Posted by randfish

(WARNING: This post is a little personal, a little off-topic and doesn’t offer any SEO advice. If that’s not up your alley, feel free to skip it. Thanks!)

The flight monitor status shows us hovering dead center on the icy, arrow-shaped island. Mystery Guest is next to me, watching a thriller from British Airways’ extensive in-flight collection. And, since I’ve got a history of writing personal posts from 30,000 feet, why not continue the tradition…

We’re on our way back from Spain, where I was invited to keynote the SMX Madrid conference. It’s been nearly 14 straight weeks of on-and-off travel – Chicago, Santa Clara, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland, San Francisco, Long Beach, Ashland, Jackson Hole and finally Madrid. The airports start to feel the same and the cab rides all blend together; the skylines, the new friends, the weather – these remain distinct.

Travel brings with it perspective. I like to think each time I leave, I come back a little wiser, a little older, a little closer to building something great. The segments of my life are defined by the trips I take – the day or week of downtime between removing my shoes and placing all liquids in a clear, quart-sized, plastic zip-top container. The sliver of plastic that opens up room 307, 204, 1633 – no, I didn’t have any crisps last night from the minibar.

In many of the cities I visit, there’s a familiar face – one I’ve seen in countless cities over the past half decade. Along with his impish smile and proclivity for Diet Coke is that reassuring sense that I must be in the right spot – if Danny Sullivan’s there, it must be an important show and, therefore, worthwhile to attend, to speak, to promote this not-so-fledgling business I’m growing. It’s always my hope that by attending, I won’t just be pushing the SEOmoz brand, but helping the new SMX conference series, too.

We’ve taken some heat in the past for being overly friendly with SMX – promoting their shows excessively on the blog, becoming overly defensive when they’re criticized, spending time and energy on them. Let me be clear about this – we’re going to keep supporting the series; obsessively and unconditionally. There are plenty of business reasons; a high overlap with SEOmoz’s potential customer base, press coverage, opportunities to meet PRO members in person and build relationships, even lots of good business development potential. But there’s another reason – a much more important one.

In 2004, the SEOmoz blog had just started and I was a small-time SEO consultant, working to fight my way out of the sandbox with only my 4th real client. I was posting incessantly on forums, scooping up and trying every bit of SEO knowledge, real or false, I could find. When I posted on the SearchEngineWatch forums, asking about the value of attending conferences, Danny himself PM’d me and offered not one, but two press passes to SES NYC so I could attend the show with my grandfather, Si (who’d been helping me decipher PageRank and patents). For the next two years, his generosity only increased, and yet, he never asked anything in return – he still hasn’t.

When I first met Joe Morin in 2005, we went out for drinks at a pricey bar in downtown Toronto with Danny. The next day I remember Joe’s exact words walking down a carpeted corridor between the hotel and conference center – "As long as I’m around, I’ll never let Danny pay for his own drinks. If it wasn’t for him, none of us would have a job." In San Jose that same year, I heard similar sentiments from Greg Boser, Todd Friesen and Gary Price, that would be echoed by dozens more over the years to come.

Is Danny perfect? Oh God, no. He takes generally horrible photos (don’t let him near your camera), has remarkably picky food choices (don’t get him started on corn), can be notoriously late, invents sadistically terrible trivia questions, and it’s hard to say whether he participates in events, or just Twitters them. However, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that Danny Sullivan and, in a large way, Chris Sherman, are jointly responsible for the respect our industry has struggled to achieve. Take them out of the equation and you’re almost certainly left with a search landscape devoid of communication between engines and marketers and one in which SEO still carries much of the same snake oil salesman reputation it enjoyed in the late 1990’s.

So, when Incisive Media purchased Danny’s companies – SES (the conference series) & SEWatch (the website) – from Jupiter two years ago and snubbed Danny directly, rejecting him despite the fact that he had no non-compete (essentially saying "we not only don’t think you’re worth paying a reasonable sum to stick around, AND we don’t think you’re important enough to be a competitive threat, either"), I took it personally, even if Danny didn’t.

The original title of this post was, in fact, "There’s No Such Thing as Just Business – It’s All Personal." It’s not just a line from a mafia movie – it’s a deep-rooted belief and it’s how Gillian and I have always run this business. There are probably plenty of people who aren’t wired in this fashion, and I imagine that in many ways, it’s a blessing. I’ve had the conflict of working alongside someone I haven’t gotten along with or who’s mistreated a friend and it’s always a struggle, because I can’t separate the two. The case of SES and SMX falls directly along these lines. At a recent SEOmoz board meeting, someone noted that it might not be in the business’ best interest to "be quite so religious about SES vs. SMX," and while, from a purely financial perspective, that might be true, I find such singular assessments too narrow.

SEOmoz isn’t just a business – it never has been. When the website started, it was on a .org for a reason – no business was conducted there. The blog content, tools and articles were given away entirely for free to the wider search community, as a way to say thanks and pay forward the incredible help, sharing and generosity that had been forthcoming in places like SearchEngineWatch, Cre8asiteForums, HighRankings, SEOChat and at Danny’s SES conference series. As the SEOmoz brand grew, it made sense to take some of the many client requests we received, but we’ve always tried to maintain the brand identity crafted in those early years. It’s why we’ve never moved any of our free content behind PRO and a big reason why we continue to engage in time-consuming free content projects like the SEO Industry Survey, the Web 2.0 Awards and the Beginner’s Guide. 2008 even brought our first charity client project – providing pro bono consulting to Seattle Children’s Hospital. The philosophy that created this company may not always be the most instantly lucrative model, but it will always be the right model for us to follow.

