Duolingo: The App that Changed Education

How a Guatemalan founder built a $6.5 billion company

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Hey friends 👋 ,

Happy Monday and welcome to Through the Noise!

We're coming to the end of month 2 building Tribescaler (time flies 🤯). I'm looking forward to sharing with you our second monthly update next Monday. But for now, we just rolled out our discord server. Come and say hi if you're curious to join the community as we build your personal writing assistant.

In the meantime, we're diving into the story of Duolingo. A tale that has fascinated me this last week from its beginnings in Guatemala to a $6.5 billion education enterprise.

It’s time to strap in and enjoy.

Read time: 3 minutes

Duolingo: The App that Changed Education

Luis von Ahn grew up in Guatemala. His fascination with technology began at 8 years old when his mother bought him a Commodore 64 computer. In 1996 he attended Duke University with $0 to his name. By the time he turned 24, he was already a millionaire several times over.

Luis' original goal was to become a math professor after graduating. But he wanted to tackle new challenges. So in 2000 he was accepted to a PhD program in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. This was where he developed a skill for building profitable businesses.

In 2003 Google bought his first business for $2 million which helped improve the accuracy of Google Image Search. In 2006 he landed on his next big idea. CAPTCHA. When you're checking out to buy tickets to your favourite artist? Yep. Luis made that. And another exit to Google.

So where did the 'aha' moment come for Duolingo? In 2010 Luis and his graduate student Severin Hacker began to develop a language learning platform. They noticed that computers were getting smart... fast. So they decided to make the computer the teacher, instead of a person.

Both Luis and Severin saw technology as a way to democratise education. It doesn't cost you that much more to teach many people than to teach just one person. So the pair decided to teach everyone... for free.

In 2012 Luis reached out to Union Square Ventures (USV) and secured a cheque for $3 million. Around that time, he gave a TED talk and mentioned a cool education app at the end. That talk went viral.

At the time Duolingo was just a landing page with an email capture. This transformed to a waiting list with over 300,000 names. Rosetta Stone was about to be disrupted.

In total, Luis raised $183 million from the viral interest and his track record. For the next three years there was a singular focus on growing out Duolingo's user base. Luis didn't even think about monetisation.

In 2017 they had 10 million active users. But needed to build a business model that made money. A combo of ads + subscription worked like a charm. The number one factor of Duolingo's success is it feels like playing a game.

Duolingo has over 1 million daily active users who have a streak over 365 days. That's 1 million people who've been using the app every day for the last year. The gamification of education makes learning fun.

Luis' desire to learn not what to think but how to think led to a resounding success. Duolingo IPOd in July of 2021. The best part– most of his original team are still on board. His employee centric approach to running a company puts Duolingo in a category of its own.

So what can we learn?

  1. Recognise trends: Luis and Severin recognised the need for an education revolution to disrupt Rosetta Stone. Democratising access to language learning for free.

  2. Capture culture: Game of Thrones tailwinds. That simple!

3. Make learning feel like a game: The gamification of language learning removes the friction of getting started. Use game levels to break down problem solving.

A Little Something Extra

  • Alex's Pick: Good or bad, beautiful or tragic, this too shall pass.

  • 🗞 Time Billionaires: My friend Aadit Sheth writes snappy insights on what a young internet nerd discovers each week to 14,000 people — products, trends, online businesses, and growth hacks.

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That’s all for today friends!

As always feel free to reply to this email or reach out @thealexbanks as I’d love to hear your feedback.

Thanks for reading and I’ll catch you next Monday.


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