He started his first company at MIT: a portal for teachers to put lesson plans online. He was too early. He failed. While living in Boston, he started another company after graduating: a database where users could submit their e-mail addresses and other people could pay to get in touch with them. It was called NamesDatabase. (“I’ve never been that good with names,” Weinberg says.) NamesDatabase did not fail. In 2006, he sold it to Classmates.com for $10 million.
Weinberg was a millionaire in his 20s. He had recently married. This gave him and his bride options. One was: Where did they want to live? They did not want to live in a big city. They wanted to have children and send them to a diverse school system. They wanted to be sort of near the country. They settled near Paoli, about 30 miles from Philadelphia and within walking distance of Valley Forge National Park. They have two kids, ages 31
2 and 18 months, and next to his desk, covered with monitors, there is an area with toys so they can play while he codes.
He has been in Silicon Valley just one day in the past 12 years. He never appears at big tech conferences.
“The problem I have with that kind of lifestyle is that it’s not very family-oriented,” he said. “It’s never been my goal to be Mark Zuckerberg. My goal has always been to do something interesting and unique.”
Weinberg started DuckDuckGo while his wife worked and he captained the house. The company was based at home until last year, when he raised money from Union Square. He is joined at his new office — in the office that looks like a castle — by several coders, one of whom brings his dog, Hex.
DuckDuckGo’s office differs from flashier start-up offices in that there is no fancy Fiji bottled water. Weinberg serves Costco water. “I’ve always been pretty cheap,” he said. “We’re pretty practical around here.”
The model: ‘Stay lean’
Practicality. That’s what Weinberg was after when he started DuckDuckGo. He wanted to build a search engine that people could use quickly and purely. He wanted to focus especially on the first two or three results that users saw, but he didn’t have a lot of manpower to build a search engine from scratch. Weinberg decided to use publicly available search results from Yahoo — which is now fueled by Bing — for the bulk of his searches and use his programming talents to curate the top few links. He wanted those links to provide answers.
Going to Google and typing “calories in a banana” will produce a page of links about bananas. Going to DuckDuckGo and typing “calories in a banana” will produce an answer: 105. The answer comes from WolframAlphra, a computational database that Weinberg linked to DuckDuckGo.
He has linked hundreds of millions of popular searches to other outside data sources, such as Wikipedia and Yelp. Searching for “irritable bowel syndrome” on Google produces three ads as the top three links. The same search on DuckDuckGo produces three links about the disease from Wikipedia.
“If you can control the top three links, you’re actually controlling 80 to 90 percent of searches,” he said.