Kahoot acquires Clever, the US-based edtech portal, for up to $500M

Kahoot, the popular Oslo-based edtech company that has built a big business out of gamifiying education and creating a platform for users to build their own learning games, is making an acquisition to double down on K-12 education and its opportunities to grow in the U.S. It is acquiring Clever, a startup that has built a single sign-on portal for educators, students and their families to build and engage in digital learning classrooms, currently used by about 65% of all U.S. K-12 schools. Kahoot said that the deal — coming in a combination of cash and shares — gives Clever an enterprise value of between $435 million and $500 million, dependent on meeting certain performance milestones.

The plan will be to continue growing Clever’s business in the U.S. — which currently employs 175 people — as well as give it a lever for expanding globally alongside Kahoot’s wider stable of edtech software and services.

“Clever and Kahoot! are two purpose-led organizations that are equally passionate about education and unleashing the potential within every learner,” said Eilert Hanoa, CEO at Kahoot, in a statement. “Through this acquisition we see considerable potential to collaborate on education innovation to better service all our users – schools, teachers, students, parents and lifelong learners – and leveraging our global scale to offer Clever’s unique platform worldwide. I’m excited to welcome Tyler and his team to the Kahoot family.”

The news came on the same day that Kahoot, which is traded in Oslo with a market cap of $4.3 billion, also announced strong Q1 results in which it also noted it has closed its acquisition of Whiteboard.fi, a provider of whiteboard tools for teachers, for an undisclosed sum.

The same tides that have been lifting Kahoot have also been playing out for Clever and other edtech companies.

The startup was originally incubated in Y Combinator and launched with a vision to be a “Twilio for education“, which in its vision was to create a unified way of being able to tap into the myriad of student sign-on systems and educational databases to make it easier for those building edtech services to scale their products, and bring on more customers (schools, teachers, students, families) to use them. As with payments, financial services in general, and telecommunications, it turns out that education is also a pretty fragmented market, and Clever wanted to figure out a way to fix the complexity and put it behind an API to make it easier for others to tap into it.

Over time it built that out also with a marketplace (application gallery in its terminology) of some 600 software providers and application developers that integrate with its SSO, which in turn becomes a way for a school or district to subsequently expand the number of edtech tools that it can use. This has been especially critical in the last year as schools have been forced to close in-person learning and go entirely virtual to help stave off the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clever has found a lot of traction for its approach both with schools, and investors. With the former, Clever says that it’s used by 89,000 schools and some 65% of K-12 school districts (13,000 overall) in the U.S., with that figure including 95 of the 100 largest school districts in the country. This works out to 20 million students logging in monthly and 5.6 billion learning sessions.

StudySmarter books $15M for a global ‘personalized learning’ push

More money for the edtech boom: Munich-based StudySmarter, which makes digital tools to help learners of all ages swat up — styling itself as a ‘lifelong learning platform’ — has closed a $15 million Series A.

The round is led by sector-focused VC fund, Owl Ventures. New York-based Left Lane Capital is co-investing, along with Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen (ex WhatsApp, Uber and Dropbox; now GP at Balderton Capital), and existing early stage investor Dieter von Holtzbrinck Ventures (aka DvH Ventures).

The platform, which launched back in 2018 and has amassed a user-base of 1.5M+ learners — with a 50/50 split between higher education students and K12 learners, and with main markets so far in German speaking DACH countries in Europe — uses AI technologies like natural language processing (NLP) to automate the creation of text-based interactive custom courses and track learners’ progress (including by creating a personalized study plan that adjusts as they go along).

StudySmarter claims its data shows that 94% of learners achieve better grades as a result of using its platform.

While NLP is generally most advanced for the English language, the startup says it’s confident its NLP models can be transferred to new languages without requiring new training data — claiming its tech is “scalable in any language”. (Although it concedes its algorithms increase in accuracy for a given language as users upload more content so the software itself is undertaking a learning journey and will necessarily be at a different point on the learning curve depending on the source content.)

Here’s how StudySmarter works: Users input their study goals to get recommendations for relevant revision content that’s been made available to the platform’s community.

They can also contribute content themselves to create custom courses by uploading assets like lecture slides and revisions notes. StudySmarter’s platform can then turn this source material into interactive study aids — like flashcards and revision exercises — and the startup touts the convenience of the approach, saying it enables students to manage all their revision in one place (rather than wrangling multiple learning apps).

In short, it’s both a (revision) content marketplace and a productivity platform for learning — as it helps users create their own study (or lesson) plans, and offers them handy tools like a digital magic marker that automatically turns highlighted text into flashcards, while the resulting “smart” flashcards also apply the principle of spaced repetition learning to help make the studied content stick.

