Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
If you have ever had to tell your computer that you are not a robot and type a series of words and numbers when you subscribe to an email newsletter, you’ve run into Luis von Ahn’s work. In 2000, with his mentor Manuel Blum, he invented CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. He built two companies on the technology, which he sold to Google in 2009.
He was just about to turn 30, and he found himself at a career crossroads. “I was having sort of a quarterlife crisis, wondering what I am going to do with the rest of my life,” recalled von Ahn.
So he set his sights on a new project and wanted to do something that he was passionate about. Having seen how a lack of education can impact opportunity and factor into economic disparity in his native Guatemala, and given his love for teaching as a computer science professor at his graduate alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, education and learning seemed like a natural focus.
“My views about education are very influenced by being from Guatemala. … The rich people can buy themselves the best education in the world, whereas the poor people rarely learn how to read and write, and because of that, they never make much money,” von Ahn says. “I wanted to do something that would give equal access to education to everybody.”
His solution to bridge that gap was to remove the time constraints and costs often attached to gaining fluency in a new language.
“There are over a billion people in the world learning a foreign language,” he says. “Then I asked, can we find a way for people to learn a foreign language for free?” That’s how his startup Duolingo got its start.
With Duolingo, users can choose from 27 news languages from Spanish to Swedish, and learn through small, gamified lessons. Since the company’s launch in 2011, it has raised $83.3 million in funding, been awarded iPhone App of the Year in 2013 and was the Best of the Best for Android in 2013 and 2014. It is also the most downloaded app in the “Education” category on Android and iOS worldwide and the free app has garnered 150 million total users around the world, according to the company.
We caught up with von Ahn to ask him 20 questions about what makes him tick.
This interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
1. How do you start your day?
I wake up pretty early between five and six a.m. First thing I do is check my email and the second thing I do is check the Duolingo metrics from the day before, like revenue and active users. I don’t know if that is a good idea or not because my mood for the rest of the day is correlated to that. Then I work out for 16 minutes. I work out at maximum speed for 16 minutes, it is a time saving device. The working out really wakes me up and gives me a lot of energy; I feel pretty refreshed after that.
2. How do you end your day?
That varies depending on what I did during the day. Sometimes I just get back from a late dinner and go to bed immediately. If I have time, I try to wrap everything up before the next day, so I don’t have anything that carries over. That’s rare, but when I am able to do that, that makes me feel a lot better. If I can start the next day with nothing immediate carrying over, that really helps me.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind?
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. Before I read that book I didn’t pay a lot of attention to design. That book makes it clear when you don’t understand something it is because it is poorly designed, not because you aren’t smart. Since then, I’m obsessed with how products are designed.
4. What’s a book you always recommend?
I recently read High Output Management by Andy Grove. There are a lot of books written about how to be a better CEO by people who aren’t CEOs. He was CEO of Intel for more than 30 years. It’s a how-to book about how to be a manger. It’s so well thought out; it’s about exactly the problems people have. For example, if you are doing a performance review, give people what you want to talk about in writing before, during and after your meeting.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
I try to break everything into small tasks. I’m not good at doing things that take months, but I am good at doing things that take a half an hour. I break things down into 15-, 30-minute pieces.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
At first my mother was very concerned, because I wanted to be a fire truck, not a firefighter. Then I wanted to be a policeman, a doctor, an astronomer and then I settled on professor, which I ended up being for the first part of my career. I think a lot of it had to do with TV. I watched TV shows with policeman, and it seemed cool. I was a big fan of the show ER, and I thought that’s what I want to be.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
I don’t think I’ve really had a boss. When I started leading a team I would micromanage everything they were doing, because I wanted it just so. Over time I have learned to bite my tongue in meetings, and I should only speak up if I feel extremely strongly about something. People who report to me have gotten better at their jobs, because they have more responsibility and learn from their mistakes.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
I got a Ph.D in computer science, and I had an awesome advisor, Manuel Blum. He won the Turing Award, which is basically the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for computer science. I learned so much from this guy; he was just so humble and thought about everything so deeply.
