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Latino 'Genius' Grew Language-Learning App Duolingo to 150M Users

Luis Von Ahn, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur "Genius" grant, has created a free language app that is transforming millions of lives.
Luis Von Ahn, creator of Duolingo.
Luis Von Ahn, creator of Duolingo.Wikimedia / Duolingo
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Ask Luis Von Ahn why he decided to become an entrepreneur and he will tell you that the career actually chose him. When he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon in 2005, he developed a program that websites could use to distinguish humans from robots. CAPTCHA became so popular that school officials urged Von Ahn to turn the program into something more.

"At some point the university was kicking the project out because it had too many users and they just said, 'You can't be in the university, you have to do something about it,'" he says. "I had to turn it into a company."

In 2006, he received a prestigious six-figure MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the "Genius Grant," which also recognized his work with CAPTCHA. In 2011, when, the entrepreneur estimates, his CAPTCHA system was digitizing two-and-a-half million books a year, he launched his new initiative, the free tool for language learners, Duolingo.

Gina Gotthilf, Duolingo's VP of Growth, President Barack Obama, and Luis Von Ahn, creator of Duolingo.Dennis Brack / Dennis Brack / Reuters

Though he never planned for entrepreneurship to be his career path, Von Ahn does appreciate the fortuity. He came from a family of business people. In Guatemala, his parents owned one of the largest candy producers in the country, Tropical Candy.

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Today, there are 1.2 billion people around the world learning a new language and 150 million of them, aged seven to 95, are now using Von Ahn's website Duolingo to do that learning for free.

Luis Von Ahn, creator of Duolingo.Wikimedia / Duolingo

"I hadn't thought to spend time on how to organize all the people," he says.

Proper management has become increasingly important at Duolingo.

3. Hiring the right people

As most companies do, Duolingo started small.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Von Ahn says he made early on was making the wrong hires, and choosing inexperienced people. Employees were expected to assume different roles and recent graduates were tapped even though they sometimes lacked the proper background for their roles.

Ultimately, he learned that choosing individuals with the right experiences and skills was crucial.

Making mistakes, the entrepreneur says, is the way that he gained the skills he needed to grow the company. And Duolingo does keep expanding, as well as launching new features. Its latest? Chat bots to help users practice a new language using artificial intelligence.

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