The short, short version: After stepping down as CEO in 2014 and leaving the company in 2018, as of a signature earlier today, I’m officially off Moz’s board of directors. The incredibly impressive CEO & founder of DemandMaven, Asia (Matos) Orangio accepted my offer to fill the chairperson seat. Simultaneously, I nominated Apps Without Code‘s extraordinary founder and CEO, Tara Reed to fill Moz’s long-vacant independent board seat, and the company’s directors accepted.
Asia Orangio (left) and Tara Reed (right)
I’m thrilled, and (being totally honest) more than a little relieved these two wonderful folks are stepping into these challenging roles. I hope they shake things up, make people uncomfortable, hold feet to flames, and help make Moz the great company I know it can be. I’m also very grateful to Moz’s existing directors, Sarah Bird, Brad Feld, and Michelle Goldberg for accepting both nominations.
The longer version: Phew… It’s a story y’all. You sure you’re ready? Because I’m only barely there myself.
For those who don’t know, I started Moz with my mom, Gillian. Our early years building the business were filled with every mistake in the book, from near-bankruptcy to foolish investments to bad management and more. Yet, somehow, we made just enough right moves to stay alive and start the blog “SEOmoz” which later became the software company, Moz.
In 2007, we raised our first round of investment, $1.1M from Ignition Partners, a local VC in the Seattle-area (where the company started and is still headquartered). For years after, I tried and failed to raise additional funding (even though we were profitable, growing fast, and didn’t need it). In 2012, after rapid growth, Moz raised another $18M from Ignition and a new investor, Foundry Group. My mom stepped off Moz’s board and sold some of her shares.
Only two years later, I stepped down from the CEO role during a brutal bout of depression.
You can read about most of this history, lessons learned, things I’m doing differently with startup number two, all that in Lost and Founder, but in this post, my goal is instead to answer three questions I haven’t addressed publicly before.
#1 What Happened Those Last Few Years at Moz?
When I stepped down from the CEO role in 2014, Moz’s seven years of rapid growth were slowing. Our board and leadership team (myself included) foolishly thought it was because we were tapping out the SEO market, and had to expand to new areas to find more customers. By the following year, I was convinced this had been a mistake, but it took a long time and a lot of pain to change the minds of Moz’s new leadership.
Simultaneously, the degree to which my input and opinions about the business (strategy, product, company culture, you-name-it) were valued and acted-upon fell precipitously. I think Sarah Bird (the new CEO) believed that in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past, she had to pro-actively avoid taking my advice. Some of that was probably fair—during my depression, in particular, my judgement was undoubtedly warped. But some of it, even with the distance of years, feels unfair, and almost personal.
The real, ugly, painful story is this: Sarah and I were best friends for almost a decade. We ran the business as partners. We (and our spouses) took family vacations together. We loved and supported and cared for each other at work and away from it. Sarah was the officiant for Geraldine and I at our wedding. We babysat for her son. I often joked that I was his best friend despite our 35 year age difference. But, in those years after stepping down, I grew increasingly upset with how I was treated at Moz. I’m sure Sarah felt frustrated, too, having this lingering ex-CEO and founder. I did my best to hide disappointment and disagreement at work, but my poker face is awful. Hell, I play poker by showing everyone my cards.
In retrospect, the right thing to do was to either A) remain CEO or B) step down, and fully leave the company just after. When other startup CEOs considering this move ask me for advice, that’s what I, now, tell them to do.
In the blackboard photo above, taken after a business school class’ analysis of my missteps (a fascinating experience, BTW), you can see the word “LURKER” written in all-caps. Even the not-yet-graduated students could see what I couldn’t: lurking around a company you’ve started/led for years after stepping down from the leadership role is a bad idea.
During Moz’s painful 2016 layoffs, tensions came to a head between myself and Sarah. There was one incident in particular (which isn’t my story to tell, so I’ll leave it private) that broke our relationship entirely. HR got involved. I asked not to be in meetings or on email threads alone with her again. It was brutal. Over the following year, Moz’s legal team and an attorney representing me had to step in to take over negotiations about my departure.
Losing my best friend while feeling the company I’d started slip away was a devastating experience. A therapist told me, “anger is how we create distance from people and experiences that have hurt us.” Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the disappointment, hurt feelings, and, yes, anger of what had happened. To create a truly loving friendship we must invite deep trust and extreme vulnerability. If that trust is abused, that vulnerability violated, sometimes the wounds don’t heal. I think that’s what happened. I couldn’t heal my wounds, so I used anger to create space.
