47 Insights / Podcast  / Ep. 12: Optimizing Moz For The Mid Market With Sarah Bird
Sarah Bird, Moz

Ep. 12: Optimizing Moz For The Mid Market With Sarah Bird

SaaS Marketing Insights Episode 12: Sarah Bird, Moz

With over 37,000 customers and more than $47m in annual revenue, what next for SEO software Moz? CEO Sarah Bird outlines how Moz got started and where it’s going, as well as insights into the values and culture that make the brand still one of the most trusted in its space.

Editor: breandanmcghee@gmail.com


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Episode 12 Transcript

Paul: On today’s show I have an interview with Sarah Bird CEO at Moz, hope you enjoy it.

Sarah Bird, Moz. Welcome to SaaStr and to San Francisco, you’re from?

Sarah: Rainy Seattle.

Paul: I’m from rainy Victoria.

Sarah: Yes, it’s like Hawaii here right now, isn’t it?

Paul: It’s to hot, it’s feburary and i’m wearing a blazer and sweating.

So, what do you think of the show so far?

Sarah: I think the shows amazing, it’s so busy, it’s so crowded. All these people are so interested and have so much in common so I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the speakers and how kind everyone has been, it’s been great.

Paul: So you spoke yesterday but who are you looking forward to seeing speak?

Sarah: You know, the Atlassian guy.

Paul: I should know his name.

Sarah: Yeah I should know his name too cuz he has the hair and the hat.

That’s a company that I really admire and what they have done for self-service SaaS and it being so capital efficient has been an inspiration for us at Moz. Our business is also very capital efficient and largely run for credit card transactions so yeah I always look to them for inspiration. The storytelling and MailChimp the CMO of MailChimp, Tom, I’m terrible at names. That guy, how exciting, I love that brand, i’ve always been really impressed and inspired by their brand, again their Mahrtech and their focused on SMB and they care so much about brand and helping people. So that’s another company I really look to as inspiration and amuse for Moz.

Paul: Fantastic, so for anybody out there and I can’t believe there is anyone that doesn’t know what Moz is.

Ok, why don’t we back up and give me your elevator pitch.

Sarah: Yes well it’s very simple depending on who I’m talking to, if i’m talking to my mother or her friends I say we do internet marketing.

Paul: ‘Oh cool’.

Sarah: Full stop. For people at SaaStr I would say Moz makes software for marketers that helps them understand and improve their search engine optimization.

Paul: So that’s organic, not paid.

Sarah: Not paid, we don’t help you there unfortunately, maybe to the extent that you’re SEO strategies and SEM strategy should be complimentary, there’s a lot of keyword-driven strategy involved. You can use our tools but it is all about that organic placement because this is something I think a lot of people still don’t realize, everyone knows we spend billions of dollars on paid search advertising right. Google has been able to fund the development of fucking self-driving cars off the amount of money we spend on paid
search advertising.

We spend fractions of that on the organic side: SEO, even though it drives 20 times the clicks! So you think about that and just the imbalance in the market, all the investment and energy goes to paid and it’s just this teensy little amount of attention and traffic and then all of this organic opportunity which a lot of people overlook.

Paul: Yeah, so I always like to talk about competitors in the space and you don’t have to name names or whatever but you guys started out how many years ago? 1990’s?

Sarah: Yeah I mean it depends when you think the beginning of the company, yeah I mean the original company started in the 90’s and then the SEO blog: SEOmoz began in the early 2000s. Then the first software products we started in 2007 so I tend to think of that as sort of the starting time period for the software business.

Paul: Seems like a long time ago now, a decade ago.

Sarah: It does seem like a long time ago and a lot has changed and also a lot has stayed the same, such is life.

Paul: Yeah, so the business has grown from the original founder: Rand Fishkin and his mom, Gillian.

Sarah: Yeah and they both place a big bet on me.

Paul: What were you, number 3?

Sarah: No, I was not number 3, I was number 8, back in 2007.

Paul: So you obviously stood out as a super star?

Sarah: I was one of the oldest people in the company so yes and I had a law degree which I think people
assumed meant I knew a lot more than I did.

Paul: Yeah, you got a law degree, you’re smart.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly.

Paul: ‘Tell us how to run this thing’.

Fantastic, so you didn’t start out, so Moz is the first internet business, marketing business that you’ve been
involved with, you were in law before that I think you said you were a cleaner or something before that?

Sarah: Yeah, I was a cleaning lady then I was a librarian.

Paul: Amazing journey, more than 10 years now with Moz. Moz is in a hell of a competitive space there’s SEMrush, Ahfefs, then maybe a hundred other.

