A few weeks back, I had the privilege of interviewing a person I consider a good personal friend in the PPC space, Frederick Vallaeys. I would have gotten these notes out to you more quickly, but… well then we had our 6th kid the day after the interview happened. 🤷🏻♂️ Better late than never!
So who is Fred? Fred owns Optmyzr, was one of the early employees of Google (more on that later), has written a book (and is writing another), and balances all of that while also taking care of a family and thinking up his next business to start.
At ZATO, we’re huge fans of Optmyzr (and Fred, too) as we use their tools regularly in our client accounts. I like keeping up with Fred and seeing where his brain is at in the world of PPC, so I asked him if I could interview him on Clubhouse and allow others to listen in. He graciously agreed, and here are the notes from our conversation.
Clubhouse Notes from: PPCKirk Interviews Fred Vallaeys
Who is Fred??
- When did we first meet?
I first met Fred at HeroConf in Portland about 6-7 years ago and we have kept up since then. Often at conferences, speakers will tend to run into each other (especially if you’re doing a lot that year and would like to see a recognizable face) and we’ve hung out at numerous conferences over the past few years. A highlight meet-up for me was in Sydney Australia, 2019 when Fred and I spoke at Search Marketing Summit Sydney. We grabbed coffee and hung out chatting about home renovations and anything besides marketing (sometimes even marketers need a break from marketing)!
- What is your morning routine?
I’m always curious about this aspect of people, though I haven’t determined if it tells me something about them yet. It does seem like the most successful people have a fairly stable (and often, early) morning routing, and Fred is no different. He let us know he wakes up and goes running before the kids get up and then he comes back and feeds them and helps them get ready for the day. What a great dad!
- What’s your favorite breakfast food?
The questions don’t get much more important than this. Fred has good taste, as he opps for a Chocolate croissant when in the mood for something fantastic. Fred and I actually share a love of great coffee, and we learned on this call that we both have this year switched over to decaf coffee! Both of us agreed to feeling better without that caffeine dependence, and hope to not go back. Fred mentioned he’s also off of milk now and really digging Oat milk… which led us into a side conversation on branding about Oatly and their super bowl commercial awhile back. It’s tempting for performance marketers to get obsessed with tracking conversions, yet a commercial that stays in front of Fred for the time when he is interested in making the switch, is what helped him give Oat milk a try. The long game!
- How many kids do you have and how old are they?
Fred has 3 kids, and since I’m a terrible interviewer and focused on other stuff I forgot to ask their ages or anything about them. 😆🤷🏻♂️
Fred’s Time at Google
Did you know Fred worked at Google? Whether you did or didn’t, this next section might surprise you!
- What number Googler were you?
Fred was hired in August of 2002, and was badge 833. Since badges included some non-employee contractors, this means there were under 500 people at Google when Fred started (keep in mind there are now 135K employees in Alphabet)! Fred is one of the few Xooglers (ex-Googlers) who really remember Google in its early stages.
- What are some of the projects you worked on (if you’re allowed to tell)?
While at Google, Fred decided to make a little cash on the side (woot, side hustles!) and became an affiliate by running ads for some other companies (small ones you’ve never heard of… LIKE eBay). While doing this, he developed a cookie-based system for tracking sales, in essence his own conversion tracking (this was before Google had conversion tracking), and Google utilized this idea along with others, to create conversion tracking.
Wait… *screeching brake noise*
I asked Fred on the call… “does this mean you invented conversion tracking at Google??”
Fred: “oh not really, there were others involved as well.”
My team and I after the call: “FRED TOTALLY INVENTED CONVERSION TRACKING AT GOOGLE!”
(Both Fred, and another old-timer, Anders Hjorth, maintain conversion tracking was around before Fred and Google did this, but I’m going to maintain that Fred helped kick-start it at Google as he came about this on his own path 😉
The Quality Score team is another one to which Fred was assigned. In the olden days of Google, “might makes right” and advertisers with deep pockets could steamroll smaller advertisers. Any sort of quality attempts were complex and simplistic and it was very difficult to crack the code of making a bulk, clear method of instantaneous quality measurement.
Fred’s team was part of the Quality Score team to figure this out. Originally, if any ad had a click through rate of less than 0.5%, it would be automatically disabled… yet this didn’t account for the complexity of user search behavior and true intent. This evolved into a relevance system where a low quality keyword would then cost more at the auction rather than be automatically disabled, and thus Quality Score came into being!
An interesting story he shared is struggling to comprehend the scale of Google and how that weighs into certain decisions. For instance, he worked on a certain Google Project that was shut down because it wasn’t a big enough revenue-contributor. It’s individual contribution at the time it was sunset? $100 Million Dollars. ONE HUNDRED MILLION. Ha! Google has a different way of analyzing scale and opportunity, that’s for sure!
- What were the circumstances of your leaving Google?
While, like most Xooglers, Fred is thankful for his time there, he left (perhaps sooner than originally intended) with some frustrations towards what Google had done to his job role by the time he left (around 60K employees at that time). There was an unfortunate attempt to take high profile, skilled people out of their powerhouse and shift them into a role of training others in an attempt to compound the special thing that individual had going (failing to realize that individual was uniquely special at doing said thing, and that’s why it worked). Fred liked to dig into the weeds of technical problems and give sessions on his discoveries, yet Google increasingly shifted away from giving him a role directly speaking and instead towards training “propoganda-like speeches” by non-technical experts. This and other things helped him see it was time to move on so he free-lanced a bit before starting Optmyzr.
Fred’s Time at Optmyzr
- What year did you start, what’s your origin story?
While freelancing, Fred met his co-founders from a post he wrote on Search Engine Land (written content creates businesses!). This was also around the time scripts came out on Google, and in 2013 they turned that into a new company called Optmyzr. Optmyzr is 100% bootstrapped, and has grown without outside funding (I always love those stories, while ZATO is not a product, we also have never received outside funding of any sort and there is something personal that goes into that I always enjoy hearing about).
- If you weren’t running/working at Optmyzr, what else would you be doing?
Fred laughed at this question, “I’d probably start another company… I just love tinkering with technology.” As one example of a side hustle he is currently working on, he is playing around with a tool that allows for easier birthday greeting collection… and without going into all the details, I thought this was a brilliant idea!
As any owner in tech or digital will discuss these days, what would happen if Google continues to make things more automated and make Optmyzr obsolete? Fred sounded nonchalant as he answered, clearly unworried.
“We’d find another way, or we would adapt. There are always ways to help the machine as a human.”
- Do you lean more towards product based or service based?
Fred and I parted ways on this question, as he is particularly drawn to products that can scale rapidly. He has a knack for seeing problems and then being able to create product-based solutions… who also happens to be an introvert!
There was more to the interview, but hey… you had to be there 😉
I hope you enjoyed this recap, and we look forward to keeping up with Optmyzr and Fred for years to come!
May the auctions be ever in your favor.