“The [common trait in] people that we have noticed are best at learning a language is that they have no trouble sounding stupid.” – Luis von Ahn
Luis von Ahn (@luisvonahn) is an entrepreneur and computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He is known for inventing CAPTCHAs, being a MacArthur Fellow (“genius grant” recipient), and selling two companies to Google in his 20’s. Luis has been named one of the 10 Most Brilliant Scientists by Popular Science Magazine, one of the 20 Best Brains Under 40 by Discover, one of the Top Young Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review, and one of the 100 Most Innovative People in Business by FastCompany Magazine.
Luis 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 100 million users, it is the most popular way to learn languages in the world, and it is the most downloaded app in the Education category on both iTunes (5-star average, 3,300+ reviews) and Google Play.
I first met Luis as an early investor in Duolingo, and every time I meet him, I learn something new.
In this conversation, we talk about:
- What 2-3 books and resources he’d recommend to entrepreneurs
- Language learning tips
- The clever way he caught cheating students at Carnegie Mellon
- Early mentors and key lessons learned
- The story of building and selling reCAPTCHA
- How to recruit and vet technical talent
- Duolingo’s most surprising sources of users, and much more…
- Listen to it on iTunes.
- Stream by clicking here.
- Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here and choosing “save as.”
Want to hear a conversation with an entrepreneur who sold a company for $800 million? Bryan Johnson, the rags to riches philosopher, tells the story of founding Braintree and later selling the company to eBay (stream below or right-click here to download):
This podcast is brought to you by 99Designs, the world’s largest marketplace of graphic designers. I have used them for years to create some amazing designs. When your business needs a logo, website design, business card, or anything you can imagine, check out 99Designs.
I used them to rapid prototype the cover for The 4-Hour Body, and I’ve also had them help with display advertising and illustrations. If you want a more personalized approach, I recommend their 1-on-1 service. You get original designs from designers around the world. The best part? You provide your feedback, and then you end up with a product that you’re happy with or your money back. Click this link and get a free $99 upgrade. Give it a test run.
This episode is also brought to you by Headspace, the world’s most popular meditation app (more than 4,000,000 users). It’s used in more than 150 countries, and many of my closest friends swear by it. Try Headspace’s free Take10 program — 10 minutes of guided meditation a day for 10 days. It’s like a warm bath for your mind. Meditation doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive, and it’s had a huge impact on my life. Try Headspace for free for a few days and see what I mean.
QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: In this episode, Luis laments that he didn’t get more formal business management training while at Carnegie Mellon. What resource has supported you most to make better management decisions? Please let me know in the comments.
Scroll below for links and show notes…
Selected Links from the Episode
- Sign up to learn a language for free with Duolingo
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Learn more about the Turing Award
- The Joy of Finding Things Out, a documentary on Richard Feynman
- Learn more about CAPTCHA & ReCAPTCHA
- Zero to One by Peter Thiel (Explore Blake Masters’s notes for deeper understanding)
- Startup, a podcast about building a business by Gimlet Media
- Overcast, my preferred podcast player
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
- Learn more about Union Square Ventures and Fred Wilson (AVC)
- Learn more about UberENGLISH
- Learn more about Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a system for learning Chinese via romanization
- Flashcard applications: SuperMemo and Anki
- News in Slow Spanish – A podcast for Spanish language learners
- The Matrix – Luis von Ahn’s favorite movie
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi – A favorite documentary
- Learn more about Mixpanel, the analytics tool Duolingo uses to build their dashboard
- Silverorange – Duolingo’s design company
- Experiment with f.lux or glasses to reduce health issues related to blue light
- The Making of a Blockbuster by Gail DeGeorge
- Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
- Wrath of the Khans I – Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
- Follow @ShitDuoSays for laughs at Duolingo’s expense
- Connect with Luis von Ahn:
- How Luis von Ahn entrapped cheaters in his class at Carnegie Mellon [6:23]
- Where Luis von Ahn grew up, his proclivity for computer science, and transitioning from Guatemala the USA [10:28]
- Parenting lessons [14:28]
- Strange and effective lessons from Manuel Blum [17:28]
- The milestones for CAPTCHA and how the project evolved [21:13]
- On technology transfer and intellectual property while attending a university [28:38]
- How Luis von Ahn recruits and vets computer science engineers [31:03]
- Resources for a bright young entrepreneur [37:48]
- The pros and cons of running a tech company [41:48]
- When the idea of Duolingo started to germinate [49:33]
- Duolingo’s evolving business model [53:03]
- The languages available on Duolingo, and why Asian languages aren’t available at the time of recording [1:04:03]
- How Duolingo compares to college instruction [1:13:43]
- Plans for empowering users to practice conversation skills in-app [1:15:03]
- Why Luis von Ahn left Google before his vesting phase was complete [1:19:23]
- Optimal usage patterns for those using Duolingo [1:23:38]
- The common trait of the people that are best at learning languages [1:27:43]
- When you hear the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind and why? [1:32:03]
- Most gifted books or other resources [1:33:18]
- Luis von Ahn’s morning run [1:34:43]
- Favorite movies or documentaries [1:36:03]
- What purchase of $100 or less has most positively affected your life in recent history? [1:37:48]
- Bedtime, waking time, and morning habits [1:39:03]
- The most important metrics to Luis von Ahn and Duolingo [1:40:23]
- Origins of Duolingo’s green owl mascot [1:41:43]
- What have you changed your mind about in the last few years and why? [1:48:43]
- What is something you believe to be true even though you can’t prove it? [1:53:58]
- If you could put one billboard anywhere, with anything on it, where would it be and what would it say? [1:54:23]
- Advice to your 20- and 30-year-old self [1:56:08]
- An ask of the audience [2:14:53]
- Manuel Blum
- Udi Manber
- Bing Gordon
- Severin Hacker
- Larry Page
- Mark Zuckerberg
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Shawn Mendes
Posted on: January 26, 2016.
Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.