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How Duolingo’s CEO Keeps Innovating

Luis von Ahn, the creator of reCaptcha and CEO of Duolingo, has big plans for his language-learning app: literacy for all.

How Duolingo’s CEO Keeps Innovating
MCP Alumni: Luis von Ahn [Photo: Cait Opperman]

Luis von Ahn, MCP 2010
Then: CEO, reCaptcha
Now: CEO, Duolingo

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Luis von Ahn has always been passionate about ­education, so the Carnegie Mellon computer-science professor decided to start a business that would teach people something. Von Ahn had previously helped invent ­Captcha, the ubiquitous sign-in software that makes you enter a bunch of wavy letters, and in 2007 he created ­reCaptcha, which taps Captcha users to digitize scanned texts that computers struggle to decipher (Google bought the technology in 2009).

In 2012, von Ahn launched Duolingo, ­language-teaching software that now has some 50 million users. “Most people learning a language are trying to get out of poverty,” he says. “But most ways to learn were very ­expensive. The idea was to teach languages for free.”

But Duolingo is a business, and von Ahn needed a way to monetize it. So he adapted the crowdsourced-content idea that powers reCaptcha, and now Duo­linguists are translating texts for CNN and BuzzFeed (which pay Duo­lingo) while navigating the app. It’s a clever solution: Users create value by doing something they’d be doing anyway. “This is the magical thing,” says von Ahn. “Something comes out of nothing.”

Von Ahn is now thinking about expanding ­Duo­lingo into areas like ­literacy. “The ­educational system worldwide is pretty broken,” says the Guatemala native, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2006. “There’s [a huge number of] adults in the world who don’t know how to read and write. I think we can help fix that. It’s not easy. But we want to do it.”


What He’s Learned

Von Ahn looks back on the time since he was on the list in 2010.

Best development of the last four years. “Growing access to smartphones. That’s going to allow us to improve people’s lives. Now you can reach [underprivileged people] with content that can help with health, education, all kinds of things.”

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Worst development. “The NSA snooping on everybody. To me, the biggest problem is that this is going to slow down progress. If consumers were not as freaked out, [data] could be used for good. But there is a lot of mistrust, and rightly so.”

Advice he’d give himself if he could go back to 2010. “Develop for mobile. We thought Duolingo would be a website only. It took a long time to figure out that mobile is way more important. I did not realize how prevalent it was going to become.”

How He Stays Productive

Exercise makes you focus. “I try to work out every single day. I run at an extremely high speed for 12 minutes. Because I run so fast—10 miles an hour—I can’t think about anything. It helps clear my mind.”

Don’t get distracted by drawn-out interactions. “Over the past couple of years I’ve started trying to keep meetings very short. A great trick is not to sit. If the other person’s sitting, that’s fine, but I won’t. Gotta go. I’ve gotta go!”