5 Marketing Lessons from DuckDuckGo's CEO Gabriel Weinberg

Learn from others' failures. Test your concept. And never, ever give up.

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By Eric Siu

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The early days of any startup are often the most challenging, as gaining ground as an entrepreneur can be difficult without a proven track record of success.

Related: The Holy Grail of Startup Marketing: Search, Social and Content

Nobody knows this better than Gabriel Weinberg, founder of search engine company DuckDuckGo, whom I recently had the chance to interview. Weinberg told me how, in the early months of his comany, he faced a steep learning curve, though he would later go on to create a great business model. (He also wrote the book Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth, to guide other entrepreneurs in the early stages of their own journey.)

Here are five great marketing lessons Weinberg shared for startups actively trying to grow:

1. Establish customer acquisition goals.

All good entrepreneurs know they need to set goals before they can reach them. Unfortunately, far too many fail because the goals they set are either too vague, too unimportant or too big. Knowing which goals to set is one of the most important steps you need to take when running a business; in fact, this step is probably second only to developing a viable business concept.

In our interview, Weinberg said that one particular goal that every business needs to focus on is customer acquisition. You have set fixed costs that need to be covered, so it's important to generate a large enough customer base to surpass your break-even point. Tip: Conduct a profitability analysis and use that information to set an ambitious but realistic customer acquisition goal.

Related: How Shrewd Mobile Referral Programs Accelerate Customer Acquisition

2. Test your concept on real customers first.

Weinberg said that one of the most important things for new entrepreneurs to do is find people to actually use the product. Make sure that the users aren't friends or family members, because you'll need them to provide objective, actionable feedback (and believe me, your mom isn't going to want to hurt your feelings if she doesn't "get" your product!).

As Weinberg pointed out, your customers are the most valuable advisors your company will ever have. Tip: Take advantage of their feedback. It will be invaluable for the entirety of your business, so listen carefully and take what they say very seriously.

3. Create a strategy to meet your growth goals.

Creating a strategy to meet your goals is another part of running a startup that should sound obvious to any seasoned entrepreneur. However, when it comes to new businesses meeting their customer-acquisition targets, Weinberg said, there are a couple of mistakes they almost always get wrong:

  • They use only the same marketing channels that their competitors do
  • They fail to use proven channels that work.

This may sound contradictory, but it actually makes complete sense when you stop and think about it. There are many great approaches to marketing that your competitors probably aren't using. So, you can and should leverage them, but first you have to avoid getting tunnel vision. You have to make it a priority to find unique marketing channels to grow your customer base.

You should also invest heavily in the channels that work -- whether or not they're being used elsewhere. Tip: Create a clear growth strategy by incorporating data from both competitor research and your own trial-and-error efforts.

4. Learn from failed startups.

The failure rate for new startups is estimated to be as high as 90 percent. Many startups fail while they're growing for a variety of factors, such as poor cash flow management.

Rather than becoming discouraged by the dismal statistics, however, you should try to learn from these failed companies' experiences. Weinberg recommends checking out AngelList and Crunchbase to find a list of businesses in your industry. Tip: Reach out to the investors who funded these failed startups in order to learn what mistakes were made. Developing an awareness of what went wrong is one of the best ways to set your business on the right track.

5. Don't give up too early.

Weinberg said that one of the biggest mistakes many entrepreneurs make is deciding to give up on their idea too early. These entrepreneurs essentially failed before they ever launched their business because they were never fully dedicated to their business in the first place.

Tip: If you're confident that you have a great business idea, then do everything possible to see it through. Stumbling blocks along the way are inevitable, but you'll be able to overcome them if you can persevere.

If you want to learn even more about Weinberg's success, check out our full conversation here:

Or, if you've got another key takeaway to share from the video, post it in a comment below:

Related: Testing, Testing: Is There a Market for My Product?

Eric Siu

CEO, Single Grain. Founder, Growth Everywhere.

Eric Siu is the CEO of digital marketing agency Single Grain. Single Grain has worked with companies such as Amazon, Uber and Salesforce to help them acquire more customers. He also hosts two podcasts: Marketing School with Neil Patel and Growth Everywhere, an entrepreneurial podcast where he dissects growth levers that help businesses scale. 


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