3 Essential Growth Hacking Lessons from the VP of Growth & Marketing of Duolingo, Gina Gotthilf

Duolingo is the world’s most popular way to learn a language. With desktop and mobile app options, the company has decided to go straight to the people with a bottoms-up approach, avoiding education bureaucracy and ensuring free access to learning material.

Talk about disrupting an industry. Now, anyone in the world with internet can access a 100% free, fun and science-based app to learn a new language.

What makes Duolingo an even more unique case to study is that paid marketing hasn’t been an option. The company has adopted a growth process that allows the team to experiment and find new ways to continue growing through word of mouth, in and outside of the classroom.

Meet Gina Gotthilf, VP of Growth & Marketing

Gina Gotthild, Duolingo VP of Growth & Marketing

Over the course of 4 years since starting at Duolingo, Gina Gotthilf has helped build their user base from 3 to 150 million. She runs the cross-functional growth team and is in charge of all marketing and communications at Duolingo.

Not only is Gina full of energy and easy to talk to, she also has experience growing a company that’s transforming the way people learn, which all marketers, product managers, and founders can benefit from hearing.

As Sean Ellis defines the term, Gina is an ultimate growth hacker. She has helped form an efficient and collaborative team that tests everything going out the door (product features, emails, push notifications, etc.) as an opportunity to learn and find what works. Gina, therefore, also has a wealth of tested tactics that others can try applying to their products.

As I talked to Gina about her upcoming presentation for the GrowthHackers Conference, it became clear to me that 1. Gina is a rockstar, and 2. there are lessons to Duolingo’s success worth sharing with the entire Growth Hackers community.

1. A collaborative A+ team is vital to growth

An intern openly disagreeing with the CEO in a meeting? Yeah, it sounds uncomfortable, but it’s just one example of how the team at Duolingo operates.

Gina argues that one of the biggest mistakes a company can make is hiring because you’re drowning and “need” someone right now. Duolingo only hires A+ candidates that are right for the team, even though it takes more time. This makes it possible to have a super open and collaborative environment where anyone is welcome to speak up without fear of losing their job.

During the hiring process, Duolingo uses a number system that clearly delineates how people in the company assess a candidate and any veto requests that need to be taken seriously. This lengthy hiring diligence process results roughly in one employee for every 100 candidates. But as Gina says, “hiring mistakes are extremely expensive in terms of time, frustration, productivity and team morale,” and this process helps her team avoid those mistakes.

At Duolingo, a nine-person growth team with the capacity to operate fully independently is what leads the company’s growth efforts. Gina leads four engineers dedicated to different projects (SEO, Android product changes, iOS product changes, emails/notifications), two half-time designers, someone focused on copywriting, communications and PR, and one part-time PM.

The growth team has weekly sprints, and the company holds a weekly all-hands meeting where everyone announces the most important experiment pushes or projects for the week. This helps everyone at the company remain on the same page and easily identify any red flags that may arise.

2. Focus on product-market fit before growing

Duolingo focused a lot on building a solid product that people loved and were willing to tell their friends about before they even thought about focusing on growing the number of users.

As Gina advises…

“Your marketing efforts will be a lot more effective once you [make a product great and build retention] because fewer people will drop-off in your funnel.”

Duolingo employees spend most of their time (even in the growth team) making the product better through optimizations (a.k.a. a/b tests). They measure the fraction of people that come back the next day, the “Net Promoter Score” (NPS), etc. This brings us to the next point…

3. Retention is extremely important

As Gina preaches, “you can force people to check out your product/app/service, but unless you can get those people to stick around, there’s no point!” You can spend money on acquisition and bring in users, but it takes a lot of time and effort to build up and optimize a product’s retention.

And before you can improve something, you need to understand one thing. As Duolingo’s co-founder, Severin Hacker, once said to the company:

“If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.”

And the company truly believes in that. Duolingo’s holy grail metric is Daily Active Users (DAU), and they know how their tests affect that metric.

Gina mentioned that they collaborate a lot as a team on decisions, but their PM always looks at potential ROI for all experiment ideas before they are seriously considered. This includes knowing what needs to be measured.

“Retention is extremely important for growth or really, any type of success.”

At Duolingo, maintaining and engaging existing users is considered part of “growth.” In addition to improving the new user onboarding and activation, Gina’s team focuses on improving retention among existing users.

They measure what they call “D1 retention” which is the fraction of the people who sign up that come back the day after. By focusing on improving this metric, Duolingo was able to improve D1 retention from 15% at launch to over 50% today.

“Improving the signup funnel and sending a really good notification has made a huge difference here.”

Duolingo uses gamification principles to make the learning experience more engaging for users. Emails and notifications are also really big players in driving retention. For example, this re-engagement email from Duo with the subject line “We miss you!”

Author’s note: Gina’s team is behind my favorite re-engagement email to date. How could you say no to this sad owl? A 5-minute lesson to make this owl happy? While bettering myself? Win — win!

According to Gina, this email has been effective in keeping users engaged, and has got some attention in the media.

Learn more from Gina

These lessons are only skimming the surface of the wealth of knowledge Gina has to share. If you’d like to learn more, join us May 24th at this year’s GrowthHackers Conference where Gina and other growth leaders will share their knowledge on sustainably growing products’ users and revenue.