest;
  • don’t fall for cookie-cutter solutions: choose the marketing tactics and channels that fit your company.
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