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Release Date 10/1/15 Episode Length 31:41

Gabriel Weinberg of Duck Duck Go

How to Find, Test, and Double Down on Scalable Growth Channels

with Gabriel Weinberg of Duck Duck Go

Rocketship: So Gabriel, tell us about Traction and what this book is. I know you guys are doing the second release, but for those that aren’t familiar.

Gabriel: Yes, thank you. Traction is really a book to help your startup or any business get traction. What it does is it presents a framework for how to get traction. The reason I wrote this book with my co-author is I was trying to get traction for my startup and I went looking for a traction framework to apply, like a product development framework or a customer development framework. One didn’t exist. I set out to try to figure out what to do. Eventually I ended up writing this book. The framework ends up being a 3 step process that we call the bullseye framework because it uses the metaphor of a bullseye target where the outer ring is all the ways you can get traction. We identify 19 different traction channels. Search engine marketing, SEO, trade shows, etc. What you’re trying to do is hit that bullseye where you find the right channel for your startup at the time to rocket its growth. The book outlines that framework and helps you think about traction in the first 5 chapters. In the last 19 chapters there is one chapter for each traction channel to help you really get a primer on how to think about that channel. You can effectively evaluate it within the framework.

Rocketship: You released it last year. It did really well, and you’re re-releasing it again. What can we expect from this updated version?

Gabriel: Yeah, thanks for that. I thought it did well too. We sold about 35,000 copies. We got immediate feedback from people that it was definitely helping them, but we also got feedback, have our ear to the ground that they were confused in certain areas. We saw people misapplying what we had intended in a few areas. I did a bunch of speaking. Really saw that firsthand talking to people. What we decided to do in the re-release is a few things. One, we simplified the framework. It was actually a 5 step process down to a 3 step process. We also re-architected the intro to focus on these non-intuitive things that people often get wrong in each to step. Then we literally made just a way better edited version. We cut out about 50 pages, just a much nicer read. Finally we added a couple sessions that people really wanted. There is a preface from me about my experiences getting traction and framing the book, and then there is an addendum for testing that gives you 2 or 3 testing ideas for each of the 19 channels which people were struggling with.

Rocketship: Interesting. What were some of the common mistakes that you guys were seeing?

Gabriel: In each of the step there’s a big mistake. There’s really one step even before the 3 steps, I’ll call it step 0 which is setting a traction goal. That is a hard goal that you have, ideally quantitative, of how much traction you really need to move the needle for your business. The way people mess that step 0 up is not having a goal. Basically skipping the step. I actually made that mistake myself in my last business. That’s one of the things I talk about in the new preface is that you really got to think about what it is you’re trying to set out to accomplish. When you’re first starting a business it’s usually one of 3 things. It’s usually how much traction you need to get profitability or enough money for me to sustain myself month over month, or how much traction do I need to raise funding, or how much traction do I need to prove to myself that I’m going to get product market fit on this. If you’re not really thinking about that, you may set out on activities that don’t actually get you anywhere. In my example I didn’t have a goal, my previous business had gotten traction through search engine optimization, SEO. When I started DuckDuckGo I was like, oh, I know SEO, I’m going to just try to attract through SEO. I spent a lot of time on it and I was successful. I had built a widget that you could show your Twitter followers and stuff, and at the bottom it had a link that said new search engine. This whole complicated procedure made me rank first for new search engine, which was great, except that new search engine only brought in 50 users a day or something. It amounted to only 1000 a month or a few thousand. It just didn’t move the needle for me at all. I thought it was cool but then in retrospect I was like, why did I waste all this time on SEO when I really need 50,000 searches a month to prove this out and I really should have focused on other channels. Not having that goal was that mistake.

Rocketship: Interesting. What were people struggling with when you were talking to them in terms of, the channel seemed straightforward but what were some of the feedback that you were hearing where they just didn’t know what to do to maybe get PR or something like that?

Gabriel: The main one is that next step, step one is really brainstorm each channel. Really come up with a test idea that you could ideally use to test that channel to answer 3 questions. One, how scalable is this channel, how many customers can I try to get from it, two, how much does it cost to acquire customers, and three, are they the right type of customers? Different channels yield different type of customers. That part people got. What they didn’t get was they really should test every channel. The question we got most out of everything was, I’m just a B2B company or B2C company or I’m an offline retail store, tell me the channels that work for my business. I don’t really want to consider all 19. That’s where the mistake is made, because non-intuitively the underutilized channels for your industry are usually the best ones because they are less competitive. You can get really high conversion rates on creative campaign ideas. If you set out just using the channels that all your competitors use or the ones you’re familiar with, you’re intentionally overlooking the ones that may be best for you. It’s very challenging to overcome psychologically because you don’t know anything about it. Part of the reason for writing the book was all those other chapters, was to give you a primer so you feel a little closer to it. That’s the biggest mistake there is that people were overlooking channels and they would talk to us and not even realize they’re making a mistake.