I suspect Sarah feels similarly. I hope that with time, she’s found peace and a way to process it. I haven’t forgiven or forgotten, but I don’t wish her any ill. I want her career, her friendships, her life to be good. My love for Sarah will always exist, bound up (at least for now) in a self-preservation bubble of distance. I don’t know if that’s the healthiest or best thing, but it’s brought me to a functional, emotionally-healthy place.
These last two years, building SparkToro with Casey, have been the happiest of my professional career. And that reinforces to me how right the HBS class was—I should have left my old company in 2014.
#2 Why Leave the Board of Directors?
Over the last six years, Moz has had a frustrating growth path. As a venture-backed business that’s raised ~$30M, the board and leadership team have sought numerous ways to increase revenue (which have hovered between $40-$50M, sometimes growing slightly, sometimes shrinking when Moz cut business units). To be considered a “success” to their investors and return anything real to employees and shareholders, they need either significant growth or a very large acquisition based on their tech or market position. The latter feels unlikely, so the former’s been the focus.
Fundamentally, the board and I have long disagreed about the right path to get there. The other members feel that experimental, higher-risk moves around the strategy, leadership, culture, or processes are unwise. I believe those big sorts of risks are worth taking. Oddly enough, this is the opposite of what you’d expect. Usually ex-founders with little wealth and large, unrealized stock-holdings don’t want to jeopardize a potentially valuable asset, while venture investors lean into the high-risk, high-reward model. For whatever reason, the reverse has been the dynamic with Moz.
Where the board members and I agree is on the tension between Sarah and myself, and how it creates an unhealthy, unproductive environment. The board dynamic most conducive to great decision-making requires trust, openness, and psychological safety. I don’t feel any of those things in my board role, and I suspect that when I’m involved, Sarah doesn’t either.
Reflecting on all of this, I think the real question is why I would stay on, or why they’d want me to? It seems obvious that new voices, fresh eyes, and a reset of the board’s culture would be a huge upgrade. Perhaps (fingers crossed) it’s even true that the bad blood between Sarah and myself has been poisoning Moz’s potential all these years, and by changing that dynamic, the company itself can heal, and recover.
#3 Why Asia & Tara?
When I proposed, in early June, stepping down from the board, I asked Moz to also use the opportunity to fill its long-empty independent seat. That meant recruiting two folks to the open seats, and I volunteered a list of more than a dozen potential candidates. Tara and Asia were literally at the top of that list. I only ended up speaking to three people from the 14 names I sent Sarah, Brad, and Michelle. That’s how impressed all four of us were with Tara and Asia.
I first met Tara Reed at Mozcon in 2016, where she presented on engineering for non-engineers. Being non-technical myself, the topic resonated deeply, as did Tara’s unique approach to building her business (Apps Without Code). Over the last few years, I’ve followed Tara on Twitter, amazed at not only her company’s progress, but her style. I see so much to admire in what she’s built, who it’s for, and how she’s done it.
This thread, in particular, where she talks about the allure of vanity metrics and how hard it is to reject them as a tech founder to focus on what matters… yeah… that hits close to home. So does this:
In Tara, I see someone who’s built an incredible business from scratch, refused to enter in the SV/VC game, and is absolutely unapologetic about her willingness to be ignored until she’s so good, she can’t be.
Asia Orangio‘s been on both sides of the equation, as both an advisor to hundreds of SaaS companies and as a founder and CEO herself.
I’ve been following her work at DemandMaven, and on LinkedIn/Twitter for years, consistently impressed by her thoughtful insight into what makes product & marketing funnels successful for early-stage companies. Asia’s general focus is on companies that are smaller than Moz in overall revenue, but ones that are growing much faster.
I think she brings exactly what Moz’s board needs—more insight and hands-on experience into how SaaS businesses get their growth flywheels turning. Asia has deep, recent experience helping companies competing in crowded fields (like what SEO software’s become). She knows what stagnant growth looks and feels like (and has helped companies climb out of it). She’s even got a healthy dose of psychological wisdom.
Like Tara, I appreciate not only Asia’s strategy and tactics, but her approach. She’s thoughtful without being indecisive (a problem that’s plagued Moz for years). She refuses to accept a status quo without asking why until there’s a problem that can be fixed and a process unblocked. In my conversations with her about Moz’s struggles, she was both deeply rational and unflinchingly empathetic.
Let’s be real, Moz’s board dynamics have been dragged down by my presence for years. Foolishly, I felt trapped under some obligation to my old company, my ex-investors, my old team. No more.
Under Asia and Tara’s far-more-talented, less-baggage-carrying guidance, I believe Moz’s board and leadership have the best chance they’ve had in years to do the right thing for the company’s customers and its shareholders. They’re on a solid foundation (as evidenced by recent research showing Moz’s data quality vs. bigger competitors), and hopefully, this new talent at the top can change their trajectory. If anyone can do it, it’s these two.