Founders Parade

Duolingo – Luis van Ahn

As an investor I believe many of the startups using free and freemium models aren’t finding the success they thought they’d find so I wanted to explore Duolingo’s model.

  • Luis von AhnLuis van Ahn is Co-Founder and CEO as well as a professor at Carnegie Melon
  • Company – DuoLingo
  • Duolingo is a dual language learning and text translation service. The company offers language instruction for free by leveraging crowdsourced translation – users create and vote on the best translations – the company offers a free service while generating income by selling the translated webpages. The service is available on the web, iOS and Android in several languages including Spanish, French and German. Apple choose Duolingo as its iPhone App of the Year, a first for an education app.
  • Luis is currently an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon with a PhD in computer science. His thesis focused on Human Computation (crowdsourcing) and his latest company reflects this interest. In between his university work Luis was also a research scientist at Google. He has already had two successful projects, The ESP Game – Google Image Labeler  and reCAPTCHA, both acquired by Google so his ability to design, develop and deliver in the entrepreneurial world is well established. Luis has the extensive research, publishing and speaking skills to direct this company. It is unclear if he has the business background and experience to run a company long term or if he will sell and move on, more interested in research, ideas and problem solving than creating and running a business.
  • I do believe Duolingo’s model to monetize the work of their “language-learners” is effective. They have met with success with major investments as well as contracts to sell translations to CNN and BuzzFeed.
  • The CTO is Severin Hacker who recently graduated with a PhD. There is limited information about Severin. He worked with Luis at Carnigie Mellon and developed their idea for Duolingo there. Duolingo’s team is quite extensive including community, design, engineering, finance, language experts and marketing. One would assume having sold two companies previously Luis has the money to properly finance his business idea and build a team to develop the product and move it forward as a business.

In my opinion Luis Von Ahn is inspiring in the way that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerman are inspiring. They are geniuses that have the potential to change the way we live and work through technology.

“I am working to develop a new area of computer science that I call Human Computation. In particular, I build systems that combine the intelligence of humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone.”

As a “mom & pop” entrepreneur I am more personally inspired by my friends Nora (EBLI) and Ed  (Helping Boys Learn). As David Heinemeire Hansson says in his video – a million dollars is still a lot of money. The chances of creating the next Twitter is remote. But success need to be defined by a multi-million dollar buyout or millions in sales.

This letter (How to Succeed in EdTech) from the founders of Wikispaces, James Byers and Adam Frey, say it all for me as an entrepreneur. “We define success in ed-tech as building a sustainable company that improves student outcomes, empowers teachers, and increases the reach and efficiency of educational institutions.” In their post they talk about the 10 year process to success. This, I think, is a more realistic approach to the current “startup” mentality .



Leave a Reply