LonePack Conversations—Rand Fishkin & fighting depression through an entrepreneurial journey

Putting one’s efforts, money, time, and passion into building a company is easier said than done. Not only does it give one the fame and glory of establishing big in the business world, but also drive them crazy over various step-stones in the process to stardom. 


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Aishwarya: Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Aishwarya, your host, and today we’re speaking to Rand Fishkin, an established entrepreneur and leader in the start-up space. 

Hi Rand! Welcome to LonePack Conversations. It’s great to speak to you. 

Rand: Great to speak to you, as well! Thanks for having me.  

Aishwarya: Sure. Let’s begin with a little bit of a background. 

So, you’re just about to kickstart your second entrepreneurial venture. How is life and how are things? 

Rand: Exciting, yeah. I’ve been working on this new venture for a couple of years now; almost 2 years, exactly, and have a co-founder, we have raised a little bit of money, we’re just getting ready to launch our paid product, and so it’s busy, but in a good way. 

Aishwarya: That sounds exciting! So, as the founder of ‘Moz’ and currently ‘SparkToro’, if you had to pick a challenging and mentally exhausting moment in your life, what would it be? 

Rand: I have had many. Probably too many. I would say one of the most mentally taxing and frustrating parts of my career during my tenure as CEO of ‘Moz’, after we raised our $18 million funding round. And of course, you know lots of requirements around growth and exits come with that.  We had a team of about 50 people at the time, which was a wonderful size, I really enjoyed it, but we had to grow, right? We had to get much bigger, much faster, be able to do a lot more, produce a lot more software, delight a lot more customers. And so, over the next 18 months, we tripled the team size to nearly 150 people including contractors, and that process, those 18 months, from 2012 into 2013, those were one of the hardest, most difficult of my career. 

I think that building a team from the ground up is a hard thing, but scaling at a rapid rate, right; adding more people you have in a company is really really exhausting for the team , for the leadership, it’s really hard on your value and your culture; it’s hard on all the people who are there. That stands out in my mind as being a crazy difficult time. 

Aishwarya: Definitely, I think I’m able to imagine, the way you are describing, how it would be for somebody who has bigger aspirations and goals. At the same time, those 18 months would’ve been really taxing for you. And, I actually read about the fact that when Sarah came in as the CEO after you, how things were able to, you know, bring back into the picture; how there was a sort of unity in the team, and I really love that portion. 

Rand: I found it tremendously challenging to just maintain a culture; a company culture that I wanted to exist. I think that was a huge part of the problem. 

Another part of the problem, too, is this; the expectations that come from your existing team, right, from the people who’ve been there, and who’ve helped you along the way, and what they expect from a growing company, right, a lot of people who are individual contributors want to become managers. A lot of people who are managers expect their teams to grow, and their budgets to grow, and I think as a CEO, especially a first-time CEO, it’s really hard to say no. 

Aishwarya: True, yeah. 

Rand: You’re just not used to it; you don’t expect it, you know, you have all this money; people know you have all this money; expectations, and they say, ‘Hey, I want more budget, I want more people on my team, I wanna hire three more people. You’re expected to say yes, and it’s hard to say no. 

Aishwarya: Absolutely. Each company has its set of goals and expectations, and the people who make up the company again will have their expectations, and it’s important to sort of align these together, because everybody is definitely looking out for growth map and likewise with the company, and I think as the CEO, an important task, and the most contingent task for you would’ve been to align these two together. I can definitely understand that. 

Rand: Yeah, I think there’s this big challenge where people have multiple goals in mind, so obviously, the people who were working at ‘Moz’; they wanted the company to do well, but they also wanted their personal careers to do well. They wanted their personal careers to show growth. They want their title to get bigger, they want their pay to get more, they want more people reporting to them, because that looks more impressive to future employers. These are often at odds with what you should do as a CEO. The right thing to do as a CEO; your obligation to the shareholders, and your Board, and the company’s growth, is to say no to almost everything, except a few things. 

