Andrew: Hey there Freedom Fighters, my name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And I got one of those ambitious upstarts with me here today. He’s an entrepreneur who’s been listening since pretty much from the beginning of Mixergy, and I’ve gotten to know him over the years and I’m really proud to have him on. In fact, before I introduce the entrepreneur, let me introduce his company and what he does.
If you have an iPhone, like this old one here, built into this iPhone included right in the operating system is DuckDuckGo, a search engine, one of the few that Apple has blessed and included in its hardware. DuckDuckGo was launched by today’s guest, Gabriel Weinberg, who wasn’t afraid to compete in Google’s world. The guy decided he was going to create a search engine, a search engine that will not track you, and it just kept growing and growing and growing. And as I said, even Apple included it in their hardware.
The guy worked from home. He worked by himself at first. He had to find time in between baby duty. I remember all of that. And today his search engine is doing over 10 million queries per day, and it’s growing. And that’s a whole lot of traction.
In fact, he co-authored a book on how to get traction. It’s called “Traction.” It’s available on October 6th. I read it. Even though he sent me a copy of it, I couldn’t wait. I bought my own copy and read it and really liked the book. It makes sense. A guy who got traction, who knows how to market his own products is teaching you how to get traction. That’s the way to do it.
Anyway, I invited him here to talk about three things. First, he self-published the book, and he sold it. He got traction for it. I want to understand what he did that worked for him. Number two, even though in a past interview I talked to him about what he did well to get traction at DuckDuckGo, I want to talk today about some of the things he didn’t get right at DuckDuckGo and learn from that. Number three, I have a secret agenda, something I want to bring up later on in this interview. Tune in.
This whole interview is sponsored by, I think I just spit on my screen here. I got excited about the secret thing. This whole interview is sponsored by Justworks. Justworks does payroll, benefits, and everything you need to take care of the people you bring on your team. Go to Justworks.com/Mixergy if you want a sneak peek at what they do and how well they do it. Otherwise, tune in later on and I’ll run their ad. First, I’ve got to welcome Gabriel. Gabriel, good to see you here.
Gabriel: It’s my pleasure to be back.
Andrew: So you wrote a book on how to market, how to get traction. You had to prove that the ideas in the book worked by applying them on your book. Did you feel the pressure?
Gabriel: Yeah. What if it didn’t work, it would be pretty bad. I took the challenge. I put myself out there with it. We used the framework from the book directly, which we call bullseye, to see if we could get traction for “Traction.”
Andrew: How many copies of the book did you sell?
Gabriel: We sold, the first edition is frozen because the second edition has come out. So I know the exact number we sold, which is, I think, 37,817.
Andrew: Whoa. I didn’t know that. I know your goal was 10,000, right?
Gabriel: The goal, the initial goal was 10,000. That’s right. My important lesson from the book is I had messed up., starting DuckDuckGo, to your second point, not starting with a traction goal. We identified ahead of time what we thought the goal would be, that we would feel successful about the project and that was 10,000. The reason to do that is so when we ran the process to figure out what channels to use to market the book we wanted to be sure that whatever we were going to try would have the opportunity to sell 10,000 copies instead of 1,000 copies.
Andrew: So that’s the very first step of the bullseye framework which is to…
Gabriel: I call it step zero. It’s not even actually a number as a step, but it’s articulated in the book. Step zero is you need to identify your goal.
Andrew: Identify your goal and put a number to it.
Gabriel: Put a real number to it. Usually it is something that is an inflection point in your business, like early on that’s often how much do I need to raise money or how much do I need to sustain myself. Like profitability, to eat, and other stuff that you need to do. Or it could be, as in my case because I was a unique case, like you said, stay at home, parent, and such. It was to prove that the product could reach product market fit and how much traction I felt I needed to prove that.
Andrew: You know, by the way, why did you self-publish the book at first? I remember Justin Mares, your co-author, was here for Scotch Night at the office, and we had a bunch of entrepreneurs around the table, all drinking and talking. And they all said, “Why are you doing self-publishing the book instead of going with a major publisher, especially if you got Gabriel and DuckDuckGo’s on fire right now?” Why did you decide to self-publish it?
Gabriel: Yes, we definitely could have published it initially, and this new one is published by Penguin.
Andrew: Right. The one that’s coming out October 6th.
Gabriel: It’s coming out October 6th. It was really the timeline, like we had spent a lot time on this one. I started working on it 2009, and by the time we were ready to go… When you normally publish a book, you bring a proposal. So you write a chapter or two, and then you try to get blessed by the publisher to write the rest. We didn’t do any of that.
We had a full manuscript. Publishers generally don’t like manuscripts. And so we could have probably got it published any way, like you said, with my DuckDuckGo success. But that would have probably taken another nine months, and we were like, “Just screw this. People like these ideas. Let’s get the book out.”
Andrew: And so it was for speed, it wasn’t because you had some kind of marketing idea in mind. That’s what I suspected.
Gabriel: No, it was really for speed. It turns out that the flexibility of the marketing which a publisher is similar. We were not really hampered in any particular way. The other is people might do it is, believe it or not, you can generally make more money self-publishing your book than going to a publisher, but we weren’t really in it for the money either.
Andrew: So step zero or before you even start with the process, if you want to get traction, create a number. Write it down for how much you want to sell, how much traffic you want, whatever it is that represents traction for you, right?
Gabriel: Yes. Here’s the story how I messed that up, just to conflict your two points.
Andrew: No. Let’s come back to that later. You’re going to talk about how you messed it up in DuckDuckGo.
