GE 119: The 4 Biggest Traction-Getting Lessons DuckDuckGo’s CEO Learned From Growing to 300M Searches Per Month [Podcast]

gabriel photoHi everyone, today we’ve got Gabriel Weinberg back on the show as Growth Everywhere’s first ever repeat guest.

To refresh your memory, Gabriel’s a co-author of the book Traction (which has a great new updated version releasing tomorrow, October 6th), and is the CEO of the search engine DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo Gets Traction & Makes it into the VIP Search Engine List

As another little refresher, Gabriel stared doing startups directly out of college. He had some companies that failed, but had one that was a success in 2006.

A year later, he started DuckDuckGo, which is a search engine that does’t track you, and he’s been working on that ever since… for about eight years now.

DuckDuckGo’s grown substantially over time. When they first started, their initial traction was getting 10,000 searches per month, but now they’re at 300 million searches per month.

Gabriel says they’ve had to re-think time and time again on how to get traction, but it’s paid off.

Last year, for example, they got included in some major browsers as a default choice setting.

Mozilla added them to Firefox, and Apple added them to Safari on iPhone and OS X alongside Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

The Framework Around Getting Traction

Gabriel set out to write the book Traction in 2009 when DuckDuckGo was first starting to get traction, and he went out looking for a framework on how to do it better. He wanted to read a book about it, but it didn’t exist.

After years of research and interviewing, he pulled together a framework which is pretty simple in it’s essence, but it took a long time to get to.

He uses a bullseye metaphor in the book, with the outer ring containing the 19 different marketing channels you can possibly use.

The framework itself is designed to whittle down those 19 possibilities to the one that will work the best for you by testing three at a time, and then bearing down on the one that’s working.

Knowing When to Pivot Your Product

Jason Lemkin from SaaStr suggests that as long as you’ve got 10 non-family and non-friends as customers, then you know you’ve got something worthwhile.

To Gabriel, it’s more of a question of figuring out how and if you should pivot your product at the very beginning.

When people ask him whether or not they should pivot their product, he advises them to look for real product engagement, which can be defined with a number of factors:

  • Whether or not the people using your product aren’t family and friends
  • If they’re truly using the product and getting value out of it
  • If those first 10 non-friends really represent a viable market, or if they’re just outlying weirdos.

For the second point, the best way to know if people are using the product to its full potential and getting value out of it is to talk to them.

The Tendency to Throw in the Towel Early

In my (Eric’s) experience, I see a lot of people who run online courses quit after getting just 10 to 15 customers.

In response to that, Gabriel says you’ve got to approach your entrepreneurial endeavors from the view of a career path, and not a one-and-done mentality.

If you have a good idea and decide that you’re just going to test it out but give up on it if it doesn’t work, it’s already a recipe for failure because you’re not truly invested in your idea. He also says it’s the reason most initial startups fail.

He says you’ve got to be ready to invest skills and be in it for the long term. If it’s not something you’re ready to dedicate yourself to for an entire decade (at least), then it probably isn’t the best idea for you to pursue.

The 4 Biggest Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make Trying to Get Traction

1. Not having a traction goal.

The first thing you need to do when you set out on an experiment to get more traction is to decide how much traction you need to get, or you won’t be able to properly evaluate anything.

Usually, says Gabriel, when you’re starting out, you’ll need traction for the purpose of getting a certain number of customers for profitability, or to raise funding.

2. Not starting early enough.

If you think of your product in the context of the leaky bucket metaphor, your product is the bucket with holes in it because you’ve just started working and don’t have the perfect product yet, so customers are leaking out.

A lot of people want to wait to get traction until they have their product ready to launch because they follow the intuitive response that if they put customers in only to have them fall out, it’s a wasted effort.

However, even though it’s intuitive, it’s the wrong approach because if you don’t have that stream of customers coming in, you won’t be able to truly tell where your holes are.

Beta groups also don’t work as well as we’d like them to because they’re made up of people who are closer to us, and they have the mind frame of what they saw in the very beginning, where as new customers coming in have no frame of reference to bias their thoughts of the product.

