Ep. 17: Building an Exceptionally Viable Product with Rand Fishkin of SparkToro
SaaS Marketing Insights Episode 17: Rand Fishkin, SparkToro
Since leaving Moz in February of this year, Rand Fishkin, along with fellow his SparkToro Co-Founder Casey Henry, have been busy building an “exceptionally viable product”; a customer discovery search engine for marketers. Learn about the problem they’re ultimately planning to solve as well as the free products they have already launched.
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Episode 17 Transcript
Paul: Hello and welcome to SaaS Marketing insights the show where we ask SaaS Founders, CEOs, Marketers and Investors about the lessons they’ve learned in their quest to grow their companies.
My name is Paul Stephenson and I’m founder and CEO of SaaS marketing agency, 47 Insights. On today’s show I have an interview with Rand Fishkin, Co-founder and CEO of SparkToro, hope you enjoy it. Rand Fishkin formerly of Moz now of SparkToro, welcome to the show.
Rand: Yeah, thanks for having me Paul, looking forward to it.
Paul: Cool, so there’s a whole bunch of different things that we could talk about but I’m really really interested in and I think the audience would be interested in the developments that you and Casey are working on over there in Seattle with SparkToro. So it’s a new venture so just give us from when you left Moz because I don’t want to go over all that Moz territory. So from when you left through to where you are now and basically you know the direction that you’re headed because I think people would love to hear about that.
Rand: Yeah sure absolutely. so I left Moz, my last day was February 28th and I started SparkToro on March 1st because I wanted some time off you know to relax and unwind. The first few months were primarily around you know I would say three or four things, getting Casey and I on the same page about what we were planning on building and how we’re
planing on going about it, so we spent a good chunk of time together nailing those things down as well as setting up and incorporating an entity. Then doing a fundraising round so lots of phone calls with investors and potential investors and making some decisions around what we wanted to build and how we wanted to build it, I don’t mean build in terms of the software but what we wanted to do in terms of a company.
So we had this conversation like you know, hey neither of us are particularly passionate about trying to build a billion dollar plus unicorn monopoly. I’m not actually a big fan of monopolies, I don’t think they’re very good for the economy, I don’t think they’re good for
society. I get that they make you a lot of money but you know, one in a million shot at building one but I don’t love that and I don’t love the odds model of the classic venture-backed startup you know which are very low, I think it’s like somewhere between 4-6% of companies that take venture rounds end up returning the appropriate multiple that makes their investors satisfied and happy and I think that in those 95% of cases where it doesn’t happen, it’s not a great experience for anyone.
So we decided instead to do this very unique sort of angel only round that had a very strange construct, the idea is that the company will be profitable and then people who invest in it can make money from the profits. Which sounds insane in tech startup world and like the only thing a company is for in every other world.
Rand: So yeah we’re not incredibly passionate about the tax dodging vehicle of you know 409A valuations and you know stock appreciation and all that stuff just to save 20% on our taxes, that didn’t particularly call to us and so we set up the structure, we closed our round, $1.3 million from, I think 35, 36 investors in June and the last few months… I mean Casey obviously had been working on some of the engineering and technology side before that and I’d been working on the product side but for the last couple of months we’ve been essentially full steam ahead on that stuff so I talked to a lot of potential customers and people who we think might be good customers and product people and yeah, folks like yourself right… you know who have been in the industry and know a lot about it and have some passion around this and talk about the problem that we’re trying to solve and figure out if the way that we are thinking about it and positioning it resonates with you right. If it makes sense to you and 100 other people like you I think it’s got a real shot in the market and if it doesn’t then we need to tweak and tune things.
So that’s what we’ve been doing and as you mentioned we’ve put out a few free tools to
sort of test the waters and show off what we can do as well as to collect some Twitter OAuth tokens so that we can make the requests that we want to make. Yeah and that’s been the last six months.
Paul: So that’s been a whirlwind, so in terms of the problem for anybody who hasn’t yet looked at the SparkToro website, the paid product that you’re working on. Can you just explained to us a bit more about the problem that you’re trying to solve because I think it’s a problem that resonates for a whole load of people.