Users can choose to share content they create with other learners in the StudySmarter community (or not). The startup says a quarter (25%) of its users are creators, and that 80% of the content they create is shared. Overall, it says its platform provides access to more than 25 million pieces of shared content currently.

It’s topic agnostic, as you’d expect, so course content covers a diverse range of subjects. We’re told the most popular courses to study are: Economics, Medicine, Law, Computer Science, Engineering and school subjects such as Maths, Physics, Biology and English.

Regardless of how learners use it, the platform uses AI to nudge users towards relevant revision content and topics (and study groups) to keep extending and supporting their learning process — making adaptive, ongoing recommendations for other stuff they should check out.

The ease of creating learning materials on the StudySmarter platform results in a democratization of high-quality educational content, driven by learners themselves,” is the claim.   

As well as user generated content (UGC), StudySmarter’s platform hosts content created by verified educationists and publishers — and there’s an option for users to search only for such verified content, i.e. if they don’t want to dip into the UGC pool.

“In general, there is no single workflow,” says co-founder and CMO Maurice Khudhir. “We created StudySmarter to adapt to different learner types. Some are very active learners and prefer to create content, some only want to search and consume content from other peers/publishers.”

“Our platform focuses on the art of learning itself, rather than being bound by topics, sectors, industries or content types. This means that anyone, regardless of what they’re learning, can use StudySmarter to improve how they learn. We started in higher education as it was the closest, most relevant market to where we were at the time of launch. We more recently expanded to K12, and are currently running our first corporate learning pilot.”

Gamification is a key strategy to encourage engagement and advance learning, with the platform dishing out encouraging words and emoji, plus rewards like badges and achievements based on the individual’s progress. Think of it as akin to Duolingo-style microlearning — but where users get to choose the subject (not just the language) and can feed in source material if they wish.

StudySmarter says it’s taken inspiration from tech darlings like Netflix and Tinder — baking in recommendation algorithms to surface relevant study content for users -(a la Netflix’s ‘watch next’ suggestions), and deploying a Tinder-swipe-style learning UI on mobile so that its “smart flashcards” can to adapt to users’ responses.

“Firstly, we individualise the learning experience by recommending appropriate content to the learner, depending on their demographics, demands and study goals,” explains Khudhir. “For instance, when an economics student uploads a PDF on the topic of marginal cost, StudySmarter will recommend several user-generated courses that cover marginal cost and/or several flashcards on marginal cost as well as e-books on StudySmarter that cover this topic.

“In this way, StudySmarter is similar to Netflix — Netflix will suggest similar TV shows and films depending on what you’ve already watched and StudySmarter will recommend different learning materials depending on the types of content and topics you interact with.

“As well, depending on how the student likes to learn, we also individualise the learning journey through things such as the smart flashcard learning algorithm. This is based on spaced repetition. For example, if a student is testing themselves on microeconomics, the flashcard set will go through different questions and responses and the student can swipe through the flashcards, in a similar way to Tinder. The flashcards’ sequence will adapt after every response.

“The notifications are also personalised — so they will remind the student to learn at particular points in the day, adapted to how the student uses the app.”

There’s also a scan functionality which uses OCR (optical character recognition) technology that lets users upload (paper-based) notes, handouts or books — and a sketch feature lets them carry out further edits, if they want to add more notes and scribbles.

Once ingested into the platform, this scanned (paper-based) content can of course also be used to create digital learning materials — extending the utility of the source material by plugging it into the platform’s creation and tracking capabilities.

“A significant cohort of users access StudySmarter on tablets, and they find this learning flow very useful, especially for our school-age pupils,” he adds.

StudySmarter can also offer educators and publishers detailed learning analytics, per Khudhir — who says its overarching goal is to establish itself as “the leading marketplace for educational content”, i.e. by using the information it gleans on users’ learning goals to directly recommend (relevant) professional content — “making it an extremely effective distribution platform”, as he puts it.

In addition to students, he says the platform is being used by teachers, professors, trainers, and corporate members — ie. to create content to share with their own students, team members, course participants etc, or just to publish publicly. And he notes a bit of a usage spike from teachers in March last year as the pandemic shut down schools in Europe. 

StudySmarter co-founders, back from left to right: Christian Felgenhauer (co-founder & CEO), Till Söhlemann (co-founder); front: Maurice Khudir (co-founder & CMO), Simon Hohentanner (COO & co-founder). Image credits: StudySmarter

What about copyright? Khudir says they follow a three-layered system to minimize infringement risks — firstly by not letting users share or export any professional content hosted on the platform.