According to Gabriel, it’s important to start a traction-getting framework the moment you start your product development… and that you should spend a solid 50% of your time trying to get traction.

3. Not looking at all the possible channels.

Most people, when going after traction, only go after the same channels their competitors are using.

It’s intuitive because it is smart to mimic what successful people are doing, but it’s also generally wrong because those channels are super competitive.

What you need to do, instead, is to test some under-utilized channels that your competition isn’t using to get amazing conversions and differentiate yourself from the crowd.

4. Not going after something that’s working.

Gabriel says that when you find a channel that can get you to your goal within your timeline and your budget, you should drop everything and double-down on that channel.

The three most important things to look at for any particular channel are:

  1. How many customers can you get from a channel? How scalable is it?
  2. How much does it cost to acquire a customer in that channel?
  3. Are those the right customers you want right now?

But instead of doubling-down on what works, people tend to run 3-4 tests that were mildly successful, and split the remainder of their time and traction effort among them.

It’s usually a bad move, because any growth trajectory phase of a startup is usually powered by one channel anyway, so it makes sense to just focus on one thing.

How to Find an Underutilized Traction Channel

The best way to find an effective yet underutilized channel for your niche is to go through each of the 19 channels and force yourself to brainstorm a traction-getting test you could run in that channel.

It’s an interesting and useful approach that forces you to come up with a viable test for each channel.

One way to help jump-start that methodology, says Gabriel, is to talk to other founders who have failed at what you are doing, got acquired, or are currently in a very similar business that’s not directly competitive to yours.

Founders love to talk about their stories, he says, and will more than happily share what they’ve tried with their marketing, what worked, and what didn’t.

Finding Failed Founders in Your Niche

Going to AngelList or CrunchBase is one of the easiest ways to find startups.

All you have to do is look at the tags different startups are tagged with and go back in history. It can be a bit of a sad exercise to realize how many startups die, but it’s worth it.

You can also use those sites to look for investors to talk to, because different investors tend to invest in similar things.

Lessons in Traction for Traction’s Book Launch

When the first version of their book launched, they ran a lot of traction tests and found that podcasts like this one drove the most engagement with the book. (Which is why Gabriel reached out to me again, because they’re focusing on that channel the second time around, too.)

He also learned that his book was like an MVP the first time he published it. Almost immediately when it launched, they started getting feedback of ways people were mis-interpreting things.

So they did the rewrite to focus on the things people were getting wrong, and added a couple of things… like inexpensive testing ideas for each of their 19 channels.

Why They Went With a Publisher This Time Around

In order to take this new version of heir book to the next level, like they really want to, Gabriel and his co-author realized that they’d need some help doing it.

They’re both busy running their own respective companies, so they don’t have the time needed to do all the ground work to get their books into book stores, for example.

Finding an Agent and an Editor

Gabriel found his agent via Michael Port (a best-selling business author), because he was local to him.

Their editor, on the other hand, they got because of a post Gabriel published on Medium that got a lot of traction and was passed around the publishing world.

The book world is small, says Gabriel. If you self-publish a book and get traction with it first, you’ll be much more likely to get a publisher on board your second time around.

Daily Structure

Gabriel wakes up around 6 am everyday, takes a shower, exercises, drives his youngest son to school, and then goes to the office.

He’s at the office from 8:10 to 4:20.

Then he goes home, hangs out with his family for a few hours, then gets back to work for a few more hours.

His Most Useful Purchase in the Last Three Months

Gabriel purchased the Apple Watch a few months ago, and says it’s helped his productivity a lot.

He found himself checking his phone too much throughout the day, and the Apple Watch has really cut down on that.

He’s got the notifications tweaked really well, so any of the major things he would do on his phone, he just gets notified of on the watch.

Advice to His 25 Year-Old Self

  1. If you’re going to focus on an idea, focus on something you’re really going to want to give a decade of your life to, and something you really care about.
  2. Find some good mentor people who have already been there, done that.

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