Rand: Yeah I think the weirdest thing about this problem Paul is that it doesn’t have a name. I can’t, I can’t tell you how many phone calls and interviews I have with people and I ask them okay tell me what you call this process… you’ve got a new campaign or a new
product or you’re an agency or consultant and you’re working with a new company and they audience with our message right and then bring them to our website or our storefront and attract their attention and interest so that we can potentially convert them to a customer which is what all marketing is right.
Then the first thing that you do is you go learn a lot about that audience and try and figure out what do they pay attention to, What do they read, what websites do they visit, what social networks are they active on, who and what do they follow and pay attention to, what podcasts they listen to, what events do they go to, what YouTube channels are they subscribers to, all those kinds of things. So that then you can go do your marketing activities, like we’re gonna try and pitch to speak at this conference and see if we can be a guest on this podcast and write a guest editorial for this blog and sponsor this event, you know whatever it is right.
Insanely enough I don’t think that problem despite being pervasive has a name and so this problem without a name of discovering all the people and publication that your audience pays attention to, that is the problems SparkToro is trying to solve.
Paul: Yeah and that is a problem, what do you call it, customer audience discovery, I don’t know a name for it but it’s understanding the whole way that a customer is, could be found and you know… the influence, the decision making process, the whole customer journey if you like.
That is something that we’ve come across as an agency, a problem all the time, you start having conversation with a client and sometimes they just don’t know where their audience is and it’s your job to find out you know…they’ve got this product or they’ve got this service and you need to dig in and actually solve those problems for them.
So in terms of where the product is now…I hadn’t seen and I don’t know whether you publicized what your kind of roadmap is or how long it’s going to take, is it because you’re still on the discovery stage, it sounds like Casey’s building stuff. Or you know, how long do you think it will be before you have something that you’re happy to put out there?
Rand: yeah I think… you know my suspicion is we’re going to be probably pushing something out there live maybe by… somewhere between January and March I hope to have something that I could show a beta group of private users and then by the spring have something publicly available, that’s kind of our target range right now. I think that
could vary, one of the things that I… that’s very different about me versus my time at Moz is I’m very unwilling to put out a sort of imperfect product, I’m happy to wait you know, a month, three months even six months to get something that is polished and extremely high quality that the beta users are raving about and they’re using every week and just finding incredible value from.
Versus… hey let’s launch this thing early and sort of see how it goes and we can tweak it along the way. I don’t think that model works very well, that sort of MVP model, if you have a lots of eyeballs paying attention and I suspect with SparkToro because of my history at Moz and sort of the network and following that I’ve built up it…when we announced that we have something ready a lot of people are going to come take a look and they will
all judge us and sort of think of the product and think of the company in whatever way they perceive the product on day one for the next 10 years and it’s gonna be very tough to change minds after day one and so day one has to really resonate.
Paul: So rather then a MVP it’s a DVP, or I think you called it a EVP… but like decent viable product?
Rand: Yeah exceptional, exceptional viable product.
Paul: Oh that’s quite a high bar isn’t it but I guess but you know you’ve got… both you and Casey, you’ve got pretty high reputations that you need to sustain.
Rand: Fingers crossed right! I think that it is also more doable because the product that we’re building is extremely focused right, so many folks that we talked to about are like… ‘oh well are you gonna help marketers you know… manage their PR and influencer and social media marketing and content marketing campaigns through this service’ which is a reasonable thing that we could do but no, the answer is no we won’t.
We will exclusively help with the discovery piece, we’re not going to try and be a full monitoring solution, we’re not going to try and be a solution where you can directly sponsor or pay people or try and you know get people in publications onto our networks and surface those first or allow people to buy advertising to show up higher in our lists. None of that stuff, we are exclusively a… essentially a search engine right. You know in the most basic like Google in 1998 type of sense, you search, you get results, you choose the ones that you want, you add them to your list and now you can start to do your marketing campaign of whatever kind you want to do.
Paul: I think that sounds great and you know… I’m rereading your book for the third time now, I think I said in my email to you that you know first I bought it digitally then I bought a hard copy which my son read and you know there’s just so much that is great in there but I think what you just mentioned came out of you know… it’s my understanding out of Moz where you created this tool that was too many things to too many different people and you’d wish that you’d always you know…keep it simple, stupid I think. So you know that’s why I’m just nodding along with everything that you’re saying about your intent for SparkToro to just have that focus and it makes it so much easier.