Andrew: I’ll come back to it. I’m going to dive in to DuckDuckGo in a bit.
Gabriel: All right.
Andrew: Now you wrote that down for your book. You said, “I’m going to apply my process that I’m teaching everyone else and write 10,000 books sold.” What’s the next step?
Gabriel: Step one of bullseye is we identified in general in our research 19 different marketing channels that we can use to get traction that successful businesses have used. So you know, SEO, SEM, speaking engagements, viral marketing, content marketing, email marketing. There’s 19 of these. It turns out that one is generally the right answer for your business at the right time, and you don’t know which one that is.
So step one is to brainstorm all 19 channels, as to test you could run, to figure out whether that channel could get you to the goal. And so a test is something cheap, something fast that is answering three questions. How much does it cost to acquire a customer in this channel? How many customers could I get? Are they the right customers? So that’s step one. Brainstorm all the channels and try to come up with tests.
So one example, speaking engagements. If you were going to go speak somewhere about Mixergy, what audience would be the best ideal audience to speak to? That’s one way to think about it. Or another way to think about, if I’m going to go locally and speak, where would be the best local audience to speak, something like that?
Andrew: What you’re doing is not taking action on that, you’re just making a list of the 19 channels, right?
Andrew: And brainstorming what you could do in each of them and what the results could be.
Gabriel: That is exactly right. The problem is, and a way people mess this up a lot, they are biased to which channels they… That’s another thing I messed up that you can put a note in. They’re biased as to what channels they think they should use based on… The number one question we got from our book coming out, this 37,000 copies, was just tell me, just tell me what channel I should use. I’m a retail store. I’m a bakery or something. Tell me what channel.
Wrong answer because generally the right channel is an underutilized one in your industry. So all your competitors are using SEM, you probably don’t want to be using SEM. The problem is you probably can’t find [inaudible 00:08:36] you probably use SEM. So thinking about these other channels is a major hurdle for people. And to do that, we try to force them to write down a test for each one.
Andrew: A good example for DuckDuckGo was when you bought a billboard, a fricking billboard for a web page.
Andrew: Which would never work but you did it, and it was both PR and offline marketing.
Gabriel: But it’s generally an underutilized channel for online people. It’s an offline test. Another one from the book who use offline ads, WP Engine, the WordPress hosting company. Completely online business grew a lot from offline ads in magazines.
Gabriel: You know, underutilized strategy, no competition.
Andrew: So you were sitting down and you were saying, “One of the items on my list is affiliate programs. If we have an affiliate program for the book, what would that look like? What would our small test be, not a big test” and so on. And then you moved on to the next one, trade shows. You really sat down and you said, “If we had to use trade shows to sell this book, what would our process be? Do you remember what your process could have been, if that’s what you went with?
Gabriel: Yeah, trade shows. Let’s go to South By and put something there.
Andrew: Got it.
Gabriel: Let’s go to an industry conference around a vertical where people are struggling [inaudible 00:09:51], like franchises or something. Try and get a booth and say, “This is what you need if you’re going to set up a franchise. Here’s the plan.” You know, something like that.
Andrew: So you’re sitting down and you’re putting this whole brainstorming session together. You come up with an idea for each one of the traction channels. What’s next?
Gabriel: Step two is you look at all your channels, and we use a bullseye metaphor. So you’re trying to hit the bullseye. That’s the middle, the one channel that’s really going to take you up. The outer ring is called your 19 test. The middle ring is three tests. So pick your top three tests. You actually did this brainstorm correctly, like you have three very promising tests that ideally should not be longer than a month or $1,000.
That’s kind of the rule we put into this new revision because people were messing it up. People were trying to optimize, like run 40 Facebook ads instead of just 4 because the goal of the test, again, is to just figure out whether it could reach that goal potentially. So how many customers you could really get, how much they cost, are they the right customers? So you find the three tests, and then you go run them. You literally go run them in parallel.
Andrew: Your three were which ones?
Gabriel: Interestingly for the book, because I had a grand vision of, “I’m going to run all 19 tests just for the hell of it, just to show people.” We ran more than three eventually, but the three that we really focused on were email marketing, content marketing, and existing platforms initially.
Andrew: What do you mean by existing platforms? I’m looking at a blog post that you did here on medium where you mentioned it and you said, “An example is Amazon.”
Andrew: What’s another existing platform, and how is Amazon a platform.
Gabriel: The main ones people use and think about are the App Store, Chrome store, FireFox extensions. These are places where customers are already there doing things, and you’re just making something on that platform to try and get distribution out of it.
Andrew: What other platform was there for selling your book?
Gabriel: Amazon was our main test for that.
Andrew: You didn’t have a collection of platforms, like the iBook store, etcetera, you just were thinking Amazon.
Gabriel: Yeah, we were testing Amazon. The test there was, we had no data. We couldn’t find any good data. If you have a lot of good rankings on Amazon, like if you get the best seller and stuff, does that really impact sales? And we couldn’t find any data on this, and the hunch was that maybe it would because you’ve got this thing next to it.
Our end result to this is that it made no impact whatsoever as far as we could tell. We had a lot of other unexpected tests too. So content marketing, we got a blog, a guest posting on all the major blogs, like startups, etcetera. It did not convert to any books [inaudible 00:12:49].
Andrew: Why not?
Gabriel: Oh, here’s the third one, I’ll tell you right there. Another one that we did which was in that three, but we did a bunch of tests, we did social ad tests. So we did a bunch of Twitter ads and Facebook ads testing, just targeting to the right people, and that didn’t work out. I think the reason is this gets to things you [inaudible 00:13:14] a lot is getting traction is hard.
