The SaaS Podcast
How DuckDuckGo is Making Search Better Than Google – with Gabriel Weinberg 
Gabriel Weinberg is the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you, with over a billion searches in 2013. He is also an angel investor and co-author of Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. Gabriel has been featured on CBS, FOX, the Guardian, the Washington Post and many more.
Host: Omer Khan
Guest: Gabriel Weinberg
This is the ConversionAid podcast, Episode-33. Welcome to the ConversionAid podcast, where we help software entrepreneurs to take their business to the next level. Each week, we interview proven industry experts who share their strategies and insights to help you create software that sells! Here's your host, Omer Khan.
Omer: Hey everyone, welcome to the ConversionAid podcast. I am your host Omer Khan and this is the podcast for $software entrepreneurs and companies who want to grow their business to the next level and create software that sells! Today's interview is with Gabriel Weinberg. Gabriel is the founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you, with over a billion searches in 2013. He is also an angel investor and co-author of “Traction – A Startup Guide To Getting Customers.” Gabriel has been featured on CBS, Fox, The Guardian, The Washington Post and more. Gabriel, welcome to the show.
Gabriel: Thanks. My pleasure.
Omer: Before we talk about DuckDuckGo, tell our audience a little bit about yourself. Who is Gabriel, when he is not working?
Gabriel: Well, I have a 3 and a 5 year old, both boys and I am basically a dad! [Laughter] That's what I am doing.
Omer: 2 boys, wow! That's going to keep you busy.
Gabriel: Indeed it does.
Omer: I have a boy and a girl, so I kind of feel like we have a little bit more balance in that.
Gabriel: There is lot of physical altercations. [Laughter]
Omer: Now, we like to kick things off with a success quote, to better understand what drives and motivates our guests. What is one of your favorite quotes?
Gabriel: Ooh! So I just came across a relatively new one that really resonates with me, and it is by Charlie Munger, who is, you know, a financial wizard in his own right, but known as Warren Buffett's right hand man, and Munger goes, “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don't know the other side's argument better than they do,” and it really resonates with me because it turns out like corporate strategy and thinking about what you're doing with your business and it's all about making strategic arguments and I see a lot of people get caught up in optimism about their arguments, but not really understanding the other side, and so I think it's important to understand all sides of the issue.
Omer: I've never heard that one before. I think it's a great one! Okay, let's start by giving our listeners a better understanding of DuckDuckGo. Tell me a little bit about who your target customers are and what are the pain-points that you are trying to solve for them?
Gabriel: So DuckDuckGo is a general search engine, just like Google, and you can switch to it today, and really never look back. So in that sense, the target audience is everyone, who uses Google, which is basically everyone. But specifically we are focused on a number of things that we think that Google can't do easily, for various reasons. One is the privacy, so you mentioned upfront, you know, we don't track users at all and the second is instant answers. So we focus on these answers above the results, and you've seen some of those on Google, if you are a Google user. What we are trying to do is that whole areas of open source and we're trying get really the long-tail answers, so answers for all different areas that figure intricate hobbies. So you could be interested in legos or bio-informatics, we want answers for all that. Then the third piece is design. We just focus on web search; we don't have a social network, other things that clutter up the results. Then we are trying to go for an overall, you know, cleaner design and our argument is those things, real privacy, cleaner design and better answers appeal to a significant percentage of people, and we think that's, you know, 10-20%; we have focused on appealing to that percentage.
Omer: What were you doing before you started DuckDuckGo?
Gabriel: So I'm 35; I started doing Startups right out of school, when I was 20 and ran some unsuccessful things and then ran a successful Startup or mildy successful Startup for a few years, 2003-2006. It was an early social networking company, and sold that in 2006 and that was all in Boston. Then I moved to outside Philadelphia, where I live now, and essentially started over, because I wanted to start a new company and I took a year and a half off and tried to explore…but a year and a half exploration of kind of what to do next for the next decade and that was in 2007. So here we are, starting DuckDuckGo; it kind of began in 2008 and so, we are now in 2014. [Laughter] So I feel like that process went well. So the immediate thing before doing DuckDuckGo was figuring out what to do. [Laughter]
Omer: Okay. Now before we talk about that, tell me about one of the Startups that you worked on before DuckDuckGo, that didn't work out, right? I mean, I think quite often we see the successes and we hear the stories, but it's always great to hear about those same people also going through struggles and failures.
