The latest StartupGrind Seattle played host to Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOmoz. It was a great night and in fact I was pleasantly surprised at how much I took away. Rand being Rand, I knew beforehand it would be enjoyable and a must-see interview but I can’t stop thinking about how much authentic truth was spilled during the evening.
First, I would like to briefly touch on StartupGrind and point out to anyone who has not yet attended a session how cool these events actually are. Unlike most startup “networking” events there’s an agenda and a purpose to the main event, which is the guest interview. In just a few short months, they have hosted the likes of Bing Fund’s Rahul Sood, Jonathan Sposato and Rand Fishkin. These interviews are basically fireside chats with successful entrepreneurs in front of 40 or 50 people leading to very intimate entrepreneurial discussions, such as the latest one with Rand. For most people this is as up close and personal they get to relatively successful tech founders and a great opportunity to ask random questions to gain confirmation on their thoughts.
I attended most of the events since the first one in August, but I must say Rand was an exceptional interview. His presence, personality and responsiveness during the interview instantly told the audience he was more than happy to be there and his answers came from the heart and soul of an entrepreneur. Although many different golden nuggets were shared, I wanted to highlight a few we all can take home.
Listening to Rand, one quickly realizes he is flat-out authentic and genuine in all his dealings. He was unapologetic with his points of view and responses to questions – at the same time emoting the passion and determination of someone still in the trenches. He more-or-less supported this point off hand as he answered a question about the difference between Seattle and Silicon Valley. Paraphrasing, he mentioned how it’s not as common down in the valley to have CEO’s and founders as open and willing to help others around them than it is here in Seattle. If I’m not mistaken he suggested we eat a bit more humble pie up here. Rand noted this is one of the big positives of the startup environment we find here in Seattle. What he didn’t say – and I quickly clued into – was it’s more due to people like Rand, fairly successful people actually wanting to help others and give them time of day without hesitation (and willing to participate in events like StartupGrind on a night he could be with family and friends.)
This is what I deem as authenticity – being genuinely gracious and interested in others even when it’s pretty obvious you have nothing material to gain from the interaction. Authenticity is very important for founders of early stage startups because it’s going to be how you attract others to join you early on in the pursuit of your vision. People need to feel like you value them and are being authentic in your dealings with them, not dubious and double-facing.
I will end the concept of authenticity with this description taken from a recent article you should read by Scott Weiss published on TechCrunch titled CEOs Don’t Come Pre-Made, Authentic Leadership Has To Be Learned:
A person cannot make hard decisions, hold unpopular positions, or stand tall for what he believes unless he knows who he is and feels comfortable in his own skin. I am talking about self-confidence and conviction. These traits make a leader bold and decisive, which is absolutely critical in times where you must act quickly, often without complete information. Just as important, authenticity makes a leader likeable, for lack of a better word. Their realness comes across in the way they communicate and reach people on an emotional level. Their words move them; their message touches something inside….
…A leader in times of crisis can’t have an iota of fakeness in him. He has to know himself — and like himself — so that he can be straight with the world, energize followers, and lead with the authority born of authenticity.
The stories Rand shared about the early days of SEOmoz were honest, raw and at times gut-wrenching. Yet as any of us who are early stage founders know perseverance through challenge and hardship is what it takes to succeed. He told stories about dealing with personal debt, working late nights, challenges with closing company financing, losing sleep at times wondering what the hell he was doing with his life, in addition to other funny and (probably at the time challenging) issues he faced when he was starting SEOmoz. Again, being authentic, Rand choose to share these challenges with the group and detailed how he persevered through the hardships.
The early history of the company is a great study for any founder who finds their startup not experiencing Instagram type growth right out of the gate, which quite frankly, is all of us! Rand and SEOmoz are another example of why the number one factor for success during a startup is simply perseverance. Crap happens to everyone. The difference between the successful companies and the ones that failed (or gave up) is purely because they got up each day and decided to not quit.
Rand deciding to share these challenges with the group is the single best thing he did that night. It told the people in attendance – most being founders or early startup employees – starting a company is not at all like the flash, glam and awesomeness you read about in the media. More to the point, it often sucks.
I think most founders are afraid to believe the truth, that it is this hard. From the beginning they lie to themselves and believe they will be the next Facebook or Instagram, the startup that shoots straight to the moon and straight into conversations beginning with billions of dollars. This is faulty, will hurt anyone’s mental health and most likely end a startup’s livelihood. It would be better if founders treated starting a company like bootcamp or SEAL training, at least then you are prepared and understand perseverance is the name of the game.
It was quite apparent Rand has formed a great business, but more clear was how he has built an incredible company. This happens not because the focus is on hitting revenue numbers each month (although that is important) but because the culture SEOmoz has created for itself. Rand brought the point home by saying “your first 5 to 10 hires will determine your culture since they are the ones who go on and hire/work with the next group of employees.” Great point and one most founders miss as they continue to run in circles chasing their tail and balancing all the plates they have in the air during the early days.
So important is culture to SEOmoz they created an acronym to live by – TAGFEE. It stands for Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional. These are great attributes to build a company around. Founders should take note on the acronym part, whatever your core attributes turn out to be it seems like a good idea to create an acronym that starts as a noun and turns into a verb. Rand mentioned how they use it in meetings such as “well, is that TAGFEE?” or “do you think they are TAGFEE?”
I was quite impacted by this approach to creating a visceral standard of culture within a company. Not only does it attract specific talent but it can even help attract quality investors. As you may know, Rand blogs quite a bit. Some think he crossed a line when he wrote very publicly about a recent failed round of financing, even including quoted emails and meeting descriptions. Yet, when writing about these financing failures and voicing his frustration it detracted the investors who disagreed with their culture and attracted the exact investors who believed in it. SEOmoz announced in April 2012 they closed $18 million from Brad Feld and Foundry Group, one of the most well respected VC firms in the country. That may not have ever happened if TAGFEE wasn’t the heart and soul of SEOmoz.
Authenticity. Perseverance. Culture.
Three simple attributes to a strong and successful entrepreneurial journey.