There’s a lot of business books out there that promise things. When you have a short hit of a blog post or an ad even going past you, there’s not enough to really for me to take it seriously and get into it, like this is something that could really help me.
What did end up working, the thing that we doubled down on, was podcasts, and I think the reason is because you could hear me speaking about it for 20 minutes. And then really start to understand what the framework was and say, “Oh, I could see how that would apply to my business.” That’s what happened.
Andrew: That explains why yesterday while I was sitting by the pool, taking time off, I got hit from an email from you and then another email. Even this summer I was by the pool, I said I’m going to sit here and work on stuff away from my usual stuff. And your emails, I always recognize them because we barely email anymore, right? I barely use email anymore.
Gabriel: I, first of all, don’t keep in touch. I’m sorry about that.
Andrew: That’s totally fine. I don’t need you to keep in touch. We’re not pen pals, we’re good this way. And then I could understand why does he care so much, and then I understood, it’s one of the channels that actually worked for you when you were selling the self-published copy of your book.
Gabriel: The e-channel, that worked the best.
Andrew: The e-channel. So you’ve got three channels that you should have focused on. You ended up doing more.
Gabriel: Well, that’s the thing, the third step. That’s the testing step, the third step.
Andrew: So when you’re at the testing stage, you should have focused on three. You ended up actually spending time on multiples, but you said that the three that you spent the most time testing were email marketing, targeted blogs, and existing platforms. I see. Blogs and podcasts in your mind were the same thing. I get it.
Gabriel: Yes. Again, we would advise against this. We were doing it because of the book, because of the weird market strategy of the book. Generally, you should pick one test, and go for it.
Andrew: Not three things to test?
Gabriel: Within one channel.
Andrew: So one channel. I see. You should have just focused on one.
Gabriel: Yeah, we had two tests within targeted blogs.
Andrew: Got it.
Gabriel: Yeah, so as I saying, in podcasts, and we just did it for the hell of it.
Andrew: Frankly, even at that point, that’s when I wouldn’t have let you go without an interview or a course that you taught here on Mixergy because, I know that the book was going to be big. And I knew that your ideas were solid and, as a friend, I was going to say come on over here and do an interview. So if you hadn’t asked, I would have done it. So those are the three, email marketing, targeting blogs and podcasts, and existing platforms. Tell me again what you did with existing platforms that did not work for you?
Gabriel: We did two things. We worked really hard to get a lot of reviews for the book. So we ended up with a lot of five star reviews, and they’re real reviews. But we worked hard to get our early readers to give us good feedback if they wanted to. And we tried to time the launch so that at the time when we launched we got shot up. So we could have some best selling badges and [inaudible 00:16:14] in the rankings of Amazon.
You get two things for that. One, you have a badge next to your book, that says “Number one in marketing or something.” And then you’re also, if people are browsing, like top Kindle books or whatever, you’re on that top 20 list next to cool names, like people recognize. As far as we can tell, that had no incremental effect in selling copies.
Andrew: So those are the kinds of tests that you did in platforms. Should you have run that many tests in platforms, or would one have been better?
Gabriel: It was one test really. You’re right, it was two tests. One would have been better, yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: One, okay.
Gabriel: We wasted time running extra tests, and that’s kind of the mistake I generally advise against. But, again, my excuse is that we were going to write it up to sell more books.
Andrew: So platform didn’t work so well, but you only did a small collection of tests or pair of tests. Blogs and podcasts. I understand why blogs wouldn’t work. I’m not going to read a blog post and then go and buy the book right away. I might go and sign up for, I don’t know, a drip email from the person or sign up to get a free PDF. You did that?
Gabriel: Yeah. We didn’t at first. We did that after the fact, after the podcast reached amazing returns, and we switched channels to email marketing, but we didn’t do a drip campaign.
Andrew: When you originally did it, it didn’t work for you, and part of the reason…
Gabriel: People went to the Amazon page. We thought it would be… The thought was, yeah, you’d be so compelled by the blog post, you’d click right to the Amazon page and buy the book. But no, you’re right. You’re absolutely right, it didn’t work.
Andrew: You know what then? Let me pause right there. Isn’t that then a reason to spend more time playing with the tests and optimizing them because the first test you run is always going to be bad, right? If we were going to say, let’s stick and be conservative and really stick with blog posts and only run one test.” We might run a test where we write the perfect blog post and link people directly to Amazon where they could buy and it would fail.
And we wouldn’t realize until maybe a few weeks later and a few other tests that what we should be doing is sending people to our site where they could download a free PDF that gives them an example of this or an MP3 that teaches them. And then promote the sale. So isn’t that a reason to iterate and to improve these little tests before giving up on one of our three channels?
Gabriel: Well, here’s the thing is you don’t focus unless one of your tests really seem like it could reach your goal. So if all three of your tests fail, then you might even reconsider what your tests are on and you might be retweaking one of the channel tests that you ran. But in our case we ran the test, the podcasts were just a clear winner, clearly going to…
Andrew: Even when you didn’t do it especially well.
Gabriel: Even when we didn’t do it especially well.
Andrew: I see.
Gabriel: And so you could get rough error bars and say, “Wow. If we double down on podcasts, we could move, get to our goal way quicker.”
Andrew: Let’s talk about how you even knew that it would work. With podcasting one of the reasons that my sponsor’s saying, “Go to Justworks.com/Mixergy” is so they can keep track of the fact that people came from Mixergy. It’s really hard. How did you know whether a podcast was working or not when somebody is basically listening to you, digging your ideas, and then going into a store and buying it maybe a week later?
