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After he sold his second company to Google, Luis von Ahn received a phone call.
It was Bill Gates.
The richest man in the world, and co-founder of Microsoft, was personally recruiting the young computer scientist to join his team.
But for von Ahn, joining a world-changing company wasn’t enough. Like Gates, he needed to create his own.
So, the Guatemalan-born web wizard —who has become famous for combining humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone — founded Duolingo, a free, science-based language education platform that is now the most popular way to learn languages online. And while von Ahn’s portfolio consists of several successful ventures, Duolingo is likely to be his masterpiece.
Von Ahn’s passion has always been rooted in the world of academia. A graduate of Duke University, who later received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon, where he now serves as a professor, he knows the education system all too well.
Both sides of it.
He’s seen the prestige of the world’s most elite universities, and the wealth that feeds them. He’s also experienced the resources, or the lack thereof, of the schools in a developing country. This side, sadly, is much more prevalent globally, and it’s the problem von Ahn has made his life work to solve.
In countries like Guatemala, education does not bring equality to social classes, as some may think. It does the opposite. Those with money can buy themselves an education, while those without it can barely read and write. This system sets up career barriers that are almost always insurmountable, and only widens the divide between the upper and lower classes.
By launching Duolingo, von Ahn was taking a seat at the intersection of technology and human behavior, inspired to create a product that could change outcomes in more permanent and integral ways to tackle the global-scale problem of language learning.
The mission was simple: make language education free and accessible to everyone all over the world.
Of the 1.2 billion people in the world learning foreign languages, 800 million of them satisfy three properties:
- They are learning English
- The reason they are learning English is to get a job
- They are from low socioeconomic classes
For these individuals, learning a language can be the gateway out of poverty, but doing so can cost up to $1,000 dollars. Without the money, and no other alternative, the odds are unfairly stacked against them. To change those odds, von Ahn would first have to change behaviors.
Behavior Change Marketing
Learning a language is difficult. Everyone wants to do it, but most give up. The key is making it a habit. Duolingo could never work unless a user visited it regularly, so the success of the company hinged on it becoming a regular behavior, which also meant dislodging other long-held behaviors.
And change, according to world-renowned behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, “comes not from the inside, but the outside. If you want people to lose weight, give them a smaller plate. You have to change the environment.”
For von Ahn, the environment was technology. How could behavioral design be used to prevent the poor retention rates of other language-learning softwares? How could he reinvent the teaching process to make it a memorable experience worth the consumers’ time?
You gamify it.
American psychologist and behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, once said, “No one really cares whether Pac-Man gobbles up all those little spots on the screen… What is reinforcing is successful play, and in a well-designed instructional program students gobble up their assignments.”
As the work of behavioral economists has shown us, consumer decision-making is not just about the availability of information. Instead, it’s about how that information is framed and delivered. By framing language-learning as a game, von Ahn was applying behavioral design to keep consumers coming back for more.
He and his team incorporated gameplaying elements to increase engagement. Like other mobile-game apps, Duolingo is friendly and fun. It uses images, video clips, and the microphone on the mobile device to not only help you learn words, but to recite and write them as well.
Behavioral science has proven that marketing efforts that activate goals have a much greater impact on consumers. Duolingo rewards right answers with “points.” Consecutive daily lessons can help the consumer build “streaks.”
“It’s like a video game, where you have to do something every day or you lose your rank,” says Gina Gotthilf, VP of Marketing and Growth for Duolingo.
The streaks give you virtual currency that can unlock bonus skills or purchase outfits for the game’s mascot, a green owl named Duo. Von Ahn picked an Owl because owls are associated with wisdom, and chose to make it green as a joke on the company’s co-founder, Severin Hacker, who’s least favorite color is green (seriously).
An educational resource that’s actually enjoyable to use, Duolingo combines fun with function in a way that no language-learning platform has before.
A major point of differentiation amongst competitors like Rosetta Stone, other than the price, is DuoLingo’s use of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, von Ahn discovered that the hardest part of learning a new language is overcoming the fear of sounding it out in front of others. With AI chatbots, DuoLingo users can practice without pressure, preparing them for real-life conversations without the awkwardness and anxiety that come with the learning process.