Uploaded documents like lecture notes and users’ own comments can be shared within one university course/class in a private learning group. But only UGC (like flashcards, summaries and exercises) can be shared freely with the entire StudySmarter community, if the user wants to.

“It’s important to note that no content is shared without the author’s permission,” he notes. “We also have a contact email for people to raise potential copyright infringements. Thanks to this system, we can say that we never had a single copyright issue with universities, professors or publishers.”

Another potential pitfall around UGC is quality. And, clearly, no student wants to waste their time revising from poor (or just plain wrong) revision notes.

StudySmarter says it’s limiting that risk by tracking how learners engage with shared content on the platform — in order to create quality scores for UGC — monitoring factors like how often such stuff is used for learning; how often the students who study from it answer questions correctly; and by looking the average learning time for a particular flashcard or summary, etc.

“We combine this with an active feedback system from the students to assign each piece of content a dynamic quality score. The higher the score is, the more often it is shown to new users. If the score falls below a certain threshold, the content is removed and is only visible to the original creator,” he goes on, adding: “We track the quality of shared content on the creator level so users who consistently share low-quality content can be banned from sharing more content on the platform.”

There are unlikely to be quality issues with verified educator/publisher content. But since it’s professional content, StudySmarter can’t expect to get it purely for free — so it says it “mostly” follows revenue-sharing agreements with these types of contributors.

It is also sharing data on learning trends and to help publishers reach relevant learners, as mentioned above. So the information it can provide education publishers about potential customers is probably the bigger carrot for pulling them in.

“We are very happy to say that the vast majority of our content is not created or shared on StudySmarter for any financial incentive but rather because our platform and technology simply make the creation significantly easier,” says Khudir, adding: “We have not paid a single Euro to any user on StudySmarter to create content and do not intend to do so going forward.” 

It’s still early days for monetization, which he says isn’t front of mind yet — with the team focused on building out the platform’s global reach — but he notes that the model allows for a number of b2b revenue streams, adding that they’ve been doing some early b2b monetization by working with employers and businesses to promote their graduate programs or to support recruitment drives. 

The new funding will be put towards product development and supporting the platform’s global expansion, per Khudir.

“We’ve run successful pilots in the U.K. and U.S. so they’re our primary focus to expand to by Q3 this year. In fact, following a test pilot in the U.K. in December, we became the number one education app within 24 hours (ahead of the likes of Duolingo, Quizlet, Kahoot, and Photomath), which bodes well!” he goes on. 

“Brazil, India and Indonesia are key targets for us due to a wider need for digital education. We’re also looking to launch in France, Nordics, Spain, Russia and many more countries. Due to the fact our platform is content-agnostic, and the technology that underpins it is universal, we’re able to scale effectively in multiple countries and languages. Within the next 12 months, we will be expanding to more than 12 countries and support millions of learners globally.”

StudySmarter’s subject-agnostic, feature-packed, one-stop-shop platform approach sets it apart from what Khudir refers to as “single-feature apps”, i.e. which just help you learn one thing — be that Duolingo (only languages), or apps that focus on teaching a particular skill-set (like Photomath for maths equations, or dedicated learn-to-code apps/courses (and toys)). 

But where the process of learning is concerned, there are lots of ways of going about it, and no one that suits everyone (or every subject), so there’s undoubtedly room for (and value in) a variety of approaches (which may happily operate in parallel). So it seems a safe bet that broad-brush learning platforms aren’t going to replace specialized tools — or (indeed) vice versa.

StudySmarter names the likes of Course Hero, StuDocu, Quizlet and Anki as taking a similar broad approach — while simultaneously claiming they’re not doing it in “quite the same, holistic, end-to-end, all-in-one bespoke platform for learners” way.  

Albeit, some of those edtech rivals are doing it with a lot more capital already raised. So StudySmarter is going to need to work smart and hard to localize and grab students’ attention as it guns for growth far beyond its European base.

 

Microsoft’s Reading Progress makes assessing reading levels easier for kids and teachers

Among the many, many tasks required of grade school teachers is that of gauging each student’s reading level, usually by a time-consuming and high-pressure one-on-one examination. Microsoft’s new Reading Progress application takes some of the load off the teacher’s shoulders, allowing kids to do their reading at home and using natural language understanding to help highlight obstacles and progress.

The last year threw most educational plans into disarray, and reading levels did not advance the way they would have if kids were in school. Companies like Amira are emerging to fill the gap with AI-monitored reading, and Microsoft aims to provide teachers with more tools on their side.