Gabriel: Similar way, we set up a bonus incentive program. So if you buy the book, you got something for it, and we gave away an extra e-book actually, of 200 pages of exclusive traction interviews. I think you might have been on them. I think an interview with you might be one of them. In any case, people really wanted that or some percentage of the people really did. We talked about it on the podcast and everywhere else we did marketing.
And then we asked people when they redeemed the bonus where they heard about us. And there were a little smatterings from all these tests, but podcasts was clear and away the winner. People were just writing in, “I heard about you on this podcast. I heard you on Mixergy, etcetera.”
Andrew: I see. You know Josh Kaufman from Personal MBA did that too with his book. I think in the book he said, “If you got this book, I want to give you… Just send me your receipt to show that you bought it, and I’ll give you…” I forget what it was. And the benefit to him was he got to know who was buying and reading his book, and he also got to understand where they came from. So that’s how you did it.
Gabriel: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: There was one other thing that I read that you did in that Medium post which is you set up an Amazon affiliate account for yourself so that you can tag each one of the links that you sent to the book. How did you use that?
Gabriel: So this is a great strategy if you’re selling anything on Amazon. On Amazon you can sign up for an affiliate program where you refer people to Amazon you get percentages back. You can do that for your own book. That’s allowed, I checked. So when we sent people to Amazon, you can create links that are unique to that. So it’s hard to do on the podcast because, you have a take a click, like Justworks/Mixergy or something.
But as long as we had a link, we could send people to Amazon through that link. And we could do an individualized blog post which we did, and we could do it any time there was an online thing. So for Twitter or a mailing list or any time you had an online link we could send a unique one. And we did that, and we tracked where the sales were coming from through those links.
Andrew: Got it. And for email that actually was helpful, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But first, I have to tell people about Justworks. And the reason I have to tell them about it is because hiring people is a challenge. It’s a challenge finding the right person. It’s a challenge all the way around, but here’s the thing. If you screw up paying your people, that’s a burn that’s really hard to recover from.
If you screw up filing the right paperwork for your people, that’s one that you really can’t recover from. If you are late with an employee’s salary, that’s something that really screws up their lives, with their families, with whatever else they have going on. The debt that they have, if they need to pay it off, the rent. You want to get that stuff right, and you also want to give your new employees a good experience right from the beginning.
The problem is that most payroll companies are just so antiquated. I’ve used so many of them just to check them out, and they look like they’re stuck back in the 1980s or 1990s when they just had some internet access. But they’re not easy to use. They’re not user friendly. They’re not at all modern, and they cause problems for your employees, if not for you. I believe they do it for you too. That’s what I like about Justworks. It’s a modern company that takes care of everything, your benefits, your payroll, everything you need to take good care of your team. Even your 1099 people are taken care of well.
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That is an absolute nightmare to deal with when you’re also trying to organize your big event and get people to arrive there. Make sure they’re all coordinated there and so on. Because they work with Justworks, they say that everything was taken care of perfectly for them. In fact, they have a case study right on Justworks’ website that you can see.
This is a company that understands the problems you have as an entrepreneur and will make it go away. Five minutes is all you should be spending on your HR. HR is not where you should be bogged down, paying salaries. Taking care of 1099s is not where you should be bogged down. I want you to write down Justworks.com/Mixergy. They will take care of all of it for you or any other entrepreneur who you know who’s hiring or is having frustrations paying employees and contractors or vendors. These guys will take care of it all.
Justworks, what a great domain name, by the way. We all want a product that just works, and I don’t know how much it cost them. But they bought the domain. They own the domain, Justworks.com. I urge to go and check them out at Justworks.com/Mixergy. If you do, they will know you came from me, and they take great care of Mixergy’s audience. In fact, they take care of everyone especially well. But it’s nice to say, “Andrew introduced me” and get that familiar relationship that I already have with them extended over to you. I’m really grateful to Justworks for sponsoring Mixergy.
I want to move on a little faster, but we have to talk about email marketing. That’s the third thing that you tried, and the reason you knew it worked well was because you had an Amazon link for yourself that you could track how many people are coming from email and going to Amazon’s store and buying. Email though is something that you’ve had for years. I think in my first interview with you, you told people about Tractionbook.com. I saw it on Hacker News for years. Aren’t those people if they’re three years old just stale already? Don’t they forget who you are.
Gabriel: I did an absolutely terrible job of keeping that list warm in a sense that I never sent anything to it ever. But it did work. I think people remembered my name because I was blogging over time. You know, even though I wasn’t emailing them it worked. The problem with it was we sent out a blast email about the book and everything, and that converted a lot of people. But then the list, that was the list. We did that.
And so then we went to the podcasts because that was totally working, but then when podcasts reached diminishing results it felt like we were just running these other tests. It felt like email could be something if we set up like you said before, the drip campaigns. And we ran that test, and then it worked well. So then it was like we’ve got to get more people in to the email funnel.
Andrew: I see. So Gabriel, what I’m hearing you say is pick three channels and run small tests on them. Any one of those three channels could work well with a lot of effort, but by ignoring them and focusing on the one that’s working best, you’re not saying the other two don’t work at all and they should never be tried and you should never come back to them. You’re just saying, “Look, you have an easy win with one of the three. Just ride it out. Grow it up. Grow it as much as you can and then you can move on to the next.”
