Interview with Gillian Muessig
An Interview with Gillian Muessig President and Co-founder, SEOmoz
Date: May 9, 2011
NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes: Interview with Gillian Muessig [intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women in Information Technology, or NCWIT. I know our listeners know about our "Entrepreneurial Heroes" interview series, which is a great interview series with women who have started IT companies. This is another in that series. With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hi. I'm happy to be here, of course. We really enjoy the fact that everybody from parents as well as employers and leaders and managers, as well as teenage girls, listen to this show.
Lucy: I think the person we're interviewing today is just an expert in search optimization. Everybody knows how important the Internet is, and how important it is to have your business, your organization, your personality, found by the most possible people. The person we're interviewing today is a real pioneer in that field, sometimes called the "Queen of Search Optimization."
Larry: You betcha.
Gillian Muessig: No, I think I'm called the "mom." I'm known as "SEO Mom."
Lucy: SEO Mom? OK. Also a queen. We are very lucky to be interviewing today Gillian Muessig, the president and co-founder of SEOmoz. SEOmoz provides one of the world's most popular search marketing applications. The community it serves is huge, over 300,000 search marketers around the world. She also has a weekly radio show, "CEO Coach." This is really interesting to the people who listen to these interviews, because as part of that show, she's covering really important entrepreneurial issues around funding and finance and staffing and marketing and brand development. Welcome, Gillian. We're really happy to have you here today.
Gillian: I'm delighted to be here. Thanks for asking.
Lucy: What is happening with SEOmoz? Give us the latest.
Gillian: The latest and greatest at SEOmoz. Well, I guess we're taking social signals much more seriously, as are the search engines these days. We are the creators of something called "Linkscape." It is a fresh web crawl of the World Wide Web. In other words, we have code known as "Bots" that run out along the Web itself and catalog the pages, just like Google or Microsoft or Yahoo! And so on, in this case Bing, it would be called these days. Similarly, we have a bot that goes out and crawls the Web. It's called, as I said, "Linkscape." It gives us the link graph of the Web. This means how all the pages are connected together with links from one page to the next. It's interesting stuff. It does not make us a search engine. A search engine can also give back answers when you say, "Gee, I'm looking for something. Where is it?" You could also give that back to somebody. That's what makes a full search engine. So if you think of Linkscape, you might think of it as kind of half a search engine. We know what is. Now, we are taking a look at the social graph. So while we crawl the Web for information about links running from here to there, we know that the social signals, which means the noise or the signals we hear on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Cora, Yahoo! Answers -- just thousands of other sites where people gather and talk to each other on the Web. Those are the social sites. When they get busy, the search engines notice, and that kind of information shows up in the search engine results pages, known as SERPs, Search Engine Results Pages. So that's what's new at SEOmoz. We're looking at the social signals and incorporating them into our platform.
Lucy: That's amazing. There's so much information going on out there. Absolutely amazing. And great technology. The kinds of algorithms you're doing under the hood there just have to be really fascinating.
Gillian: Yeah, they're pretty exciting stuff. If you think of the Google algorithm, I usually say, "Well, it starts somewhere in central Asia and it ends in Sunnyvale, California." It's really large, and it links 1's and 0's. That means it's changing constantly. What is it? 2,500 to 3,000 brilliant engineers are working on it at any given time. What they're trying to do is say, "Gosh, there's a lot of info out there. How would we catalog it and organize it to be on the Web?" And that's the world we deal in.
Lucy: I know. Who would have thought it, even 10 years ago? Just amazing.
Larry: Whew, not me. [laughter]
Gillian: It's a very new industry, and that is one of the interesting things about the world of search. While some technology industries have been around for maybe 30 or 40 years, or much more, the Industrial Age certainly giving way to the Technological Age toward the end of the 20th century. The world of search is pretty much the oldest folks would have been practicing some '97, '98, '99, something like that, when the search engines became of age and became more important, and people began to find things on the Web using a search engine as opposed to using business card that sent them to a specific place.