Reading Progress is an add-on for Microsoft Teams that helps teachers administer reading tests in a more flexible way, taking pressure off students who might stumble in a command performance, and identifying and tracking important reading events like skipped words and self-corrections.

Teachers pick reading assignments for each students (or the whole class) to read, and the kids do so on their own time, more like doing homework than taking a test. They record a video directly in the app, the audio of which is analyzed by algorithms watching for the usual stumbles.

As you can see in this video testimony by 4th grader Brielle, this may be preferable to many kids:

If a bright and confident kid like Brielle feels better doing it this way (and is now reading two years ahead of her grade, nice work Brielle!), what about the kids who are having trouble reading due to dyslexia, or are worried about their accent, or are simply shy? Being able to just talk to their own camera, by themselves in their own home, could make for a much better reading — and therefore a more accurate assessment.

It’s not meant to replace the teacher altogether, of course — it’s a tool that allows overloaded educators to prioritize and focus better and track things more objectively. It’s similar to how Amira is not meant to replace in-person reading groups — impossible during the pandemic — but provides a similarly helpful process of quickly correcting common mistakes and encouraging the reader.

Microsoft published about half a dozen things pertaining to Reading Progress today. Here’s its origin story, a basic summary, its product hub, a walkthrough video, and citations supporting its approach. There’s more, too, in this omnibus post about new education-related products out soon or now.

Indian online teaching platform Teachmint raises $16.5 million

An Indian startup that began its life after the global pandemic broke last year said on Tuesday it has concluded its third financing round as it enables hundreds of thousands of teachers in the world’s second largest internet market run classes online and serve their students.

Bangalore-based Teachmint said today it has raised $16.5 million in its Series A financing round. The round was led by Learn Capital, the San Francisco Bay Area-headquartered venture capital firm that focuses on edtech firms and has backed some of the world’s most promising online learning startups including Coursera, Udemy, Nerdy, Minerva, and Brainly.

Existing investors Better Capital, which first invested in Teachmint before the startup had even registered itself, and Lightspeed India Partners also participated in the new round, which brings the Indian startup’s to-date raise to $20 million.

Teachmint helps teachers conduct classes online through an app on their Android smartphone or iPhone or through web. The startup has built an all-in-one product that allows teachers to kickstart a live class, do doubt-clearing sessions, take attendance, conduct webinars, collect fees, find new students, offer support via phone calls, and take tests among other tasks.

“When the pandemic broke, teachers were struggling with several tools including Google Meet, Zoom and even Youtube/Facebook Live to teach online. They were using additional tools like Google Forms for tests and WhatsApp for communication. It was a difficult and disconnected experience for most teachers as none of these tools were productised for teaching. That’s when we decided to build a mobile-first video-first solution specifically for teaching,” said Mihir Gupta, co-founder and chief executive of Teachmint, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The product, available in 10 local languages, is highly localised for India-specific needs, said Gupta.

More than 700,000 teachers from over 1,500 cities and towns have signed up on the platform in less than 10 months since the launch of Teachmint’s product, said Gupta.

“From the Learn Capital team’s first meeting with Teachmint’s co-founders several months ago, it was clear that their collective team had meticulously architected an end-to-end, multi-modal, and best-in-class solution enabling teachers in India to instantly and seamlessly digitize their classrooms,” said Vinit Sukhija, Partner at Learn Capital, in a statement.

“Now with over 700,000 teachers, Teachmint has become India’s leading online teaching platform,” he said, adding that Learn Capital believes that Teachmint can eventually expand its offering outside of India.

Gupta said Teachmint is currently not monetizing its product, and doesn’t intend to do so in the immediate future as it is currently priortizing reaching more teachers in India and also expand its offerings.

He said most teachers have learned about Teachmint from their friends and without any investment in marketing. Teachmint is open to exploring any strategic acquisition opportunities with smaller startups, he said.

The Duolingo EC-1

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:

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 protected].

How a bot-fighting test turned into edtech’s most iconic brand, Duolingo

Luis von Ahn, an entrepreneur who has dedicated his career to scaling free education, has probably annoyed you more than once. In fact, you’ve likely been annoyed by his work dozens and maybe hundreds of times over the years.

A decade before he co-founded the whimsical and language-learning app Duolingo, one of the most popular education apps in the world with over 500 million downloads and 40 million active users, he was building the technology that would become CAPTCHA, those human-annoying but bot-preventing little tests that pop up when registering or logging in to popular internet services like email.