Sarah: There are lots of various, there’s little niche players then big platform players.

Paul: It’s a super competitive space, how do you think Moz stands out from its competitors or differentiates itself?

Sarah: Yeah I think that there’s a few ways we stand out. First of all I think most people know Moz and recognize Moz for a place to go and learn about SEO. To get a trusted source of information, either you’re a beginner and you need to understand the basics or you’re very experienced and you’ve been following the industry for a long time but you want to understand what’s new. For example, what’s the impact of voice search, how is AI gonna change things. So I think that training is really important and core to what Moz says and core to the value that we provide.

The other thing I think that’s really special about Moz is the quality of our data, so we go to great detailed lengths to make sure we have the highest quality data we can possibly provide. At various points a competitor will be ahead of us and then we’ll catch up and leapfrog and so you’re always chasing it because it is a very competitive market but I am most proud of the investment we have made in data and the quality. Just an example of that, one of the many metrics you should look at when evaluating your SEO strategy is rankings, how well are you ranking? What is the shape of that search result? Who’s ahead of you? Are there video or featured snippets and to really understand how competitive you are a lot of people just look at that first page. At Moz we actually like to track all your first 50 search page to see where you are and where your competitors are because it’s not enough to know just what’s happening on that first page.

Measuring success in eyeballs, that’s important but to know where your momentum is,progress or not at all right.

Yeah so we have a depth and a quality of looking at your full search result that I don’t think other people can match. Our search volume scores, we use really innovative partnerships with various people who track all of these amazing searches going on through their area. Jumpshot is a company that we just love and they do all this research on behavior and we can use that to do the most accurate models on the click through curve so that we can actually say ‘this is how much traffic we can estimated a keyword like this will deliver for you’. Other people have much rougher estimates, even Google Adwords will give you gigantic bucket estimates that are not very helpful so I’m really proud of that, I could go on.

We have some other big stuff coming up to.

Paul: Oh well maybe we can talk about the big stuff coming up, are you allowed to talk about that?

Sarah: I’m not sure if we’re allowed to talk about it which is too bad but maybe by the time this podcast comes out, it will be out.

Some Big Data innovations in particular, theres been some data at Moz that we’ve been working on for a long time and we’re getting our butts kicked in the market on right now and it’s finally ready to start going out into the universe. I’m so proud and think it’s just gunna be great for customers and great for the industry.

Paul: Yeah so as a business you have, I think during your talk you gave yesterday you were talking about your very transparent way that you do things and you know, you’re saying that you’re getting your butts kicked in some aspect or another.

Sarah: You gotta stay humble man.

Paul: Is that one of the things, the culture and the values of you guys that has really helped to drive the success of the business?

Sarah: You know, I think for me though I want to be careful, that’s not why we started the values. We started with the values just for ourselves, just for our own sort of personal, internal, how do we know if
we’re living up to our values and living a meaningful life.

Then it had all these other consequences of pulling in communities of people whether they’re the customers, potential customers, supporters, vendors, investors. People who said ‘hey, that resonates with me’ and ‘I share those same values’ I want to do business with people who have those values.

The Moz values for those people who don’t know, we are…

  • Transparent
  • Authentic
  • Generous
  • Fun
  • Empathetic
  • Exceptional.

Paul: TAGFEE.

Sarah: Yeah TAGFEE, exactly and so a lot of people they’re like ‘yes’ that’s how I want to live my life too. It has ups and downs right, I mean, I get the fear that drives people to not want to be transparent because it is embarrassing to admit when you’re messing something up or you’ve made a mistake. You’ve screwed something or you’ve got some bad news so I totally get it and it’s entirely possible that we’ve lost customers or faith or I don’t know. I think whatever negatives their are from being so transparent they’re small compared to the positive of the trust you build.

I do feel like people trust Moz and they trust the brand.

Paul: The trust the little robot.

Sarah: Right, yeah Roger, he’s so cute. They trust our little robot Roger, I think thats right.

I think they root for us, at least I feel that way, I feel really strongly that people want Moz to succeed, I think people want businesses that they believe are trying to do the right things, they want them to win and so they’re, even when you’re screwing up their like ‘keep at it’. ‘We want you to win and I’m gonna keep trying to buy your stuff and encourage other people to buy it, whats the price of that right.

Paul: Awesome, so you gave the presentation yesterday and talked about some successes that you’ve had and some failures that you had and some don’t knows. We’re not going to try and cover all those things off but we were talking earlier about, this podcast is really about SaaS marketing and you said well I’m not sure i’ve got any insights about marketing.

Sarah: Just like a killer tip.