Lucy: It's really changed quite quickly. The historical perspective is fascinating and I think our first question is a little bit of a historical question. How did you first get into technology, Gillian, and what kinds of technologies do you see today that are really interesting to you? Gillian: When I opened my company, it was in 1981, I had one young child a two-year-old at the time. I subsequently raised three children under my desk. The youngest will tell you the color of the blanket he slept on under that desk, so I'm talking literally. I think in 1984, I was doing a consultancy basically, so glorified and employed. I was a consultant. I did traditional media marketing, everything from print media to a little bit of radio and television and so on, but regional stuff. In terms of print media, the first pieces of technology that we really saw came in the late '70's already, when type was no longer moved by pieces. Little slugs of type, and made out of lead, would be moved into place in big wooden boards, and that's how the articles of newspapers were created for advertisements and so on. When it moved from that manual process to something called code type, because the first one was Hocks type. You would actually move the little slugs into place and then melt them together. You would use heat to make sure that they were held together, and then you would break them apart for the next day's news. In this case it was called Cove type, and that was the first computerized type. Maybe that was the first time I got into technology, or really saw it affecting my industry. In 1984, I put a Mac II on my desk. I had more self-control than this advertisement that was coming out of Zenith said I would. It said, "We'll give you one of these Macs for two weeks. You pay us for it, but you can just bring it back and we'll give you your money back if you don't want it." I thought, "Well, I've got more self-control than that. I'm just going to take a look at this thing." Within two hours, of course, it owned me, body, soul and mind, and I never gave it back. [laughter]
Gillian: The ad worked, and I bought a Mac. I used Mac for many years. I changed to PC I guess in the '90's. Just recently, we're talking within the last couple of weeks, one of my staff handed me a Mac Air, it's called the MacBook Air, and said, "You're going to love this! It's so lightweight." And I thought, "Really? Back to Mac? I'm an old dog. This is new tricks." [laughs] But yes, I do enjoy carrying it around, because I travel so much that having a very lightweight computer at my fingertips is really nice. So first technology would have been 1979. The First time I owned a real piece of it, if you will, in about 1984. The Web showed up in 1993. Perhaps what you were referring to before, kind of the Grand Dame of Internet marketing, because I was there six seconds before the next guy. In other words, it was just a wild and wooly time, and I was happy to be at ground zero. We had a great deal of excitement and ideas around it. I continued my business for a number of years, but certainly we were beginning to do things like offer websites to our clients, in which we were doing general graphics or advertisements, or perhaps annual reports and logos and that sort of design. We were now adding websites to that, and then we were adding better websites, because we had Flash. Then it was realized that the search engines were becoming more important, and search engines could not read Flash. A search bot is blind and deaf. It cannot see pictures, it cannot hear sound. So we had to go back to HTML and maybe incorporate elements of images and so on, and identify them. With that, search began. As a search engine became more important and required text to be able to find out what a document was about, we had to optimize a page. It meant you couldn't just put a picture on a page, because a search engine cannot see it. You had to tell it what that picture was. That, perhaps, was the very first piece of optimization. How we'd label pages, we'd say, "This page is about something. It's my website.com." Then you would put in a subject, you know, red cars. [laughs] And, "Oh! That page must be about red cars." The very beginnings of search engine optimization were very simple. Today it's a highly complex field. We don't even think of it as SEO. So answering the second half of your question, what do I find interesting in moving forward now? Certainly, we are deep into the information society, where information is power. It always has been, but it's just become more in the forefront. The concept of marketing has changed, both online and offline. It's changing the way we do business and the way we communicate. From governments to private corporations and individual human beings, we think of things now as inbound marketing, as opposed to push marketing. It used to be that I would make an ad, and I would kind of take a megaphone in whatever field I was in, whether it was print or radio or TV or whatever, and shout out to the world what I needed them to know. That's no longer acceptable. People don't like it. They never really did like it, but now they have choices. Now people want me to give them information when they want to see it, when they want to learn about it and when they are ready for it and in the way that they wish to see it. That means multiple-size screens such as iPhones, little phones, Android and things like that, cell phones, web-enabled cell phones, to iPad and similarly-sized screens to the next size, which is Netbooks and then laptops, to the huge screens that sit on our walls at home and sometimes cover entire walls. That would be 55-, 60-, and 70-inch television screens that also serve as interactive, Internet-capable products. I find that kind of technology fascinating and I think that's where we're headed in the future, a multi-sized delivery of information just when the consumer wants it.
