Meeting the Wizard of Moz: Culture Breeds Community

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like it does its hiring process. “If we didn’t want that person working here, if we didn’t think that they believed the same things that we believed, we wouldn’t bring them on board,” he says.

Feld, an agenda-setter among startup leaders, gave his full-throated support to TAGFEE in a blog post announcing the investment, writing that “it was one of the big factors that attracted me to the company.”

That board-level support helps Fishkin and the rest of the Moz leadership maintain the culture.

“It’s so hard,” he says. “…Especially with the tension of the launch coming up”—a May 2013 launch that was at one point planned for July 2012.

That has provoked internal questions about the right balance among the TAGFEE tenets, and business goals, such as, “Are we prioritizing empathy too much? Who is accountable for this, and how should that be treated?” Fishkin says.

But such introspective questions have to be put on hold in the pressure-cooker of software development against a deadline. That doesn’t mean they get ignored. You can expect that with Moz Analytics finally completed and on the market, Fishkin and team will be examining their processes this summer.

Competitive Intelligence

It would be easy to look at search engine optimization and see a zero-sum game. For my site to rank higher, it has to displace someone else’s. That begs the question of why these SEO professionals would be willing to share their best practices with the competition. How does TAGFEE lead to a community of people blogging and commenting on your site, attending your conferences, and ultimately, paying $99 a month and up for your software? (The company has upwards of 21,000 paying customers and no salespeople, Bird says.)

Paradoxically, transparency is in some respects the by-product of an effort to crack the very opaque codes of the search engines.

“There is no formal training, nor are the search engines—Google in particular—very transparent about how these things work, and so the only way to discover that is to go and get data on your own, go and research on your own, go and try things on your own,” Fishkin says. “… The only other way is to form a community and to have people who specialize and who share.”

This sharing yields social media mentions, spreads expertise, builds reputations and opportunities to speak at events, and ultimately leads to consulting referrals. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Moz does this at a company level, too. Fishkin admits that this has its downsides for the business. For example, he believes details about the costs and processes of running the Moz Web index have been valuable to competitors such as Majestic SEO and Raven Tools.

“I have no doubt that being able to read on your competitor’s blog exactly what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, who they’re hiring, how projects are going, what their road map looks like—that’s really good information, if you want to compete with a company, but honestly, as much as it might hurt in the short run, I think it’s the right thing to do in the long run, and the whole idea behind having core values is that you prioritize those over the competitive benefits or disadvantages that they might create,” Fishkin says.

That’s easier to say and do with a supportive board. But it’s not hard to imagine futures in which such disclosures would be more problematic.

Where Next?

Of course the Moz leadership is thinking about the future.

“Everyone you talk to wants to know, OK what’s your exit plan? Are you going to IPO, are you going to be acquired? … There’s just a lot of emphasis on liquidation events, or money—that one model of success is some sort of achievement around a big cash payout, right, as the IPO markets are heating up especially,” says Bird, sounding a bit frustrated. “There seems to be this sort of frenzy.”

She says she is preparing the company from an operations perspective “to be able to IPO one day when the time is right.” No surprise there.

But what would happen to the TAGFEE culture if Wall Street thinks too much competitive information is going out the door, or “PAID paid vacations” are a little bit too much fun for the bottom line, or the SEC looks askance at unconventional disclosure practices on social media? Similar questions would arise in an acquisition or private equity buyout.

“There’s no perfect solution out there where we can continue having the culture exactly as we want it,” Bird says. “There’s always going to be change. But I do believe that if you build a stellar business, you’ll have more options on how much you have to compromise.”

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