But the pressure in the moment feels the opposite.  When someone comes to you and says ‘Hey, I’ve done a loyal, great job over the last three or four years; I expect these things from my career; this is what I’m looking for,’ and you want to say “Yes, you deserve that, I want to give it to you.” But in fact what you’ve got to say is, “It’s not the right thing for the company, and if that’s not enough to keep you here, then good luck; let’s find you a new role somewhere else; I’m happy to make  introductions, or give a nice testimonial about you.” And if that’s not enough, here’s what you can expect from your career here over the next few years, and here’s how it gets changed. It gets really hard, right.  

Startups…startups are one thing, and as they get to middling stages of growth, they become another thing. People are really bad at change; people hate change. 

Aishwarya: Certainly, certainly. I think for people, as you grow, as you start up, as you try to grow that company big, the most important and most difficult task would be to prioritize and say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things that really matter. Especially in this case, when an employee walks up to you and asks for, say, a pay raise or a change in role, and you know that he/she is still deserving, but at that point, you might have to say no because you have certain aspirations; certain paths for the company to go through. So that’s totally acceptable, and it’s time that people start thinking about this; how to say no, because that’s one of the most difficult tasks. 

Rand: Yeah, absolutely. Saying no and saying yes; these are the hard things. 

Aishwarya: So, did depression have an effect on your physical health? If so, how did you realize it and what were the measures you took to overcome that? 

Rand: Yeah, the bad news for me is, it did have a significant effect on my health and wellbeing, I think both physically and mentally. Over the course of my…I was in my late 20s and my early-mid 30s and I had degenerative disk disease, which affects your spine and made it very uncomfortable and difficult for me to sit for long stretches, which is very hard when you have to get on a lot of planes and travel overseas for conferences and events and those sort of things. 

And it also had a significant negative impact on my sleep. Which, of course, you know, sleep and stress are very well-coordinated, and I think that that cycle of having stress, compounding physical pain which made it hard to sleep, which made every day even more stressful; that cycle, that loop, was really really difficult to break through. 

And eventually, I think the answer for me ended up being pulling back from the quantity of work I was doing; I invested in physical therapy, and mental health therapy, right—seeing a counsellor, a therapist, and a coach, and I also stepped down from the CEO role, and took another role inside the company, although I think that probably did not have a great impact on my mental health and physical health for at least a number of years. 

And it wasn’t really until I left ‘Moz’ and started my new company, ‘SparkToro’, that I think I got to a really healthy place. And so nowadays, arguably the best shape of my life, both physically and mentally; but it is… it can be really hard, and I think that people have to choose. They have to choose what’s right for them, and whether they can prioritize their health over their company. I think what’s wrong is that it’s often a false dichotomy, where you think you need to be working all hours when, in fact, a few very productive hours are probably far better than 60 or 80 hours in a work week. 

But that’s just not the general belief. I think that the culture of tech is to overwork people and we need to end that. 

Aishwarya: Sure. I think that’s quite some stress and physical toll on you, and kudos to you because you’ve managed it really well. And, you know what, you’ve set an example to a lot of listeners today because I’m sure most of them have thoughts today about starting up or they are in the process of running a company, and they are handling a lot of pressure on a day-to-day basis. 

So, I guess what you told actually gives them a good idea to reflect upon, especially when you said ‘Choose’ because, you know, as Jeff Bezos says, at the end of the day, you’re made up of your choices. And you have to make those choices in a right way; good, bad, whatever it is, you just have to analyze and try to come over it. So I think that’s a very strong point that I, along with the listeners, are picking up today for our own lives, as well. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, I mean, my hope is that in the future, more people choose to prioritize their health first, and I believe that it will actually lead; that will lead to more successful business outcomes. 

I think there’s a mythology that by sacrificing health, and making that choice, if you will, to devote yourself entirely to your work and your business, that somehow you’re going to benefit from that; that your business is going to benefit from that…I think that’s not true. 