Gabriel: Yeah. So I've a bunch of those. [Laughter] Well, my first startups, like it kind of started there, right out of school, was a educational software company called Learn Action and besides the name, that was one of the problems, because that'…that wasn't a fundamental problem. The general idea was to increase parental involvement schools by giving parents…so how old is your son and daughter?
Omer: My daughter is 6 and my son is 9.
Gabriel: Okay, exactly that age group, so I was hoping…you know, elementary school to give you more a sense of what's going on in the class room everyday and more direct communication with the teacher, and things like that. That kind of stuff is just starting to happen now, but you want to..You know, school district, but with my son, who is in kindergarten now, it's like, you can't really figure what he's doing every day, and the communication with the teacher is not great; may be yours is better. But in any case, back in 2000, it was non-existent and I thought, you know, all the tools for this were quickly available then, just as they are now; nothing has fundamentally changed there, didn't need to be mobile, I think. But for lots of structural reasons, that was not going to happen for another decade, and so that was the major problem there, as I was essentially a decade too early on the idea.
Omer: Yeah. I think we're pretty lucky with our school, and the communication I think has got better and better and we've a much better view of what's going on with our kids and it's funny, because when I was at school, my parents didn't have a clue what I was doing. It was like, I was going to a different world, and unless they heard about something bad or…they didn't really know what was going on.
Gabriel: Exactly. Totally blind. [Laughter]
Omer: Yeah. Okay. Let's talk a little bit about the early days of DuckDuckGo. So you went on this sort of exploration period. How did you come up with the idea for building another search engine?
Gabriel: Well…okay, this process has evolved. I did the process, the same kind of process or idea before starting the company, before DuckDuckGo, which eventually got sold and over time, I've kind of changed my advice here, for people, and one thing I realized that basically it took me…I guess I was 27 when I started DuckDuckGo. It took me the first 7 years to learn, and it was, you know, I really wasn't thinking big enough, which is really hard advice to give people, because they can't internalize it until they kind of have …moments, so I won't dwell on. But really what it means is a lot of ideation and what I had done before, even though I was mildly successful, was kind of trying to think of business ideas, the inefficiencies in the market place and how that might get you a good software idea that could make you million bucks, right, which sounds like the right approach, but I realized that is not the right approach. Really the right approach is to say, “Okay, what are big areas of software that are unfolding big markets and which ones of those am I particularly passionate about?” and then try to start it there and say, “Okay, I'm passionate about this area. I could spend the next decade working in this area. Now, let's do an ideation process just around that area.”
So that's why in this last round, I realized, you know, “I'm interested in data,” and that's the big theme that I was riding on, kind of, I wouldn't know, I wasn't counting big data at the time, but the idea, you know, there is more and more structured data, there is more and more APIs, there is more and more cool things to do with this data, coming online all the time, “What can I do in that area?” And so I started thinking of projects around that, and I started exploring those and those, a bunch of the side-projects came in, just kind of…some of them were about augmenting Google and saying that, “Oh, Google is not great at this or that”; maybe I could augment it. And then I realized, “Well, maybe I could put these together and just see if people would be interested in a search engine,” so that's how it came about. I didn't really set out trying to build a search engine or get into that. I was more thinking broadly, ‘I'm interested in this area; this thing is going to be a big are in future. I'm going to go, explore and see what pops out of it.”
Omer: Okay. So you know, I think the barriers to entry in the search business are really high, right? I mean, you need engineering talent, you need service that can support millions, if not billions of searches and you need to have a scale to really make the economics of the search engine work. Didn't all of that put you off from getting into this business?
Gabriel: So my insight on that was slightly different and that's why I could start up by myself, which was that, you know, you can look at these two ways. One is, the harder problem in search engines, because there is a history of search engine startups that have raised like 50 million dollars raise straight and they attack the problem head-on, which is buying a bunch of servers and start spending money and compete, like that. I realized that approach wasn't going to work. The harder problem is actually coming up with something that people want to switch to, because there wasn't much of a necessarily a pain-point people were having with Google and so I came out from that angle and from a data angle. My thought was, you know, “What if you treat the links as commodity, and you try to get them from somewhere else?” And so you don't spend all the money, crawling the internet and even though I did start crawling, but you know, you don't try to copy the whole internet through your servers, which is where the money comes from, which costs so much money, and instead you focus on where you may be could add value, might actually get people to switch.