Rocketship: Okay, that’s interesting. Taking that feedback, were you frustrated coming from the software world having to wait an entire year to put this out?

Gabriel: Yes.

Rocketship: I can imagine.

Gabriel: Very much so. The day dragged on and on. It took a long time to re-edit it, and then actually getting it published took a long time. It was confusing. In terms of how long it was going to take, I didn’t know exactly what the steps were to finally get it live through this publishing process. This route we’re actually going with a publisher now, so Penguin, one of the big publishers, has picked up the book for the re-release. When we did it the first time like the book you guys did, we did it all ourselves. Our deadlines were self imposed. We knew what we were, we didn’t know what we were doing in the global sense but we knew the things that we would do this time, there were a bunch of other stages. Talk about the cover and various editing passes and things like that. Totally different.

Rocketship: Are you guys going to rework or redo, I know you guys use the Traction framework to get traction for Traction. Are you going to do that again?

Gabriel: Yes, absolutely.

Rocketship: The whole 19?

Gabriel: Yeah. We did the brainstorm. We have data. This is interesting about the Traction framework is a lot of people use it to get traction initially, but eventually something happens, usually on a business unfortunately is you reach diminishing returns on your channel. You have to reset and run the process over again. At DuckDuckGo we’ve literally done this 6 times. We’ve gone from that SEO mistake I mentioned earlier to content marketing for client blog and then micro sites, then PR, print, then TV, and then we did business development where last year we also got in Apple’s iPhones and Mozilla Firefox. Now we’re literally back to the drawing board at DuckDuckGo. For traction, we ran that experiment last year. Our email lists got us the initial step of the way, and then actually podcasts was a strategy that worked the best. Then we doubled down on that to push it forward. We reached diminishing returns. We thought of it as really going to the publisher as the next traction channel as a business development play where they are the partner. Then we realized going through publishing that they are going to help produce a much better book, but they don’t actually get traction for the books they publish. Then it pushed us back to the drawing board again now. We’re literally running experiments over the next month. It’s going to come out right when we talk I think. We’re in the middle of those experiments right now, although we’re using the data from the previous year, so we’re going heavy on podcasts as an experiment initially.

Rocketship: Very cool. I imagine that the traction channels that you’re going to test to grow the book when it’s in stores are pretty different from doing marketing around this startup little community online. How are you going to go beyond the 35,000 readers to get to hundreds of thousands of readers?

Gabriel: Yeah. One initial thing we’re trying to do is get on a bestseller list. I don’t know if that’s going to work. That involves trying to coordinate people going to purchase the book that first week including offline. Another thing we’re testing is an incentive program which we had done last year and which a lot of other successful book launches have done, but last year’s one we learned from, the test didn’t work out too great. We’re going to run that experiment again just we think better executed. That’s where essentially if you buy more copies of the book we’ll give away special bonuses. That’s another one we’re testing. Other than that, those are the main ones we’re doubling down on, and then the email list again in terms of running tests. I guess we have next level experiments in all those. In the email, Justin’s creating a whole email course. Podcasts, we’re casting a much wider net. In the incentive program we’re really leveling up. Whichever one of those seems to work we’re going to really double down hard on it.

Rocketship: How’s your time split between this and DuckDuckGo?

Gabriel: This is in my spare time, believe it or not. In the next month it’s like, in this month of launch it’s all my spare time. Before that I was doing it nights and weekends.

Rocketship: Yeah, it seems like a lot.

Gabriel: I tell my family that. They’re fed up with me.

Rocketship: Are you going to do, are you looking at book tours or other kinds of in person things that are not so digital?

Gabriel: I would if it was Greenfield and I didn’t have DuckDuckGo. If you look at people who are very successful with their books, that’s often the channel they use. To my point earlier, maybe it’s saturated, I haven’t looked at it as much. The reason why we’re not doing that is both Justin and I are trying to run startups. We just can’t afford to do it. Yeah, it’s not a bad strategy.

Rocketship: Okay. What were some, if you don’t mind sharing, some disappointing channels from last time for traction that you thought maybe would work?

