Ambition vs. Obligation

Tonight, I’m up late, like I am almost every night. I wanted to write a different post – to put up a “big content” piece I worked on over the weekend while my wife was visiting family in California, but I got too behind on email and other obligations and so it will have to wait. But I couldn’t help catching my friend Dan Shapiro‘s tweet:


I paused when I read it. It’s not that I think the sentence is wrong. Nor do I think Chris Devore’s post about Ambition (from which the quote is pulled) is without merit – I actually really enjoyed it and I love his transparency (and what he and Andy have done for Seattle’s startup scene).

It’s just that none of those adjectives describe me at all. Except one.


That one fits. The rest… just don’t.

Relentless? People have often attributed that quality to me, particularly when they hear about the early days of Moz when my Mom and I were deeply in debt and kept struggling for years to find a business model that would work. But the reality is that we were driven by a lie (that we hadn’t told my Dad about that debt), and by fear (that something terrible would happen to our family if we couldn’t pay it back before he found out).

Hungry? That’s not right, either. I was once ludicrously optimistic – when I dropped out of college to join the dot-com movement (far too late – by 2001 the bubble was bursting) I was clearly overconfident, but not hungry. And when Moz was first funded by Michelle in 2007, I wasn’t hungry; I was angry with Google. I hated that they’d taken away link data from SEOs, and I wanted to use that VC funding to bring it back.

Brilliant? Ha! I may have logged my 10,000 hours in a number of fields – blogging, marketing, email – but no one would ever call me “the smartest guy in the room.” I’m the kind of entrepreneur who knows where the success so far has really come from: being surrounded by amazing people (ahem), being in the right place (Seattle, the SEO world, software subscriptions, etc) at the right time, and a metric ton of luck. Granted, we made some smart bets along the way, but we made plenty more dumb ones. We just managed to create a business model that left a lot of room to fail, and even that wasn’t done particularly intentionally (certainly not at the outset).

Monomaniacal? Jim Collins’ Good to Great describes a “Hedgehog Concept,” which I think matches the fanatical obsession Chris is talking about:

Look for what is at the intersection of these three elements of your organisation:
1. what you can be the best in the world at
2. what drives your economic engine or for ‘more than profits’ your social impact engine or a combination of the two
3. what you are deeply passionate about

Perhaps today, one could describe Moz as having some “Hedgehog-like” foci on things like inbound marketing channels (instead of interruption/paid channels), or on self-service vs. enterprise sales, or on TAGFEE and culture, or on building a great blog, or on making search engine operations more transparent…

Actually, we have a lot of foci, and we always have.

That trait stems from me, too. I’m scattered. And I always think we can do more. Build a fresh web index? Yeah! Create a metric to predict site traffic? Sure! Build a marketing analytics platform? Do it! A separate product for local small business marketers? You bet! Compete with Google Alerts? Slam dunk!

Maniacal maybe, but “poly” is the only accurate prefix that could apply to that adjective for me.


Chris’ post actually went on a little further than the 140 characters Dan was limited to. His last line:

(F)reaks who actually believe they can do it better, smarter and bigger than anyone else in the game

It’s funny he brought that up, because I’ve been meaning to write about this. I always thought we’d be a small player. When we first took investment, I hoped we’d be acquired in the first few years as we ramped up revenue. I remember talking to Danny Sullivan and Chris Elwell from Third Door Media back in 2007, hoping they’d take an interest. I keenly recall seeing competitors over the years and thinking “well, they obviously know what they’re doing, and we’re total amateurs, so they’ll probably grow a lot faster than us.” I remember looking around at industry conferences from 2005-2010 and being sure that all the other CEOs and entrepreneurs were way smarter, way more talented, way more likely to build something that would scale. I just wanted to earn the right to be at the same table, on the same panels, and get mentioned in the same blog posts.

I never had the belief Chris describes – the one where you think you can do it better than anyone else. But I did have something different – the belief that I sucked.

I still have it.

When I look at myself in the mirror, and when I think about who I am and what I’ve done professionally, all I can think is “look at that underachiever.” It’s my deepest belief about myself. I know I can do better than I have done. I know those nights when I went to bed at 1am I could have stayed up until 2 and gotten that really good post finished. I know that the presentation I built for that conference should have been better. I know that email I wrote to the team could have been better. I know that the tool we launched to help marketers with XYZ should have had better usability, more features, a cleaner interface, better export functions, and we should have shipped it earlier too. I know we could have converted more customers, could have helped more people get more value from our software, could have made better investments in infrastructure earlier, could have, could have, could have, should have, should have, why didn’t we?!! what’s wrong with me?!! you’re better than this, rand. you owe. you don’t get to cash out because you still have debits in the account. get back to work.

That’s what’s in my head. Pretty much every day.

I don’t think that my psychological condition of self doubt and my self-knowledge of underachievement can be defined as “ambition.” It fits better under “obligation.” I feel an overwhelming obligation to someday, somehow live up to my own standards.


Thank the heavens for Brad and Michelle.

Thank the heavens for investors who backed the kind of entrepreneur I am: scared, angry, possessed of mediocre intellect, polymaniacal – an accidental founder whose only driving belief is that he’s capable of doing better and needs to live up to that capacity.