Recognize this sweet little owl?

duolingo owl

Your answer is likely “yes”. Duolingo‘s fun feathered friend, Duo, is undoubtedly one of the most known logos/mascots in the mobile app realm. He can be found on the home screens of users across the world and boasts a user base of over 300 million.

What are the reasons behind Duolingo’s worldwide fame? Aside from being a high quality language learning app with superb onboarding and gamification, it has also got a slew of passionate, innovators working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure it delivers a top-notch experience.

Today, we are shining the spotlight on a particular Duolingo trailblazer: Cem Kansu.

Cem is the Senior Product Manager for Duolingo’s Monetization and Growth teams. I had the pleasure of speaking with Cem recently and let me tell you, the conversation was nothing short of insightful. Whether you’re a mobile product manager or simply looking to learn more about the edtech world, you will surely walk away from this piece with some unique product advice, a little history on the mission of Duolingo, and a better understanding of the impact language apps can have on education (and the world).

Can you really monetize free education? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a language learning app compared to in-person practicing? What are the biggest challenges facing mobile apps today?

Let’s read Cem’s interesting take on things…

 

Hannah: In short, describe your role/responsibilities as a Senior Product Manager for Duolingo’s Monetization and Growth teams.

Cem: The history of monetization at Duolingo is kind of a new thing. We’ve been trying to become a sustainable business for the last two years. Before that it was all about user growth and driving a free product to scale. Right now I am responsible for coming up with anything that can bring us revenue inside the Duolingo app. That encompasses Duolingo Plus our subscription product, advertising, in-app purchases and developing features for any of these lines. The second piece is growing those acquisition channels- so that’s technically the growth piece. I lead the product development and/or product management practice in all of these fields.

 

Hannah: What is your background as a product manager? How did you get into the field?

Cem: I started doing product management in business school. Before then I used to work at Google doing Business Development for their advertising products. But one thing I kinda wanted to give a shot at was being more involved with product itself. During business school I interned at Jawbone, rest in peace, they don’t really exist anymore. They were the fitness wearable legacy company. I really liked my internship there so from there I told myself, “this is the field I want to get into”. I knew monetization quite well because of my previous background at Google, and Duolingo at the time was looking for a combination of both. This was great in terms of what I was looking for and what they were looking for. They were seeking a monetization product manager who would oversee all of the ad monetization at Duolingo. It was a love at first sight kind of deal- this was about two years ago. That was my first plunge into a full time product management role and looking back it was without a doubt the right choice. I really enjoy what I do on a day to day basis. 

 

Hannah: What’s your favorite part about being a product manager?

Cem: This is going to probably sound cliche as all product managers probably say this, but I think having a very strong impact on one, the entire company and depending what type of product you are on, and two, the entire product. I say this with the caveat that a lot of people sell the product management role as hey, you are the CEO of the product. You are definitely not the CEO of the product. Which actually would be a lot easier because you would get to call the shots yourself. You basically have no direct authority over anybody but you do have a lot of influence. It lets you train the muscles that are useful in every dimension of life- which in my opinion is just trying to build a strong case, being smart about what you present and what you prepare for, and really understanding your user base so that you can get everybody to rally behind you.

I might have gone in a roundabout way, I think the short version of what I am trying to say is, having impact on the company and the product directly is probably the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. And the second piece, and I think this is not necessarily just for product management specifically but more as it applies to Duolingo, is the fact that I am able to help the mission that helps people around the world, in a way that not a lot of other products do. We’re not a company that just tries to maximize its bottom line, we have somewhat of a nonprofit mission of providing free access to language education. So seeing that help and change peoples’ lives is also pretty motivating at the end of the day.

 

Hannah: Do you have a favorite feature of Duolingo?

Cem: I would say, it would be my baby, which is Duolingo Plus. That’s been somewhat of a turning point in the history of Duolingo. The reason I like it the most is that it lets us provide education for free, while giving the optionality for users who want to contribute to Duolingo and get slightly a better version or a nicer experience. I think in the tech circle this is kind of called the “Robin Hood” model which means let the “rich” pay if they choose to yet provide the service for free for the ones that don’t have money. This model enables us to do that for education. At the end of the day, I really like it because it creates a sustainable business for free education which is something that has kinda never been done before or not really worked at scale that much. If you look at education tech services most of them lock the valuable thing that they have which is content and then put it under paywall. Since we don’t do that, it lets us do this creative business model where we keep providing education for free but also have a way to build a sustainable business on top of it.

duolingo plus

 

Hannah: Where is Duolingo looking to improve on the product-side?

Cem: We know we don’t teach enough to get people to complete fluency. For example, if you don’t know any Spanish, you pick up Duolingo today, you finish all the content we give you, you will get to a good point on reaching and writing skills, but you probably won’t be fluent. We want to get you to fluency. We want to improve teaching efficacy and have been investing most of our resources there this year. We are striving to become the product that users can pick up, and know that it will enable them to reach a high level of fluency and easily converse with native speakers. I think language learning is tough in any context. We do a great job at getting you started. I think the main area that we are focusing on now, which is somewhat of a “short term goal” is to get you to produce you more language than you currently do on Duolingo.