Paul: Yeah so it doesn’t have to be a killer tip but you know you shared three successes and three failures, if you’re gonna pick one success and one failure from your back catalog of greatest moments what would you go for?

The thing that made the biggest impacts on the business or you.

Sarah: Yeah I mean, luckily we just covered TAGFEE and the values and how important those have been to us. I hinted at some of the business positive impacts as well that has come from that. There’s a part of TAGFEE that I didn’t cover before and I really should have and that’s when you have a strong culture that pulls people in that share your culture, when you work together and you hit those challenges which you will, the team is much more resilient. They have those shared values holding then together.

If you have a transactional company where everyone’s just there for a paycheck and they don’t think about you or care about you, they have no emotional investment in their own work or the company’s success, when a bump comes they’re gonna say ‘oh I’m sorry, I’m out’.

Paul: ‘I’m here for an easy time’.

Sarah: Yeah and you know, we have really talented people at Moz, incredibly talented, gifted people, they can get jobs anywhere and they choose to stay at Moz and I think it is because of the culture and the things we value. The trust they have with each other and the way we collaborate. So yeah, that investment in values has been huge for me personally, has been huge for the brand, for this building of this incredible
community of markers. Also our other support groups, vendors and investors also for the team and resiliency, those are things I wouldn’t have anticipated early on.

They are hard to put a number on right.

Paul: Yeah really hard to put a number on, it’s like branding, you can’t put a number on it.

Sarah: Yeah but it’s real, we all know it’s real. Yeah, we see the effect of it.

We see and it operates on us, we all have brands that we love for better or worse right.

Paul: Absolutely, I think you guys have been the first to admit as well sometimes you don’t always get it
right.

So you had followerwonk, which was a great product, i’m a followerwonk customer.

Sarah: Thank you, I love it too, I will always love it, back in 2013 we had an idea, a hypothesis for growth of growing into these adjacent areas right. If SEO is here you have social media marketing touches on and it’s related, it’s not really the same thing but they overlap.

Paul: Feeds in to.

Sarah: Yeah, and content marketing is similar and so part of us thinking ‘oh let’s go a little bit adjacent out into these other areas’ we acquired followerwonk which we love. It’s a incredible Twitter tool that everyone should check out and part of the thinking was our customers are all gonna love it because if you love SEO you must love Twitter analytics and we thought they’ll be really addicted to the freshness of the data because Twitter data changes all the time and a lot of SEO data doesn’t have the same day-to-day frequency change right.

So unfortunately we were wrong, that overlap was not nearly as tight as we though. It’s tragic right because it seemed like such a good idea, this will work and it just never got the same attachment rate with our customer base. We thought those people who did use it loved it and we even then tried what if it’s not baked into the same SKU as SEO. What if it’s sort of a separate product and even then our audience wasn’t quite the right match for that tool so we have spun it out.

Paul: You have hardcore SEO’ers.

Sarah: We have hardcore SEO’ers, yeah and now it’s actually, one of the developers, who’s been with that product since its very earliest days maybe even the very beginning, has bought the products from us.

Paul: I didn’t know that, that’s great.

Sarah: Yeah and so he’s gonna continue to give it life and I feel so happy.

Paul: It’s a phoenix from the asses.

Sarah: Yeah well, It’s not even ashes right it’s a different phase of life right.

Paul: Yeah, it’s gone on, it’s still successful, people who use it love it.

Sarah: Yes, I love it, i’m gunna keep using it but it doesn’t fit, certainly with our core thesis of what are the most critical SEO tasks that you need lots of high quality and large amounts of data to solve. That’s what we want to work on, that’s our sweet spot.

Paul: Yeah, stick to your knitting, stick to what you’re good at.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly and frankly you know focus is something I just really struggle with. I want to do so many things.

Paul: Imagine how hard it is being a man.

Sarah: I don’t know that it’s any worse.

Paul: We can’t multi-task.

Sarah: You know what they say, they say no one can multitask. The more confident that you are that you can multi-task, the research says you can’t, isn’t that interesting.

Paul: Oh, that’s worrying.

Sarah: Yeah so if you think you can’t multi-task, if you’re like i’m not good at multi-tasking, you’re probably better at it.

Paul: So you can’t fake it until you make it with multi-tasking?

Sarah: No, exactly, no you really can’t.

Paul: So future for Moz, you’re gonna stick to your knitting. Are you pushing up, pushing down?

Sarah: Yeah so, I would love to talk about it actually. So we have over 37,000 customers right now and most of those are squarely in the S side of SMB right, so SMB is small to medium businesses. We’re mostly on the small side and increasingly into that midsize which is frankly, still really large, we think of SMB as being, you can have up to 10,000 employees, you can have $50 million in revenue right. So we’re increasingly going to that mid market area because we find the churn rates are lower, the budgets are higher and they have greater ongoing needs.

