Education may well be the most important activity we conduct as a society — and it may also be the hardest space to build a startup in. Selling to school districts and universities is notoriously difficult, but enticing consumers is even harder. Learning takes focus, patience, tenacity and resources, and most consumers would prefer to watch some lip-sync videos on TikTok than stare at math equations (not to mention that such entertainment is free). Engagement and education feel aggressively at odds, which limits the way that startups can scale and succeed.
Yet, the revulsion VCs have traditionally had for the space has slowly dissipated over the past 10 years. Consumer and enterprise startups in edtech are increasingly attracting funding, and there is a growing crop of edtech-focused investors who are betting big on the future here. What’s changed isn’t the market or its potential, but rather the perception that ambitious and sustainable companies can truly be built in education.
One of the companies that has led the charge in transforming those perceptions is Pittsburgh-based Duolingo. It’s a language-learning app that has caught fire. From humble origins a decade ago as a translation platform for news agencies, it’s now used by 500 million people across the world to learn Spanish, English, French and more, all while generating bookings of $190 million in 2020. It’s a smashing success, but a success that was hard earned after a years-long effort of product and revenue experimentation to find its current niche.
TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Natasha Mascarenhas. Mascarenhas has been covering edtech from the very first day she joined TechCrunch as a venture capital and startups writer, and she has built up a reputation as a fearless chronicler of this increasingly vital ecosystem. The lead editor of this package was Danny Crichton, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.
Duolingo had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Mascarenhas has no financial ties to Duolingo or other conflicts of interest to disclose.
The Duolingo EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 12,200 words and a reading time of 48 minutes. Here’s what’s in store:
Part 1: Origin story “How a bot-fighting test turned into edtech’s most iconic brand, Duolingo” (3,300 words/13 minutes) — looks at how Guatemalan immigrant entrepreneur Luis von Ahn pivoted from fighting bot attacks on login screens with squiggly text to building one of edtech’s great success stories.
Part 2: Product-led growth strategy “The product-led growth behind edtech’s most downloaded app” (3,000 words/12 minutes) — analyzes the tactics and tradeoffs that an edtech company has to evaluate as it grows from thousands to 500 million registered learners.
Part 3: Monetization “How Duolingo became fluent in monetization” (2,800 words/11 minutes) — examines how Duolingo experimented with a variety of different business models to match its unique community, and why it chose subscription in the end.
Part 4: New initiatives and future outlook “Duolingo can’t teach you how to speak a language, but now it wants to try” (3,100 words/12 minutes) — explores how Duolingo is launching new business lines, their chances for success, and how the company is attempting to expand its main product from basic language fluency to mastery while adding speaking skills to the mix.
And finally, note that Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn is coming to Disrupt, so make sure to grab your tickets because the conversation will continue there.
We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at email@example.com.