Larry: Gillian, thank you for sharing all that history. In fact, we are going to make sure that if people want to understand the history, they should come back and listen to this interview. Now why is it that you are an entrepreneur and what is it about an entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Gillian: [laughs] Entrepreneurship is a hereditary disease, not a profession. [laughter] I say to people often (I do a lot of coaching about entrepreneurship and I serve on the board of advisors of companies on four continents now) that entrepreneurship is something that you have to want, and you have to want it so desperately that you are willing to walk through what I call "the Dip." I know Seth Cotton talks about it. There's a fine little book called The Dip. But I see it slightly differently. The very short version is that in order to get to the other side of a chasm of all of the folks who are trying to do what you're doing and overcoming all of the impediments to success, you have to walk through this valley of the shadow of death. After that, we don't get quite that translation correct. It's not that "Yet I fear no evil". It's "If you fear no evil, you will not walk out." [laughter] So understanding entrepreneurship is: You have a great idea, and you decide you want to bring it to the marketplace, but you must walk through this chasm of impediments to success. And sometimes it gets very, very dark. I help entrepreneurs through that space quite often. It is not just that there are financial qualifications. For instance, one needs funding and that can be very difficult. Or perhaps one can fund it oneself, but are you willing to put at risk all of the monies required to do so? People will put their homes at risk. They will mortgage things and sell their vehicles and live with their parents and do all kinds of things in order to afford to make this thing fly. It's like throwing money at a passion. But in some ways it's very analogous to being addicted. You must do this thing once you get it going, right? Now the second piece is not financial stuff necessarily, but how everybody else looks at you. There are a number of entrepreneurs, some of them very amusing, who are radio personalities as well who will say things like the whole world will tell you that you are stark, raving mad. That there's no way you can do this, that it's not possible, and so on. And when all of that volume of voice and noise comes at you, do you have the fortitude to continue to walk and to say, "No, I know in my gut what I've got is right and I'm going to make it happen." Then the last piece would be the strength of this idea you have. If you're building it, for example, in technology and software, will this code hold up to what you need? If you have some kind of success, do your servers crash, do things begin to fall apart, can you do the customer service part, and can you do the company part and not just the idea part? What I say is that every truly brilliant company in the world has two parts. It has a technologist, a wizard, the brilliant idea person. And it has a business person. The business person's responsibility is to protect the wizard. If the wizard is thinking about anything else except what's next, you're losing money. Now any business person can make themselves a business. They can go sell shoes. They can go sell office furniture. They can do whatever they want. They make a decent business and sometimes they make quite a good one. Many, many technologists have brilliant ideas, but cannot for the life of them do the business piece of it. There are far more technologists who cannot succeed in business than there are business people who somehow cannot succeed at all because they don't have the brilliancy. But if you put the two together, you get something that is an explosion, an extraordinary universe of stuff that happens. And that's when you have these brilliant companies like Yahoo, Google, and so on. I was fortunate in my time to have such a technologist and to be able to work with him. I'm really in the end a business person. The technologist is Rand Fishkin, arguably the most famous name in search marketing today. I could build a brand around a human being. I could then build a brand around the company, and then the company has become very powerful in its field. Again, knowing your playing field is an important piece. But I have walked through that dip, that "valley of the shadow of death" when people told us this could not be done. I often say people who say that a thing cannot be done are often interrupted by those who are doing it. So, on October 6, 2008, SEOmoz interrupted a whole lot of people when we created this thing called Linkscape, which is a crawl of the World Wide Web. A whole lot of people said you have to be Google or Bing or whatever to do something like that. It cannot be done. It'll take ten thousand brilliant engineers and millions of dollars and you haven't got that. We did it. And when it was done, it powered all of our tool sets. So why am I an entrepreneur? It's because it's in my blood. It's because I see ideas. I can kind of put together a meal of products out of groups of intellectual properties, if you will. It's like throwing a bunch of ingredients on the table in the kitchen and coming up with a meal. It's like what Iron Chefs do. The same idea happens with entrepreneurship and it's what I do. I look at this collatinus collection of clattering junk and from it comes a product that is saleable. So that is what I think makes entrepreneurs what they are. It's the fortitude to move forward. It's the ability to see a jumble of ideas and possibilities and to create real product out of it. And brilliant companies or really brilliant entrepreneurs, those who have that partner technologist [inaudible 17:05.