This philosophy extends into business and personal relationships as well, and if you’re someone who follows SEOmoz closely, you can see it reflected in the partnerships we form and the company we keep. Our cross promotion deal with Indextools started because Dennis Mortensen and I became good friends. That goes for Richard Zwicky at Enquisite, and Jeff Rohrs at ExactTarget. The VP of Sales at our host provider (Superb), Curtis R. Curtis, is not only a huge SEOmoz fan and one of our greatest allies, but a great friend, too. Will, Duncan and the crew at Distilled have been friends for 2+ years. We might not have a code of ethics posted on our website, but the message is in what we do, how we do it and who it’s with.

SMX never asked us for exclusivity. In fact, when I brought it up, Danny thought it would be a potentially negative image to convey, and so we’ve never gone that route. In fact, Jane pitched to attend SMX London and Rebecca did likewise for SES Toronto (they were both informally rejected; i.e. No reply). I had settled on attending SES NYC if invited, but, like Michael Gray, was not asked to return. I was asked to speak at SES Toronto by Andrew Goodman and replied noting that I was concerned that Incisive had put a ban on SEOmoz, but would be happy to attend if they cleared it. I never heard back. When Kevin did his interview on WMRadio, he noted that for competitive reasons, some folks haven’t been asked to attend the shows – perhaps we fall into that category, yet aren’t technically "banned."

None of this will be news to the SES crew – I’ve been in touch directly with Matt McGowan (whom I have the highest respect for) with these exact sentiments. I’m not against attending or speaking at SES events, but I am uncomfortable with it. Helping to grow a brand and a company whose backers (by whom I do not mean Kevin Ryan or Matt McGowan, but rather the decision makers at Incisive) I strongly disagree with is not high on my to-do list. Good people work for Incisive, good people speak at their shows and participate on their blog, good people program their content. But, behind the scenes and nestled in the cornerstone of their ownership is a fact I’m simply uncomfortable about – they didn’t support the person who’s supported me, supported SEOmoz and supported this industry more than any other. Looking the other way for the sake of a few more eyeballs feels disingenuous.

Will SMX become the bigger, better show? I don’t know. What I do know is where my energy and my support belong – behind people who would give it back without a moment’s hesitation. Perhaps, more than following a golden rule or trusting in karma, acts like these – both business and personal (for those who see a difference) – are actually self-preservation, shoring up the uncertain future with certainty in our relationships.

It’s not just a philosophy to apply externally, either. When I look around SEOmoz, I feel that it’s still a place where things have the chance to go right. This wasn’t a company built like so many of the startups I read about, around solving a technological problem or filling a consumer need. It was a company started by two people who loved each other and loved working together – my Mom and I. It was a company that meandered through near bankruptcy and failed business models into survival, then growth and finally outside investment. And through all that time, we tried to maintain a sense that ours was a different kind of business; one where people came first – our people, our partners and certainly not least, our community – you.

I know that considerable concerns surrounded our acceptance of external capital last Fall. Folks worried if SEOmoz would maintain the same attitude and the same community it had as a family business. I don’t expect that those worries have been entirely laid to rest, and I’m not sure they ever will be, but I can say that so far, Gillian and I still run the public facing parts of SEOmoz much the same as we always have. I know that some aspects have changed – I’m not on the blog quite as much as I once was. Not surprisingly, managing 15 people takes slightly more time than managing 7. There’s quite a bit more focus on the PRO content, although I think we stil generate more free, high value material than nearly anyone else in the industry. And of course some things are a bit more corporate – we have an in-house counsel (though if you’ve met Sarah in person, you know that none of the usual stereotypes apply), we report to a board of directors and I don’t write many posts like this one.

Overall, I’d say we’re doing pretty well, though. The community at SEOmoz is stronger than ever, the PRO subscriptions continue to grow (at almost 2,500 members today), and I find the brand still inspires smiles and positive conversation wherever I go. We’ve been lucky – lucky to have so many great opportunities, lucky to stand on the shoulders of those who crafted this industry from its nascent beginnings before we arrived and lucky to be surrounded by so many great people. When you look at my profile page, you’ll see that my favorite thing about SEO has remained constant in all the years since I started.

Back in Seattle. I’m alone in the office Memorial Day morning and debating whether or not to publish. I think I will. I’ve got more than a few emails in my inbox asking for more introspective posts, and it’s been a long time coming. Here’s to hoping that instead of generating controversy, hysteria or angry comments, people simply take it as an opportunity to learn more about me and more about SEOmoz. Despite the fact that my hair appears to be thinning on top (much to Mystery Guest’s dismay) and there’s more gray strands in it every day, I’m still young, still at the start of the learning curve about how to build a company and run it well. Here’s to hoping that the decisions we make for personal reasons are the right ones in business, too.

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