Lessons Learned: Scaling to 100 Moz Employees - Whiteboard Friday

Posted on Thursday, September 27th, 2012 and is filed under News, SEO. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Posted by randfish

Can you believe that we're close to reaching 100 Moz employees? We can't, either!

It's easy to get excited about new people, new products, and new adventures. But while scaling your business, you have to remember to scale your culture alongside. A big part of having the right culture is having the right people to carry it forward.

This week, Rand discuss how SEOmoz has handled our incredible growth without sacrificing our culture. We'll also talk about making the choice to maintain what you've built over focusing on building new features.

How does your company maintain its culture? Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

Video Transcription

Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to a special edition of Whiteboard Friday. I wanted to do something a little different for Whiteboard Friday because the company is kind of changing. I'm changing a little bit. The things that we've done and accomplished are very different to what we focused on in the past. I still love talking about SEO tactics and social media marketing tactics and content marketing and email, and all these inbound marketing stuff.

But I also wanted to give you some sense of kind of what's been going on here. We have grown in the last only 7 months from about 50 Mozzers on the team to 100 people. We're going to be probably hiring our 100th person either as you watch this or in the week or two following that. We're up at 92 as I record this, which is prior to my trip to Ireland.

So this number is kind of crazy to me. When I started the company, there were three of us. It was me and Matt Inman, who's now the Oatmeal guy, and Jillian, my mom. The three of us would sort of sit in the office and try and figure out what could we do, and for four years, we didn't really have a whole lot more team members. I think Matt joined in like year one or two of that, and then a few years later we had four or five people.

But it's been a strange and crazy journey. A lot of it is self-analysis and self-reflection, trying to figure out, "What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What's going well? What's not going well?"

So, I figured I'd share some of the things, particularly in the last seven months, as we've kind of had this very exciting time of scaling up the company and taking funding from Brad and Foundry Group and having them on the team. Growing the team dramatically, doing our first acquisition, doing some interesting sorts of top-grading additions to the team. Adding in new managers in places, and growing almost a layer of management that we've never really had before, because teams are getting huge, and 18 people can't report just to Jamie. So this interesting time has brought a few lessons that I want to talk about.

So one is that productivity and features can win short term, and a lot of the time when you're building a company, I know I was like this, I mentored some TechStars companies and talked to a lot of early stage startups, and they have this thing too. They think that the accomplishments I need to make are all inside the product, that the product and the features are really what's going to build and sell the company, and it's true. I agree with that to some degree, but that's a short-term kind of win.

What I mean when I say that is that that will not necessarily attract great people to your company. You will not necessarily build a long-term, repeatable, scalable business model. It will not necessarily build up a culture that can hold up to challenges that you almost certainly face as you grow and scale. What will do that are culture and people.

So what I've sort of seen here is that when we have tough challenges and when we've gone through times like everything is broken, customers are very angry and upset, we did something wrong in the community, we're getting a lot of criticism for a blog post that I wrote, or we were getting sued for something that Sarah put on the blog, this was years and years ago. All these types of challenges, we can't raise funding. We went through these two rounds in '09 and 2011 where we couldn't raise any money, the thing that has gotten us through those really tough times has not been, "Oh, well the product is really good. Open Site Explorer is a really good product, or SEOmoz Pro is a really good product." Those things certainly help and they keep customers with us, and they're good things to focus on.

But for me and for a lot of the executive team, what's been the challenge has been focusing on these two things - culture and people. Let me give you a perfect, perfect example of this.

So, we had a really crappy outage with Mozscape, with our web crawl, just this problem where it was going to be, I think, a week and a half, two weeks late. This was earlier this year. It turned into being quite late, and it was just really bad. Like you promise customers, right on the calendar it says, "Hey, Mozscape will update this day." Then two weeks later it's like, "Where the hell is that index? What's going on?"

In any case, so I was emailing with the exec team, and I'm sort of like,
"Hey, we have poured money and resources. We've hired the best people we could possibly find who've done all sorts of amazing things in their career. We're throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars a month at Amazon building up more instances. We're running simultaneous indices. What's going wrong? Why can't we solve this problem? What's going wrong here?"

Our CTO, Anthony, replied with, "Hey, let's talk about this in depth."
Anthony and I talked about it. I talked to Carr and some of the other team members who are on the big data team. One of the interesting things that I found digging into the problem was that someone on the team had written some code for deployment that kind of failed, and it really borked us, like badly, just really hurt us. What Anthony said that was fascinating was,
"It's okay. Not only is it okay, we're going to work with this guy and we'll get better."