I think that the CEOs’ job, fundamentally the CEO’s job is to make great decisions. And every piece of research we have shows that when you’re sleep-deprived, and when you’re in pain, and when you’re not taking care of your body, your decision-making is worse. 

So I would argue that you should work less, you should sleep more, you should exercise and eat and enjoy your social life so that you are mentally in a good place, to make great decisions. Because that is your core job. 

And I know I made a lot of bad decisions when I wasn’t sleeping, when I was working 60-80 hours a week; I know I did. 

Aishwarya: Spot on! I think it’s straight from a founder’s life, and you know, these are some gold points, and I’m sure that the listeners are just going to pick this up and try to relate this with their lives, and start practising them already. 

Rand: Yeah. 

Aishwarya: From a workplace front, do you think workers and peers can be supportive about your mental wellness at the times that you need? 

Rand: Yeah, absolutely! I think that you, as a founder, can craft a culture that reinforces and supports the idea that it’s results and quality of work that matter, and not the amount of work that matters, or hard work or the number of hours in the office or number of hours online; I think those are useless matrices. I would instead reward work that is high quality, and work that gets results. And I would recognise and reward people investing in their health. 

I think that if you do those two things, craft that type of a culture, you can do that from the bottom-up or the top-down, both, and you will get a workplace that delivers really good quality results. 

Aishwarya: Wonderful! I think a little bit of a praise and appreciative behaviour of one another would definitely help in succeeding. Not just sticking on what the results are, and how much time it took for the results to come in, but actually the quality work that comes in after somebody works on it; just a small appreciation would go a long way in building team spirit. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, and I think recognising; I mean, somebody puts two hours into a project, and the results are high-quality; I think recognising and rewarding that, more so than if somebody puts 20 or 30 hours into the same project and gets the same quality of results; I think that’s an excellent thing. 

One of the things that’s definitely true, especially in most high-tech work, is that when you are well-rested, and well-fed and in a good place mentally, you tend to contribute far better quality work in much shorter amounts of time. 

A lot of times you get back from vacation, and you’ll find that, “Wow! I got so much done in one day after vacation, compared to a whole week when I’m in the middle of a slog.” 

Aishwarya: True that! I think these are some gestures that most of us should keep in mind, and a contribution of this kind can actually boost the morale of the team. 

You would’ve met a lot of C-suite leaders, venture capitalists and startup founders. Do you see a common pattern of depression or mental trauma among these leaders, simply because all of these roles demand much energy and pressure to deliver the best? 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, I’ve definitely seen many, many entrepreneurs, founders, executives;  folks tell that they are struggling, mentally and emotionally and often physically. And I hope that’s a culture we can change. 

Aishwarya: Mm-hmm. Definitely, I think the struggle is real, and it’s important that…Actually, I have discovered that somebody has to first recognize that there is a struggle and that there are these mental traumas that are happening because I feel at this time, most of us don’t recognize that. That is the first problem, rather than the mental issues being there as a problem. The major problem, I feel, is not accepting, or refusing to recognize that there is even a problem like this. 

So, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think about people who have to recognize that something is happening, which most of them don’t do?

Rand: Yeah, I would agree. I don’t think you can solve a problem until you recognize it’s there and come to consensus about the fact that it is a problem. It is only after that recognition that you can address it. And this is why I think a lot of this has to do with regards to representation. If you don’t have leaders in these companies talking about these issues, saying that they faced it, talking about how they fixed it, I think you will continue to get a culture that frankly, rewards sacrificing life for work instead of balancing. 

Aishwarya: Definitely. So have you invested and secured in the mental health benefits for your employees and company leaders, now that we’re talking about team benefits, and how we should be mindful of each other in the team?

Rand: Yeah, I think we did a number of things at ‘Moz’ while I was still there and I think the company is still continuing to invest in that. So I think that includes paying for counsellors and mental health, making sure it’s a part of the company’s healthcare packages and benefits, it includes wellness rooms, it includes being more flexible with time off for mental and emotional health days, it also includes trying to nudge people more towards taking their vacation.