Rand: I’ve been surprised I think marketing professionals are sort of different from a lot of other professions that I’ve observed which is that we happily jump between dozens of different one-off tools to do… I will happily, even though I have a Moz subscription I’ll happily jump to Screaming Frog to do this particular crawl and oh then I’m gonna use something els to do this other type of crawl and then I’ll jump into Google search console and I’ll pop over to Ahrefs and then I’ll go back to Moz’s link explorer and then I’ll… you know jump into some different keyword tool. Incredible right, I’ll hop to BuzzSumo and get their content. All of these different tools marketers are very comfortable jumping between, they don’t really care that the interfaces are different I think that’s you know, that’s very strange to like a sales person who thinks either I use Salesforce or one of their competitors and that’s like the only thing that I have or an accounting professional who might say… ‘yeah everything is in QuickBooks I don’t jump out into all these other different tools and processes’.
Paul: I guess that’s why the whole Martech marketplace is so rich you know there’s 5000, 6000 products because we’re all so promiscuous with the tools we use.
Rand: Absolutely right yeah!
Paul: Great space to be in and there’s room for one more.
Rand: I mean, I think it’s a great space to be in if you are looking to build a… you know, $5m-$50m a year revenue company that is profitable and can sort of survive and do well and build passionate customers I think it’s a really tough space to be in if your goal is put everyone else in this space out of business and be the monopoly that sort of owns it exclusively, even the biggest biggest players right… people like MailChimp are not monopolies there’s 50 other email companies that are doing decent revenue and that serve other needs.
Paul: Yeah and of course the coolest thing about MailChimp is that their private
Rand: That’s right and they didn’t even need to raise you know venture investment, they raise some private funds but yeah incredible.
Paul: Yeah, fantastic. So that’s SparkToro and you’ve got two free tools at the moment and you’re working on a paid tool and hoping to beta that early next year.
Rand: Yeah we actually have plans for one more free tool coming out in the next few weeks.
Paul: Ah cool, can you tell us anything about it?
Rand: I can yeah, it is… it’s designed to audit a Twitter account and determine what percent and which of the followers are actually active engaged followers versus you know inactive… you know whatever, Russian bots, you know the political propaganda followers that seem to be cropping up a lot, the fake followers that people buy for their accounts to inflate their numbers, those kinds of things. So, it is a sort of auditing tool for that and the ideas you could just plug in any Twitter account and get a percentage rate… so here’s Paul’s account and you know 93% of his followers are real accounts and 7% are probably not and here’s somebody else’s account and boy it looks like 40% of their followers are fake so you should not think of that account as having the influence that it does, you should be questioning a lot of that.
Paul: When’s that coming out Rand?
Rand: We are aiming for I think before the end of October it might even be in the next couple of weeks.
Paul: Oh wow, I’m gonna have to push this podcast to the front then.
Rand: Haha, Well I’ll make sure to drop you an email the night before it launches and you can come out with exclusive.
Paul: Cool, so what else keeps you awake at night? Because I know you’re a feminist and there’s been some incidents fairly recently which you know just… you just still can’t believe it happens but you know… seminars, conferences should be safe places for everybody and that’s not always the case and I know that’s something that you’ve been working on in the background as well I just wondered if you had anything any developments or insights on that which you could share with us?
Rand: Yeah yeah, thanks for bringing it up Paul so this basically stemmed from about 18 months ago when I was at conference and a woman who was was also there had a really terrible experience where she was assaulted and chased and thankfully managed to get away from this guy who was a speaker at the same conference and the event organizers were told what happened and you know the woman decided not to sort of press charges or pursue it further but informed the event folks what had happened and they sort of promised to take care of it and then a few months later she found out that this person had been invited back to keynote and so clearly… you know clearly these event organizers hadn’t changed their mind and so she reached out to me, I had a call with the event organizers they change direction on this and you know sent her an apology.