Gabriel: In the spirit of it, we actually, just because it would be fun, in the book we really suggest trying 3 things in parallel for a number of reasons. In the spirit of the book we wanted to test a lot more things. Initially we thought about maybe writing it up each way but then it was one of those things like it was a good idea, but then way too much work. We didn’t do it. We did end up doing a lot of tests. Some of the ones that just didn’t work too well were we tried both search engine ads and social and display ads. Twitter and Facebook and stuff. We tried inbound marketing. We tried a Twitter campaign that was very sustained, didn’t work too well. We tried content marketing where we did guest posts on a bunch of places, also didn’t really bring in much. Then we also tried some off-line events not to the level of the book tour, but we tried some more minor ones. They didn’t also work well either. All of those failed.

Rocketship: Interesting. What do you think the, what was the reason behind some of the unsuccess like with the social ads?

Gabriel: I think that it is, our book, I think the reason why podcast works well is you really need to hear a little more about it and hear more why this might work for you. When you see just the book ad, it may just be the business book section in general but it’s like, that impulse purchase with such little information I don’t think is that enticing. It feels like people just, the bottom line is the engagement rates were really low.

Rocketship: That makes sense.

Gabriel: I was a bit surprised at the content marketing because that is a place where we were able to tell the story a little more. All I can gather is that people just don’t, even though there’s views on it, they may not have read the article very well.

Rocketship: Okay. Yeah, that happens. When you’re setting the goal for a new channel, how do you go about setting that in the right way? If you’re too ambitious with it, then it doesn’t matter how well the experiment does, it’ll be a failure. The same goes the other way. How do you go about setting a goal when you aren’t having any experience with the channel before?

Gabriel: Yeah. To me it’s two separate questions. This goes back to these one non-intuitive pieces that I love to talk about. There’s the traction goal overall. That should be a goal really based on your business in terms of some kind of inflection point, like we mentioned earlier. The goal for testing channels really should be to put some numbers on those 3 questions. How many customers can I get, how much do they cost, are they the right customers. We really advise doing small tests for that. We added something in the book this time that says, we think if you’re going over a month or going over $1000, especially when starting out, you’re probably doing something wrong. You should be able to execute a cheap and quick test like that to get some rough numbers on those numbers. Then you can use those numbers to evaluate whether you think you could reach the big traction goal with that channel. Only double down if you think it’s possible. The mistake that people make is they really try to prematurely optimize those channel tests. They run 40 Facebook ads instead of 4. That’s more of a full time job, and that also makes it so you can’t really test 3 in parallel.

Rocketship: That makes a lot of sense. You’re going to chain yourself down before you even get started.

Gabriel: Exactly. To follow up on that, the things people were getting wrong in the final step which is once you got something working, you really should do that double down and focus. People were not ditching the other tests that were mildly successful. Say you ran Facebook ads and you went to speak somewhere and you also tried to get some PR. All of them were kind of successful, but the Facebook ads were much clearer that they would have ROI to get your to your big goal. What we saw a lot of people doing was, okay, scale up the Facebook things but still do some PR and still do the other one, I already just forgot what I said, but still do the other channel. That’s a problem because the time you spend on the Facebook ads is a much higher rewarding time then the time you spent on these other two channels that only kind of worked. When you’re really focusing, you’re trying to uncover these underutilized strategies within that channel that you focus. The only way to do that is to really focus. Any time you spend away from it is time you’re not using to get effective strategies.

Rocketship: It sounds like you double down once you find, when you hit the point of diminishing returns, you go and experiment again. That’s maybe when you could dip your foot back into PR or some of those of the channels that didn’t work before.

Gabriel: That’s exactly right. The only way, in your point, what’s implicit in that is that you are constantly measuring these metrics towards your goal. You can see that it’s starting to reach diminishing returns. Within this framework there’s really 2 types of tests that you should be running. One of these we call the middle ring tests where you’re testing different channels and two are the inner circle tests where you’re testing things within that focus channel. When you start reaching diminishing returns, you go back to those middle ring tests to run more tests, but you’re always testing no matter what you’re doing.

Rocketship: Yeah, it makes sense when you hear it. It’s not what we always do though.

Gabriel: Yeah, exactly. There’s too much psychological bias in all this, it’s a bit of a problem.

Rocketship: Right. Absolutely.

Gabriel: Hard to admit that what you’re doing is not going to work, you’re not going to reach your goal. You know you got to do something you’re unfamiliar with. All these things are very difficult to overcome.

