Business Thoughts

Wil, Here's Some Things I Think Are Holding SEER Back (and some things that are making SEER amazing)

Note from the Editor: In this post Rand talks about his experience during the CEO Swap, where SEER Founder Wil Reynolds and Moz CEO Rand Fishkin swapped lives, jobs, and even homes for one week.To read Wil’s corresponding post for Moz, visit the Moz Blog.

Hey gang, Rand from Moz here. As part of the CEO Swap Wil and I recently completed, we both agreed to blog for each others’ sites. In preparation, I conducted a poll over Twitter, and this was the subject people most wanted to hear about. I want to be sensitive to issues that the advice I have might rub raw, so I’ll try stretch transparency as far as possible while remaining empathetic to the SEER team (who, BTW, really impressed me.)

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CEO Swap was an incredible experience, and one I plan to write more about in the future. A week isn’t a long time, but it felt like enough to have some truly meaningful takeaways. However, I don’t want to fool myself or anyone reading this – the opinions expressed below are those of an interloper, and not a professional one. I spent 5 days with your team, and probably no more than 4 hours with any one person nor more than 90 minutes with any single client, so I’m hardly an expert.

My hope is that some of these surface-level observations will yield valuable takeaways, or at least spur important conversations. But please don’t take my advice with any special consideration. There’s no penalty for ignoring any of this, and don’t forget that you’ve built something incredible (without my input) over the last decade.

Caveats out of the way, let’s start with my take on what’s holding SEER back from even greater success in the long run.

#1: Make Yourself Redundant One Thing at a Time

You do too much, buddy. While I can completely respect your philosophy on taking out the garbage, it needs to remain a “willingness to do anything,” and not a case of you actually doing everything!

There’s a bunch of reasons why, but the biggest two are around A) stepping back so others can step up, try, fail, learn, and get better – that creates scalability and redundancy which every business needs if it wants to grow and B) you are more valuable NOT doing that stuff and freeing up your mental, emotional, and physical energy for other things (including downtime!). It seems impossible to imagine, but you’re actually doing a disservice to your team in many cases by taking out the trash, or wiring the phones on the weekend, or taking care of the purchase orders. The downtime we have as CEOs is crucial to our companies’ success. During downtime, your mind is slowly processing those big questions and big problems, even though you don’t realize it. Embrace that processing power :-)

I’ve already seen signs and heard from others that you’re doing this in a lot of functional areas (which is awesome), but I want to urge you to think about it even in management and leadership situations. Just do it slowly – take a piece that you’re handling today and offload it, and when you feel comfortable that it’s totally off your shoulders, do it again.

#2: Process Can Help Set You Free

I hate process. I’ve hated it forever. It feels constricting and inauthentic and like it doesn’t take into consideration all the weird circumstances that might arise in a given situation. But I’ve learned to make process my ally.

Process is powerful because it frees you and your team from approaching each new scenario like it’s the first time. That saves a lot of potentially wasted energy. But, it’s also powerful because it creates an expectation of what will happen. If someone on the team resigns, and there’s no process, the managers and team members are instantly going to be struck by the fear that accompanies uncertainty. But if it’s a well-documented process, the uncertainty and the fear are gone.

Moz has created a lot of process over the years, and I’ve resisted much of it. But at our size today, I am seeing the benefits of process over and over again, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. If I ever do another startup, I’d start with a lot more definition of process (around all sorts of things), because the power of creating expectations and fulfilling them is so much greater than the loss incurred from constriction of a free-form organization.

#3: Craft SEER’s Internal Vision-Based Framework

I’ve already shared some broad thoughts around vision-based frameworks and how we apply them at Moz, but I’m going to reiterate how powerful I think it can be for SEER.

Below is a diagram I left on one of your conference room whiteboards:

wb-vision-framework

Basically, the idea is to answer these questions:

  • Why does SEER Exist?
    (Not just what do you want SEER to do for you or your team or your clients, but rather, what is that bigger purpose and calling? If SEER was still around in 50 years, what would you want people to be saying about how it impacted the industry/community/world?)
  • What are SEER’s core values?
    (What do you hold more dear than growth or revenue or profitability? What would you never compromise for those things? What traits do you want all your policies, people, and processes to represent over SEER’s life?)
  • Where do you want SEER to be in 5 years?
    (Or, if you prefer to think this way, imagine it’s the end of 2018 and SEER has accomplished X. Do you feel good about that? Is it what you believe the company’s capable of? Is it the right set of metrics on which to judge progress/accomplishment?)
  • SEER’s BHAG
    (Take the 5-year goal and stretch it. Make sure it’s a measurable goal – so easily measurable that it will be completely clear cut to everyone looking at it whether you’ve reached it or not. Make that stretched, measurable portion the BHAG.)
  • How will you get there?
    (Part of this is the elements that make up strategy – the team, the processes, the operations, the leadership, etc. and part is the tactical pursuits themselves. But, a huge, often ignored portion is what NOT to do. Answering that definitively can make your whole team more effective and focused.)

