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What Taking On Google Taught Me About Startup Traction

The founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo explains how he managed to get a Google competitor off the ground.

What Taking On Google Taught Me About Startup Traction
[Photo: SEAN SIMMERS, FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/Getty Images]

In 2006, I sold an Internet company that I had cofounded a few years earlier for millions of dollars. It was a strange company for many reasons, not the least of which was that we had no employees from beginning to end. I wrote every line of code and did all the accounting and customer support.

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The terms of the deal were such that my cofounder and I didn’t have to work for the acquiring company at all. We were free to move on to other things, and we did. A few months later, my wife and I moved from our 865-square-foot apartment near Boston to a country house 25 miles outside of Philadelphia. I had just turned 27.

She went to her job and I sat at home doing nothing for the first time in my life. We knew no one for a hundred miles in any direction.

Building A Better Search Engine

Naturally, I started tinkering on the computer again, starting about a dozen side projects simultaneously. A year and a half later, I thought I was on to something. I noticed two things that bothered me about Google: too much spam (all those sites with nothing but ads) and not enough instant answers (I kept going to Wikipedia and IMDb). I thought if I could easily pick out the spam and the answers, then I’d have a more compelling search engine.

Both problems were harder to solve than I initially thought, but I thoroughly enjoyed the work and kept at it. Everyone I talked to about my search-engine project thought I was nuts. You’re doing what? Competing against Google? Why? How? Another year later, in the fall of 2008, I flipped the switch, unveiling my search engine to the public.

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DuckDuckGo had a rather uneventful launch, if you can even call it a launch. I posted it to a niche tech site called Hacker News and that was the long and short of it. The post was entitled, “What do you think of my new search engine?”

Like many entrepreneurs, I’m motivated by being on the cusp of something big, and I was at the point where I needed some validation. I can survive on little, but I needed something.

I got it.

Granted, the product wasn’t anything you’d want to switch to at that point, and people let me know that. It was an Internet forum, after all. However, I still felt there was genuine interest in a new search competitor. I could tell some people were growing wary of what Google was becoming. For example, those initial conversations led me to investigate search privacy and eventually become “the search engine that doesn’t track you,” years before government and corporate surveillance became a mainstream issue.

In any case, the response I received was enough motivation to keep me going. Which brings me to traction. I needed some.

Traction Trumps All

Traction is the best way to improve your chances of startup success. Traction is a sign that something is working. If you charge for your product, it means customers are buying. If your product is free, it’s a growing user base.

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Traction is powerful. Technical, market, and team risks are easier to address with traction. Fundraising, hiring, press, partnerships, and acquisitions all become much easier.

In other words, traction trumps everything.

My last startup had grown using two traction channels: first, search engine optimization (ranking high in search engines for relevant terms), and later, viral marketing (where your customers bring in other customers, such as by referring friends and family through use of the product).

Viral marketing doesn’t work well in search because you can’t easily bake it into the product by putting stuff between people and their search results. So I tried search engine optimization. The terms “search engine” and “search engines” were too hard to rank for, as the high-ranking companies had been around for a decade and had tens of thousands of links pointing at them from their long histories. “New search engine” was more in my grasp.

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I worked hard for many months to rank high for this phrase. The key to good search engine optimization (SEO) is getting links, and you need a strategy to get these links in a scalable way.

Getting stories written about you in blogs and news outlets is a common SEO linking strategy. However, I hit saturation with that channel strategy pretty quickly, and it didn’t get me to the top. Something more creative was required.

Getting It Wrong

After much brainstorming and experimenting, I eventually hit upon a good idea. I built a karma widget that would display links to your social media profiles and how many followers you had on each service. People would embed it on their sites, and at the bottom there would be a link back to DuckDuckGo that said “new search engine.” This channel strategy worked beautifully. I was number one.

Trouble was, not a ton of people make that search—about 50 a day. So while I did get some traction and a steady stream of new users, it leveled off pretty quickly. It wasn’t enough traction to be meaningful. It didn’t move the needle.

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I made two large traction mistakes here. First, I failed to have a concrete traction goal. In retrospect, to move the needle for my traction goals at the time, I needed more like 5,000 new visitors a day, not 50. Search engine optimization was not going to get me there.

Second, I was biased by my previous experience. Just because my last company got traction in this way didn’t mean it was right for every company. These are very natural mistakes to make. In fact, most startups make them. The most common startup trajectory now goes something like the following: Founders have an idea for a company they’re excited about. Initial excitement turns into a struggle to build a product, but they do get something out the door. Then they launch.

The founders had expected customers to beat a path to their door, but unfortunately that isn’t happening. Getting traction was an afterthought, but now they are focused on it. They try what they know or what they’ve heard others do: some Facebook ads, a little local PR, and maybe a smattering of blog posts.

Then they run out of money and the company dies.

Sadly, this is the norm. Even sadder, often these products are actually on to something. That is, with the right traction strategy they might have actually been able to get traction and not go out of business.

Getting It Right, Again And Again (And Again)

Given my previous startup success I thought I knew what I was doing. I was wrong. Luckily, I wasn’t dead wrong. I had the money to self-fund through my traction mistakes, and so they didn’t prove fatal for DuckDuckGo. Not everyone is as lucky.

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Around this time I also started angel investing and more seriously advising other startups. I saw firsthand similar struggles and mistakes. I also partnered with Justin Mares, who had founded two startups (one of which was acquired) and recently ran growth at Exceptional Cloud Services, which was acquired by Rackspace in 2013 for millions. He’s a growth expert in his own right.

We set out to help startups get traction no matter what business they were in: from Internet companies to local small businesses and everything in between. We drew on our personal experiences, interviewed more than 40 founders, studied many more companies, and pulled out the repeatable framework they used to succeed.

Since DuckDuckGo’s humble beginnings, we have grown five orders of magnitude (10x growth spurts), from that initial 100 searches a day to now over 10 million a day. Each step—from 100 to 1,000, 10,000 to 100,000, 1 million to 10 million—involved figuring out how to get traction again. That’s because what works in one growth stage eventually stops working.

This article is adapted from Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, 2015.

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