The performance data also allows Duolingo to measure how effective different teaching methods are. If a person makes a mistake, or even hesitates to answer a certain question, the app registers that behavior, and will serve a new series of questions to help that person overcome that difficulty.
The Duolingo team has conducted thousands of A/B tests exploring the biases and cognitive shortcuts that affect how people absorb and process information. In doing so, they continue to build on their mastery of behavioral techniques, analyzing how millions of people learn at once, to create the most effective educational system possible, and then tailor it to each student.
For example, if Duolingo wanted to know if people learned faster when being taught plurals before adjectives, or vice versa, they would simply split the next 400,000 users into two groups and test each. Once they have their answer, they can implement it across the entire platform. This allows Duolingo to get smarter and more efficient as the company grows; and it’s working. A recent study by the City University of New York shows that 34 hours of learning a language on Duolingo is the equivalent of an entire university semester learning that same language.
Today, with over 200 million users, it is the most downloaded educational app in the world. In the United States, there are more people learning languages on Duolingo than there are in the nation’s school system.
Outside the U.S., entire countries like Costa Rica and Columbia have adopted Duolingo into every public school that has access to the internet, and the company is currently working on creating offline platforms for countries that do not have stable or reliable internet connectivity.
Von Ahn wanted to show the world that true equality exists only when money cannot buy better educations; and, while he’s just getting started, he realized his impact when he received news about a familiar friend.
Bill Gates used Duolingo to learn French.
The richest man in the world and kids in developing countries – both using the same educational tool to learn.
Now that’s inspiring action.
Some organizations so outperform most organizations that it seems wrong to put them in the same category.
While most organizations fail in their early years, most of the survivors also fail. Among the majority that survive, generating average growth means growing at a few percentage points per year.
Only a small minority are fast-growing companies. Of the fast-growing companies, many are in fast-growing categories. No doubt, the leaders of these companies know that they are beating the odds. Likely, they feel very successful. But the fact is that most of these companies only grow fast quickly for a limited time, and then they revert to the mean — or fail. Particularly in gold rush industries, there may be many fast-growing companies, but nearly all bubbles end in pretty much the same way. They burst.
I’ve long been fascinated with the extreme exception — the company or organization that builds an iconic brand and inspires a movement.
Most businesspeople miss the most important things that make for this kind of success. Perhaps this is because they try to reduce the life of the business to just business. Working closely with the leaders of rare outperforming, high-impact organizations, I’ve always found them to be on a mission to create something very different in the world. While the people at the top of these organizations are typically extremely savvy about business, they haven’t been so much business managers as movement leaders.
Call it “purpose” or “meaning” or “an inspiring idea” that fuels these businesses. Behavior change scientists might call it “a moral frame” that attracts, inspires and encourages the identification we measure as brand affinity, customer loyalty and advocacy.
While most businesspeople seem to judge incentives by the simple measure of whether they bring about the desired action, the leaders of these companies see incentives differently. They realize that all action is not created equal, and they appreciate that the meaning behind the behavior is actually much more important for long-term success and impact. The results of behavioral economics experiments actually bear this out.
Most business managers incentivize action, but great leaders inspire action.
Part of inspiring action is actually forgoing the easy results that could come from generating action with cheap but unaligned incentives. Don’t read that wrong — they don’t forgo the results. In fact, their results are much, much better.
It’s not the results they sacrifice. It’s the ease. Cheap tricks are common, easy to explain and relatively easy to execute. Copying your competitor’s “loyalty” program, for example.
Building a distinct and meaningful brand with an entirely integrated experience is a whole other thing entirely. It just happens to work so much better.
In the past month, our country has been slammed by two catastrophic natural disasters in Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. While the storms have passed, the devastation has not. Millions of people have been affected, and thousands are still without food or shelter.
At DiMassimo Goldstein, we talk a lot about Inspiring Action, and there is no action more inspiring than helping people in times of distress. In the past few weeks, we have been inspired by the courageous and empathetic actions that many brands have taken to help those in need. When companies have the supplies and systems in place to respond quickly, they should – and these brands did just that and then some.
JetBlue has capped the fares of flights leaving South Florida and other parts of the country that are likely to see Irma’s fury, helping as many people as possible escape the devastation. These fares are available until September 13th. The company is also waiving fees for changes in reservations to travelers who have had to cancel flights due to the storm.