So in my mind, there was…about the privacy and so that's a real differentiator that actually doesn't cost money and two, APIs. All these other companies were producing more and more structured data, I think, you know, Wikipedia, Yelp, IMDB and by using them, you're essentially getting, you're kind of leap-frogging Google by getting the best data out there, because they are focused on that data, and your job is more classification and say, “Okay, this query is about movies. I am going to get the best result on IMDB.” So I was again, that angle, because both of those are things that you don't have to…you don't need that excessive capital to start or in, you are right, if you go head-on, you essentially need a billion dollars a year; I mean, that's essentially what Bing has been spending on that crawling piece.
Omer: How much money did you need to get that first version of the product built?
Gabriel: Essentially nothing; I mean, on the order of, you know, $10,000. You know, that's not counting my time, obviously, that didn't cost a dime. [Laughter] But yeah, basically nothing.
Omer: Okay, so what did you do to go and start validating this idea?
Gabriel: So I, you know, probably went too far down without validation. [Laughter] But the initial validation was, you know, put something up on tech areas, Reddit, Hacker News, in this case, and just see what kind of interest there were. I wanted to know, “Are people fundamentally interested in a new search engine at all?” You know, that's such a ridiculous notion that ‘I should just stop.' And so, I got to a point where I thought I could atleast share with the world. Now I probably went too far, I know that and did some premature optimization and things like that, which you shouldn't be doing, but it was still pretty terrible when I launched it; I mean, like really terrible! Project ran into 2 years before you'd actually, somebody would actually want to switch to it, but that was a validation point, that putting it out there and there was a lot of interest. I mean, I think people were less potentially interested in what I actually developed, but more interested in the idea that they could be not familiar with these properties, and that was really encouraging that got me going in our project. I think if there wasn't that kind of reaction, I would've stopped.
Omer: So looking back at those early days, what do you think was one of the biggest mistakes that you made?
Gabriel: So you know, it's weird…like I was saying before, I think the bigger problem in search engines is figuring out something that'll entice people to switch, right? It's not a technical problem per se. You need to know which feature to actually build, and I probably spent too much time building certain features that ultimately weren't going to work and you know, product could've been smaller, and so it took me a long time to kind of hit on the array of things that'll start to go…make it a nice search engine to switch to. I mean, that probably could've been reduced. Another mistake was, I self-funded and you know, did ramp by myself for two and a half years and that could've been compressed a bit quicker, if I put more money into it or raised money to hire people earlier. I wouldn't have hired that earlier, but we got, I would say, early product market fit, may be two years and it was another year before I really raised venture capital, and I could've done that earlier.
Omer: Okay, so you launched DuckDuckGo in 2008 and so you've been at this for about 6 years. At what point did you feel like you were getting some meaningful traction with this business?
Gabriel: At the end of 2010, we were named, it was like ‘Time' Magazine's Top-50 websites of the year, something like that and that was the turning point for me, where, you know, I know that's the press thing, kind of some random author write I like, but it's still 1% opinion. [Laughter] But in any case, it was a explanation of a moment that was clearly happening, where various features and relevancy and all these things came together, where you can see it in the data too, adoption, conversion curve software for WordPress and things like that. It was a point where people were starting to switch; you could call that product market fit, but that's really the point.
Omer: Okay, so how many people do you have working at DuckDuckGo now?
Gabriel: We have about 30 people – around 20 or so, are kind of what you'll probably call traditional employees. We have a lot of part-time people as well!
Omer: Okay. I mean, this really blew my mind, because when I was doing some research and I got a sense of how many people you had working there, now, as you know, I used to be part of the Bing team at Microsoft and you know, there were thousands of engineers working on search and Google has even more than that. So how are you doing this differently? You talked a little bit about this early, but just tell me a little bit more about how are you able to run a search business with just 30 people?
Gabriel: Right. So I think the main…so I guess there is two, kind of, may be three ways to answer that. One is there is whole areas that, you know, you were doing at Bing, that we are not doing, right, and we are essentially using Bing for some of that heavy lifting, right? But I think it is even more fundamental than that. We're using all sorts of companies for the heavy lifting, like I referenced IMDB and Wikipedia. We actually have over 300 instant answer sources now and those basically represent another company with, you know, they are own employee base, who are working day and night making the good structured data that would be useful for a search engine, and we are using that.