What I mean by that is that a lot of people who join Duolingo want to start a conversation, even though it might be basic. For example, let’s say you want to order a latte in Italian. It’s actually pretty simple, but even today we don’t get you to practice that in Duolingo, so we are working on ways for you to practice doing the basic conversation stuff. The “horse eats an apple” is a good sentence in terms of teaching you vocabulary, but it’s not directly actionable. Also, typing something on a phone, doesn’t immediately transfer to offline knowledge of a language. We can get you to say things in the written format, but when it comes to responding in the moment and actually speaking to a human, it’s a totally different way to produce- so we are working on a lot of products that try to tackle this problem. And one of them is conversation per se and the other one is reading.

In order to get to fluency you need to be able to read more than a sentence at once, obviously, but most of Duolingo’s reading exercises today are one sentence exercises. So how can we get you to read longer form text and get you to understand what that text is talking about, is another big focus. All in all we are always looking for ways to improve and deliver the best language learning experience possible. 

 

Hannah: What would you say are some key points that differentiate Duolingo from competitors?

Cem: I would say that it’s definitely the mission*.  A big motivator for those who work here is the mission of providing free access to language education. Take a look at how the language education space has evolved- the legacy model was Rosetta Stone, which was quite expensive. Especially in emerging markets: people need to learn English to get better jobs, to increase their chances of getting a better income. But, in a lot of poor emerging markets, people don’t have the $500 to spend on Rosetta Stone.It’s this weird dilemma where you need to have $500 on the minimum or thousands of dollars to learn English and if you learn English then you might increase your chances of higher income, better jobs, better education. Breaking that cycle with Duolingo is what we were built on. And I would say it’s the main differentiator as well. That’s why we have so much more users than any other education platform. And for my role specifically I have the task of figuring out, while keeping true to this mission, how do we also build a sustainable business on top of it. It has been an interesting challenge to solve.”

*Duolingo’s mission is truly special. Check out this recently released documentary on how effective language learning and education impacts the lives of refugees in Turkey:

duolingo something like home documentary

 

Hannah: What do you see are some of the biggest challenges that mobile apps in general face?

Cem: I honestly think that having a mobile app product has more advantages than disadvantages at this point because it’s just that distribution is in everyone’s pocket. I think the challenge with every mobile app is that you are competing for the limited amount of attention that a human can have. I think the average user spends two hours a day on their phone, and every app wants that piece. And that count doesn’t necessarily go up that much because there are only 24 hours in the day and people have to go about their lives. So I think the competition for attention is the longer term challenge of being a mobile app.

Hannah: So you are aiming for daily active usage more so than on a weekly basis or let’s say, twice a week?

Cem: Yes, we’re all about daily active because the way Duolingo works well is if you do daily practice. A lot of the app’s mechanics, especially retention mechanics, are built around “alright it’s been 24 hours since you practiced, come back to practice more”. We have this thing called the ‘Daily Streak’ which has been our most successful experiment so far. It basically gives you a daily streak count, and people take huge pride in their streaks.”

duolingo streak

 

Hannah: What are some of your favorite tools to use? Why?

Cem: Personally, to manage my own life at this at this point, I use this MAC and iOS app called Things. I’ve gone through a lot of to-do list apps and ended up on this. It requires a one-time payment and then you get access to a very clean product. I love it.

For actual work at Duolingo we have all in-house tools for queries, dashboards, and analysis. Those tools don’t necessarily scale outside of the company. We have also benefited a lot from Google Data Studio and have built all of our tracking dashboards on it.

We also use this tool called Guru that serves as a great knowledge base and onboarding platform for new employees. Slick UI.

 

Hannah: What are your top five apps that you would never delete from your phone?

Cem: Duolingo obviously. Things. Third – Spotify, that’s for sure. Fourth- Robinhood, that’s a stock trading app, I really like their design. And lastly, I would never delete Google Maps.

 

Hannah: What are your favorite blogs, communities, influencers to follow?

Cem: I really like the medium publication Hackernoon and the growth focused emails that Andrew Chen sends out.

I also quite enjoy the email newsletter called Morning Brew– it’s a very well-written summary of what’s happening in the world and in the business world.

Last but not least I would recommend Ben Evans– he also has a newsletter. We pass that around quite often in the product management groups because he analyzes tech events really well.

 

Hannah: Name your top item or items on your bucket list, 3,2, 1….go!

    1. Successfully do a backflip
    2. Travel to Brazil and Argentina

 

Thanks for chatting with me Cem! 🙂

Want to get more product tips from Duolingo? Check out our feature on Duolingo’s smart onboarding. First impressions, done right.