How Duolingo became a $2.4B language unicorn – TechCrunch

by Jeremy

At the heart of Duolingo is its mission: to scale-free education and increase income potential through language learning. However, the same mission that has helped it grow to a business valued at $2.4 billion with over 500 million registered learners has led to tensions that define the company.

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How do you survive as a startup if you don’t want to charge users? How do you design a startup that isn’t too hard to lose people but isn’t too easy to compromise education? How do you balance monetization goals while also keeping education product-free? For my first EC-1, I spent months with Duolingo executives, investors, and competitors to answer some of these questions.

One of my favorite details in the story that got left on the cutting room floor was Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn comparing his company to the elliptical. I was pressing him on the efficacy of Duolingo and the long-standing critique that it still can’t teach a user how to speak a language fluently.

“Now, there’s a difference between whether you know you’re doing the elliptical or yoga or running, but by far, the most important thing is that you’re doing something [other than] just walking around,” he said.

What von Ahn is getting at is that Duolingo’s biggest value proposition is that it helps people get motivated to learn a language, even if it’s just five minutes — or an elliptical workout — a day. He thinks motivation is more complicated than learning itself. Do you agree?

If you enjoyed my series, check out other EC-1s and subscribe to ExtraCrunch to support me, this newsletter, and the rest of the team. I’d also love it if you followed me on Twitter @nmasc_.

In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll talk about Tesla, the morality of going public and verticalized telehealth.

There’s always a Tesla angle.

While we all prepare for Elon Musk to grace the SNL stage, there’s a story you might want to check out. When I worked in Boston, the newsroom said, “There’s always a Boston Angle.” I’ll tweak it in a small, tech-dominated world: There’s always a Tesla angle. Here’s what to know: Tesla tapped a small Canadian startup to build cleaner and cheaper batteries. The price tag will shock you, but the story tells a bigger narrative about patented technolog, and the outsized impactof a tiny startups on Tesla’s route to batteries.

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