So we're essentially leveraging the open internet and data and APIs and so our effective, you know, people working to make DuckDuckGo better is [inaudible] greater than the people who actually work for DuckDuckGo and that was possible at a moment in time when we started and that was kind of my thesis. I mean, that's the largest part of it. I think, you know, the way we've grown our team, I would say if you're going to put, what is the magnitude, despite order magnitude difference, right? There is probably a factor or two or three difference with the actual people we've hired. We've been very…sort of hire; we only essentially hire people who are extremely effective, often senior people don't even allow management overheads, so it's not a lot of…you know, there is a lot of efficiency and not a lot of bureaucracy …say DuckDuckGo, a lot of autonomy. And so we are probably getting stuff done with less people, but that's probably a two or three times difference than you know, than ten or twenty times difference. I mean, these are probably the main things.
Omer: Now looking back at the last few years, what has been one of the hardest things about building this product and business in your mind?
Gabriel: So I mean, I love to hear the reverse take on us. [Laughter] But my…I think I keep repeating, which is, this is not necessarily a technology problem in the search space. It is a….the problem may be solved somewhat by technology, but it's more of a psychological slash product problem of, “What is it? What do you need to do differently to differentiate yourself and get people to want to switch to you?” And you know, you could, and I think Bing has seen this, you could do amazing at search technology essentially on parity with Google and that's not enough, right? You need to differentiate in some other way, and I think that's the hardest problem of search.
Omer: You know, I agree with you. I think that, you know, Google has dominated this business so much that the features that you build just doesn't matter, right? I mean, so many people now don't even think about where they're going to go and search. They just do it, right?
Omer: So absolutely, that is the more challenging; I totally agree.
Gabriel: I mean, you could look at it slightly differently from Bing's perspective and say, because Bing has access to capital, large amount of capital which we didn't…and you can say, “Well, that's also distribution problem,” you know, and most people still use the default settings, and so if you can get…you could see on the latest Yahoo deal, you can get the default deals better to take away Google and it was very hard for companies who want to do that, because of that decade of people learning and people are scared to may be change the default to Bing or Yahoo. But from our perspective, we can't even be [inaudible] those distribution deals, just to…[Laughter] We don't have that money, so everyone who switched to DuckDuckGo, is basically doing on their own volition, so we've in a sense a harder problem, but in the sense those constraints have let us down the roads that, you know, like a Bing, when you do, not because it's not a good idea, but because Bing's working on a different scale than we are and so it is really interesting. But yeah, the hardest problem for us has been just crafting the search experience that really appeals to people, that they'll want to switch the search engine.
Omer: Tell me a little bit about the size of the business. How many users do you currently have or how many search queries are you handling each month?
Gabriel: So we are handling about 230 million search queries a month, and so we are about double from the [inaudible] last year recorded, and still growing; users – we really don't track the users, so honestly I've no idea. [Laughter] What's interesting is our user base is probably highly bifurcated in that, very early adopters who search a lot and then more mainstream people who migrated over from Bing, who…the average person actually doesn't search that much. And so it's actually hard to tell how many users we have; kind of a, the lower single digit millions, something like that. And yeah, that is basically the size of the business. I would argue that we are getting close to about 1% search, but to the intricacies of search market, those numbers are actually hard to determine. I don't know how much you got into that at Bing. We think that our value proposition, you know, basically a real privacy and better answers and cleaner design appeals to easily 5% and our brand awareness is more like around 7% in the country, so still 95% haven't heard of us, whereas Bing's brand awareness is, that'll be close to a three-quarters or something. And so we feel that we can get our brand's awareness up; we think our search data will go up significantly.
Omer: So do you think you'll get to the 1% market share some time next year?
Gabriel: Yeah, I do. I think we are close to that already. I guess it's really hard to tell based on various numbers, but yes, I think so.
Omer: Yeah, I mean, you know, for people may be who don't know that much about the search business, 1% sounds really small, but that's a hugely significant share of the search market, especially for a business with such few employees.
Gabriel: Yeah, it is hard to appreciate the scale. One way to appreciate this scale is to say, you know, you can think of “What is the magnitude, ten times, of your business?” We started getting around a 1000 searches a month and 10000…then if you think of those numbers, going from 1000 to 10000, 100,000, million, 10 million, 100 million and now we are on 250 million searches a month, each one of those was a big difference to us, you know, in various scale metrics. That is just a sense of how the search market is. You can get 250 million searches a month and still not even be a 1%. [Laughter]
Omer: Is there one thing in your business that you are most excited about right now?