It may seem like a radical pivot, but in fact, the lessons of how to create useful security tests at scale for consumers would one day offer the core DNA for building one of the most successful edtech companies in the world. The immigrant entrepreneur would soon learn himself that crowdsourcing, language and a willingness to adapt and ignore critics could change the face of an industry forever.

CAPTCHA’ing a market

Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala City, where he saw firsthand the wretched state of public schools in impoverished countries. His mother spent most of her income sending him to “fancy private school” as he puts it, and he estimates she spent over $1 million on his education over his lifetime. The price tag weighed on him, and he knew he wanted to broaden access to education in the future.

After attending Duke as an undergrad, von Ahn was an enterprising first-year computer science Ph.D. student at top-ranked Carnegie Mellon University when he attended a talk by Yahoo’s chief scientist about 10 of Yahoo’s biggest headaches. One issue stood out: hackers were creating bots that register thousands of email addresses to send spam.

Inspired and full of immigrant grit, von Ahn and a team led by his then-adviser Manuel Blum created a nifty little test that could distinguish between bots and humans. The test, called a CAPTCHA, presented squiggly, ink-blotted words whenever a user tried to log in. Computer vision at the time couldn’t read the obscured text, but humans easily could — creating a useful signal. The deceptively simple test worked, so von Ahn, then a 20-something student, gave it to Yahoo for free, not understanding the value it would one day have.

Luis von Ahn, the inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, and co-founder of Duolingo. Image Credits: Duolingo

A fire was lit. With Yahoo as a distribution channel, CAPTCHA tests exploded in popularity, becoming an almost universally recognizable security checkpoint feature. At their peak, people spent 500,000 hours a day typing up to 200 million CAPTCHAs around the world. About 10% of the world’s population had recognized at least one word, von Ahn estimates.

For all the technology’s success, though, there was a downside. “During those 10 seconds while you’re typing in a CAPTCHA, your brain is doing something that computers can’t do, which is amazing,” von Ahn said. But the tests were annoying and pointless, so he wondered, “Could we get those 500,000 hours a day to do something useful for humanity?”

So in 2005, he launched reCAPTCHA. These new tests would have the same goal of CAPTCHA, but with a twist: the prompts would all be scans of books. Users would complete the security test while also helping to digitize books for the Internet Archive.

The early design of reCAPTCHA. Image Credits: Duolingo

This time, von Ahn knew his nifty idea was worth something. In 2009, he sold reCAPTCHA to Google, a transaction conducted just a year after the internet giant had purchased a license to one of his other research projects, a game focused on image labeling.

Luis von Ahn presenting about reCAPTCHA and CAPTCHA, two of his iconic inventions. Image Credits: Duolingo

The acquisition offered not just a monetary award (exact terms of the deal were not disclosed), but also suddenly garnered von Ahn serious clout in the industry just a few years after acquiring his Ph.D. Yet, instead of taking up tenure at the tech company, he stayed local in Pittsburgh and became a computer science professor at his alma mater.

Entering the world of education as a professor felt like an answer to his original dream of expanding access to education. What von Ahn didn’t know, though, was that his iconic work was simply foreshadowing. Carnegie Mellon, crowdsourced translation and even Google would all play a role in his next project as well, albeit in wildly different ways: incubation, failure and investment. For him, the success of two tools that used language as a barrier was the beginning of a long journey into discovering if, and how, language could instead be a bridge. It was an insight that would grow into a startup valued at $2.4 billion with the goal of making language learning fun: Duolingo.

Duolingo’s first words

In 2011, edtech startups such as Coursera and Codecademy were popping up — companies that today are valued as multibillion-dollar businesses. The rise of iPads and tablets in classrooms gave permission to founders who believed the future of education was on the internet. Enthusiasm was boiling, and virtual instruction felt like a nascent, but ambitious, place to bet on.

The product-led growth behind edtech’s most downloaded app

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn was tired of the gray and dreary design aesthetic edtech companies used to emulate universities. Instead, he and the company’s early team sought inspiration from games like Angry Birds and Clash Royale, looking to build a class that screamed more cartoon anarchy than lecture hall. From that frenetic creativity came the company’s distinctive mascot: a childish and rebellious evergreen-colored owl named Duo.

Duolingo didn’t just throw out the old colors though — it wanted to completely rethink language learning from the bottom up for mobile. So it replaced top-down curriculums with analytics-driven growth strategies, becoming consumed by an ethos that has more recently been dubbed product-led growth.