In fact, you actually say, you have to eventually move on. And so for you podcasting ended up working well which is why I’m looking here at a very methodical Google spreadsheet that you put together with all the different podcasts that you wanted to be on.
Gabriel: You should see the one for this time.
Andrew: It’s much longer, huh?
Gabriel: It’s got 80 of them on there, yeah.
Andrew: Eighty, because it worked last time. And so let’s forget about that. For this one we’re looking at about 20, 30 actually, I think..
Andrew: …podcasts. And you said, this is working for me. I’m really going to push on it. Do you iterate once you find the one? Do you iterate on it, or do you just ride it?
Gabriel: That’s the key. So you hit upon the part that people really mess up is, let’s say, you ran three tests, the three best tests out of 19. So they’re probably all going to work a little bit, right? And the problem is people don’t want to focus and give up on those other two. Now the reason why that it works is two-fold. One, [inaudible 00:27:44].
The second reason is a little non-intuitive. It’s that the goal of focusing is to find the hidden tactics, underutilized stuff within that channel. The only way you can do that is if you focus on it. If you spend your time over here on those other channels, you’re not really getting into the one channel deep enough to figure out the tactics that are really going to explode you.
Andrew: And so what’s one iteration that got you a lot of value out of podcasting?
Gabriel: So podcasting is convincing, figuring out how to get on shows, that you have no relationship with as well as identifying the right shows to go on and which audiences to attack. So in this time around… the first time around we really focused on tech startups, and this time around we tried to widen that to small business, including some kind of more just marketing podcasts in general. And then so you’ve got to much wider. Just getting that list is difficult.
Andrew: Oh I see. So it’s not about what you say. It’s not about how funny you are in the podcast, maybe it is.
Gabriel: That too. These are all things, if you’re really focusing on your work. What is your messaging and all that stuff?
Andrew: I see. But it’s also about how do you even get on, and there’s where a lot…
Gabriel: If you’re just kind of casually focused on it, you’re not going to the depth of creating a spreadsheet, treating it as a real kind of CRM thing, where you’re following up and figuring out how to get warm intros to all of these places. I would [inaudible 00:29:20] people listening to like raising money for your company, finding all the VC firms and finding [inaudible 00:29:28] to them and giving the right pitch to get on the show. And making the right pitch. It’s basically very analogous, podcasting.
Andrew: I get it. And frankly…
Gabriel: That’s full-time job. Focusing is a full-time job. That’s the key.
Andrew: I see. And so we come up with our number. We brainstorm every one of the channels, see what we could do, what the results could be. We pick the three that are most promising. We run a small test. Now you’re saying run it for a month, no less, and keep the costs small. I think you said a thousand bucks.
Gabriel: No more. If you can run in a week, more power to you.
Andrew: Smaller, faster is better. Pick the one that’s working really well and that’s what you’re focusing your attention on, iterating on until it loses its power. And then you need to go back. Do you do the whole thing from scratch, or do you go back to the top three and test the other two?
Gabriel: It depends on far you got. If you got pretty close to your goal, run the whole thing again. In DuckDuckGo we’ve done this six times. We switched channels six times. Our goals have changed and things stopped working, and we had to run everything again because when you grow like an order of magnitude to reach your goal, it’s like an inflection point. Your new goal may be very different than your old goal, and everything is different in that context.
Andrew: I see. The best example you gave me was when you taught a course on traction here at Mixergy, and I asked you what did you do at DuckDuckGo? You said, “At first, SEO worked for us.” So I was able to get people who searched for the word “search engine” or the phrase “search engine” at Google to see me as one of the top results. And that got me some users early on.
But eventually you realize that there aren’t even enough people searching for the phrase “search engine” to make a dent. So you have to move on to the next thing. So that’s what you want us to do. If we got far enough along, then we start the whole thing over. If not, then we go for the other two that we considered and test those again. Or focus on one of those two.
Gabriel: Yeah. We’re only focusing if we think that the results of the test could be reasonably translated to achieving your goal. If not, you’ve got to run your tests.
Andrew: I see. At any point do you finally say, “You know what? This thing is working. It’s probably going to be a good long-term thing for us, like search engine marketing. I’m just going to hire people who are going to manage that, and then I’ll run the whole process, the whole framework again with other traction channels.”
Gabriel: I’m a bit wary of it for two reasons. I’m wary in general of outsourcing customer acquisition from the founder perspective because the people out there don’t have as much invested in it as you do. It’s different when you’re a business that’s a little farther along, but I still think you should oversee it.
The other thing is I really think the real growth explosion, the stories we all know and care about, they all come from cutting edge tactics within that channel. So you’re on Facebook right now. Everyone’s talking about video on Facebook, right? That’s where all the click-throughs are coming. If you’re outsourcing that, I feel like you’re going to have less chance of getting into that new cutting edge tactic.
Andrew: I see. Let’s shift over to the next part of our conversation which is the mistakes that you made at DuckDuckGo.
Gabriel: One thing quickly, the leaky bucket. I definitely want to hit this. So this is probably the thing I struggled with most telling people. Consider the leaky bucket metaphor. Your product is a bucket with leaks in it at the beginning. No one likes it. It comes out. If you pour customers in it which are money, they leak out. People’s intuitive reaction to that is, I should not be pouring customers into it because they’re wasting money. I think that is dead wrong.
And that is the main problem people get in traction is they should be pouring a little bit of money into it and running these tests right from the beginning because that cold stream of customers coming through is telling them really where the leaks are in the bucket. As opposed to a beta list which is what people normally do, or beta customers. Those people are too close to you. They’re framed with previous versions. They don’t actually tell you totally where the holes are.
