Leadership: Going Public at Moz

Sarah Bird's background isn't in tech, but she is determined to make Moz the next high flier.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

As high-tech moguls go, Sarah Bird is about as unconventional as you can get. A career in technology was the last thing on her mind when she was studying philosophy, literature and law. She’s more apt to explore the farthest reaches of the globe than climb corporate ladders.

But with almost no initial technology background, the highly regarded 37-year old recently celebrated her second anniversary as CEO of Moz, a $31 million Seattle software marketing company.

The problem-solving skills Bird honed as a young family-law attorney have proven to be her No. 1 asset. And then there’s her knack for being able to spot obstacles and opportunities and her commitment to being transparent. “Technology startups aren’t for the faint of heart,” Bird admits. “This is hard work and there are no shortcuts.

Moz has been recognized by Seattle Business magazine as one of Washington’s 100 Best Companies to Work For and it received the magazine’s Tech Impact Award for Marketing Innovation in 2012. Bird is on a quest to turn Moz — which makes software for online marketers to help measure and improve search, social, web mentions and content — into “Seattle’s next great [high-growth] public tech company.” 

That goal might sound like a tall order for a business that has reported losses the past two years ($2.1 million in 2014) despite improved revenues. “The road to success in a dynamic industry like digital marketing is bumpy and littered with failed companies,” Bird acknowledges. “If it were easy, there wouldn’t be as large an opportunity.”

Her game plan for 2016 is to develop the best team possible and to understand digital influence better than anyone else. “I want Moz to solve tough problems for digital marketers,” Bird says. She also plans to focus on product innovation, step up efforts to improve customer feedback and prepare to become a “public-ready” company within a few years. 

With 2014 revenues of $31.3 million, Bird says, Moz hosts one of the world’s largest communities of online marketers, boasting 21,000 customers and more than 
2 million website visits each month.

She joined its board of directors in 2012, the same year Moz raised $18 million in venture capital from Foundry Group and Ignition Partners. That’s when the company launched a strategic plan to create an all-in-one digital marketing platform. In 2012 and 2013, Moz doubled its team and acquired three firms “to mature its product offerings and create a unified customer experience.”

But the combination of launching new products, scaling business operations and integrating the new businesses proved challenging. In 2013, Moz reported 
30 percent revenue growth and a loss of $5.7 million — a “cash burn” that Bird says was a planned investment to fuel Moz’s growth for the past three years. “Like most venture-backed startups, we planned to operate at a loss, but I was still disappointed with the company’s performance. I learned a lot about building software, product planning, communication and accountability from the experience. We’re doing things a lot differently now.”
Moz changed its name from SEOmoz in 2013 and launched three major product updates in the past quarter to help fund future growth and provide a revenue cushion in the event there are swings in the market. “The team is on fire right now,” Bird says. “Execution and morale are at an all-time high.

While Bird once wondered how she became “boss man,” her rise to the top has been a natural progression of a longtime professional partnership with Moz cofounder and former CEO Rand Fishkin, who still has an active role in the business as self-appointed “Wizard of Moz.”

The two met at a dinner party in 2002 when Bird was still in law school. They remained friends over the years as Fishkin formed his SEO consulting company in 2004 and Bird went on to practice law in Seattle. Several years later, the two ran into each other again at a dinner and Fishkin suggested Bird join his Seattle firm as general counsel. 

As someone who relishes culture shock — and isn’t afraid of anything, except maybe snakes — Bird decided to take the high-tech plunge. She became the company’s eighth employee in 2007 and hit the ground running. Six months later, she became the COO. She jokes that she was one of the oldest people at Moz and went to board meetings with a binder that had color-coded tabs, “so clearly I was the most qualified to be in operations.” In January 2014, she was recruited by Fishkin to take over his CEO position.

Bird is not one to shy away from risks and believes in “having the courage to advocate for what you believe is right, even if it’s likely that you’ll lose.” She adds, “Earlier in my career, I let the fear of making a mistake delay my decision making and cause me unnecessary anxiety about letting people down. Today, I’m getting a lot better at embracing, not just tolerating, my fallibility.”

