Luis von Ahn looks like a tech-guru who has made millions – casually-dressed, subtle and polite.
I meet the inventor and CEO of the world’s largest language app, Duolingo, the day before the launch of the app’s first African language, Swahili.
For Von Ahn, the road to introducing Swahili to the 150 million users of his educational language app has been long, and has taken him around the world since leaving his homeland Guatemala.
A son of two medical doctors, graduating from Guatemala City’s international school, Von Ahn had to look outside the Central American country to find education – a university that offered math degrees – perhaps inspiring him to create a universal educational tool later in life.
During the first year of his PhD studies at the prestigious Duke University in the United States, a particular talk would influence and shape his life.
“The chief scientist of Yahoo came to give a talk about 10 things they needed solutions for. They struggled with people creating Yahoo email accounts to send spam. That led me to do a test recognizing humans: CAPTCHA. We were online within six months,” says Von Ahn.
This stroke of genius did not make Von Ahn a dime, he says.
“I don´t regret it, because everyone started using it; all kinds of people started approaching me.”
As tech giants lined up to court the CAPTCHA inventor, then 29-year-old Von Ahn was thinking about his next step.
“Two hundred million CAPTCHAs were typed a day, it takes about 10 seconds, that’s 500,000 hours of typing every day, how could I use that?” he asks, revealing how he turned the thousands of hours into an efficient digitalization tool.
Digitalizing books were trending, but no one had cracked the code on how to efficiently publish them yet.
“Google was trying to do this,” says Von Ahn.
“A computer scans a page that needs deciphering, which computers could not do at that time.”
Pictures of words from books are put online as CAPTCHAs, humans then decipher it, and the computer then saves it.
“Today, we call this crowdsourcing,” Von Ahn says, smiling.
“It worked. We were probably doing a year of the New York Times in a week. Then Google bought it, and today CAPTCHA digitalizes 100 million words a day, which is two million books a year,” says Von Ahn, explaining how, if you have filled in a CAPTCHA since 2007, you are probably among the billion people who have helped.
The sale of the CAPTCHA business has never been disclosed, but Von Ahn admits that it did make him millions. After that adventure, 37-year-old Von Ahn wanted to focus on education.
“I wanted to work on something passion-driven, and we decided on languages because there are 1.2 billion people learning languages, and language has impact: learn English, and you can immediately make more money.”
Eyeing a massive hole in the market, Von Ahn threw himself into making Duolingo.
Alongside Swiss PhD student Severin Hacker (that is his real name), Von Ahn started creating a website.
“That’s what people did,” he says.
The app market was only just launching in 2011, but that was all about to change.
“We raised $3 million of funding and launched in 2012. A few months later we launched apps, and now there are more than 150 million using it,” Von Ahn says proudly.
The main income generator is the app’s online language tests, an alternative to the traditional TOEFL tests that measure your ability to use and understand English.
“The TOEFL tests are expensive, slow and have to be done manually at centers. This is much cheaper,” says Von Ahn, offering tests at $50, whereas a TOEFL is about $250.
“We have already got about 30 universities on board,” he says.
Targeting Africa seems like a good idea, as the number of smartphone connections has almost doubled since 2014, and the cost of buying a smartphone has dropped by more than 25% since 2012. According to reports, more than 500 million on the continent currently subscribe to mobile services, with mobile operators expecting numbers to reach 725 million in 2020.
“The lack of smartphones is the main challenge, but everyone is trying to grow here, like Facebook, so that will change,” says Von Ahn.
Founder of numerous African tech start-ups, Ndubuisi Ekekwe, has stayed clear of any app-based business.
“Most smartphones sold in Africa fail to download and install apps from apps stores,” he says, explaining how in Africa, phones are used for a longer period of time before being replaced, making the phones unable to handle many apps.
“Americans can upgrade their phones annually and that is in line with most app upgrades. But in Africa, people use their phones for more than three years,” says Ekekwe. “We do not see a roadmap for how that can be closed, and that is why I do not see a market for apps in Africa for a long time.”
Von Ahn is not too worried though.
“I recognize that in six years apps might not even exist, but right now I think we’re okay,” he says, convinced of his, and Duolingo’s, ability to adapt.
The app’s current mission is to introduce Swahili to its 150 million users. Judging by the waiting list of 45,000 users, he is probably right.