Lucy: So as an entrepreneur, Gillian, who supported you along this path? Do you have particular mentors or role models? What might you be able to tell the listeners about that?
Gillian: Well, I think that's why I became a CEO coach, because there were precious few when I came through this path. I see that Rand, for example, who is now the CEO of SEOmoz, has a number of mentors who are coming to his aid and whom he has been able to seek out. But as we walked the very earliest days, there were things that I would have given my left arm to have known about. There were times when I would call practically a hundred people and not one of them could give me the answer I needed. So in a sense, I was not well-connected and I didn't have entrepreneurs who had been successful on at least one level larger than I was. I think there are very few when you are in the very, very early stages who will reach that hand out. You have to get through a certain barrier first. You have to reach some kind of critical mass before it gets recognized as a viable business and then you get those kinds of mentors beginning to take notice. So I decided that if I ever walked out of that valley, that's what I would do, that's what I would give back. That's why I do CEO coach every week. I don't get paid for this or anything. I promised that I would give answers, that I would name names and give numbers and tell people what to expect and help them to leverage the assets they had and to walk through that very difficult time when you are proving your concept and making it through to the other side. Of course, the scarcity is what makes success. If it were easy, if there were no chasm of all of these impediments-and I only mentioned three, but if it were easy to get from one end to the other, from brilliant idea to successful marketplace for everybody, then there would be no scarcity. Trust me when I say to people who are considering entrepreneurship, it's worth it. [laughter]
Larry: I love it! Yes.
Gillian: It is so worthwhile on the other side. The answer is, it is all the things that you would dream it would be. There is a certain amount of exclusivity. There is a satisfaction beyond anything else that comes from knowing you did it.
Larry: Wow. With all the things you've been through, what's the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Gillian: Possibly two pieces and I think they're related. The very first one I had to learn to do was to move from being a consultant, a sole consultant, to being a real entrepreneur, somebody who had a company, who had people working with them, in other words, a team. I used to walk out, shake hands with somebody, and say, "Yes sir, I can do that," and go back and do it. That was easy. Whatever it was, it was easy. It meant I did it. I could rely on me and I knew my own mettle and I could trust me. The first time I walked out and said, "Yes sir, I can do that," and went back to the office and said, "I sure as shooting hope you folks can do that, because I can't," that was scary. To be able to rely on a team of people to do it as well as you would hope them to do because you cannot do a thing, that's entrepreneurship. That's really moving from being a sole proprietor to being a full-size company. The second piece was saying no to a customer, understanding that there are clients and client wannabes. They wannabe a client but they don't wanna pay. Client wannabees. Learning to recognize client wannabes in your business sector is terribly important, because otherwise they will suck the blood out of you and never pay for what they take. Generally they pay very low amounts, the lowest you will charge, and they take the most time. The less a client pays, the more hand holding they generally need. So understanding that you need to fire the bottom four clients on your list every year and make way for new ones who will pay you more, respect you more, understand the value of your service more and so on, that's a critical piece of success in moving forward in being a company. People who cannot let a client go regardless of how much this client fusses and complains and makes it a personal thing as opposed to a business thing and so on, doesn't recognize the value of the service, on and on and on. All of these complaints about the client, if they cannot let that client go they will forever be an individual consultant that's not terribly successful. Those who can get through it and understand the process become successful companies.