Airbnb launched their “Disaster Relief Program” in both Texas and Florida. The program, which assembles a list of hosts willing to open their homes for free, has helped thousands of people looking for emergency shelter following the hurricanes and flooding.
Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile have all waived overage charges for calls, texts, and data for its customers in Florida, helping people connect with family, check for weather updates, and follow the coverage of the storms on their phones.
Walmart has donated a total of $30 Million in relief for both Harvey and Irma. The company has also shipped thousands of trucks loaded with emergency supplies like water, batteries, generators, food, and first aid kits to hurricane impacted areas. Walmart will also match any donation that customers make at any Walmart or Sam’s Club.
Google provided real-time road closure information in its maps platform, which helped thousands as they had to make split decisions evacuating cities. The company also created a “digital survival kit”, pulling together about 20 mobile apps to help Floridians make it through the storm. The collection of apps included Hurricane Tracker, Family Locator, American Red Cross, GasBuddy, The Weather Channel, and Zello, which received six million users in one week as Florida prepared for the Hurricane.
After receiving requests for help, Tesla pushed a software update for those in evacuation areas that increased the battery capacity of some Model S Sedans and Model X SUVs, allowing the cars and those driving in them to go 30 to 40 miles farther on a single charge.
These companies showed love, courage, and understanding. They didn’t wait to react. They sacrificed sales and revenue to help others. They understood their power and responsibility, and used it to implement real on-the-ground solutions to acute and urgent needs.
Now that’s #inspiringaction!
Sallie Krawcheck had an inspiring idea:
Create a robo-advising platform specifically designed for women.
Like most inspiring ideas, it came from true aspiration — and few things mobilize and stimulate humans more than true human aspirations.
That aspiration? To help close the investment gender gap. But to truly understand the roots of Krawcheck’s aspirations, you must first understand her background.
As the former CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, and the CFO of Citigroup prior to that, Krawcheck spent much of her career being the only woman in the room. Finance is a “for men, by men” industry, and few people in the world have been as exposed to — or as outspoken about — that disparity as much as Krawcheck.
In regards to Wall Street’s unofficial mascot, Krawcheck asks Forbes, “Does it get any more male than that? Maybe a snake.”
The quantitative research is staggering. Just 16 percent of the nation’s 311,000 financial advisors are female. Due to this imbalance, investing is tailored towards men’s interests, leading women to put their money in the bank rather than invest it. Seventy-one percent of all assets controlled by women are held as uninvested cash.
To Krawcheck, this translates to “us boss ladies missing out on major market-gain opportunities and losing out on inflation.”
The reality is that the financial industry does not favor women. It doesn’t speak to their unique financial needs, or address their goals, or speak their language. Women aren’t as interested as men in “beating the market.” Instead, they prefer to think of their investments in terms of goals, like buying a home, starting a business, or paying off a student loan. And as a result, far too many women are sitting on the sidelines instead of making their money work harder for their dreams.
Frustrated and determined to make a difference, Krawcheck had her insight: Make investing seem like a game worth playing by making it appear less like a game.
In 2014, she put that insight to action by launching Ellevest, a female-focused robo-advising platform.
Unlike other robo-advising platforms, Elllevest puts women first. Krawcheck and her team spent over 100 hours interviewing women to ensure that the entire user experience was geared toward the way women think about their money. It connects with the female investor on a deeper, more psychographic level by putting a hyper focus on the realities of being a woman — for example, the greater likelihood of women taking time out of the workforce. Or the fact that their salaries, in general, tend be lower over the course of their careers despite peaking earlier than men’s. It considers the five extra years of a woman’s lifespan when planning for retirement. All of these factors should have a strong influence on investing strategies, and yet Ellevest is the only company making an active effort to recognize them.
And it’s working. This past March, Ellevest had over 3,000 accounts with $18 million in assets.
Krawcheck has created a brand that allows women to inspire action in themselves. She has given her consumers a self-actualizing experience, and nothing is more valuable to a consumer today. Opening an account with Ellevest means investing in yourself. It’s a company on an inspiring mission to close the investment gender gap, and women want to be a part of that story.
That’s why Ellevest is our Inspiring Action Brand of the Month!