Giving up on perfection, she says, was the best advice she ever received from the many mentors in her life. “Waste is a necessary part of innovation. I treat everything as a hypothesis that we can test and learn from. I’m much less threatened by mistakes because I know they are experiments I can learn from.”
Moz lives and breathes a concept called TAGFEE, the company’s core values system, which stands for transparent, authentic, generous, fun, empathetic and exceptional. “We are obnoxiously loud and proud about TAGFEE, so much so it’s like a tractor beam for other TAGFEE people,” Bird says. “It’s the guide to all of our decision making.”

The company culture reflects her goal for Moz’s 191 employees, known as Mozzers, to excel at work and contribute to causes and communities they are passionate about. In 2013, Moz opened a small “Mozlandia” office in Portland.

Each Moz employee gets 21 days paid time off a year and a subsidized gym membership, not to mention 401(k) contributions and stock options. They boast that when you Google search “Seriously Awesome Seattle Workplace,” Moz comes up. Employees also get annual stipends of $3,000 to apply to vacation expenses — an enticement to actually take time off and unplug. 

Bird believes leaders aren’t born; they are made. Which explains why she surrounds herself with smart people. “I love the feeling of being displaced, of not knowing what I should be doing. It’s the feeling of growth. … Luckily, leading a dynamic technology startup keeps me on my toes. There are always new challenges to tackle and new skills to develop.”

She admits she still struggles as a leader to say “no,” especially for causes and people she is passionate about. “I want to do everything in my power to be helpful and make a difference, but I often overcommit myself and have to work very, very hard to avoid feeling guilty by missing a deadline or disappointing a friend.” 

Over the years, Bird has become passionate about taking care of others and promoting women in the tech industry. She learned “radical empathy” from her generous parents and from traveling the world as a young adult and witnessing poverty, hardship and people doing their best to cope, to take care of each other, to love and protect their families. “It gave me a passion for social justice,” she notes.

“Sarah gets fired up about equal access for women and minorities in the tech industry and she’s doing something about it,” says Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Alliance, on whose board Bird sits. He says tech needs more leaders like Bird to promote change in the male-dominated industry.

To ensure women get more access to computer science careers, Moz has been a champion of institutions like Ada Developers Academy, which teaches women to code and offers programs to encourage more women to join the high-tech field. Moz has hired three Ada graduates and encourages people who have abandoned careers in tech to give it another try through a program called ReturnShip.

“It’s a great opportunity for women and underrepresented minorities to get back into tech in a supportive environment,” says Bird, adding that Moz is currently hosting three ReturnShippers.

Bird says her insatiable appetite for learning — studying everything from the history of opera to scuba diving, from Chinese law to bartending — keeps her sharp and challenged. She focuses on “quality of time, not quantity of time,” and puts her family and her 4-year-old son first.
She advocates having fun in life: “Take your work seriously and yourself lightly,” she advises. “If you don’t enjoy the challenges you have, find new ones.” 

She joined its board of directors in 2012, the same year Moz raised $18 million in venture capital from Foundry Group and Ignition Partners. That’s when the company launched a strategic plan to create an all-in-one digital marketing platform. In 2012 and 2013, Moz doubled its team and acquired three firms “to mature its product offerings and create a unified customer experience.”

But the combination of launching new products, scaling business operations and integrating the new businesses proved challenging. In 2013, Moz reported 30 percent revenue growth and a loss of $5.7 million — a “cash burn” that Bird says was a planned investment to fuel Moz’s growth for the past three years. “Like most venture-backed startups, we planned to operate at a loss, but I was still disappointed with the company’s performance. I learned a lot about building software, product planning, communication and accountability from the experience. We’re doing things a lot differently now.”

Moz changed its name from SEOmoz in 2013 and launched three major product updates in the past quarter to help fund future growth and provide a revenue cushion in the event there are swings in the market. “The team is on fire right now,” Bird says. “Execution and morale are at an all-time high.

While Bird once wondered how she became “boss man,” her rise to the top has been a natural progression of a longtime professional partnership with Moz cofounder and former CEO Rand Fishkin, who still has an active role in the business as self-appointed “Wizard of Moz.”

