#54 Gabriel Weinberg

James Altucher interviewed Gabriel Weinberg (@yegg), CEO of DuckDuckGo to talk about privacy, building technology companies, and his book Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. For the most authentic – and meta – experience, I used DuckDuckGo as my research tool du jour.

The pair begin the interview with some banter about how Weinberg introduces himself at cocktail parties, even though he tries to avoid it. When it does happen he says, “we’re a search engine like Google.” The DuckDuckGo site there are three tenants to the company where they differ from Google, “real privacy, smarter search, and less clutter.” Altucher goes on to dispute the idea that Weinberg’s service is “cleaner” than Google, but Weinberg answers with a fair point that most services are all about design and it’s a preference thing, drawing the analogy to web browser choices.

Pragmatically, DuckDuckGo works differently than Google, hence the different results. Where as Google indexes pages to find later, DuckDuckGo rather looks at your query and qualifies what you’re asking, and then returns the best page results. If you search for a person like, “Stephen King” you get an excerpt from Wikipedia, then a link to StephenKing.com, another Wikipedia link, and then an About.com page. Whereas A search for the movie, “The Shining” returns; Wikipedia, IMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes.


As the interview continues, Weinberg explains a feature of Google search I had never considered:

“One other point.  You mentioned a more nuanced benefit of DuckDuckGo, which is this constant filter bubble, where at Google you know they’re basically showing you links that they think you’re gonna click on but not necessarily the most objective researched links.  And if you’re like you know you’re a democrat or republican, you’re seeing those kind of links and not opposing viewpoints.  I believe that is pernicious, especially in politics, and that is a benefit of DuckDuckGo.  I usually don’t say it ’cause it’s kind of nuance and hard to explain, but since you brought it up, I thought I’d just mention it.”

This was clear to me last Christmas when I kept seeing ads come up for an obscure gift I was researching. How, I wondered, did all these sites have ads for this quirky thing? They didn’t, but they were members of the Google Ad network. I had searched on Google and the ads I saw were specific to that. I had never – naively – considered that my search and browsing were dictating my ads.

It’s not just the specific sites you and I browse, it could be our phone calls too. A Stanford research study found out that they could infer if you were in a relationship, had heart problems, or  wanted to start growing weed in your basement just based on the meta data on your phone. The study authors concluded these things despite not hearing a single piece of conversation.

Back in the interview, Altucher asks Weinberg how he got started in 2007/2008. Weinberg was just coming off a company sale and was building DuckDuckGo piecemeal.

“I had just sold a business and was kind of doing personal projects and did a bunch of projects enhancing Google in ways that I felt Google was lacking, so removing spam, adding these instant answers, and then thought you know what, I could put some of these together and kind of grow my own search engine and see if anyone’s interested.  That was the genesis.”

That genesis has led to DuckDuckGo on the new iPhones.

Weinberg’s book is based on his experiences. As his company grew they found different things moved their stats in different ways. For DuckDuckGo Weinberg said they used; SEO (searching Google for ‘new search engine’), Reddit ads, content marketing, microsites, print, billboards, TV and now enterprise partnerships like the Apple deal. Each of these avenues led to specific company benchmarks.

After the DuckDuckGo birth story, Altucher asks about Names Database and its sale to United Online for about ten million dollars. Weinberg was a co-founder, and he and James make a strong case to never take investors if you can help it. Weinberg mentions a post he wrote about it, Paths to $5M for a startup founder.

The gist of the post is reminding people how values change when you divide by 4 rather than 2. Easy math stuff, but the post was popular, and listed on HN because we like people to tell us obvious things. We know to do more pushups and eat less pizza, but only after hearing a celebrity interview do we get on board.

One sad note, when I searched DuckDuckGo for “the path to five million dollars weinberg” I couldn’t find the link it in the first thirty results. On Google it was number two.

Back in the interview Altucher adds, “I don’t want to say you can start any business, but look, if you can start a business that has a million dollars in EBITDA, you could sell it and make a lot of money for an individual person who’s never had money before.”

This being the second interview that mentions it, I had to DuckDuckGo EBITDA. It stands for, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Without harkening back to your college accounting textbook (I don’t have mine anymore), that figure serves as a proxy for how profitable a company is based on its current working assets. Apple has an EBITA of 10.38, Walmart one of 8.27, and Macy’s one of 6.90.  Each introductory article about it also warned that it can dress up an ugly financial bride.

Throughout the interview Altucher brings the conversation back to the DuckDuckGo policy on privacy, and Weinberg says that they do that and more; but he never makes a solid case for me about what else DuckDuckGo does well. One differentiator is that don’t develop anything but better search. Weinberg says they have 20 people and they focus “almost zero” on their own advertising. Another tactic is their pursuit of the open source framework of DuckDuckGo’s instant answer service. About it Weinberg says;

“we’re hoping to have you know thousands of people out there working on an open source platform developing these answers, and that’s why it’s all open source.  So any user can suggest you know an instant-answer source or idea.  You know it could be money related, some better stock source.  And then you know you could develop it; someone else can come along and development it.”

Toward the end of the interview Weinberg gives some good advice about how he figures out the “inflection points” for DuckDuckGo, and acts accordingly to those markers. Deciding if your primary goal is to get traction or be profitable will lead to the metrics that dictate your actions. In the case of DuckDuckGo that meant first getting the service running well enough that people could switch to it, then it was getting to 100 million searches each month, and now it’s the pursuit of 1% of all searches. Each step leads down chosen path.

Altucher then asks how someone can tell if they should give up, what if they have a path but arriving at each inflection point is taking a lot longer than they hoped. Weinberg first suggests looking for any “bright spots.” This idea has been most popularly explained by Kevin Kelly’s article on 1,000 true fans (even Seth Godin linked to it!) where he writes;

“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name.”

One tip from Weinberg’s book is guest posting, and both agree that is a great way to build traction for your business. Another is to build and show your expertise through blogging like Bryan Johnson from Braintree. Altucher shares that he has a friend that’s used educational blogging successfully for SMS marketing, and this has been Pat Flynn’s system from the beginning.

A third tip is to use the underutilized area of e-mail marketing. Tim Ferriss, Tim-freakin’-online-self-promotion-experimentation-king-Ferriss, has just started email marketing. Check out his interview with Ramit Sethi for a great breakdown on the what and why.

The remainder of the interview between Altucher and Weinberg is about his book, Traction.

Researching note: The search experience on DuckDuckGo was overall slower and not quite as helpful as Google. I have a pair of theories. The first is that I already basically know where I want to go. For many searchers I’m looking for the Wikipedia article and they do come faster with Google. Other times I need something from my history. The second theory as to why DuckDuckGo didn’t do anything for me was how unfamiliar I was with the experience. It looked and felt different and that slowed me down. Not much, but enough that I noted.

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