Additionally, they’re running these tests. You’re testing your messaging. You’re testing which niche to focus on when you launch, and you’re figuring out which channel is really going to take off. So when you do launch, you hit the ground running versus what happens with most companies is they hit the market, and then they’re like, “Oh crap, our product isn’t actually what I thought it was.”
Andrew: Our people just liked it, but the rest of the world is not interested, or we don’t know how to find the rest of the world.
Gabriel: So you’ve got to start immediately. It’s not intuitive, but you shouldn’t be spending all your money on it. But you can do a little bit, like just running a few ads, testing a little channel. These are small tests of a thousand dollars a month or something to like put some customers through it.
Andrew: You know what’s interesting? When you started this whole process, I think the word “traction” was so much more popular than it is now, back then right? Because investors were looking for the word “traction.” They were looking for traction before they’d invest, and now they don’t so much care about that. They’re looking at team and other things, and the reason that came to my mind is I just want to promote this interview.
I was thinking, “What’s the headline for this?” And I thought, “It should just be Traction with Gabriel Weinberg.” It’d be great for you. It’d be great for me and the audience would know. This is a conversation that’s in depth about traction. We’re not talking about your favorite color, your favorite book, your favorite album, none of that bull. But I wonder if people still are attracted to it the way they should be.
Gabriel: I think they still are. I think funny bifurcated. So this is another whole conversation, but like investors, they are all about traction. Like they’ve been waiting to get traction, to only invest in traction. And the really early people have none [inaudible 00:35:17], now call it. And those people, you’re right, they’re like, the only way I can get good returns, because [inaudible 00:35:25] invest pre-traction.
Andrew: And there’s a majority of people in the audience and in the world who are in the pre-series A phase where they’re thinking more about product market fit than they are about traction. And the other problem is that phrase… what is it… growth tracking is put in people’s minds, the idea that if you can just find the right hack, the right clever little thing, then everything’s going to take off which is probably why Paul Graham just hates that phrase.
Gabriel: It’s not in the book. So I would say, still use it because what is in the book and what I think is really true is traction trumps everything. That’s the title of our preface too. And yes, you can get funded pre-traction, but if you have traction you will definitely get funded.
Andrew: The leaky bucket things that you brought up is an issue that you faced. When we’re talking about the four big mistakes that you made, the non-intuitive mistakes that you made with DuckDuckGo. The first one is that you had that feeling. You said, “My search engine isn’t really great yet. Why should I spend money buying ads until I make it what I want it to be,” right?
Gabriel: I made that mistake. I made the goal mistake, like you said. I went after SEO and had no chance of reaching any goal. That was a huge mistake.
Andrew: So shouldn’t you though have said, “I want to focus on creating the best product. I’m already dealing with major competitors who have a lot of progress on me, a lot of traction, much more than I could get at this point.” Why not create a better product and Google’s a good example of a company that’s spent a lot of time building their product before they built any marketing. Shouldn’t you have focused more on product than marketing? Shouldn’t we do that?
Gabriel: I mean, that is what I was doing, but my assessment is that you have to focus on marketing to get the focus on product right. That’s a non-intuitive piece. Because I was sitting there for two years, I mean, three years, I don’t know, it’s a long time, listening to the beta customers really intently trying to figure out what is that better product, the product feature I could build. And not until I really started to listen to the new, first impression people coming on, did I really get a sense of what their pain points were, what I could really entice them with. And so I think it’s almost impossible to sit in… I don’t know what you’d call your ivory tower, your…
Andrew: Your basement at home with your kids upstairs, and family.
Gabriel: You develop that ideal product. I think that’s a myth. I generally think people can’t do that. I mean, maybe there’s somebody out there. Maybe it’s possible for somebody but not for regular people.
Andrew: So that’s one mistake. The second one is not considering all the channels. Why is that a mistake? Should you really have considered trade shows with a search engine?
Gabriel: Yeah, arguably. There are some big search engine trade shows, that everyone in the industry goes to twice a year. The SMX one and I was not doing that. That is that first step of the bullseye, and the honest answer is I think the real reason people don’t do it is just out of sight, out of mind. No one presented me with a list of, “Here are the 19 channels you could use to grow. Hey, 10 of them you don’t know about, but they might be the key to your success.” If you know that, then you take them seriously. But most people don’t actually even think about them.
Andrew: Was there one that you would have used sooner had you known that it existed and considered it?
Gabriel: So our path was SEO, content marketing, then social ads, then PR both print and TV, and business development like this Apple deal. I probably would have focused on PR way sooner, like years sooner.
Andrew: You didn’t consider it because it just seemed like that’s for other people, it’s not for a guy who hasn’t yet built his product perfectly.
Gabriel: Exactly. And it was to the other point, it makes it hard for people. It was out of my comfort zone. Going on TV, I probably could have done that years earlier. So to the person producing the TV show, we 10 million searches a month now, right? That means nothing to them, like one million searches a month. A hundred thousand searches a month.
Andrew: I see. It’s all a number to them that… right.
Gabriel: It’s all a number. I have some traction. I probably could have done that three years earlier.
Andrew: I have to be honest. I said that number, and I only know it’s big because I’ve watched it grow over the years on the chart that you make publicly available. But I don’t know what it means. I don’t even know why you use the word “query” instead of search.
Gabriel: That’s a good point. I mean, because we’re just not good at marketing it very well.
Andrew: I thought maybe there was some difference, some…
Gabriel: It’s a direct search. They’re the same thing in our context.
