Back in December, Moz founder Rand Fishkin went public with his plans to step down as CEO of the Seattle marketing startup. In an unusual but characteristic display of corporate transparency, Fishkin cited difficulty he was having in dealing with issues like HR, conflict resolution, and organizational development as reasons for his job change.
But now, nearly one year later, Fishkin has published an equally-transparent blog post that sheds light on why he stepped away from the CEO role, and more importantly, how his arrogance and depression forced Moz into difficult situations and poor financial results in 2013.
It’s a revealing post that’s worth reading for startup CEOs and founders who may be dealing with their own troubles, either personally or within a business. Fishkin, who has remained at Moz as an “individual contributor,” writes how his depression stemmed from shame:
“I was and remain, ashamed of myself due to a series of wholly avoidable missteps I made at Moz. Brad likes to say that every company he and the Foundry team have ever invested in go through tough times and most have near-death experiences before they emerge into their mature form. Even with my darkest lenses on, I can’t say that Moz was ever “near-death” in the past couple years. But I can say that we – that I – made dumb move after dumb move, and when those moves revealed themselves to be dumb, I pushed us to double-down on them, compounding our problems. By sharing that story I hope to, as I’ve done in posts like this before, offload my pain through transparency and, hopefully, help save a few of you reading this post from making the same mistakes.”
Much of the piece centers on problems Moz had with a hefty new software project called Moz Analytics. The company had raised a funding round to help build out the product and Fishkin’s plan was to release Moz Analytics at the same time the company rebranded from SEOMoz to Moz.
But Moz Analytics took much longer to build than anticipated. Even with his own engineers expressing doubt, Fishkin was hell-bent on a “big bang release” that coincided with the rebrand. Looking back, it’s a mindset that created problems. Fishkin writes:
“What made me so foolish? Why was I so bullheaded? The answer’s obvious — I was arrogant. We had pulled off big releases in the past that everyone doubted – first with Linkscape (our web index, that no one believed we could build in 9 months on a $1mm budget), then with Open Site Explorer (which took 9 months as well, but only launched 1 month late), and then with SEOmoz Pro (which also launched a month late and with some serious bugginess for the first few months thereafter). I thought this would be another launch like those – a little late, but worth the wait.”
Eventually, the company decided to announced the rebrand and launch Moz Analytics separately — “that was probably a smart move,” writes Fishkin. But while initial excitement for the new product was high, Moz Analytics launched with a bevy of issues and complaints.
“This wasn’t from everyone — there was plenty of praise too — but it was heavy enough that, in the months that followed, we’d struggle to stay at a flat trajectory (not where a startup that’s raised lots of VC money should be),” Fishkin wrote.
In November 2013, during his final all-hands company meeting as CEO, Fishkin shared a rather pessimistic and skeptical presentation.
“I thought it would be a transparent, authentic way to share how things were going at the time and the journey we had ahead. Unfortunately, it didn’t go over that way and I received a lot of concerned feedback, in particular from Matt Brown and Sarah Bird, that the tone was too negative, too harsh, and, while it might be representative of my truth, wasn’t representative of reality. The depression was playing a part in that, but I didn’t understand it, yet. That “Loop” that was playing in my head over and over every night, costing me sleep, eating at my happiness and resolve, was also warping reality. I couldn’t see the forest or the trees – just the swamp.”
Focusing so much on Moz Analytics also ended up hurting the company’s other successful products.
“Had we been listening to our customers, iterating on the projects and products that mattered to them, and not consuming all of our development time and energy on long-delayed, poorly launched megasuite that did lots of things they didn’t need, we’d have been in a much different place at the end of 2013.”
Fishkin notes that Moz is in much better place today, and gave praise to current CEO Sarah Bird for somewhat righting the ship. He ends the blog post by explaining how he’s tried to be less of a “raging, all-consuming, negative naysayer.”
“Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me, either. I know I fucked up. I know I let down a lot of people. I know I was depressed. And I know that right now, I’m OK. I could be worse. Some days are still kinda sucky, but not mega-sucky anymore. The future feels like it’s back to being a possibility, rather than just an area of thought I need to avoid if I want to sleep tonight. In fact, I think I’m going to sleep pretty well tonight.”
You can read Fishkin’s post here.