Duolingo: Setting the Bar for Start-ups in the Steel City
Licorne. Enhörning. Jednorożec.
It’s a term used in the venture capital industry to describe a privately held startup company valued at $1 billion or more. Pennsylvania’s own Duolingo recently reached unicorn status after a $30 million investment from CapitalG, Alphabet’s growth equity investment fund, making it Pittsburgh’s first venture capital-funded tech start-up company to join an elite group of unicorn companies.
Duolingo is a language app that changes the way we learn languages today. The free app is packed with interactive tools that millions of users from all backgrounds can use.
Located in the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Duolingo launched in June of 2012 and is now the world’s most popular language-learning platform, offering 94 total courses across 38 distinct languages, including smaller, endangered languages like Hawaiian and Navajo, serving more than 300 million total learners worldwide.
“We started Duolingo with the mission of making education free and accessible to everybody, and I’m very proud that we’ve now also built a strong business,” – CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn.
To keep Duolingo free for users, the company began monetization nearly three years ago using two strategies: showing short ads at the end of each lesson and offering a premium subscription option, Duolingo Plus, an ad-free experience in which users can download lessons for offline use and access additional premium features.
Since then, the company has seen impressive growth, but remains committed to its roots. Duolingo is heavily invested in Pittsburgh, initially starting out of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and currently employing many local university graduates and Pittsburgh locals.
“Pittsburgh’s tech industry has grown significantly over the past several years, and I am proud that Duolingo’s roots are here. I hope this milestone is something that Pittsburgh is proud of too, as a symbol of this city’s renewal and resurgence as a great place to start a business and a great place to live. Being the first start-up from Pittsburgh to reach a valuation of more than $1 billion is quite an honor, and above all, it’s a testament to the hard work that our team has done to build Duolingo into the company it is today.” – CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn.
Currently, Duolingo has just over 200 total employees and has also recently opened offices in New York City, Seattle, and Beijing. The company plans to grow its headcount by 50 percent to around 300 employees in 2020.
Recruiting talent can sometimes be a headache, but Duolingo is working to attract new talent from across the country, posting billboards in the Silicon Valley encouraging workers to relocate to the area using taglines like, “Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh.”
Recruiting talent to Pennsylvania from the Silicon Valley, an area widely known for its tech-savvy companies, is a win-win for Duolingo.
Despite reaching unicorn status, the day-to-day operations at Duolingo will continue unchanged. The company plans for continued investment into research and development to improve how effective Duolingo is at teaching languages, and invest in new technologies like AI and machine learning that help improve the app and scale it to more languages and more learners. The company also plans to invest in promising new initiatives like the Duolingo English Test and Duolingo Podcasts, as well as continued growth and expansion of their team.
The company notes that making a great, free product that people tell their friends about has proven to be a successful marketing strategy to date and has helped their operations grow by leaps and bounds. No matter what the future holds for Duolingo, the company’s investment in and commitment to Pennsylvania has served as a guiding light for other start-ups, helping make the Steel City a national leader in tech and innovation.
So, felicitations. Grattis. Gratulacje.
Congratulations, Duolingo, for the success you’ve had, the individuals you’re helping, and the huge milestone you’ve reached. You make us #PAProud!
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Steve D’Ettorre serves as the Deputy Secretary of Technology & Innovation for the PA Department of Community and Economic Development, where he focuses on supporting technology-based economic development, engaging with universities, encouraging the growth of Pennsylvania’s small businesses, working to further support the life sciences industry, and addressing the issues of “brain drain” in the commonwealth. Steve previously served as Policy Director at DCED where worked on the development and execution of several of Governor Wolf’s initiatives, including Restore PA, the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, and the Middle-Class Task Force. He also served DCED’s primary point of contact on public-facing issues such as automated vehicles.