I think it’s… I was very frustrated that that’s what it took that you know getting a third party involved is what it took to take action but it made me realize that this is not an isolated incident. I had this conversation with a number of folks especially you know a lot of women speakers who I’m friends with in the search and marketing and tech fields you know entrepreneurs too… and all of them said ‘oh yeah this is what it’s like right, you know if you’re a woman and you go to an event you have to do the calculus every time…is it worth this and you know I want to go out with these… you know some of the speakers after the
event because that’s when a lot of the networking happens it’s good for my career and you build friendships, relationships but it’s also very risky you know… can I afford to do this.
I thought, this is crap I have never, my whole career… I’ve never had to think twice about oh do I want to go get a drink with Danny Sullivan after you know SES Toronto in 2005 and further a relationship that was instrumental to my career, absolutely I do I didn’t even have to think about it right and of course I think that just that cognitive load sucks.
So this project is a result of those experiences and conversations it’s called Project event safe, it has been a long, slow, tedious process…there was a Pro Bono law firm who was helping me out with the legal side of it which is complicated to say the least. Eventually they ended up sort of dropping out and I pony’ed up to pay an attorney’s office here in Seattle and I’ve been working with them to structure it, to get insurance and protections all those kinds of things in place and then to contact event organizers.
Basically the idea behind it is fundamentally to build a private shared database between event organizers where they would be able to say this… you know we had an incident reported we investigated it and we did or did not take serious action as a result, they
won’t be able to specify what the action was or what the accusation was or those kinds of things but that way if you see… oh hey Rand Fishkin was reported at three different events, you know maybe we shouldn’t invite him to ours.
I think that the problem is that a lot of these you know I don’t want to just say speakers right but speakers and attendees I think a very small number of mostly men are responsible for making the vast majority of the uncomfortable, frustrating, sometimes dangerous experiences for not just women but but predominantly.
Paul: For everyone and this problems not gone away has it?
Rand: No, it’s not.
Paul: You would have thought that… you know a lot of people have highlighted it but it’s carrying on.
Rand: I think there’s a… there’s also a weird… I don’t know exactly what you want to call it but like a weird revitalization of a sort of… some outdated ideas about relationships
between Men and Women in the United States recently, probably due to the political climate here that has been driving some people to take action, to be emboldened to take action and say things that I don’t think they would have previously and to feel like they have air cover for that.
Paul: Yeah that’s… that’s disappointing but I’m really interested in how that’s going and you know getting that to a stage where it will actually start to be effective because you know… the thought, I feel the same as you, it sickens me the thought that somebody would go to a conference and feel whole time they were there that they couldn’t do something you know couldn’t have a drink with someone or have a chat with someone because it’s going to be misconstrued or you know taking the wrong way.
Final thing to say Rand, on a more lighter note, worked out that we both started out the same way, we are web designers from the last century.
Rand: It sounds so… it sounds so antiquated when you put it that way.
Paul: It does, it does I think I built my first website in 95, I’m just wondering whether we should start some sort of Club for aging, last century web designers where we can all compare notes on the blink tag or something crazy like.
Rand: Oh yeah, I mean I remember doing all of my designs in Macromedia flash, that was my poison of choice back in late 90s, early 2000s.
Paul: Oh flash, or Dreamweaver.
Rand: Yeah I still have… I’m not gonna lie I still do some design stuff in flash even though Adobe has basically retired it.
Paul: Yeah I was going to say I didn’t know existed anymore.
Rand: Nope, it’s pretty much gone, I’m the last one.
Paul: The last remaining flash designer.
Rand: Exactly, occasionally you’ll see a graphic in a blog post or presentation from me that was taken from one of my flash files.
Paul: Yeah because you just find it, you still find it easy to use and quicker in flash.
Rand: Yeah it’s just so comfortable right, when I open up illustrator it just takes me forever to do anything in there but flash I can crank it out in a few seconds.
Paul: Great, I love that you’re still doing your own stuff in flash!
Rand, thank you very much for talking to me today it’s really great to get updated on SparkToro and everything else that you’re doing I’m really looking forward to the product when you bring it out, I’m sure it will be exceptional and yeah and the free tool that you’re bringing out soon as well, thank you very much for your time.
Rand: Yeah my pleasure Paul, thank you for having me.
Paul: I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Rand for more info on SparkToro please visit www.sparktoro.com.