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When they were young

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When Duolingo was young: the early years

Duolingo started as an academic project at Carnegie Mellon, had 3 million users a year after launch

Innovation series by Steven Loeb
June 22, 2018
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/4baf

As our readers know, Vator has started a series called When they were young.

It's a look back at the modest days of startups, what traction they had in their first few years, and how they evolved. In the end, we hope to provide a glimpse into what great startups looked like in their first few years.

Stories like these are always well received because it reminds us that anyone, regardless of pedigree and environment, can rise above the noise and have great influence. They show us the value of being resilient, persistent, and committed. If we can follow their footsteps, maybe we too can have similar success.

This segment is on Duolingo.

— Duolingo's First Year —

Founders (age at the time): Luis von Ahn, (31); Severin Hacker (25). Ahn is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Hacker was his graduate student at the time.

Founded: The idea for Duolingo comes after von Ahn's company, reCAPTCHA, is bought by Google in September 2009. 

Initial company description: "The whole thing started as an academic project at Carnegie Mellon between me and my PhD student Severin Hacker. I had just sold my second company to Google, and we both wanted to work on something related to education. Education is very general, so we decided to concentrate on one kind that is in huge demand everywhere (except the US): language education," von Ahn writes on Quora in 2016.

Duolingo is originally meant to primarily be accessed via the web, with a mobile app as a special feature.

Domain registration, four months from founding: On January 26, 2010, the Duolingo.com domain is registered.

 

— Duolingo's Second Year —

Press coverage, at one year and five months from founding: In April 2011, Duolingo is given a full write up by TechCrunch, in which the publication speculates about Duolingo eventually being acquired by Google as well.

“The solution was to transform language translation into something that millions of people WANT to do, and that helps with the problem of lack of bilinguals: language education,” von Ahn says. 

"It is estimated that there are over 1 billion people learning a foreign language. So, the site that we’ve been working on, Duolingo, will be a 100% free language learning site in which people learn by helping to translate the Web. That is, they learn by doing."

 

— Duolingo's Third Year —

Incorporation, at two years and one month from founding: In October 2011, Duolingo is incorporated in Pennsylvania.

First funding, at two years and one month from founding: In October 2011, Duolingo raises $3.3 million from Union Square Ventures, Ashton Kutcher and Timothy Ferriss.

Private beta, at two years and two months from founding: Duolingo starts its private beta on November 30, 2011. Over 300,000 people sign up, thanks to a TED talk that von Ahn gives at the time, which is viewed by more than one million people.

Launch, at two years and 10 months from founding: On June 19, 2012, Duolingo launches to the general public. It is originally available in English, Spanish, French and German.

 

— Duolingo's Fourth Year —

Second funding, at three years from founding, three months from launch: In September 2012, Duolingo raises $15 million from New Enterprise Associates, with Union Square Ventures participating. 

Traction, at three years from founding, three months from launch: Duolingo has 250,000 active users per week, with around 20 percent coming from Latin America. 

Languages, at three years and one month from founding, four months from launch: In October 2012, Duolingo adds support for Italian.

Platform expansion, at three years and two months from founding, five months from launch: In November 2012, Duolingo launches its iPhone app

Platform expansion, at three years and eight months from founding, 11 months from launch: In May 2013, Duolingo launches its Android app

Traction at three years and eight months from founding, 11 months from launch: In May 2013, Duolingo has roughly 3 million users.

Traction, at three years and nine months from founding, one year from launch: In June 2013, Duolingo has 4 million users.

Traction, at three years and 10 months from founding, one year and one month from launch: In July 2013, Duolingo has 5 million users.

 

— Duolingo's Fifth Year —

Platform expansion, at four years from founding, one year and four months from launch: In October 2013, Duolingo launches its incubator to allow users to add their own languages and lessons to the platform. 

Traction,  at four years and one month from founding, one year and five months from launch: In October 2013, Duolingo has 10 million users.

Languages, at four years and one month from founding, one year and five months from launch: In October 2013, Duolingo adds its sixth language, Portugese. 

Customers, at four years and one month from founding, one year and five months from launch: In October 2013, Duolingo begins translating international content for CNN and BuzzFeed. 

"Social is increasingly global so building new audiences who speak different languages, and helping spread that language at the same time, is a natural expansion for BuzzFeed. We're so thrilled to be working with Luis and Duolingo to power this international experiment," Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed Founder & CEO, says in a statement.

Traction, at four years and two months from founding, one year and six months from launch: In November 2013, Duolingo has 15 million users. 

Awards, at four years and three months from founding, one year and seven months from launch: In December 2013, Duolingo is awarded App of the Year 2013 by Apple.

Traction, at four years and three months from founding, one year and seven months from launch: In December 2013, Duolingo has been downloaded 10 million times.

Product, at four years and three months from founding, one year and seven months from launch: In December 2014, Duolingo introduces The Coach, a motivational and goal-tracking feature. 

Image result for Duolingo coachLanguages, at four years and four months from founding, two years and right months from launch: In January 2014, Duolingo adds support for Polish, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian, and Turkish speakers to learn English. 

Awards, at four years and four months from founding, one year and nine months from launch: In February 2014, Duolingo wins “Best Education Startup” at the Crunchies Awards.

Third funding, at four years and five months from founding, two years and nine months from launch: In February 2014, Duolingo raises $20 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Traction, at four years and five months from founding, two years and nine months from launch: In February 2014, Duolingo has 20 million users and over 10 million active users. 

Languages, at four years and five months from founding, two years and nine months from launch: Duolingo is available in 18 languages.

Traction, at four years and nine months from founding, three years from launch: In June 2014, Duolingo reaches 30 million users. 

 

— Duolingo Today —

Duolingo now has 68 different language courses across 28 languages. The app has roughly 200 million registered.

The company has raised $108.3 million, including a $25 million round in July 2017 that valued it at $700 million.


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