Lucy: Along our discussion there have been so many characteristics that come across in your answers to these questions that I think make you a great entrepreneur. You're very thoughtful, very persistent. I think you're very funny, you have a great sense of humor and have a great sense of history and analytical, but what other kinds of personal characteristics do you think have given you an advantage as an entrepreneur?
Gillian: I think that perhaps that is the most important question. I espouse and I truly believe that people should bring their personal values to the corporate marketplace. Separating them is not possibility and that we kid ourselves when we do it. It also makes for a, not just lesser, but a really foul business environment and I think for centuries we've experienced it. I hope that what I build is not perhaps the world's finest search marketing software company and this and that and the next thing, but another way to do business. Often it's known as theory X and theory Y management. Theory X management being all about the fix, about fear, about worrying about whether the boss is going to dislike this or deduct that or reduce your pay or fire you and so on and so forth. That's theory X stuff, screaming, yelling and so on. Theory Y is somehow coddling, if you will. All about the positive but I think there is more to theory Y than simply coddling or supporting and so on. I think it has to do with bringing your personal values to the corporate marketplace. As an entrepreneur I can't have a company unless I have people doing the things that my company produces whether it's product, service, consulting, whatever it is. They don't work for me, they work with me. Without me they have no job and without them I have no job. It's not that it's really different at all, it's just different roles within an organization. I recognize that there is no complete, flat equality. There is no such ideas, communism if you will. It is a hierarchy and certainly it was my money on the table, it was on my back that this thing got started, it was Rand's ideas and so on that made it happen. All of those things, so it does put a couple of founders in its place that is different than the employee status, if you will. On the other hand, we feel that we work with a team, it's not that the team works for us. When I didn't have two nickels to rub together, when we were having conversations that said things like, 'What will it take to keep body and soul together this week?' Like, who shall take a paycheck this week? When we were having those kinds of conversations, it was that bad, I would pay the medical insurance 100% in full first. I never even thought to give somebody a salary and let them choose whether or not they wanted medical insurance. It's part of the salary, it's part of the package, there is no choice because many of the people who work for me are very young and when you're very young you think you're invincible. Nothing is ever going to happen to you and you will live forever and life is good until somebody gets glioblastoma or somebody gets hit by a bus riding a bicycle to work in the afternoon, that's when things go wrong. It was incumbent upon me to say, "No. I know better, I've lived longer, I'm a parent." Never mind anything else and many of these people are young enough to be my kids, hence the word SEO mom but there were a number of reasons why I got called SEO mom but as a result it was my responsibility to do those kinds of things. So we pay 100% of medical insurance. We do kind of what they call platinum level medical insurance. we don't skimp on those kinds of things. Certainly we do things like tech companies to all over the place like the Googleplex will do and so on. We offer lunch here and breakfast there and something else and we celebrate things and it's a lot of fun But we actually walk the talk, if you look at the SEOmoz website there's something called TAGSEE, T-A-G-S-E-E. The first one stands for transparency, second letter, authenticity, the third, generosity and so on down the road, you can read all about it. We don't just say it we actually live it. We hire for personality first and then we look for skill sets which makes it difficult to find people because you can find a set of skills it's just, does it also come with the right kind of personality? I was talking about it with one of my staff this morning and I said, "You know, I think what happens here is very childlike or perhaps like going to the movies." We suspend belief when we go into the movies. We suspend belief every time we walk into this office. We are complete optimists. We should all have our own [inaudible 26:30] chapter here. We walk in and pretend that it's possible, that nothing is impossible and we do it every single day. We work and live and play with the people here, and they certainly do, they have all kinds of activities around the office and outside the office and just get together because they're friends as well. Because it's like souls, if you will, we all agree that you step into this room there is nothing we cannot do and doggone, we do it. Imagine what you can accomplish. I think that because we spend so much of our time at our workplaces, I know that we change jobs much more frequently than we did a generation or two ago but even still, for the time that we are all together it's much more than just a job. This is about fulfilling the soul as well as the business career requirements of the people who work here. I think of my job as giving everyone here wings to fly and then watch them fly.