But the beautiful thing that I realized, I was so upset when I had sent that email, and then the beautiful thing that I realized is that we had the culture and the people right, because no one on that team threw that guy under the bus. No one. Think about that. Right? Someone is causing insane, massive amounts of pain to your customers, and no one on the team is going like, "Hey, you know what? This is this guy's fault. He broke this. He f***ed this up."

Well, man, like . . . oh, I probably shouldn't swear on Whiteboard Friday. I'm sorry about that. When you see that happening in your company, when you see that recovery from challenges, that team spirit, that nobody gets thrown under the bus, this isn't one person's fault, this is, "Hey, we're all on the team together," you know you have the right thing right and you can fix this.

The Mozscape update will come out. It'll be okay. Customers will be angry. Some of them will quit, but they'll come back. We'll build the product up better. Six months from now it'll be great. A year from now it'll be the best thing on the Internet. It's okay. If the culture is in the right place, this happens.

Another great example of this, we had a very big launch that was planned for November of this year of 2012, and it got pushed to probably March or April or something of next year. It's super frustrating, right? It's like,
"Oh, my God. We've been waiting for this for so long, and it's such a big project," da, da, da. "We really want to get it out the door, but we have to wait these extra four or five months." Just a killer, and yet, Adam, who is our Chief Product Officer, and Anthony, our CTO, Anthony noted that in any other company he's ever been at and most companies in the world, they would be fighting with each other to show whose fault it was, whose team was responsible for that.

But there was none of that at all. There wasn't even a tiny bit of that. It's that getting the culture and people right first, and then focusing on that stuff. This will come over time with great people and great culture. So, that's an exciting thing but a hard thing to realize.

The second thing I want to talk about, so at some point, sustaining what you've built, keeping consistency, keeping quality up, all that kind of stuff, actually is more important than building all the new features. At some point, people will go, "Hey, I am joining SEOmoz Pro," or, "I'm joining Survey Monkey," or, "I'm joining Unbounce," whatever that product they're subscribing to, "because I love the service. I love it as it is. I know you want to add new features. I know you want to make it better. But I like this product."

Therefore, keeping that product stable and up and reliable and consistent, and spending a lot of engineering time and effort and tech ops' time and effort, and product time and effort, marketing time and effort, customer service time and effort on making that solid, actually becomes more valuable to the business than adding the new features, which is what everybody gets excited about in startup land.

So you sort of have that startup scale point, and then right about here is you've acquired customers, you've got thousands of people on your platform, and they're relying on you. New features becomes a great way to keep growing and expanding, but you've got to have a solid product.

A few weeks ago, when you're watching this, hopefully it's a few weeks ago, our ranking stuff was out, our AdWords data was gone - that might not even be back yet - Open Site Explorer was having problems, the API was having problems, like just everything. Followerwonk was like, "Okay, that's working." But just so many things were broken in our product, and there were just engineers scrambling, staying up until 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning.

You're getting emails from people on the all-staff alias, that are like,
"Hey, I won't make it in until noon, because last night was just hell for me." Man, I mean, these are really, really tough times and tough challenges. But it's a realization that we can't have 90% of the team working on all the new features and 10% of the team trying to sustain everything else. It's got to flip. It's got to be at least a half and half balance, maybe even more towards sustaining. I think that's going to happen here at Moz, and I might recommend it for other companies too.

The third thing, one of the challenges we've been experiencing with people internally is that . . . I'm sure you have this in your career too. I'm sure you get this problem. You're an SEO or you're an inbound marketer, social media marketer, community manager, you're a content marketer, blogger, whatever you are inside your organization, and you think, "Well, how do I grow my role in the company? How do I become more important to this company and a more valuable asset to them, and grow my title and my salary?"

That progress is so important to people. Especially in sort of first-world economies, white collar industries, that kind of stuff, seeing that progress is incredibly important. If you make it such that managing people appears to be the only way to scale up your career, you're going to fail.

This is one of the things that Google got so right. If you're Google and you're an engineer, there's this whole different track for non-manager, non-
product engineers to grow up. I can't remember exactly what it is, but I think it's engineer, senior engineer, distinguished engineer, and then Google fellow or something like that. It's very hard to achieve those top levels.

I think Matt Cutts, who many of you might know because he's the head of the Webspam team, I believe he's either a distinguished engineer or a Google fellow. I think he might be a fellow at this point, and it's a big, big deal. It's very hard to reach those top levels. Obviously, lots of salary and stock and recognition comes with that.