Gabriel: Yeah, so I am most excited about this concept of instant answer platform, so you know, we launched instant answers; they are not as familiar with that. You type in like a celebrity name, and you get their basic biography on Wikipedia, and you know, Bing started doing it; surely after we did , they bought the companies like FareCast and those sort of companies and start doing some core stuff and then Google kind of followed, and so now it's, you know, that's the inaudible] kind of basic stuff, but what we do is we open-source the whole thing. We even open-source instant answer platform called “DuckDuckApp”; any developer in the world can suggest the answers and code them, can use other [inaudible] guys, so I am most excited about getting that to work, as like a real vibrant community, where all these long tail answers start popping up and all sorts of niche hobbies like last year, Bitcoin answers; the Bitcoin community gave bunch of answers to DuckDuckGo and just made the experience from people who are in the Bitcoin community very good, and so I am very excited about that in particular.
Omer: Okay Gabriel, it's time for our lightening round. I'm going to ask you a series of questions and I would like you to answer them as quickly as possible. Are you ready?
Gabriel: Alright, shoot.
Omer: Alright. What's the best piece of business advice that you ever received?
Gabriel: “Treat your career as like a career path,” you know, so that means if you're thinking long term, you have the ability to invest in skills and resource every time, not just thinking as a short term thing. That was a long way; I'm going to try do better. [Laughter]
Omer: What book, apart from your book, would you recommend to our audience and why?
Gabriel: So I recommend this book called ‘Switch'; it's one book I read in the last year that has a framework of how to get people to think about switching anything really; switching your behavior, but when it comes down to in businesses, you are always just trying to get customers to switch, switch something they are already doing, their behavior into something, to your behavior and it gives a good framework for doing that.
Omer: What is that one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful entrepreneur?
Gabriel: You know, analytical thinking. This goes back to the quote I did at the beginning of this…I think, you know, a good entrepreneur is really, can quickly understand the landscape than an academic analysis paralysis, but they can think through all the different kind of decision-tree paths and come up with a good kind of course of action, given all those, even though there's lots of uncertain information.
Omer: What's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?
Gabriel: Fancy Hands, which is a virtual assistant tool and it is a life-changer, if you commit to it. Basically, you know, you just send…any task you want, especially when you are mobile, you can just record the voice into it and they'll start doing it, so I don't make any phone calls; I don't do web research for like products and stuff like that. I will just send it all to Fancy Hands.
Omer: If you had to start over tomorrow, how would you go about figuring out that next business opportunity?
Gabriel: Ah, so here's what I would do. So I would look at the big trends that people think are unfolding, you know, over the next decade. Now there's a, you know, crypto currency, AI, drones, 3D printing; there's a list of, kind of like…figure out which one, Big Data is still there, figure out which ones I'm actually personally passionate about, and I wouldn't mind spending a decade on, and then do an ideation process within that piece and try to find a problem or a secret or a thesis in there and then start running tests on those ideation…ideas.
Omer: What's an interesting or fun-fact about you that most people don't know?
Gabriel: I used to dye my hair a lot! [Laughter] Does that count?
Omer: I'll take that one. Alright, and finally, what is one of your most important passions outside of your work?
Gabriel: I would say…I can't say – family. [Laughter] You just can't! And if you just go by time, allocation, basically just here or with my kids. [Laughter]
Omer: Alright, those were great answers. Gabriel, I want to thank you for joining me today and sharing your experiences and insights and thank you for letting us get to know you a little better personally as well! Now, if folks want to find out more about DuckDuckGo, they can go to: DuckDuckGo.com. And if they want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that?
Gabriel: Twitter; so my handle is: @yegg
Omer: Awesome. Gabriel, thanks again and I wish you continued success.
Gabriel: Thank you; it's been my pleasure.
Omer: Cheers. Alright, I hope you enjoyed that interview with Gabriel Weinberg of DuckDuckGo. You can get to the show notes for this episode by going to ConversionAid.com/33 where you'll find all the links and resources that we discussed today. In the next episode, I'm going to have Gabriel back and we're going to talk about his book, which is called ‘Traction' a Startup Guide to getting customers, which is co-authored with Justin Mares. There's ton of useful advice there for Startups and so we're going to chat more about that and hopefully share some valuable lessons with you guys. If you would like to get in touch with me, you can find me on Twitter: @omerkhan or email me at: [omer AT conversionaid.com] And if you enjoyed this episode, then I would really appreciate you taking a couple of minutes just to submit a review on iTunes and subscribing to the show, if you haven't already done so. Just go to ConversionAid.com/iTunes. Thanks for listening. Until next time, take care.
Transcription sponsored by Karooya – Negative Keywords Tool
- “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger
- “Switch: How to change things when change is hard” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath