Luis von Ahn was a curious kid. He spent weekends exploring his parents’ candy factory in Guatemala, sifting through the machinery and trying to understand how it all worked. He occasionally got into trouble for breaking things, but now describes it as a "great, complex playground."
Years later, von Ahn has started a few hugely successful companies, including CAPTCHA and Duolingo, the video game-esque language-learning app that’s exploded over the past year and recently raised a fresh $20 million in funding. Von Ahn says his secret to success is his candy-factory sense of wonder, which in the business can give him the gumption to take leaps of faith that might otherwise feel impossible.
Luis admits that Duolingo was far from a safe bet. While growing up in Guatemala, he saw firsthand how people struggled to learn English. Rosetta Stone and similarly pricey products seemed inadequate in addressing this demand: millions of poor people who want to learn English to get a job. Von Ahn set out to fix this, but faced one heavy roadblock to launching a business: He wanted the product to be completely free. (Traditionally, language-learning software is some of the most expensive stuff in the app stores.)
"It was kind of a long shot, but I thought if it worked out it would be awesome, so I went for it," says von Ahn. "The biggest thing was taking a leap of faith, and not worrying too much about the business model."
He attributes much of his success as an entrepreneur to youth—or at least a young attitude. "It’s useful to be young because you’re pretty clueless, so you try things that more experienced people wouldn’t try. It works better if it’s a free-for-all."
Von Ahn says it’s mentality, and not necessarily age, that makes the difference. "When just starting out, it’s good to not have the mindset they teach you in an MBA program."
The biggest "happy mistake" von Ahn made? Creating a mobile app at all. His initial plan was to build a website for language education, and that’s what his team of engineers set out to build. Luis decided to add a mobile app on a whim, expecting it to be an extra feature for the core product. The "extra feature" caught on. Now, 80% of Duolingo’s 25 million users are coming from mobile, so many that Apple named Duolingo free iPhone App of the year for 2013.
"That was all completely unexpected," says von Ahn.
But how exactly did Duolingo charm mobile users so well? For one, the app stands out from the Rosetta Stone crowd not only because it’s free, but also because it's addictive. Duolingo, along with other gamified language apps, offers sleek interfaces and timed language challenges, all the while tracking scores alongside your Facebook friends. As users successfully move up levels, they earn "lingots," Duolingo’s virtual currency, with which they can buy "power-ups," such as regaining a heart (point) lost during a lesson. (Below, some of the gamification graphics.)
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It’s a far cry from the usual lengthy conjugation tables and vocabulary quizzes of a traditional language course. Von Ahn says Candy Crush is his biggest competitor, not language businesses.
The gaming blueprint was another happy accident. When Duolingo first launched, Luis tried to use it to learn Portuguese. He struggled to stay motivated, so he experimented with adding little incentives, such as new levels and badges, to make it more fun. He never anticipated that would become the main draw for users.
"When I asked people why they like Duolingo, I thought they would say: ‘I’ve always wanted to learn French,’" says von Ahn. But the most common response he gets: "It’s fun, and at least I’m not wasting my time by playing Candy Crush."
Duolingo currently offers training in six languages: English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and German. The U.S. is its largest market: 7.5 million Americans are using Duolingo, followed by Brazil, with 2.4 million users, and then Mexico at 1.5 million.
Offering a free language service remains von Ahn’s most fervent mission. "We want to be free, period," Luis says. "That’s the one constraint."
He also doesn’t advertise, and has no plans to. So how will Duolingo ever make revenue, without user fees or advertising?
As of September 2013, Duolingo began translating content for BuzzFeed. That’s right. Brazilian children learning English on their phones are actually translating sentences from those "16 Best Sandwiches of 2013" lists. Or conversely, when someone takes a BuzzFeed quiz, they’re sponsoring language education for 25 million people across the world.
"Duolingo gave us a way to translate a ton of posts very quickly, so the scale was the initial attraction," says Scott Lamb, vice president of international at BuzzFeed. Lamb also says that Duolingo’s approach drew them in: "The idea itself really spoke to us."
Right now, BuzzFeed has launched three foreign language verticals: French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Lamb says the content being translated ranges across different sections of the website, but is skewed more toward entertainment content. Still, editors intervene to ensure the translations make sense. "If a post makes a lot of jokes about '90s TV characters in the U.S., that’s not going to fly in Latin America, because no one knows who Joey from Full House is," he says.
So what’s ahead for Luis’s games? He’s working on another "stupid" idea: certifications. He plans to begin offering Duolingo certificates for aptitude in a language, similar to formal testing services such as the TOEFL or IELTS. But von Ahn plans to offer it for $20, rather than the $210 fee for a TOEFL exam, in another attempt at reaching lower-income groups.
Mike Boyle, educator and author of several English-language textbooks, calls this plan "a big dream."
Boyle says the certificate industry is already crowded, and even at a lower price, those who don’t own a smartphone will be shut out. "The obvious criticism is it’s a smartphone app. In order to use it, you need to own an expensive machine."
It’s yet to be seen whether Duolingo certificates will be able to compete with other language exams. But Duolingo’s enormous success so far is undeniable. And Luis von Ahn attributes his greatest triumphs to experimentation, not spreadsheet analysis.
"It used to be that if you start a restaurant, you have to think about how to sell your food," says von Ahn. "But things are different now. Even if you have no clear business model, the ones that find something that people really want and solve a problem will be the most successful."