The two met at a dinner party in 2002 when Bird was still in law school. They remained friends over the years as Fishkin formed his SEO consulting company in 2004 and Bird went on to practice law in Seattle. Several years later, the two ran into each other again at a dinner and Fishkin suggested Bird join his Seattle firm as general counsel. 

As someone who relishes culture shock — and isn’t afraid of anything, except maybe snakes — Bird decided to take the high-tech plunge. She became the company’s eighth employee in 2007 and hit the ground running. Six months later, she became the COO. She jokes that she was one of the oldest people at Moz and went to board meetings with a binder that had color-coded tabs, “so clearly I was the most qualified to be in operations.” In January 2014, she was recruited by Fishkin to take over his CEO position.

Bird is not one to shy away from risks and believes in “having the courage to advocate for what you believe is right, even if it’s likely that you’ll lose.” She adds, “Earlier in my career, I let the fear of making a mistake delay my decision making and cause me unnecessary anxiety about letting people down. Today, I’m getting a lot better at embracing, not just tolerating, my fallibility.”

Giving up on perfection, she says, was the best advice she ever received from the many mentors in her life. “Waste is a necessary part of innovation. I treat everything as a hypothesis that we can test and learn from. I’m much less threatened by mistakes because I know they are experiments I can learn from.”
Moz lives and breathes a concept called TAGFEE, the company’s core values system, which stands for transparent, authentic, generous, fun, empathetic and exceptional. “We are obnoxiously loud and proud about TAGFEE, so much so it’s like a tractor beam for other TAGFEE people,” Bird says. “It’s the guide to all of our decision making.”

The company culture reflects her goal for Moz’s 191 employees, known as Mozzers, to excel at work and contribute to causes and communities they are passionate about. In 2013, Moz opened a small “Mozlandia” office in Portland.

Each Moz employee gets 21 days paid time off a year and a subsidized gym membership, not to mention 401(k) contributions and stock options. They boast that when you Google search “Seriously Awesome Seattle Workplace,” Moz comes up. Employees also get annual stipends of $3,000 to apply to vacation expenses — an enticement to actually take time off and unplug. 

Bird believes leaders aren’t born; they are made. Which explains why she surrounds herself with smart people. “I love the feeling of being displaced, of not knowing what I should be doing. It’s the feeling of growth. … Luckily, leading a dynamic technology startup keeps me on my toes. There are always new challenges to tackle and new skills to develop.”

She admits she still struggles as a leader to say “no,” especially for causes and people she is passionate about. “I want to do everything in my power to be helpful and make a difference, but I often overcommit myself and have to work very, very hard to avoid feeling guilty by missing a deadline or disappointing a friend.” 

Over the years, Bird has become passionate about taking care of others and promoting women in the tech industry. She learned “radical empathy” from her generous parents and from traveling the world as a young adult and witnessing poverty, hardship and people doing their best to cope, to take care of each other, to love and protect their families. “It gave me a passion for social justice,” she notes.

“Sarah gets fired up about equal access for women and minorities in the tech industry and she’s doing something about it,” says Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Alliance, on whose board Bird sits. He says tech needs more leaders like Bird to promote change in the male-dominated industry.

To ensure women get more access to computer science careers, Moz has been a champion of institutions like Ada Developers Academy, which teaches women to code and offers programs to encourage more women to join the high-tech field. Moz has hired three Ada graduates and encourages people who have abandoned careers in tech to give it another try through a program called ReturnShip.

“It’s a great opportunity for women and underrepresented minorities to get back into tech in a supportive environment,” says Bird, adding that Moz is currently hosting three ReturnShippers.

Bird says her insatiable appetite for learning — studying everything from the history of opera to scuba diving, from Chinese law to bartending — keeps her sharp and challenged. She focuses on “quality of time, not quantity of time,” and puts her family and her 4-year-old son first.

She advocates having fun in life: “Take your work seriously and yourself lightly,” she advises. “If you don’t enjoy the challenges you have, find new ones.” 

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