For SparkToro, it’s just Cassy and I; there’s only the two of us, we’re founders. We have a very very healthy work-life balance, so I think we’re sort of in a lucky position to be able to invest upto what we can and want to do and in some weeks and yeah, that’s a ton of time put into business. And, some weeks, it’s like “Hey, Cassy has kids and is busy with the family one week and I have relatives that I’m responsible for and taking care of and sometimes that all overtakes the some of the work that I wish I could get done in a week, and that’s okay!” We allow ourselves the freedom and flexibility to do that and we know that every other hour of every day is not important; what’s important is doing quality work when we’re at the peak of our performance.

Aishwarya: Awesome. I love the fact that you mentioned work-life balance, and you and Casey set the right path for people who joined SparkToro. I’m sure they would look up to the founders to see what kind of goals, or what kind of objectives you’d have, and most of them get inspired from that.

So you and Casey setting that example of having a good work-life balance, taking some time off for some personal duties is important, and I’m glad that you guys are doing it, so congrats on that. 

Rand: Oh, thank you. Yeah, we really hope so. I expect to keep the company relatively small and remote only, which I think allows people to work from wherever is most comfortable for them.

Aishwarya: Oh, that’s nice.

Rand: Yeah, and work when it’s comfortable for them and I think that’s honestly the future of work. Yeah, I think the future of work is doing from wherever is most comfortable for you.

Aishwarya: Definitely, and I think that’s the first step on the path to being mindful. I’m sure if people are given that little freedom to do work at the time that they are intended to do, when they can actually contribute much to the team; I think that paves the way for better work to be done.

Rand: I agree 100 percent. 

Aishwarya: So, in your book ‘Lost and Founder’ which, I’d like to document, is one of my recent favourites, you’ve spoken about the ways to invest in behaviour, without trying to focus on the outcomes. Beautiful thought, I should say. Could you elaborate a bit on that and tell us how this act helped your mental wellness?

Rand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So this comes from the idea of personal investment, and this works really well in the business world, as well. So this is essentially saying, “My focus is going to be on contributing the highest quality work that I can, rather than focusing on whether I immediately got the outcome that I was seeking.” 

And what happens in a lot of business practices is—marketing, for example; let’s say that I’m working on building up a great content marketing channel. And so, when you put up your first, say, blog posts, or articles, or newsletters, or content pieces of any kind, and when you see that they don’t perform the way that you want them to; when they don’t attract enough traffic, or the traffic that they do attract doesn’t convert, it’s not doing well on certain channels that you hoped it would; there’s a temptation to either give up, and stop making that investment, or to try and change the way that you’re doing things. 

And I think that you can, in fact, learn from your past experiences, and use that to form the future, but I think it’s a mistake to exclusively track results, as opposed to tracking high-quality work. If you put out a great post; great content piece, you’re proud of it, you know that the people who consumed it, it resonated with them; the answer could be that you need to keep doing that more, over time; you need to give it time to have serendipitous outcomes in the future. And a lot of the time, it’s about taking the shots and missing until one hits. I think unfortunately luck and timing are downplayed in the business world, when they probably shouldn’t be. And this is why I tell folks to invest in quality work rather than exclusively investing in results and outcome.

Aishwarya: Certainly. It comes down to enjoying the whole process of doing something because the journey is more important, and it’s important to stay connected to this journey. In fact, when you talked about how to use past references and how to tailor your future, that really made sense, both in professional and personal self; to constantly analyze the things that you’ve done, things that have really helped you achieve something, and sort of replicate that, or use some references from there in your future work. That doesn’t mean you’re dwelling in the past, but at the same time it also means you’re taking control of where you want to go in the future. 

So to invest in potentials is a very very good thought that you had put forth today. 