That's a wonderful, wonderful thing because what you don't want to do is you don't want to encourage an engineer or a customer service person or a marketer or a fantastic designer or a great product person to only have the path of success be management. It shouldn't be that way. Management is a very different kind of discipline. It requires a lot of empathy and therapy and those types of things. Being a fantastic engineer, designer, tech ops person, doesn't necessarily correlated with that.

Two of my, like three actually of my absolute role models at this company are people who have held management positions, and then after working with their manager said, "You know what? I don't think this is the right role for me." They've actually stepped down into individual contributor roles, but stayed here.

One of the people who did that years ago was Jeff Pollard, who was our CTO right after we got funding, after Matt Inman left in 2007. He was our CTO until 2009, when we hired Kate Matsudaira. But he came to me in '08. I remember sitting back in our old office above the brewery. He pulls me out of the office, and we're just chatting literally in the hallway because there's no private office space.

He's like, "Rand, I think what this team needs and the degree of technology and engineering that we need to get to, I'm not the guy to lead this team. I think we need to go out and we need to find someone." We did. We had an exhaustive, long search. But think about the humility and the empathy and the just amazing wonderfulness in the person of Jeff, who unfortunately left now. He's at Disqus down in San Francisco, and we wish him the best. But to be able to step down from that role, and then to work here for another two and a half years under Kate's leadership, to kind of grow his own skills, it just takes amazing self-recognition.

The last point I wanted to talk about, this challenge of single points of failure. So as your company gets bigger, your startup gets bigger, you find that, hey, we have that one person working on X project and then they leave. They get sick. They want to work on something else. Their skill set doesn't meet the demands of scale that are reaching up there, and they need some time off. They burnt out. Whatever it is, those single points of failure, people points of failure, technology points of failure, they'll fail.

If there's anything I can promise you in startup life, it's not death and taxes. You'll probably live, and your taxes will probably be low because you're not making very much money as a startup usually. But you will have all your single points of failure fail. I promise. It sucks. It's hard. We've had it so many times. Sometimes you don't even know how many single points of failure you have. So you have to be planning and knowing that all this kind of stuff is going to happen.

Two things on this, number one, the obvious one is that you have to build redundancy. I don't just mean redundancy in terms of like, hey, now we have two people who know how this works, or now we have three people. But, "Hey, what if our hosting here in Seattle fails? Can we have some backup system, something that it goes to? Can we have an error message that is empathetic and smart, and directs people to the right place, and all those things ready to go?" So instead of, "Oh, we didn't even know this could fail, and now we have no error message for it."

So - excuse me - our customers . . . that's me drinking carbonated beverages. I'm going to do some branding for Coke Zero apparently.

All these kinds of things just will build up, and if you can have those redundancy points, it will help you to absorb some of that. You should plan for failures in all of those areas. It's something that we've been kind of obsessed with lately.

But it's one of those things, like in a startup, you just always have the,
"Oh, my God, this thing is really painful. Well, but we have these 20 other things that are super painful. Okay, we have to deal with 17 of those before we can get to this one. Oh, my God. It just got so painful, it's moved up to number four and now it's number one."

That's just how it goes, right? You're constantly plugging holes in the dinghy, while you're trying to build a battleship around it.

The second thing that I would say is that you have to have almost like a happiness that is not tied to just how your product's doing. Or just how your customer service is doing or just how your marketing is doing, right?

I mean marketers have this all the time right? Where we build something, we're like "oh man, this post is really good, this video's really good, this campaign's really good and I'm going to launch it . . .  Awww, it just died." Y'know it got like four retweets, a couple Facebook posts, nothing. What'd I do wrong? What is this?
 
If your fundamental internal happiness is tied to how you perform on those projects, startup life is going to be very depressing for you. And you are going to burnout, I promise. But if you can tie it to something bigger, particularly if you can tie it to like, the longer term success so you can say "Where were we six months ago? Where were we six months before that? Am I better off? Is our traffic doing better? Are our metrics going better? Are we getting better at customer acquisition? Is my position in the company better? Are we better off as a culture?" All those kinds of things. And then you go "Wow. We have made a ton of progress" and these little failures that happen day to day won't destroy you. That's what you need, you need that kind of resolve. That redundancy in people and on specific items in the startup, customer facing items. But you also need the redundancy in your own happiness.
 
I don't know what you guys thought of this Whiteboard Friday. Honestly, I mean this is very different for me, I haven't tried this before. But please, let me know with the thumbs, let me know with the comments. If you want to see more tactical SEO stuff I can stick to that. I'm happy to do this format maybe once every few months too. I really look forward to seeing you.
 
If you do like this, I've got a blog where I write much more about this stuff at moz.com/rand so you can check that out, too.
 
Alright everyone, take care! We'll see you next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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