Severin Hacker dreamed of starting his own company at an early age. The Swiss-native, who grew up in a small town outside of Zurich, recalls being one of the few families in his neighborhood to have Internet. Fueled by his interest in video games, he taught himself computer programming at age 12, around 1996.
Hacker’s love for computers led him to the doctorate program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There, his vision of becoming an entrepreneur became a reality. Two years into his doctoral program, Hacker developed the popular language-learning app Duolingo. Co-founder Luis von Ahn served as Hacker’s advisor at CMU.
The pair wanted to make learning a new language accessible to everyone, so they created a free platform with 94 different language courses in 38 languages. Users have since flocked to the app, which now boasts more than 300M users—including Bill Gates.
Hacker recently shared with CSQ that he’s just scratching the surface of Duolingo’s potential. Here, he speaks to his early career challenges, and why the path to IPO is a step forward instead of a step away.
What were your early career goals, and how did your interest in computer science come into play?
My dad is an entrepreneur, and it was always a dream of mine to start a company at some point, but I didn’t know what that was going to be. What originally drew me to computers was video games and the desire to build your own games and understand how those games are built. I was somewhat obsessed.
When thinking about the early years, what was the most challenging situation to overcome?
The most challenging part was hiring people—this was around 2011 or 2012 when it was Luis and me. We were still at the university back then, but it was so hard to get people to work for Duolingo. At the time, startups weren’t nearly as attractive as today, and people at Carnegie Mellon wanted to go work at Google or Facebook—one of the big tech companies. We heavily relied on friends and referrals in the early days.
At what point did you realize Duolingo was becoming successful?
There were a few moments, but when we won Apple’s “App of the Year” in 2013, I knew this was no longer just a research project. I mean, the award didn’t directly help us—we did get featured by Apple and that helped with downloads—but it felt like this is not going to go away anytime soon. It felt amazing at the time because we really had no right to win. We were just a 15-person startup. It started out as a research project, and it was a great product, even back then. But it was still very surprising.
What aspect of your role as CTO do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy all the things I do because I’m pretty good at not doing the things I don’t like. I’m very involved in hiring. I like working with really smart people, and I think Duolingo has done a fantastic job at hiring the right people. Hiring is a lot like sales. You’re selling your company to the candidate, so you need to have a good message. For example, what works for Duolingo is the mission. Probably 60 percent of the people here at Duolingo wouldn’t work here if we didn’t have this mission of providing education and making it universally accessible. That kind of social-good mission is one of the big reasons why people work here when they often have offers from Google and Facebook, where they could possibly make more in the short-term. The other thing that’s actually quite enjoyable is when you can delegate things. For me, it wasn’t that hard. Someone showed me this article, essentially giving away pieces of your job in order for the company to grow, called “Give Away Your Legos,” and that really stuck with me. I think over time I’ve become pretty good at delegating things and sharing my Legos.
What haven’t you accomplished that you’d still like to do?
I feel like it’s still the early days. Duolingo is really good at teaching beginners and at some point, it levels off. You can’t become fully fluent just using Duolingo, but I believe that it’s possible. I believe that you can learn a language just using a smartphone. It might involve other modes of learning, maybe at some point you have to talk to a human, but I do believe that it’s possible to get people to proficiency using apps like Duolingo.
Co-founder Luis von Ahn has said Duolingo is planning an IPO next year. Has this goal changed the way you approach the business?
We’re still just scratching the surface. There’s so much left to do. Basically, the way we see it is we want to build a successful business—a sustainable business. An IPO or going public, people always call it an exit but we’re not planning to exit. So, it’s more like a milestone and you have shown that you can grow a company to a mature public company. A lot of it is also like a marketing event, but we do what’s best for the long-term interest of the company, and if IPO is part of that then we will IPO.