“Whenever somebody asks you to do something a long time from now, change the framing and say, ‘What if it was tomorrow? Would you want to do this or not?’ Almost invariably, the answer is, ‘No, I definitely don’t want to do this tomorrow.’ And then you should answer based on that.”— Luis von Ahn
Luis von Ahn (@LuisvonAhn) is an entrepreneur and consulting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who is considered one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing. He is known for co-inventing CAPTCHAs, being a MacArthur fellow, and selling two companies to Google in his twenties.
He is currently the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, a language-learning platform created to bring free language education to the world. With more than 500 million users, it is now the most popular language-learning platform and the most downloaded education app in the world.
Luis has been named one of the Brilliant 10 by Popular Science, one of the 50 Best Brains in Science by Discover, one of the Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review, and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company. Luis also won the 2018 Lemelson-MIT prize, the largest cash prize for invention in the U.S.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can also watch the interview on YouTube here.
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Want to hear the last time Luis von Ahn was on this show? Have a listen to our conversation here, in which we discuss why Luis left Google before his vesting phase was complete, the pros and cons of running a tech company, Duolingo’s evolving business model, how Duolingo compares to college instruction, how Luis vets and recruits computer science engineers, entrepreneurial resources, and much more.
What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.
SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Luis von Ahn:
- The Free, Fun, and Effective Way to Learn a Language | Duolingo
- Duolingo Is Now a Public Company! | Duolingo Blog
- Alphabet’s Independent Growth Fund | CapitalG
- Good Food | Kelly’s Bar and Lounge
- Coca-Cola #AmericaIsBeautiful 2014 Olympics Commercial | Cause Marketing
- The Top Idea in Your Mind | Paul Graham
- Carnegie Mellon University
- reCAPTCHA | Wikipedia
- Google Translate
- How K-Pop Became a Global Phenomenon | Vox
- Squid Game | Netflix
- Parasite (2019) | IMDb
- Gangnam Style | Psy
- Enter the Arena | Clash Royale
- Organizational Chart | Wikipedia
- Longest Duolingo Streak of 2022 | Techzillo
- Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel | Amazon
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz | Amazon
- High Output Management by Andy Grove | Amazon
- Guatemala | Amnesty International
- Oral-B iO Series 9 Electric Toothbrush | Amazon
- TOTO Neorest NX1 | Amazon
- Layla Kapok Pillow | Amazon
- The (Urban) Legend of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Story | Open Culture
- Evil Duolingo Owl | Know Your Meme
- The Most Successful Email I Ever Wrote | Derek Sivers
- Office Space | Prime Video
- Duolingo’s Values: A Letter from Our CEO | Duolingo Blog
- Can You Pass the World’s Shortest IQ Test? | Reader’s Digest
- What “Going Public” Means | Investopedia
- What Does a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Do? | Investopedia
- Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You by John Warrillow | Amazon
- Investor Relations | Duolingo, Inc.
- WeCrashed | Apple TV+
- Learning to Read Is Hard. We Made It Fun! | Duolingo ABC
- Join the Waitlist to Test Our New Math App! | Duolingo Math
- Mathemagics: How to Look Like a Genius Without Really Trying by Arthur Benjamin and Michael Brant Shermer | Amazon
- How to Multiply by 11 | Mind Your Decisions
- Duolingo English Test
- Muscle Milk | Amazon
- North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) | United States Trade Representative
- Guatemala: Attorney General’s Reappointment Threatens Anti-corruption Efforts and Civic Space | Transparency International
- What Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Movement Can Learn from the Past | United States Institute of Peace
- The Exile of Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Efforts | The New Yorker
- [05:03] Why the Duolingo owl is green
- [06:47] The core cause behind Duolingo’s creation, and how Duolingo has evolved over the years
- [12:48] Duolingo’s monetization efforts that didn’t quite pan out
- [21:06] After initial reluctance, how was the Duolingo workforce convinced monetization needed to happen?
- [25:06] As machine-driven translation services get more sophisticated, will human beings still seek to learn other languages via Duolingo?
- [29:31] The most pursued/influential languages in the Duolingo system currently
- [39:14] The development of Duolingo’s org chart
- [45:40] Why Duolingo uses a daily metric
- [48:33] Book recommendations
- [50:26] Luis’ most worthwhile investments
- [52:20] New beliefs, behaviors, or habits
- [55:20] Recent life-changing purchases
- [1:02:39] What Luis’ updated 2022 billboard might say
- [1:06:14] What Luis means when he refers to Duolingo’s “mission,” and how the company’s long view affects decision making
- [1:12:34] How Duolingo hires good candidates for the long haul
- [1:18:50] Why and how Duolingo went public
- [1:25:42] The biggest challenges Luis faces as CEO of a public company
- [1:30:50] Duolingo is expanding to teach more than languages
- [1:36:18] The Duolingo English Test: proficiency testing from home accepted by 4,200 academic programs across the world
- [1:39:51] How Luis’ expertise at catching cheaters during his time as a professor at Carnegie Mellon makes Duolingo products more trustworthy as accredited sources
- [1:43:39] The brief conversation with Luis’ personal trainer that changed his routine breakfast — to a different routine breakfast
- [1:44:38] Advice to young, driven people entering the working world
- [1:48:07] How Luis has become better at saying “No.”
- [1:49:56] Luis’ request of the audience and parting thoughts
MORE GUEST QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW
“Something like 97 percent of our active users use Duolingo for free. Still, we make more money than all other education apps. We’re very proud of that.”
— Luis von Ahn
“If you’re not brushing with an electric toothbrush, you’re doing it wrong.”
— Luis von Ahn
“The attitude of just finding a way to become useful gets you a lot farther.”
— Luis von Ahn
“Hopefully, most people have seen the Duolingo owl. It’s our mascot. First of all, it’s an owl because in most Western countries, owls represent knowledge. Turns out this is just not true at all in Asia. Now that we’ve been expanding to Asia, people ask us, ‘Why the hell are you using an owl? Owls are just vicious animals.'”
— Luis von Ahn
“Whenever somebody asks you to do something a long time from now, change the framing and say, ‘What if it was tomorrow? Would you want to do this or not?’ Almost invariably, the answer is, ‘No, I definitely don’t want to do this tomorrow.’ And then you should answer based on that.”
— Luis von Ahn
- Severin Hacker
- Laela Sturdy
- Paul Graham
- Natalie Glance
- Peter Thiel
- Ben Horowitz
- Andrew Grove
- Denis Meinert
- Garry Christopher
- Ernest Hemingway
- Derek Sivers
- Matt Skaruppa
- Bing Gordon
- John Warrillow
- Kelly Starrett
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.