With news coming out in recent times of the many ways Google can track you, as well as the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, the public is becoming more aware of the lack of internet privacy. These facts have led users to flock to an alternative. DuckDuckGo is a fast growing search engine that aims to differentiate itself from Google by not tracking searches and giving what they call real privacy to their users. In 2013, DuckDuckGo had over 1 billion queries and has seen a 90% increase in traffic ever since news of the PRISM program came out.
The man behind this startup is Gabriel Weinberg, a seasoned entrepreneur whose last venture was acquired for $10 million in 2006. Aside from being an entrepreneur, Gabriel is also an active angel investor and author of his upcoming book, Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers.
We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Gabriel Weinberg via email where he explains how Google’s incognito mode isn’t very secret, why he’s been able to grow DuckDuckGo to its current scale, and why traction is everything to a startup.
With the search engine giants that already exist today, not many would think about disrupting the space. Did your peers think you were crazy when you told them about the idea of DDG?
“I started my first internet company right out of college. DuckDuckGo is my fourth or tenth company, depending on how you count. So I learned a bit before doing this one, thankfully. I didn’t set out to build a search engine, but instead to work on a number of projects I found interesting. After doing that for about a year I saw a path to a better search experience involving less spam and more instant answers, and just decided to build an alpha version, put it out there, and see what happens.
Yes, I think a lot of people thought I was crazy, but given I had the resources to self-fund for a while, I didn’t feel I needed to really convince anyone to get started. After several years when I did need to start convincing people (to come work with me) it was much easier because I had some traction already.”
What do you think is most important quality to become a successful entrepreneur today?
“It depends on what you mean by success, which is different to everyone. If your primary goal is to make a dent in the universe as they say, then I think it is learning how to think big. The best way to do this is to get a good mentor who already thinks big and then they can keep telling you that you’re not thinking big enough or not thinking the right kind of big until you are.”
You’ve had your fair share of failures with startups before you saw success. What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned from these failures?
“I think the biggest lesson is you have to treat startups as a career and not have a “one and done” mentality. The reality is things fail, often for reasons out of your control. If you take a long-term view you can use this failure to get better at your chosen areas and invest time in skills that will be useful over many years.
In the past, you’ve mentioned that the biggest mistake startups make today is not focusing on traction (You even recently released a book about it). Would you mind briefly elaborating on this?
“Traction is growth. The pursuit of traction is what defines a startup. Traction is the best way to improve your chances of startup success. Technical, market, and team risks are easier to address with traction. Fundraising, hiring, press, partnerships and acquisitions are all easier with traction. In other words, traction trumps everything.
Yet still most startups pursue distribution as an afterthought, after product development gets something shipped. We think this is a mistake and that you should pursue both in parallel and allocate about half your time to each.”
Speaking of privacy when using Google, a common argument is that you can use incognito mode. However, you’ve said that this is not a safe alternative either, can you briefly elaborate why?
“We outline many of those reasons why on our website. In short, private browsing does not protect against things like IP and other online tracking, and so is effectively useless. Its purpose is really just to clear your local browser history.”
Who do you consider your mentors? Do you recommend any young entrepreneur to actively seek a mentor for themselves?
“One of the mistakes I made earlier in my career was not seeking out mentorship early and deeply. I’m lucky to have an uncle Stephen Mendel who has mentored me and who currently serves on the DuckDuckGo Board. In addition, I have sought mentorship from Josh Kopelman, a serial entrepreneur and founder of First Round Capital. I’m currently trying to seek more time with peers, which I also think is useful.
I certainly advise people to do something similar.”
Lastly, tell us some of the exciting things we can expect from you and DDG.
“DuckDuckGo is launching a reimagined and redesigned version that focuses on smarter answers and a more refined look. We have received an overwhelmingly positive reception from users during our public beta With this launch we believe that a significant percentage of people who really try us out will want to make the switch.”
Check out DuckDuckGo