Used by companies such as Calendly, Slack and Dropbox, product-led growth is a strategy in which a company iterates its product to create loyal fans-turned-customers who popularize the product with others, creating a viral growth loop. It’s an attractive route because it vastly lowers the cost of acquiring users while also increasing engagement and thus retention. Duolingo, for example, has taken this model and found ways to embed engagement hooks, pockets of joy and addictive education features within its core app.

With early venture capital in its pocket, Duolingo could afford to focus on product over profits.

In part one of this EC-1, we explored how von Ahn’s previous products around CAPTCHA led to Duolingo’s launch, the rise and fall of crowdsourced translation as a way to disrupt language learning, and the accidental iteration of a top education app by a pair of interns. The startups’ early signs of success gave it energy to focus on growth to accomplish two things: know what they’re doing works, and garner a lot of user data so it continued iterating the product into something that was ever more addicting to use.

Now, we’ll analyze how Duolingo used product-led growth as a lever to expand its consumer base, and how a company built on gamification tries to balance its whimsy with education outcomes.

Duo, Duolingo’s mascot, flying around. Image Credits: Duolingo

From Angry Birds to an amusing and sometimes scowling owl

Tyler Murphy, having graduated from his intern position at Duolingo launching the company’s iOS app, noticed that the gaming world was rapidly innovating around him in the mid-2010s. Angry Birds was no longer the only popular game on mobile, and video games generally were getting more engaging, with in-app currencies, progress bars and an experience that felt creatively addictive. He suddenly saw connections between the entertainment that games provided and the patient learning required for languages.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if the skill got harder and harder, kind of like how a character in a game gets more powerful and powerful?” he remembers asking. Duolingo had taken early inspiration from Angry Birds as well as Clash Royale later, following that game’s launch in 2016. “Half the people at Duolingo were playing Clash Royale, at some point,” he said. “And I think that shaped our product roadmap a lot and our design language a lot.”

Games solved a problem that was acutely personal for Murphy. The employee, who would go on to become chief designer at Duolingo, had gone to college to teach Spanish to students, but ultimately left the field after struggling to inspire kids in a classroom setting. The realization that Duolingo could borrow from gaming instead of monotonous edtech companies gave an adrenaline rush — and permission — to the team to experiment with new approaches to learning.

Every game needs some form of experience points and leveling up, and for Duolingo learners, that progress comes in the form of skill trees.

These trees, which were conceived by a design agency during the company’s early development, are Duolingo’s core experience, a visual representation of language skills that are interconnected and get progressively more difficult and refined over time. Each skill is a prerequisite for another. Sometimes it’s just logic: in order to be able to speak about restaurants, you probably should be able to introduce yourself first. Sometimes, however, it’s a necessary building block: in order to speak about your routine, you should be able to speak about basic everyday activities.

In Duolingo, each unit has its own suite of skills, each of which is broken down into five lessons. Once you complete all five lessons, you can move to the next skill. Complete all skills and you can move to the next unit. Depending on the language, a user might encounter an average of 60 skills across nine different units within a course.

Duolingo Skill Tree UX in 2012. Image Credits: Duolingo

Duolingo Skill Tree UX in 2021. Image Credits: Duolingo

The growth power of a cartoon owl meme

Duolingo had its “leveling up” model figured out, but now it had to integrate gamification into every nook and cranny of its app. One of its first challenges was rebuilding the sort of teacher-student emotional bond that can help students stay motivated to learn. No one likes to fail, and Duolingo stumbled upon a scalable approach through its cartoon owl mascot Duo — also thought of by the design agency behind the skill trees.

Whenever users succeed or fail at their lessons today, they are likely to be encouraged or admonished by Duo’s presence. Designers sprinkled Duo throughout the product, looking at Super Mario Brothers as an example of how to use iconic art to create a friendly gaming experience. In early iterations of the app, Duo was present but static, more of an icon than a personality. That changed as the company increasingly pushed harder on engagement.

How Duolingo became fluent in monetization

As its meandering route to monetization will demonstrate, Duolingo isn’t mission-oriented, it’s mission-obsessed.

Co-founders Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker never wanted to charge consumers for access to Duolingo content, a purpose imbued throughout the company’s culture. For years in order to work at Duolingo, you had to be comfortable with joining a company in Pittsburgh that was in no rush to make money. The startup, filled with education enthusiasts and mission-driven employees, became “very college pizza vibes,” Gina Gotthilf, former VP of Marketing at Duolingo, described. Everyone was against making money and having structure — some employees even threatened to quit if Duolingo ever charged a cent to users.