Larry: Gillian, with all the things that you've done, what do you do to bring balance to your personal and professional lives?
Gillian: I guess that's kind of the answer I gave at the last question.
Gillian: I bring my personal life to life to the office. I don't think of it as work, I think it was Thomas Edison who said, "'I never worked a day in my life, it's all fun." When I was a little girl of three or four years old and I could turn the pages of a book I wanted to see this big wide world. I am the most fortunate person in the world. I get to run around the world as what's now known as corporate evangelist for SEOmoz. This is what happens by the way when they put you out to pasture. Before, I was the sole business person that was complementing the technologist that was Rand Fishkin. Rand is now the CEO, he has full reigns of the business, but there's only one strange relationship in business, and that's mother and son. You can't be a mommy's boy as a CEO so it was time for me to step way, way back. We have a COO here, we've got a CMO here, we've got a CPO, all of those C level executive places have now been filled and all of the things that I used to do, these eight and nine and ten hats, they're being worn by 10 and 12 and 14 people. If I was still doing all of them we would still be a tiny company. So it's important to seed the company, to let it grow and to let it expand. For me now, my job is to run around the world and make sure people say SEOmoz instead of SEO and so far so good, it's pretty cool. I get to be paid for this, what an extraordinary adventure. For me this balance of life and work and so on, it's fulfilling on so many levels. I'm, as I said, the most fortunate person in the world.
Lucy: I noticed when we were researching for this interview that you have given lots and lots of keynotes and talks so you must be quite successful in your evangelist role.
Gillian: Yes, I'd say so. I have somewhat of a reputation under SEO mom myself, if you will, under Gillian Muessig but I usually say, I don't go anywhere in the world, SEOmoz goes, it shows up in my body. Yes, I do a lot of keynote speaking, I do a lot of pro bono work and I support a tremendous number of entrepreneurs around the world and it's very gratifying.
Lucy: Thank you very much for doing that. You've done so much with your career so far. I am suspicious that there's more to come so why don't you tell us a little bit about what's next for you.
Gillian: Probably a book, a number of people are telling me it's time to do that so I have to knuckle down and do that but I think that's just in support of, if you will, a personal brand. I think the next thing, when I grow up, what do I want to be? The next thing that I will do is around entrepreneurship itself. I'm focusing more and more on it over the years. I have a serious interest in what you're doing essentially, in making sure that young women somewhere between the ages of 12 and 20 don't lose themselves and their souls in just societal expectations and norms, but do turn to the hard sciences, to technology, to science, to mathematics, to physics, all of those kinds of things and certainly to web related or intellectual property related fields. All of those things are terribly exciting. Women make very good mangers. They have traditionally not been part of it and I think whatever I do in the future will be helping to open the doors so that women can enter the marketplace in their rightful numbers if you will. We spend a tremendous amount of time in my childhood and youth as women working on those issues. It was the age feminism, it was the age of all of those kinds of rebellions and so on. We worked really, really hard guys but, gosh, we've got a long ways to go so rather than apologizing for the next generation, I think my next deal will be helping that next generation reach goals that we have only dreamed of.
Lucy: Thank you for doing that and thank you for all of your hard work for entrepreneurship, in general. We'll look forward to staying in touch, it was great fun talking to you and I want to remind listeners that they can find this interview at w3w3.com and also ncwit.org.
Larry: You betcha.
Gillian: Thank you, it's been a great pleasure. If I have only one message for the young women listening, it's do it. Don't fear it, just do it. There's lots of women out there ready to extend a helping hand in making sure that you're successful, too. Lucy. Thank you.
Larry: You betcha.
Lucy: We really appreciate that.
Larry: Thank you.