Rocketship: Absolutely, yeah. Even to see that, sometimes when you put so much effort into something to admit that it’s not working is incredibly difficult.

Gabriel: That’s a whole other one. The sunk-cost fallacy. Not just time, money too. We already spent a ton on this billboard campaign, we should run the rest of it. If it’s not working you really shouldn’t.

Rocketship: Right. The quote that I see all the time is entrepreneurs quit right before they break through. Sometimes that’s just not true.

Gabriel: Yeah. That’s hard. That’s why I’d say overriding all this is trying to get quantitative with your traction efforts. If you’re not quantitative you just make it so much easier to delude yourself.

Rocketship: Right. Switching gears, I’d love to hear for those that are interested in publishing, what was it like working with Penguin and what are some of the advantages, disadvantages of working with a publisher?

Gabriel: It’s very interesting. First off, how you got to the publisher is interesting. We hooked up with an agent. The way we found the agent, it was a good agent. It was Tim Ferris’s agent, Michael Port’s agent. We hooked up through them through Michael Port. He’s a best selling business author who happens to be in Philadelphia, I’m in Philadelphia, had met him through that community. That’s one way you can do it is go meet local people in your startup community who cross over who are business book, and ask them about their agent. We actually found a good agent. A good agent has connections to all the right people in the publisher sector. In each category there’s only a handful of people to talk to.

Rocketship: What is the agent’s role, so we can understand how he differentiates …

Gabriel: The agent’s role is to get you the book deal . The reason why they’re necessary is it’s like a VC warm intro, except in the book space, the agent fills that role. Just like hundreds of entrepreneurs send VCs business plans, the same thing happens in the book industry. Unless you have a warm relationship with the people who are selecting editors at book places, you need an agent. There may be other ways around the agent. The other thing the agent really helps is they understand the contracts and can help you negotiate a better deal. You might have a warm intro into one publisher but they know all of them. They can get a competitive deal going. That’s what they did in this case.

Rocketship: Very cool.

Gabriel: The other way to get attention which is independently how we got attention, was do something interesting in the book industry and people notice. Everyone’s wondering how the book industry is going to evolve. We wrote up how we got, at the time we had sold 12,000 copies, what exactly we did to sell those copies and how we ran our framework. I wrote this long post out about it. That went viral in the book industry and the editor at Penguin who we ended up going with actually reached out to me independent of our agent before we even had sent it to him to be like, I’m interested in talking to you guys. That’s another way. After we got into the publisher and signed the contract, then they have a very specific process and a lot of people that work with you to get the book out the door. There’s a whole thing around covers and how they would like edited in different stages of editing. A deeper edit and a copy edit and a layout and format and fact checking. Each one of these things, they guide you through and run you through a pass. It was a lot of work.

Rocketship: I bet, yeah. It sounds like it.

Gabriel: Relatively tight deadlines, because they have schedules with how to get things in bookstores.

Rocketship: Okay. With these, you must have learned a ton about the writing process that we sometimes self publish, we don’t work with multiple editors and go through that. Would you do it again if you were to write another book, would you go straight to a publisher?

Gabriel: I don’t know. I think I might, honestly. We hired a professional editor in the self publishing side too. It wasn’t as formal a relationship. We were setting the bar, not them saying they think it should be better here or there. I liked the structure of it. It really comes down to what your goals are with the book. If your goal is to make the most money from the book, I think self publishing is the future by far.

Rocketship: Interesting, yeah.

Gabriel: If your goal is to get the best book out in terms of everything around that, not just the writing but the quality of, these things actually matter to readers a lot, we learned. The layout of the book, the typeface, the paper, the cover, all those different things. Then the publisher really does add a lot there.

Rocketship: Interesting, yeah. It’s really about the quality, which is the complete opposite of what I thought as a publisher’s role.

Gabriel: Yeah, that’s how I’m seeing it, absolutely.

Rocketship: Very cool. When is the book launch?

Gabriel: The book launch is October 6.

Rocketship: October 6, okay. Where can we find it, where can we get this second edition?

Gabriel:, a very direct…

Rocketship: It will be in physical stores you say, right?

Gabriel: It will be in physical stores, yes. Definitely in Barnes & Noble. It’s a bit opaque to me still how this system works.

Rocketship: We’ll learn on the next followup then.

Gabriel: Exactly, yeah. It’s definitely going to be there.

Rocketship: Very cool, very cool. Thank you so much, and we look forward to getting our hands on the second edition.

Gabriel: It’s been my pleasure, thanks for having me back.

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