“One thing that recruited me was this brilliance that we can kill two birds with one stone,” she said, referring to Duolingo’s original translation-service business model we talked about in part one of this EC-1. “It was obviously tied to Luis’ thinking and reCAPTCHA and it was magical and brilliant.”

Free may not have paid the bills, but it did come with a valuable upside: growth. By 2017, Duolingo would boast having 200 million users, which was double von Ahn’s goal when he first launched to the public on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage.

Duolingo launched saying it would never do advertisements, subscriptions or in-app purchases — approaches that now all exist on the platform. Today, Duolingo has a simple freemium business model that is remarkably unconventional. It has a free version with all of its learning content, and it charges a subscription of $6.99 per month for paywalled features such as unlimited hearts, no advertisements and progress tracking. It also has a number of other revenue streams it’s developing, such as language proficiency tests.

As we’ll explore, Duolingo’s route from anti-business rebel to conventional consumer subscription is complex, full of twists and turns. While Duolingo never wanted to look like other edtech companies, as we saw with its product strategy in part two, it turns out that evolving from college pizza vibes meant that it would have to take a page from its peers.

Duocon, Duolingo’s new conference to celebrate education and language. Image Credits: Duolingo

Business only speaks one language: Money

“They had users and in Silicon Valley, there was this notion that if you have users, you can turn anything into money,” said Bing Gordon, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) partner who led Duolingo’s $20 million Series C in 2014.

“This was not very controversial back then, at least with investors,” von Ahn said. “This became controversial for us once we raised a ton of money, and we still weren’t making more money.”

While the company’s investors were relatively lenient in the early years, patience was starting to run thin. In June 2015, Duolingo raised a $45 million Series D round led by Laela Sturdy of Google Capital (later rebranded CapitalG), valuing the company at $470 million. She invested because of Duolingo’s growth and engagement numbers, but confronted von Ahn with some direct advice.

“She said to me, ‘Look, it worked for you to continue getting bigger and bigger checks from venture capital,’” von Ahn said. “‘But this is the last time it works for you … if you’re trying to con people, you cannot con anybody bigger than us [at Google].’” Duolingo’s valuation wouldn’t just be at stake next time it went fundraising on Sand Hill Road — its very survival would be as well.

Looking back, Sturdy said that she always “had confidence that they would come up with a revenue model” because of Duolingo’s passionate and organic users.

When a startup chooses to raise venture capital, it sets itself on a heavily-prescribed course. Suddenly, success isn’t defined merely as cash-flow breakeven with a long-term sustainable business. It has to be an exit of some sorts, and a big one at that. While Duolingo used venture as a lifeline to fund its product development, venture also came with pressure to become a billion-dollar company, or more. And that meant making revenue, not just growing engagement.

Von Ahn says his conversation with Sturdy is what really changed his mindset about money. After the Google check hit Duolingo’s bank account, he and Hacker began thinking about ways to make Duolingo as much a monetary success as it had been an educational one.

Duolingo’s Pittsburgh HQ. Image Credits: Duolingo

Dr. Ahn or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the revenue(s)

“It was clear that Luis didn’t have commercial instincts, he had cultural instincts and a deep focus on learning,” said Gordon. “[When we invested] Duolingo predicted it was on the verge of revenue growth, and it turned out it was not on the verge of revenue growth.”

What Gordon is alluding to was a litany of monetization attempts in Duolingo’s past. Translation, which helped von Ahn’s previous two startups, didn’t work when applied to language-learning services, and the company only secured two customers before ending the service. Business partnerships, such as a relationship with Uber to certify and train drivers in Brazil to speak English, didn’t catch fire.

Duolingo can’t teach you how to speak a language, but now it wants to try

Duolingo has been wildly successful. It has pulled in 500 million total registered learners, 40 million active users, 1.5 million premium subscribers and $190 million in booked revenues in 2020. It has a popular and meme-ified mascot in the form of the owl Duo, a creative and engaging product, and ambitious plans for expansion.There’s just one key question in the midst of all those milestones: Does anyone actually learn a language using Duolingo?

“Language is first and foremost a social, relational phenomenon,” said Sébastien Dubreil, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It is something that allows people to make meaning and talk to each other and conduct the business of living — and when you do this, you use a tone of different kinds of resources that are not packaged in the vocabulary and grammar.”

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn estimates that Duolingo’s upcoming product developments will get users from zero to a knowledge job in a different language within the next two to three years. But for now, he is honest about the limits of the platform today.

“I won’t say that with Duolingo, you can start from zero and make your English as good as mine,” he said. “That’s not true. But that’s also not true with learning a language in a university, that’s not true with buying books, that’s not true with any other app.”