Rand: Oh, thanks, yeah. And I would also say that you have to be careful of small sample sizes. So one of the things I see people struggle with a lot is that they make a small number of investments, right. “Hey, we tried content marketing, we invested in ten content pieces, but they didn’t work for us, therefore we think that content marketing is not right for our audience.” And in fact, the problem is, ten is too small a sample. You might need a hundred pieces, before you can truly say how effective content can be. 

Alternatively, you may be making the investment, but not putting out quality work, and instead thinking like a check-list item, just to be published and pushed out. And that’s not wise, either.

Aishwarya: True, that! I think you shouldn’t be judgemental in the first place, and as you said, ten versus a hundred; it’s important that a lot of time and potential is invested into it, rather than just tying up with the short-term outcomes. It’s important to step aside and look at the longer run, and the bigger picture. 

Rand: And this is a really hard thing, right, I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to make investments when you don’t have results to prove. I think one of the toughest things is to ask executives and leadership to make space for failures and investments that have long pay-off periods.  But when they do, when leadership embraces that, I think you can get the expected results over time. 

Aishwarya: Yeah, I think this mentality starts with leadership, and if it’s set right there, I’m sure the startup is going to really function well because tying up to results is a problem with the urges that tend to happen to companies. Obviously, you’d be questioned about the results, about what you have done to validate your work, but it’s also important to note the fact that failures are required for you to do some quality work in the future. 

Rand: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Aishwarya: So now that we’re towards the end of the conversation, I have a quick something to ask you. What’s the thing that seemed like the one; that would bring the world down for you, back then, but now brings a laugh at the very thought of it?

Rand: Oh, gosh. I’m not sure I had something around quite that stark. Hmm, you know, there was a time at ‘Moz’ when we were getting, I don’t know, sort of subtle threats, from Google. 

People who worked at Google, like, there’s this one guy who worked at Google who would occasionally email me or say something to me like in person about how they didn’t like what ‘Moz’ was doing, they didn’t like the blog posts that we were publishing, or who we invited to our conferences, or they didn’t like the experiments that we were running, and I remember being really scared; we had board meetings where we talked about how this was going to be a big threat to the company and what we did there. 

And then it really turned out to be nothing at all. I don’t even think it was Google’s policy at all. It was just this one person, or this one team at Google who sort of got annoyed and thought, “Well, maybe I’ll mention that I’m annoyed” and we just took it really really hard. 

I regret making concessions and changing our business tactics and strategies to please some far-off person from Google that we really didn’t have to. 

Aishwarya: I see, wow. It’s a little creepy to hear as well, right, somebody personally attacking you, and obviously as you said, it’s not going to be the other company’s terms for them to directly reach out to another person of another company, and this seems like more of a personal attack than it seems from the company. 

Rand: Yeah, and Google’s done this a bunch, right, use some combination of carrot and stick to gauge behavior, and now they’re powerful company, you know, now much more so than back then, but even then they were much more powerful in terms of the web, and web traffic, and people being able to find you and trust you, and especially for an SEO company, which ‘Moz’ was, you know, we thought it was so important to have good relationships there. Yeah, I wish I had been a little more mature. 

Aishwarya: You don’t have to regret much, Rand, because at that time it would’ve definitely taught you something, which you can pick up for the next couple of your ventures, as well. 

Rand: Right, I think one of the things I’d definitely do for my future companies, is not feel bullied by bigger players. 

Aishwarya: Yes, that’s such a strong part, actually, thanks for mentioning that.

Rand: Ah, it was my pleasure. 

Aishwarya: So thank you so much for your time today, Rand. It was such a pleasure to talk to you about dealing with depression through an entrepreneurial journey. I picked up a lot of lessons today, and I’m sure the listeners would also know about the struggles before starting up, and coping with everyday pressures at work, and shattering the stigmas while they function, or try to function as an organisation together.  

Rand: Well, thank you so much for having this great conversation with me, Aishwarya. I appreciate it. 

Aishwarya: All the best from LonePack for your SparkToro journey; I’m sure it is going to be really really interesting and exciting.  

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