Also we’re beginning to get more and more into the enterprise and those interactive brands that are still looking for alternatives and they like the high quality of data that Moz has to offer, they like the training. They like that they have this trusted place to learn about SEO paired with a high quality of data at a great price. It’s a change for us though because it’s a totally different way of doing business.

Paul: But it should be more stable and more profitable?

Sarah: Yeah, the churn rates are so low, it’s interesting about profitability because you have to think about it in terms of time right so with an SMB customer we we don’t pay very much money to acquire them because luckily we have this wonderful SEO thing that works for us quite well.

Paul: Yeah, you guys might be quite good at that.

Sarah: We’re pretty good at that, on those small customers we’re profitable by month two, including gross margin, so it’s nice.

Paul: Wow! That’s somewhat ahead of the industry standard.

Sarah: Yeah exactly so it’s profitable, of course they’re smaller amounts and so it takes a lot more to have a meaningful change in your growth curve, we are already at 37,000 customers, you have to add a lot of new customers every single month to really get a growth ramp. So it’s the law of larger numbers starts kicking your ass after a while on the SMB side right.

The enterprise can be quite profitable although they also negotiate you down and you pay a lot more upfront. So you might not get payback until year one, two or three which is really typical in enterprise right, so the profitability comes, it’s just in the future. There’s more faith involved so we have a kind of interesting dynamic in the Moz business where we can capture some of the value from the SMB segments, put some of that into developing the products and improving the quality and some of it into let’s also work on going up the customer stack to those Enterprise. Sort of funding that ability to reach those other customers.

Paul: Great so, I think you’re $47 million revenue at the moment?

Sarah: Yeah we did a little over $47 million last year.

Paul: Amazing, so it looks like you’re going to break the $50 million ceiling quite soon.

Sarah: Yes absolutely, we’ll break the 50 million ceiling and we’re doing it profitable and even at positive cashflow, that’s pretty exciting. So we still have a lot of work to do right, we got these product releases and investments to get out there, we’re reaching these new markets which requires whole new ways to interact with customers and sales teams right. It’s sort of new for us and then we’re also looking at maybe some
small acquisitions as well to help expedite our knowledge and our learning about how to serve the other kinds of customers and to supplement the technology as well.

Paul: Because you’ve just grown organically? You’ve not, well I think you said you bought Followerwonk.

Sarah: We did, we bought Followerwonk, we didn’t buy that for the money, we bought it because we love the technology and we love the space. We bought AudienceWise which was a small acquisition mostly for talent. We bought GetListed which turned into our Moz Local product thats done very well for us, again it was a smaller size, we didn’t do it for the revenue, we did it for the tech. Which has been great because we love local SEO so we’ve done a few of these smaller ones and I like it.

Paul: Yeah but essentially it’s grown organically for the most park.

Sarah: Yeah absolutely.

Paul: So, this is the final question, time passes quickly as you’re a busy lady and it’s about that, it’s about you being busy lady.

How do you balance your role as CEO of Moz and actually having a life? Because There’s a lot of tired looking CEOs walking around here desperately trying to spin plates and juggle at the same time.

Sarah: Yeah, more coffee I think that’s tip number one. More coffee right, luckily i’m in Seattle, we have lots of good coffee and the weather is so shitty for most of the year there’s no point in going out. That helps
balance it, I might as well be in front of my laptop because outside is horrible. No and truth is I do let a lot of things slip I’m not proud of it but you have to.

Paul: So you’re saying that you’re human?

Sarah: I am a human person. You don’t really juggle all the balls you just choose which ball you can let drop for now and you say ‘okay well I feel bad that I had to drop that ball’ but something had to drop and
that’s the least of evils and then you try to forgive yourself and move on and live to fight another day.

Yeah it’s a hard work, I’m also lucky I have a lot of support, I have a really supportive husband who is a full
contributor to our whole family. I’ve got great people in the Moz team who always want to help out and they go above and beyond, I would really support a board that is always encouraging and supporting and wanting to help focus and take on things and so yeah I feel very lucky.

Paul: Fantastic, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, it’s great to meet you and enjoy the rest of Saturday.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Sarah, for more info on Moz please visit moz.com

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Founder & CEO

Paul is Founder & CEO of 47 Insights. He has more than 30 years of marketing experience gained on both client and agency side, and has worked across a wide range of sectors including SaaS/Tech, Accountancy and Financial Services, Business Publishing, Consulting and High Value Manufacturing.