Currently, few things are critical for business success as the ability to be found on the internet, and making yourself visible means understanding what people are searching for and how search engines are ranking your website for those ever-important keywords. I confess that this is an area that I personally often considered to be akin to magic or voodoo.
Recently I spoke with Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz. Most anyone who’s taken an interest in search engine optimization (SEO) has undoubtedly come across Moz, and Sarah’s journey to the role of CEO of such a notable business has given her some interesting insights on leadership.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Sarah Bird: Moz was founded in 2004. Our HQ is Seattle, but we have a remote, global workforce and another satellite office in Vancouver. Moz began as a consulting company, but we pivoted to SaaS to create new tools and platforms to help marketers understand the SEO impact of their campaigns and content.
Juetten: When did you start?
Bird: I’ve worn many hats at Moz. I first joined the company as general counsel when the company was only a small group of about eight people, but in 2008 I took on the role of Chief Operations Officer (COO). I held this position for six years, then became President in addition to COO in 2013, which helped me take the reins as CEO in 2014.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Bird: We’re an SEO technology company that’s fixing the way people market to their audience. At Moz, we believe customers should be earned not bought. To do this successfully, we help brands rank higher on search results and drive traffic to their website by providing the world’s most accurate SEO data. We also believe SEO is one of the least understood tactics and strategies today, so we’re dedicated to providing resources for a wide variety of topics and experience levels.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Bird: Moz prospects find us because our resource center has answered the questions they’re asking about building brand awareness or generating traffic. Some strategies or tactics can be handled without a subscription, and we’re here to help marketers understand and implement what’s possible. For businesses who need more data and insights, we provide a self-service sales model that gives prospects options on how to engage our team. Our customers are in-house SEOs and marketers at some of the most trusted brands, as well as agency leaders who handle tactics and strategy for their clients.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Bird: We’re 160 Mozzers strong, based all around the world. We’re not just building a place to work, but a place to thrive. This vision is to build a community that recognizes, celebrates and elevates voices. We’re a team with big, audacious goals, fueled by creativity and dedication to see them through.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Bird: Our last funding round was held in 2016 — a Series C at $10 million — close to $30 million in total.
Juetten: Any tips for early-stage founders?
Bird: I view leading a company like climbing a mountain.
If other early-stage founders or CEOs are anything like me, they’ll likely have felt that some people are built for the role (and that may or may not be them.) But this isn’t true. No one scales a mountain on their first go without preparation or team support. You can and should practice with “small hikes” to get better and reach new heights. This is true in leadership – we’re not a special breed of people, we’ve just worked and prepared with teams to get to where we are today.
It’s also important to understand that CEOs don’t live “on the summit.” To be candid, both mountain climbing and leadership are very hard. These aren’t situations that many people describe as “fun.” Sure, there are the moments when you overcome the obstacles and you enjoy the sunset from the peak, but damn, to get to this point took so much strength, energy and endurance— and often a lot of failed summit attempts.
In order to get to these milestones, you have to put one foot in front of the other. Leadership is the same way – we’re not guaranteed a summit, even if we’re as prepared as possible. There are things outside of your control, like inclement weather or an injury. There is also much out of your control as a business leader, for example what the competition does or the regulatory environment. All we can do, every morning, is see the mountaintops we’re trying to reach and walk toward them. The most important thing is how you respond to challenges on the path, and to keep trying even if you fail to summit on that particular hike.
There is a reason not everyone is a mountain climber just like there is a reason that not everyone is a CEO. Whenever I think about things like, “maybe I’m not cut out to be a leader” or “this CEO thing just isn’t working right now,” I truly think about this illustration to remind myself that today I didn’t make it to the summit, and that’s okay. There’s tomorrow. Today was training for a better tomorrow.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Bird: When I think about the long-term vision, I think about our significance rather than our success. In the tech community, success can come from bold headlines, large funding rounds, or lucrative exits. Any quick search shows that these have become commonplace. I want Moz to leave a legacy of something more meaningful.
Most companies have core values or tenets to guide decision-making. Moz’s culture is no different, having been defined by “TAGFEE”; Mozzers are Transparent and Accountable, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, and Exceptional.
What is the exception, however, is that Moz is equally focused on making the digital marketing industry, rather than just the team and company, better through these values as well.
I’ve recently spoken publicly about engaging, rather than avoiding political conversations and making Moz an anti-racist company, while our CMO, Christina Mautz, is committed to responsible marketing.
By making our stances public, we’re holding ourselves more accountable for our actions. To continue these efforts, we’ve brought on a diversity, equity, & inclusion expert to assess our efforts and build a roadmap.
Thank you to Sarah for taking time from her busy schedule to share her thoughts. Especially salient is her point that CEOs aren’t born but made, and made through trial and error, successes, and setbacks. My experience is that by sharing these lessons learned, legacy is created. #onwards.