Traction: The Story of Gabriel Weinberg's Journey to Success with DuckDuckGo

Written by Michael Riley on October 9, 2014

How to test out marketing channels
to find the path to a "hockey stick" growth curve

Gabriel Weinberg's startup journey started back in 2000. He graduated early from MIT and funded his first real venture with the leftover tuition money. 


Gabriel's first startup was called learnection. It was an educational product to increase parental involvement in primary schools. It was a horrible failure. The main problems were poor execution and it being 10 years ahead of its time. He spent 2.5 years on it. He tried to sell it to a non-profit, and then ended up working for that non-profit instead to save up some more money. 


His next big venture was a site called NamesDatabase that was basically a competitor. The concept wouldn't work now, but in 2006 it was acquired for a few million dollars by after four years of work. 


After that successful exit he came up with five or six new startup ideas and began testing them out. There was Kangadoo: a photo service for grandparents, Groupomatic: a competitor, nth Club: a social network for golfers, and then DuckDuckGo: a new search engine he started in 2008. 


The first marketing channel for DuckDuckGo was SEO. Gabriel got the site to rank for "new search engine" and then simply "search engine". This strategy tapped out at around 10,000 visitors, and then he began a continual cycle of searching for and testing out new channels for growth. 


The second channel was content marketing. Gabriel began blogging prolifically and created micro sites full of valuable content. 


The next big leap in traffic occurred after putting up a prominently placed billboard in San Francisco. It made a good story for national press because Google's privacy policy was a hot topic at the time. It gave them the opportunity to test out PR as a new channel for traction. DuckDuckGo then tested online media, traditional press and TV over time. 


In the past six months those PR channels have started to tap out. So now business development is their current channel for growth. DuckDuckGo has a partnership deal with Apple to be included in the new iPhone 6. This exposure has sparked their latest spike in traffic growth



It's good to start with a traction goal in mind that's meaningful to your business. 


DuckDuckGo's goal is 1 percent of the search market.


Your first business goal might be 100 users, $1,000 in revenue or other target metrics you need to hit for investors to fund you. The Bullseye Framework was created by Gabriel Weinberg to help you reach these goals. 


There's 19 different marketing channels for achieving Traction:

  • Viral Marketing

  • Public Relations (PR)

  • Unconventional PR

  • Search Engine Marketing

  • Social and Display Ads

  • Offline Ads

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

  • Content Marketing

  • Email Marketing

  • Engineering as Marketing

  • Targeting Blogs

  • Business Development

  • Sales

  • Affiliate Programs

  • Existing Platforms

  • Trade Shows

  • Offline Events

  • Speaking Engagements

  • Community Building


If a channel isn't getting you to your goal, then it's a waste of time. There's a five step process for optimizing your marketing process.


Step 1: Brainstorming

Come up with a bunch of different marketing ideas that use any of the 19 channels. Brainstorming works best when done in a group. Just list out everything imaginable.


Step 2: Rank

Then sort all the ideas into three columns: Inner Circle (most likely to work), Promising and Long-shot.


Step 3: Prioritizing

The next step is to critically re-think all of the ideas and sort the items in each column based on what you think has the best chance for success.


Step 4: Testing

Then it's time to test out the top three ideas in the Inner Circle column (most likely to succeed). Devise cheap tests and experiment with them each in parallel.


Step 5: Focusing

Once you have quantified results from testing, it's time to focus on the clear winner. If none of the marketing ideas succeed then go back to step one and repeat the process a little wiser.


That's the process Gabriel teaches in his new book Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. Testing your top three ideas at any given time is the best way to move forward. Focus on the best performing channel until it inevitably becomes saturated. And then start the process over, accelerating the loop as you continue to learn. 


This article is based on Gabriel Weinberg's talk given to the Philly Startup Leaders Bootcamp


And to learn how to make Traction happen for your business, here's the assignment from the Bootcamp, if you would like to follow along on your own:

  • In this assignment, you will learn how to think about getting traction. One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is treat traction as an after thought. This should be thought out before a product is built and should be continuously implemented and tested as the product is built.
  • Entrepreneurs are also often biased towards verticals they already know about. You only need one to work at a time so don’t cut yourself short by only thinking about the 2–3 that feel most comfortable to you. One of the other 16 might hold the key.

Format to complete assignment:

  • Click here.
  • Then go to File and down to Make a copy.
  • Share your copy with the rest of your team. Make sure they can edit it.
  • Note that there are different tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet.


  1. Decide your traction goal. THIS IS KEY!!!!
    • This number should mean you are financially stable. To be stable, this means you have enough revenue to cover costs for the team or enough traction to raise money.
      • Costs for team is basic living costs and company costs.
      • Number of users to raise money, look at the market. Look at other companies in your market and see how much users they had or guess.
  2. Complete the Brainstorm tab in the spreadsheet to the best of your knowledge.
    • Make sure you brainstorm each vertical. Search DuckDuckGo ;) about anything you don’t know.
    • These are educated guesses just to get started. Once again, search for anything you don’t know anything about.
  3. Comparing to your traction goal, rank each vertical into your inner circle, promising, and long shots in the Rank tab in the spreadsheet. Just name the verticals.
  4. Prioritize the Rank sheet into your Prioritize tab. Place your top three verticals into your inner circle. Your next into promising. And everything else into Long shots.
  5. Place your Inner circle into your Test tab. Although the Test tab is very similar to the Brainstorm tab, the Test tab nails down the specifics. No more educated guesses.
    • Run one set of tests for your top 3.
    • If you don’t have a product, get clever. A classic setup is to start a LaunchRock page and collect emails via mailchimp. All free. But once again get clever.
    • Test all three channels in parallel to find the best.
  6. Now it’s time to focus. Once you have found what works the best. It’s time to optimize.

Presentation Format:

Concisely present your process in a slide deck of no more than 5 slides

  • Slide 1 – Your idea – 1 to 2 sentences description
  • Slide 2 – What is your traction goal?
  • Slide 3 – What three channels in the ranking section made it into your inner circle
  • Slide 4 – What were your tests for each? What were you testing?
  • Slide 5 – Which performed the best?

View assignment here



Thanks to Gabriel and everyone on the team that made this possible.