Andrew: That’s why I went with the fact that Apple blessed you by putting you inside their apps.
Gabriel: It was great validation, absolutely.
Andrew: Not scoping your tests well. You said that’s a mistake you made with DuckDuckGo.
Gabriel: That’s a mistake I’ve see tons of people make, and we did too. That is [inaudible 00:40:47] optimization, is basically what it said. Again, you’re doing like 40 Facebook ads instead of 4 , just validating whether it works or not. And that’s really started out the goal again, what is the goal of these tests? And that’s why we eventually hit on very explicitly, how many customers do we think it’s going to bring in? How much do they cost? Are they the right customers? You can generally find those out pretty quickly. So don’t set up 40 Facebook ads. That’s the answer.
Andrew: What kind of revenue do you guys do with DuckDuckGo?
Gabriel: Undisclosed, but we’re doing well. I mean, we raised that one round in 2011 [inaudible 00:41:23].
Andrew: From Fred Wilson’s company?
Andrew: How much did you raise?
Gabriel: Three million.
Andrew: Three million? And now are you profitable?
Gabriel: Yeah, I think so.
Andrew: Why are you profitable? Why aren’t you spending it on more engineers or more billboards or more ads on Mixergy or an ad on Mixergy?
Gabriel: That’s a key question because we’ve been running this bullseye process. We ran the last one and decided to focus on business development. That was Apple, given to Apple. We also got into FireFox last year. We’ve been running it again this last six months. We do not have a great place to put in money to get users in a sustainable way.
Andrew: I see. Which is the one that really frustrates you that you wish you’d done well?
Gabriel: It is very frustrating, yeah.
Andrew: Which one of your marketing channels do you wish had done better?
Gabriel: Viral marketing.
Gabriel: So my last company [inaudible 00:42:14] which grew through viral. Viral is one of those Holy Grail channels everyone loves. We have the seeds for it. People love DuckDuckGo. We are an authentic brand, are authentic, and people like to evangelize us. We should have a way to make that viral marketing piece work.
It is very difficult on DuckDuckGo because we can’t bake it into the product because you can’t put anything in between people and their search results. So we are running tests right now to make that work. We haven’t done [inaudible 00:42:46], but I’m more confident about this test now.
Andrew: What’s the test?
Gabriel: We think, and the only reason I say it because people think we’re crazy, but we think if you give a high quality DuckDuckGo t-shirt to true DuckDuckGo users and fans that incentivizes them and tell them that this is what it’s purpose is for, to help them spread it to more than one other person on average, which is a true viral mechanism. And so if you scale, say there’s millions of people in the country and maybe we can get it to a few hundred thousand, we think that will work.
Andrew: I see. And how do you test that? Do you always need to have a, not a test? How do you measure success there? Do you always need to have a way to measure that?
Gabriel: You do need to measure, yeah.
Andrew: How do you measure it with a t-shirt? If I wear a t-shirt, you don’t know if my wife’s going to search DuckDuckGo after seeing me?
Gabriel: We had tested it so far on surveys. So we have given t-shirts to people. We followed up with them. We had given them kind of extensive surveys, trying to figure out, asking different ways, how many people they had actually spread it to, that kind of stuff. And we’re relatively confident it can work. We have other problems with the test, like if you give away a free t-shirt, lots of people want free t-shirts who aren’t connected with DuckDuckGo.
Andrew: Oh yeah.
Gabriel: And that ruins the whole thing.
Andrew: I can’t believe people want t-shirts that badly. Here’s the last one. The last mistake that you made is not doubling down on one channel when you continued more. When did you not double down?
Gabriel: So this is like when we made that switch from SEO to content marketing to social ads. We kept doing the thing before way too long. And in some cases we would run other tests and then run those tests way too long. It’s very difficult because you’re cannibalizing your own thing that’s working because like my blog or micro sites that we were doing. They were bringing in customers.
We could say, “Hey, if we did another micro site we know this is going to bring customers. We know this strategy works.” But it’s not working well enough to get us to the next goal. So we really should not make that next micro site.
Andrew: I see. It’s not that you didn’t spend more time on the next thing that worked, it’s that you wouldn’t let go of the previous thing that worked.
Gabriel: That’s right.
Andrew: Oh okay.
Gabriel: That’s [inaudible 00:45:08]. I’m not disagreeing with that, but we admit it too late. I mean, when you realize it’s not going to get you to your goal, you should stop doing it and focusing on something that’s going to get you to your goal.
Andrew: So we’ve got four mistakes. One is not starting your traction efforts early on. You built the product, and then you went for traction as opposed to spending what you say is about 50-50. Fifty percent of your time on one and 50 on the other. Number two mistake, you didn’t consider all channels. Number three, you didn’t scope your tests out well. You were trying to do too much with each test. And number four was you didn’t double down on one channel.
Before we go to the next thing that I want to talk to you about, I’ve got to say that the best way to see DuckDuckGo… everyone has a best way. Here’s my best way. Put in a search, go to DuckDuckGo and put in this phrase, “watch Eastbound & Down.” Fred Wilson showed me this, and this is fantastic on his blog. He showed the world this.
The results are so much… do the same thing on Gmail, on Google, and you’ll see the results are so much better on DuckDuckGo. You actually get to see where online you can watch it and what it costs, like on iTunes. I could watch this great TV show for 14.99. On Voodoo or Amazon I could watch it for 22.99. Actually, that’s wrong. Amazon Prime has it for free.