I also put down some questions about defining culture, and having process/structure around people. I’ve seen uncertainty around this stuff be really harmful – people are scared because they don’t know how things are done. Definition means you create some barriers, but it’s another powerful tool in the arsenal of focus and effectiveness – and best of all, it will free up a lot of the emotional energy you expend figuring out these decisions when situations arise.

This is not a simple excercise, but it is a powerful one. It will demand that you know yourself and your beliefs deeply, and that’s hard for many people. It was tremendously hard for me. But, like many hard things, the returns are remarkable.

#4: Turn that Vision into a Cohesive Narrative for SEER’s External Branding

When I think about SEER and my associations with it from before our swap, I think about #RCS, about Wil Reynolds, and about some of the team members I’ve met from SEER over the years (like Rachael and Adam). But, if asked, what makes SEER unique from any other SEO/PPC consulting firm I’d recommend, that answer’s harder to give (it’s easier now that I’ve done the swap, but no one else who’s out there talking about your brand is going to get that experience).

Below is another whiteboard diagram I made during my time at SEER:

wb-narrative

I know we both love how narratives play a part in great marketing. I’m pushing for you and your team to define that narrative at SEER. What’s the unique value proposition that separates you from other great agencies? What’s the story you want to tell across every part of a customer’s engagement (or potential engagement) with you?

If you nail it, you don’t just improve your ability to close deals, but you make it way easier for SEER’s people to go out and replicate that narrative in their interactions (whether client-facing or external).

#5: Don’t Be Shy About Leveraging Your Personal Brand

I know you worry about being the primary face and voice of SEER. I actually think your humility and desire to do heads-down work is part of what makes you a great CEO and a great leader. Your attitude on this has even challenged my thinking several times over the years!

But, from personal experience, I can say that attempts at suppressing my personal brand over the company’s life was A) very challenging and B) often felt inauthentic. You have a deep passion for what you do and what SEER does, and it’s infectious. You’re also a great storyteller and marketer – when you stand up on a stage and speak, people listen. When you write, we read. You have a unique gift, and if you can find a way for the inner Wil to get comfortable with that gift, to embrace it, and to leverage it, SEER can be even better. Perhaps, more importantly and selfishly, all of us in the marketing world will reap the benefits.

#6: Focus on a Single Area of Growth at a Time

One thing I love about you and SEER is your open invitation to let your team members extend their influence, achieve remarkable things, and prove the value of some new idea or opportunity. It’s really awesome to see how people have embraced that opportunity.

However, I do worry a little about focus. There’s a saying in our world: More startups die from indigestion than starvation. SEER is very close to the size Moz was at in mid-2012, and if there’s one thing I wish I could tell myself from 18 months ago, it’s to stay focused on a few things, rather than trying to take on so many. The hedgehog concept is a powerful one because it aligns people, resources, and purpose. I love the areas SEER thinks about for growth – content, analytics, and international. All are interesting, all have potential, but if it were me, I’d execute on one until it was 20% of sales (at a minimum) before I’d think about another growth area.

#7: Concentrate on Making Your Best People Even Better

One of the things that’s weird about building a company is that we get to a point where we want to offload responsibility into capable hands. Then we focus on shoring up the weaknesses and working to help those who are struggling find their way. In the process, we sometimes lose sight of our best people – they’re doing a great job. They don’t need our help. This other thing really needs to be dealt with. So, I’ll deal with that first.

I’ve been there myself.

The problem is that we leave behind those super-capable doers who keep the trains running. They’re resilient, intelligent, and they get why you’re busy putting out fires. But they need your time, even if they don’t know it. Upgrading your best people – and making them challenge your thinking and push you to be better is one of the best uses of your time as CEO. It probably feels indulgent, which makes it feel wrong, which makes you think you should go work on someone or something that isn’t going right. But that’s just the guilt talking.

I’ve written about how having Sarah Bird challenge me makes me a better CEO, and I think you’d find a good handful of Mozzers say that me challenging them does the same thing. Having powerful conversations about our underlying assumptions, data, roadmaps, and beliefs is mind-expanding in the best way. When you give your best people the time they’ve earned and deserve, they’ll upgrade even further – and they’ll upgrade you, too.

#8: Build a Board of Directors that has Skin in the Game

We already had a debate about this one, but I’m going to try to bring this home one more time anyway :-)

When Michelle Goldberg (whom you got to hang with during the CEO swap) met me in 2007, she had to convince me that:

  • VCs weren’t all evil
  • I had what it took to be a CEO (Gillian was head of the company at the time)
  • Moz could be something far bigger than I’d ever imagined
  • We could be valued at $7.1mm (the post-money in our first round) and return 10X+
  • The help of a formal board of directors could make me a better CEO and Moz a better company

She was right. She was so right they should give that woman a f*&$ing medal.