I spend most of my weekends thinking about things that other people might not think much about, but I think about them over and over again. It’s kind of obsessive, but from that, a lot of good stuff really comes out.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
I grew up in Guatemala. The first time I came to the U.S. really changed me. The first thing I thought was, this is where I want to live. I know a lot of countries are more orderly, but at the time, Guatemala was extremely chaotic. Everything in the U.S. was so orderly. People stood in line and used turn signals. That such a society could exist was amazing. For many people that’s not surprising, but for me that was surprising.
10. What inspires you?
That has changed over time. At first what inspired me was to work on hard technological problems. I didn’t particularly care about the impact, I just wanted to solve difficult problems. Now, the main thing that inspires me is the impact something can have. With Duolingo, what inspires me is our mission: trying to give people language education.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
I actually had what I thought was a pretty serious business idea when I was about 12. I also thought I was the first person to have this idea, and I thought it was a great idea. Neither of those were true. The idea was to see if you could generate electricity through motion.
I thought this would allow us to make gyms for free. Connect the exercise equipment to the power grid. Anyone who is exercising would be generating electricity, and I would be able to sell that electricity to the power company. Therefore I don’t have to charge anyone to come exercise. My gym would be free and everybody else’s gym would be expensive, so I would be able to take over the gym world.
It turns out this a pretty common bad idea. The reason it doesn’t work is because humans are pretty crappy at generating electricity. The amount of electricity you could generate this way is worth nothing. There is an even bigger problem. Gyms make their money from people who don’t show up, and for this idea you need people to show up.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful that you still use today?
I started this company called reCAPTCHA. It was acquired by Google and spent some time at Google after the acquisition. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was extremely impactful. I really learned how a well-run company operates. By just being there I was able to see how they did things, and I applied a lot of it to Duolingo.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
I was complaining that I didn't want to give a talk that I had promised to do. They said to me, with things like talks, you usually get asked to do them a year in advance. The advice was, if you are ever invited to do something six months or more in advance, ask yourself if you would want to do this if it was next week. If it’s no, you should just decline.
14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got?
I don’t know if it's bad universally, or if it was just bad for me. When you’re building a product, typical advice is listen to what your users are saying. I have found that is terrible advice for Duolingo. The spirit of the advice is good, but a lot of times, there is a problem that arises. If the feedback channels are such that that only a few users get to talk to you, you are only hearing the loudest ones, not all of them, and that is where it breaks down.
We have a forum on our website where people can talk about language, but they often ask about features. I have found that listening to people in the forums is a terrible idea. For example, we redesigned the website a few years ago,and people in the forum were saying how terrible it was. Hundreds of posts about how this was the worst decision we had ever made. All the while we were looking at the metrics for the new website, and they were significantly better.
If you are just listening to the people who reach out to you, than that is a biased sample of people who are a loud minority. Of course that is not always the case, but unless you know what you are doing, you should watch out for that bias.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I like my exercise routine, because it’s time efficient. I just run like crazy for 15 or 16 minutes. I feel dead afterwards, but at least it saves me time.
16. Is there an app or tool you use to get things done or stay on track?
I use Slack a lot. It helps me easily communicate with the Duolingo team and keep track of what the team is working on day to day.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I don’t understand the meaning of that. I don’t burn out because my work is my hobby. I do this because it’s what I love to do. That’s not a big issue for me.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
I guess I am a workaholic, but I have learned to cap the number of hours a day that I spend working. My biggest strategy is no matter what I am doing, at around 8:00 pm I stop working.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
This happens often and I have learned over time is to just let time pass. Do something else -- that really helps.
20. What are you learning now?
It is kind of a shameless plug, but I’m actually learning Portuguese on Duolingo. It’s close to Spanish, and I’m a native Spanish speaker. I’m actually very bad at learning languages, which is pretty funny, but this one I’m actually making some progress.