Gabriel: This is our long-term product strategy though that you hit upon. That instant answer, as we call it, is Open Source and we didn’t develop it. So we Open Sourced the entire extensive platform, and we’re trying to get everyone in the world DuckDuckGo users as well as companies, to help provide and make a better search engine through these instant answers.
Andrew: It’s still really good to know where all these things are, and whenever you see the price on Amazon for a movie or TV show, you always have to know that it’s probably available as part of their Prime. Or there’s a good possibility. That show is so fricking good. Unless you’re insulted by racial humor and others, you’re going to love it.
Gabriel: Unless you’re offended in any way by anything.
Andrew: Yeah, you cannot be insulted by anything, but boy, you see this guy just really having these grand dreams. And sometimes dreaming way bigger than he should. But I like his desire. Final thing. I asked you if you wanted to do the interview later in the week. You said, “No. I am on” …I don’t know what the phrase was, between 1 and 4 Pacific, right?
Andrew: What happens between 1 and 4 Pacific time?
Gabriel: I pick up my son at preschool, and I come home and spend those hours with the kids and put them to bed.
Andrew: Don’t you feel like, Sergei and Larry are not taking care of their kids for four hours in the middle of the day. Don’t you feel like, come one, somebody needs to do this for me, I’m about to do something big.
Gabriel: I constantly struggle with these things, but I also struggle in the other way. Like, I struggle right now even though at the end of those hours I spend with the kids, sometimes I found myself on the phone. I struggle that I don’t spend enough time with the kids too. And so this, I feel, like I end up anchoring to a routine, and I feel the routine forces me to have a good balance. So I try to stick to it.
Andrew: If you’re honest with yourself, on balance does it make you a better entrepreneur or a worse entrepreneur to have kids?
Gabriel: I don’t know honestly, and I’ve invested in people with both. So I don’t have a good answer to this question. I’ve thought about it a lot because, I mean, here’s the thing, right? I’m the CEO of this company now. I have like, I don’t know, 35 employees, something like that. And you’re at Mixergy. You could spend infinite hours working on it, and you don’t have infinite hours. You have to cut it off at some point. I don’t know what you cut it off at, 60, 80, 100, whatever it is. So you have to make a cutoff.
And so the question is, are those marginal 20 hours or whatever really making a huge difference? Or is the time away, and I do other things. I walk. I spend some of my work hours taking a shower, and I walk every day for about an hour. I think focusing on working smarter is often better than working harder.
And so if you really were working harder that extra 20 hours and working smarter, I mean, like you give 20 hours of exactly what you knew what to do, then maybe. But I think your reach diminish in returns pretty quickly. I wonder what you think.
Andrew: I do think that in many ways I’m not as good an entrepreneur because I have a child. Because I ran into work today and I was thinking how cool it was that yesterday I got to walk with my son, who’s now 14, 15 months, and we got to hold hands for the first time walking down Valencia Street. And that is not a thought process that’s helping me be better at work.
Where before I had the kid, I would be thinking about whose head I want to rip off during the day. I could just not sit still, and I would just… So that way I think it’s worse. I’m not being as creative. I’m not being as determined.
Gabriel: You think it takes you away though because when you come back, like you need some down time to have good ideas.
Andrew: And that I do like. It really does force me to have solid down time. I played tag with my kid yesterday, to try to teach him tag. It takes a little while, apparently, for people to get it. I was at the park in the playground for about an hour the other day, just playing on a swing and fully losing myself in whatever stupid game he came up with that I loved. And in that sense, absolutely. In a way that watching a movie doesn’t because I can pull my phone out during a movie.
Gabriel: You can see… I was a little more difficult because I did DuckDuckGo. I did that for a while, but you can see right before and after, do you think the company is suffering?
Andrew: You see the numbers actually are going afterwards.
Gabriel: Exactly? I don’t know if you watch it or feel that, but…
Andrew: My numbers definitely are up, but the reason that they are is because they were up before, and they were just moving, you know?
Gabriel: Well, that goes back to working smarter and harder.
Andrew: I do believe I’m working a lot smarter.
Gabriel: That was happening regardless of how hard you were working. And now you’re figuring out the exact leverage points that you should be doing.
Andrew: I actually squeezed this interview before I had another one because you were so eager to get this done. I like your hustle. That’s definitely an example of how you hustle. So I’ve got to run. In less than 60 seconds I’ve got to record my next interview.
For now I will tell people the book, “Traction” is out October 6th. Gabriel would prefer if you bought it the week it came out and not a week later. Don’t be lazy. You’ll appreciate it. How will you even know if they bought it then? Are you asking them to email their receipt or something?
Gabriel: Our traction goal for the book is to get on the Best Seller List, and it all happens in that one week. And so, if you want to help me and just be part of something cool, buy it that week.
Andrew: Here’s what I would also do. If you got the book and you liked it, I would tweet something @yegg, telling him how much you like it because the guy blogs endlessly. Apparently, it’s working for him, and he likes to use his book and his work as a case study. And if you say something nice, you end up on one of these blog posts that he then shoots to the moon with all of his attention on marketing the blog post.
All right. I’d better run. The book is “Traction.” I’m really grateful to you for being here. I’m grateful to everyone watching. And again, if you need payroll, benefits, everything else… boy, we’re coming up in the world when Mixergy’s got a sponsor like Justworks, right? It means that they know that we have bigger and bigger teams here watching Mixergy. If you need benefits and payroll, you should go to Justworks.com/Mixergy. Thank you all for being a part of Mixergy. Thank you, Gabriel.
Gabriel: Thank you.
Andrew: Bye-bye everyone.