To a lot of independent entrepreneurs and business owners, a board probably feels like a hassle and a check on their authority that directly conflicts with the reason they became an entrepreneur in the first place. But a great board is actually like having an extra layer on your brain. You have tough problems and big decisions and unexecuted opportunity. What you need are diverse, experienced, intelligent brains thinking about these issues with you. They need to come from the same place you come from – a position of ownership (even if their share is far lower than yours), and a sense of obligation to do what’s right for the company.

Remember Spock on Star Trek? A board’s kinda like him. We all get a little Captain Kirk-y some days. We need to have a voice of logic and reason. We need to have someone remind us that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one. Even when the one is the captain, and it’s his starship.

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I spent serious time on the suggestions above, and if you read these shorter snippters below, you might come away thinking that since I’m much less verbose with my praise, I must have an overall negative impression. That’s entirely the opposite of the truth.

SEER has built something I never could – a great consulting business that’s scaled to millions in revenue, hundreds of satisfied customers, and a sizable team. The biggest we ever had the old SEOmoz consulting business back in 2008 (when Lindsay Wassell was running that arm of the org) was ~$800k in annual revenue, 4 team members (and a few contractors), and maybe a dozen clients.

So, all that said, here’s some elements of SEER’s model that seriously impressed me:

#1: The Recruiting Process

I went to get beers with Adam on evening. He explained to me that SEER hires a lot of new college graduates. You seek out those with high emotional intelligence, great personal integrity, and the ability to learn fast and think critically. Then you have a meritocratic system that rewards great contributors and lets people’s influence define their role (not the other way around). You provide training, but let people sink or swim after a few weeks with mentorship.

And man does it work. SEER’s people are strong marketers and good human beings. You’re building something really special by giving these folks an opportunity, and it honestly made me a little jealous. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love the team at Moz. But we bias to very experienced and advanced folks who have backgrounds in software engineering, product development, marketing specialties, etc. And that recruiting process is SUPER HARD! It takes us months to fill a single open position, but at SEER, you’re far more efficient.

p.s. I know that for more senior hires, you have an equally challenging time, but seeing how SEER’s built from the base up was super cool.

#2: The Executive Team

You have built a solid group. I was impressed and inspired by the openness and effort your exec team puts in. You clearly know what it takes to find and groom leaders, and that’s obviously a huge reason why people love to work at SEER.

#3: The Client Work & the Results of that Work

Wow. Obviously, a lot of this success belongs to the SEER team, but man was it impressive to sit in a couple of client presentations (one in person, and another via phone) and hear the results you’re putting up. You don’t just talk the talk – you really walk the walk. I didn’t find one shred of evidence of shady link building tactics, even though I know plenty of respectable agencies that occassionally use them to boost results. All I saw were solid marketing practices, applied rigorously, producing better rankings, more traffic, and more conversions.

Bravo.

#4: The Loyalty & Passion of SEER’s People

I went to “marketing breakfast” a few blocks away from your house with a crew of young marketers, many of whom got up before 6am to be there. They went through case studies they had found online and off. They talked about the takeaways and lessons they could learn. And they ordered $3.95 breakfasts and paid for it themselves (OK, Moz actually picked up the tab because I was doing that all week, but they tried!). It wasn’t even an official SEER thing! They just decided that they wanted to learn more and spend time together and so they put together this breakfast.

That kind of initiative and dedication and whole-hearted, passionate embrace of your profession is badass. Congratulations for building a team that believes in you and SEER the way I know you believe in them.

#5: The Work Environment

SEER is fun. It’s head down, it’s hard working, it’s often quiet. But, it felt right. It felt a lot like Moz a couple years ago :-)

#6: The Cadence of Client Projects

Cadence is a tough thing to get right. The pace of deliverables and work vs. meetings and nudges and communication is something you’ve cleared been polishing for years. I was impressed to see how you created expectations with clients about how communication would go, and then stuck to it. You even (wisely) push back when clients are overly demanding or go dramatically beyond the statements of work. I’m sure that discipline came from painful lessons, but it’s clearly working today.

#7: The Sales Process

You guys are really good at the inbound sales philosophy. There’s no pushiness, no aggressive upsells, no fake ass-kissing. It’s respectful and humble, but confident. Nice to see you walking the walk here, too. :-)

#8: The Focus on Being at the Forefront of the Industry

Holy $#@! are your people smart! They’re more up-to-date on industry tools, data, trends, and metrics than I am (which isn’t saying all that much, but it still felt impressive). I really like that SEER carves out time and creates an expectation that people will learn however suits them best.

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It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of SEER’s crew for a week. I hope this experience was as valuable for them as it was for me, and that the insights I’ve shared in this post can be put to good use (or completely ignored if they’re not helpful).

Also, I can’t wait to go back to Philly. I miss Coltrane :-)

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