You are in for a holiday treat over the next couple of weeks as I introduce our Slingshot SEO Research and Development department and its always unflappable head Mr. Evan Fishkin.
When most people think of a technology-related company R&D department, the names Apple, Cisco, Qualcomm and others come to mind. They may have more white lab coats and bigger budgets, but I seriously doubt if they have as much fun or know as much about SEO as our talented trio!
The idea to profile our R&D department came to me while enjoying some Mexican cuisine with Evan a few weeks back. I so enjoyed hearing his many views on the SEO world and how his journeys led him to Slingshot SEO and Indianapolis that I knew others would too. The old saying of being “one in a million” has never been more appropriate! Grab a cup of coffee or a cola and sit back and enjoy my interview with Evan …
Jay: How did an R&D department come about here at Slingshot SEO?
Evan: Well, we obviously didn’t start with one. Most of the innovation at Slingshot happened haphazardly. When someone came up with a great idea, it would be tossed around in a group, but we didn’t have a lot of time to execute it. We had a lot of clients to take care of and they were steamrolling in faster than we could hire people to help out. It became difficult to take off with all these great ideas everyone had.
Around 4 or 5 months after I started here, I was asked to put together a weekly recap of the week’s news in SEO and Internet marketing. That became known as “The Weekly Show.” Three months later, the partners approached me with the idea to start an R&D department. It was going to be a one-man operation. They wanted me to head the department based on my experience in the SEO industry and because of “The Weekly Show.” The partners thought I would be a great person to help execute and lay out goals and ideas for innovation and projects that we, as a company, wanted to explore. We still work to make sure R&D projects are a consortium of everyone’s ideas.
Jay: What was your position at the time?
Evan: I was an SEO consultant on a team back then. We called ourselves The Brigade of Awesome, a personal title that I had brought with me from a couple of other places.
Jay: (Laughs) Is that title still out there among any of Slingshot’s teams?
Evan: No, it’s a personal title that I have with a close group and I add people to it from time to time.
Jay: Oh, so if I’m lucky I can become part of The Brigade of Awesome? Hopefully, doing this interview with you will help qualify me.
Evan: Maybe … it’s a pretty tight-knit club!
Jay: So, how did you personally get involved with Slingshot SEO in the first place?
Evan: Back in 2010, I was attending the SEOmoz conference, and on the very last night, there was a meet-up at a bar. There, I met one of Slingshot’s founders, Jeremy Dearringer, who is a very active SEOmoz member. During our conversation, Jeremy and I talked about the best consulting strategies, new ideas and how we thought SEO news and information should be displayed to clients. Jeremy kept asking me what I wanted to do if I had the ideal job. I told him that, basically, I wanted to come up with a great idea 10 times a day and work with a company that’s receptive to great ideas and to new forms of content strategy and creation about user engagement. Jeremy said, “Fantastic! What’s your price?” I honestly thought he was joking but Jeremy and the other partners wrote up a contract the next week and one month later I was a Slingshot SEO employee!
Jay: That’s great! So, who else is on the R&D team?
Evan: The R&D team is comprised of three members: David Tittle, our Dynamic Applications Engineer, Casey Szulc, our Statistician, and me.
David Tittle Casey Szulc Evan Fishkin
Jay: Can you tell me about how you found the other two members?
Evan: David Tittle was actually here for a few years before I even started, but he moved him over to the R&D team after we had worked together on the Delta Force team. That team dissolved as our teams grew and intersected with themselves, which left the SEO consultants with their own teams. Dave wasn’t an SEO consultant, but he was there to help the Delta Force as a Dynamic Applications Engineer who could handle any crazy event that occurred, any implementation problems that we had with clients, and any content management systems and server applications.
When I was asked to put together this R&D team, it was originally just going to be myself with more members getting hired on at a later date. But at some point I was approached by Aaron Aders (another co-founder) who said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this intern, Casey, who I want to add to the R&D team. I want you to work with him.’ I was like, ‘Great, but I have no idea who Casey is!’ Aaron was like, ‘He’s the guy who sits in my office every day.’ I said, ‘Oh really, I thought he was like your kid or something.’ They were always together. So, I finally got a chance to meet this kid. He was nice enough to pick me up from the airport during Butler’s Elite 8 game against Florida. We spent the entire car ride in silence, listening to that game. It was very close, very exciting. I wanted to try and get to know Casey a little better, but I think he just wanted to listen to the Butler game. It was the first time I ever cared about sports. So, after that, I asked Dave Tittle if he’d like to join us and he was very excited about the idea and that’s how the R&D team was formed.
Jay: Butler! Yes! You see, I knew that’s why I liked Casey so much. How well do the three of you work together?
Evan: Sometimes we all work on stuff together, sometimes just two of us, and, at other times, we have individual projects. I’d say we work together in a more aggressive manner than other teams. Dave and I clash quite a bit. We have two very different mindsets when it comes to logical structure of approaching projects.
Jay: That kind of conflict can be very good for innovation. You don’t want everyone to be a “Yes-man” in the Brigade of Awesome!
Evan: Exactly. It can be very good sometimes. You don’t always want to agree with the people you work with. Aaron Aders said in one of his Innovation Task Force meetings that conflict helps breed new ideas and it makes for an exciting work environment. Would you watch a movie without conflict? No! It would be boring. So, as a result of us clashing, we rarely have boring meetings or brainstorming sessions.
We do a lot of projects that advance thought leadership within our industry, showing people directions where they should go and the paths that we see. Projects like our click-through rate study have really shed light on many of the problems in Internet marketing as a general concept. As we mentioned in the study, every group of keywords that we studied were significantly different. CTR can range wildly depending on who the user is, what they are searching for, and what you can offer that user.
As you can see, Evan’s story was very interesting, to say the least. Next week we will explore with our R&D team questions and answers such as:
• Why is the R&D department important to Slingshot SEO?
• What are the team’s biggest achievements of 2011?
• What should we expect from the team in 2012?
Feel free to let me know if there are any other questions you would like me to pose to Evan and the R&D team. See you next week with these answers and much more!