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder of Duolingo, visiting President Obama in 2015. Image Credits: Duolingo

While Dubreil doesn’t think Duolingo can teach someone to speak a language, he does think it has taught consistency — a hard nut to crack in edtech. “What Duolingo does is to potentially entice students to do things you cannot pay them enough time to actually do, which is to spend time in that textbook and reinforce vocabulary and the grammar,” he said.

That’s been the key focus for the company since the beginning. “I said this when we started Duolingo and I still really strongly believe it: The hardest thing about learning a language is staying motivated,” von Ahn said, comparing it to how people approach exercise: it’s hard to stay motivated, but a little motion a day goes a long way.

With an enviable lead in its category, Duolingo wants to bring the quality and effectiveness of its curriculum on par with the quality of its product and branding. With growth and monetization secured, Duolingo is no longer in survival mode. Instead, it’s in study mode.

In this final part, we will explore how Duolingo is using a variety of strategies, from rewriting its courses to what it dubs Operation Birdbrain, to become a more effective learning tool, all while balancing the need to keep the growth and monetization engines stoked while en route to an IPO.

Duolingo’s office decor. Image Credits: Duolingo

“Just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Duolingo’s competitors see the app’s massive gamification and solitary experience as inherently contradictory with high-quality language education. Busuu and Babbel, two subscription-based competitors in the market, both focus on users talking in real time to native speakers.

Bernhard Niesner, the co-founder and CEO of Busuu, which was founded in 2008, sees Duolingo as an entry-level tool that can help users migrate to its human-interactive service. “If you want to be fluent, Duolingo needs innovation,” Niesner said. “And that’s where we come in: We all believe that you should not be learning a language just by yourself, but [ … ] together, which is our vision.” Busuu has more than 90 million users worldwide.

Duolingo has been the subject of a number of efficacy studies over the years. One of its most positive reports, from September 2020, showed that its Spanish and French courses teach the equivalent of four U.S. university semesters in half the time.

Babbel, which has sold over 10 million subscriptions to its language-learning service, cast doubt on the power of these findings. Christian Hillemeyer, who heads PR for the startup, pointed out that Duolingo only tested for reading and writing efficacy — not for speaking proficiency, even though that is a key part of language learning. He described Duolingo as “just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Putting the ed back into edtech

One of the ironic legacies of Duolingo’s evolution is that for years it outsourced much of the creation of its education curriculum to volunteers. It’s a legacy the company is still trying to rectify.

The year after its founding, Duolingo launched its Language Incubator in 2013. Similar to its original translation service, the company wanted to leverage crowdsourcing to invent and refine new language courses. Volunteers — at least at first — were seen as a scrappy way to bring new material to the growing Duolingo community and more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bring new language courses to the app.

OpenClassrooms raises $80 million for its online education platform

French startup OpenClassrooms has raised an $80 million Series C funding round led by Lumos Capital Group. The company operates an online education platform in French and English. Users can choose among 54 training programs and get a diploma at the end of the program — some of those program lead to French-state-recognized bachelor and master diplomas.

GSV, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and Salesforce Ventures also participated in today’s funding round. Existing investors General Atlantic and Bpifrance invested once again in the company.

OpenClassrooms covers many different fields, from web development to digital marketing, product management, HR and sales. Those paths are quite demanding as it can take 6 to 12 months of full-time work to complete a training program. OpenClassrooms partners with mentors so that they can help you remain motivated.

At the end of the program, the startup guarantees that you’ll find a job. If you have a hard time finding a job, the company works with career coaches to make sure that you find a job that fits you. In 2020, 4,300 students found a job or received a promotion after participating in an OpenClassrooms program.

In France, people qualify for public subsidies in order to fund professional education programs. And students can pay for OpenClassrooms courses using those public subsidies.

The company says that the pandemic has had a positive impact on online education. Many people are looking for reskilling and upskilling opportunities and end up on OpenClassrooms. In addition to programs for individuals, the startup also offers courses to 1,400 companies.

Some companies, such as Capgemini, have teamed up with OpenClassrooms to offer apprenticeship programs. Students get to learn new skills and work for Capgemini at the same time. The apprenticeship program could be particularly attractive for companies with a high turnover that can’t find talent to fill open positions. There are currently 1,500 students following an apprenticeship program.

All of this has been working well as revenue during the first quarter of 2021 is 140% higher than Q1 2020 revenue. Recently, OpenClassrooms applied for the B-Corp certification. The company still offers free classes if you’re looking for your next weekend project.