Duolingo doesn’t want to disrupt the college degree

CEO Luis von Ahn draws the line on where the company will, and won't, go

A lot has changed for Duolingo. The language learning company launched nearly a decade ago on the Disrupt stage with no monetization plans. Today, that scrappy app has matured into a well-known consumer brand and a business that makes a ton of money. This growth fueled the startup’s recent decision to go public, which is rare for a consumer edtech company.

CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn returned to TechCrunch Disrupt this year to explain how the sophistication of public markets impacts the company’s strategy. Armed with fresh capital from the IPO and attention from the public markets, Duolingo is drawing its line on what’s next and what’s never going to be on its roadmap.

Part of becoming a listed company is opening yourself up to critique from the public markets, which are full of investors rooting for viable businesses that know how to make money and appreciate in value. But what happens if optimizing for money isn’t what a company wants to do?

Duolingo’s early days were defined by an allergy to monetization because its mission was to scale free education. When the company eventually introduced monetization through subscriptions, it didn’t paywall any learning content. Instead, its subscription product is built around enhancing the user experience — from avoiding advertisements altogether to allowing for unlimited mistakes. Today, about 95% of Duolingo’s users consume the product for free.

Von Ahn defended the idea that Duolingo may be tempted to begin paywalling learning features for its subscription service now that it’s in the eye of retail investors.