The founder of the language learning app on monetizing and exploring TikTok to attract new users


Remember that early pandemic push to reshape our free hours with productive activities? To most of us, it seems distant.

This New Year’s enthusiasm for new hobbies faded as fatigue and horror of the situation set in, and is now replaced by a desire to return to normal life.

But even if the sourdoughs turn gray and damp in the fridge, while our yoga mats accumulate dust and the draft scenarios remain unfinished, the language learning app Duolingo is still seeing the positive effects of this motivational moment. .

“The pandemic brought uncertainty but also gave us time, and we all wanted something positive to do with this time,” said Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn.

“There is literally no harm in learning something new or relearning something while taking care of your sanity. “

In March of last year, the global number of new users more than doubled. The British seemed particularly eager to learn, with app use increasing five times faster here than in any other country. Duolingo now has 20 million downloads in the UK.

“The pandemic has been a huge boost for us, but we are already seeing a change in the way the UK is learning languages,” said Mr von Ahn.

“A lot more people are learning for brain training or culture and over a longer period of time, rather than trying to cram Spanish before the holidays. It continued.

Global growth has stabilized in recent months. The company’s latest financial results, released in August, show that monthly active users (MAUs) around the world fell 3% in the three months ending in late June of this year.

But daily active users (DAU) increased by 2%; for at least part of the user base, their commitment to learning a language has only intensified. And more importantly for the business, more and more of these people are becoming paid subscribers.

Duolingo’s basic app is free for everyone, but users can pay to join Duolingo Plus, which removes ads and adds extra features like progress quizzes. In the second quarter of this year, the number of people paying for these services jumped 46% to almost 2 million.

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It was music to the ears of its investors, after the company launched its shares on New York’s Nasdaq in July.

Duolingo has had a somewhat disgusted approach to making money with the app in the past, due to Mr. Von Ahn and his co-founder Severin Hacker’s belief that it should be free for everyone.

But with being a public company comes certain pressures – investor performance in the first place – as well as new responsibilities for the CEO.

“We keep pushing the Duolingo app forward and developing new products and features like our math app, but as a public company, you have to do things like meet investors and organize profit calls, which which is a new experience, ”Von Ahn said of the months since the IPO.

While the stock market may be new territory for the co-founder, he himself is certainly not inexperienced. Before founding Duolingo, the Guatemalan entrepreneur was part of the team that pioneered the use of CAPTCHA verification technology.

After selling two businesses to Google, he then co-founded Duolingo in 2009. The 43-year-old has always said that Duolingo should be available for free, and that “won’t change”.

“But to provide a better free product and more free courses, we have to monetize,” he says. “Duolingo Plus helps us do that. We regularly conduct user research and listen to our followers to understand how we can continue to add value to their Plus membership.

The majority of Duolingo’s revenue comes from Plus subscriptions, and it also makes money by advertising the free version of the app and its certification in English online.

But he’s exploring other areas as well, many of which look less like a way to make money and more like a way to enrich the learning experience and raise awareness of the Duolingo brand. These include its stable of podcasts, which currently exist for learners of Spanish, French and English. Mr. Von Ahn says there is more to come on the audio front, with the upcoming launch of audio courses for French and Spanish.

Then there’s Duo, the lime green cartoon owl who is the company’s mascot and logo. This little character has become something of a meme in its own right, due to the persistent notifications that users see on his face when they neglect their language learning.

This is something the company seeks to capitalize on. “We are testing how we can use platforms like TikTok to encourage learning,” says Von Ahn. “We’ve spent the past two years creating a group of characters alongside our nifty mascot Duo, and we’re exploring many exciting ways to use them and tell stories in the service of learning. “

This attention to entertainment is part of what has always made Duolingo attractive. To do it right, you have to focus, which means the app is in direct competition with social media, TV and of course video games.

This is why the app is gamified so that users can earn rewards and improve their ranking compared to other people online. Mr Von Ahn says this is key to keeping people engaged.

“The biggest obstacle to learning is losing motivation and not enjoying it. “

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