EP1: How Duolingo Hosts 500 Events a Month And You Can Too

Today on the show we welcome Laura Nestler. We refer to Laura as the “community unicorn” as she is the Global Head of Community at DuoLingo and spoke at Startup Grind’s Bevy summit earlier this year. If you haven’t already heard of DuoLingo, it is the world’s most popular place to learn a language – for free, from your phone. DuoLingo is currently reaching over 200 million users and one year ago, Laura did something that we have never seen done before. She decided that she wanted to get all of these DuoLingo users together… in person.



Welcome to the C2C Podcast. I am your host, Derek Anderson. After holding my first event in 2010, I went on to create Startup Grind, a 400 chapter community based in over 100 countries. Along the way, I discovered the greatest marketing tool of all time, your customers, yet I couldn't find anyone sharing how to build a community where people could experience your brand in person or at scale. On this show, we talk with the brightest minds and companies on the planet about how to build customer to customer marketing strategies and create in-person experiences for your brand and customers before your competitor does.On this episode, we're going to hear from Laura Nestler, who spoke at our Bevy Summit earlier this year. We call Laura the community unicorn because as the global head of community for Duolingo, she has done something that we have never seen done before. Now Duolingo, if you don't know it, but you probably do because it's probably on your phone like hundreds of millions of other people, but it's the best place to learn a language, and a year ago, she decided she was going to get those people together in person. And in one year, she's gone from having zero events to over 500 events in a single month. It's incredible, and you're gonna hear how she did it right now.

Derek: Laura, what is Duolingo? Tell us about Duolingo.

Laura: Yep. Duolingo is the world's most popular way to learn a language. So we have 80 courses, we have about 200 million users that are online using and learning a language for free.

Derek: 200 million users?

Laura: 200 million users.

Derek: That's insane. How did you get 200? How did you get 10 million users? Do you know? How many users did the company have when you joined the company?

Laura: Not 200 million, but not also not 10. Well, I don't know if you know much about Louis, my boss. He's the CEO. There's a great TED Talk that he did, but he's basically the godfather of crowdsourcing. So his backstory is that he's from Guatemala, pretty brilliant dude, and he saw this problem with people gaming Ticketmaster. And so he invented Captcha, those annoying squiggly lines.

Derek: Captcha?

Laura: Yep. But again, because he's brilliant, he kind of thought, wow, that is a lot of wasted time people are spending filling out these squiggly lines all day. What could we do to actually use this for good? And so he pitched a second version of Captcha, which is called Recaptcha, and what that does is a lot of companies right now are digitizing out of print books, and Google is one of them. And what they do is rather than serve you up some random word, they actually serve up a word that they don't know the answer to. They're literally photocopying pages.And so if the word is messed up or if the computer can't read it, it'll serve you that in Recaptcha. And if 100 million people write the word in there, it's considered statistically significant, and that is how we digitize out of print books. So he transferred that brilliant idea over to Duolingo and said, 'What can we do to help people learn languages?' And honestly, a lot of Duolingo's growth came from that original TED Talk.

Derek: No kidding? Just people watching the talk and saying, 'That sounds cool. I should sign up for it.'

Laura: Yep, and it went into a private beta. There was a waiting list and yeah.

Derek: That's a great nugget of success. If you can just get on the TED Stage in the main TED event every year, you will have millions of users, maybe not 200 million, but maybe one million.

Laura: Just one million. Well, this was TEDX Pittsburgh.

Derek: Oh, okay. My mistake. It was the Pittsburgh event.

Laura: You get on there.

Derek: So look, I have so many questions. You have been doing a community for over a decade, and I have so many questions about things you've done. I'd like to know about your working at Yelp, I'd like to know about some of your advisory roles, I'd like to know, frankly, about your semester at sea in 2003 study abroad, but because we have limited time, I'm going to keep it just to Duolingo. And as you're now the global head of community there and have been for the last few years, I'd love to just take us back a little over a year ago or a year and a half ago when you started exploring taking this incredible digital community online and then you started to say, 'Well, maybe we should be getting these people together offline.' First of all, why did you think that was a good idea?

Laura: Oh, that's a good question. And looking back now, I'm like, was that a good idea? Duolingo's mission is to provide free and accessible education to the world, and we believe that anything that we do that extends that mission or operationalizes that mission is a success for us. So yes, we have 200 million people using the app, but turns out that you learn a language to speak it with other people. Language is pretty inherently social. So about a year ago we started saying, 'are ways that once someone goes through their Spanish course, or once someone practices that Italian, and once someone completes that task on Duolingo,' rather than saying like, 'Hey, maybe I'll pick up Russian,' what are ways that we can continue engaging them outside of the app or beyond the course? And so there were a lot of different things that we tried and are still trying. One product is Duolingo stories. It's just a more advanced kind of experience that it's another lesson, but just an advanced lesson. We have a Duolingo podcast as well that just helps people as they're listening, and that's where Duolingo events came in. We thought, hey, is there a way ... We have all these users. Is there a way to mobilize them to join communities of Duolingo users and meet and practice together in person?

Derek: And so tell me about ... It's a cool idea and I think some people that I've talked about would say, 'Oh, it makes total sense.' It makes total sense it would work well. Yeah, people need to speak languages together, but how do you go, first of all ... And I don't think it does. I think it was a really bold and risky thing to do, but how do you go from saying, 'Hey, we want to do this,' to let's say getting in the first 10 cities? Like what was your process of going from this idea to at least just starting and doing five or 10 cities?

Laura: This is a drum that I beat all the time. Community managers, we talked about this last week. Community managers often are seen as like party people or people that are just kind of, they're cheering people on from the sidelines. But really, it's a science, and if you follow steps, if you create processes, it can be repeated and scaled. And so the first 10 cities, like you mentioned, are the hardest because that's when you are crafting your playbook, developing all of your systems, building your wikis, building all your master documents, and they're the hardest. So the first thing we talked about was, you know, do we want to go really deep? Do we want to have 10 languages in one city, or do we want to go really wide and have one language in 10 cities? And that actually was a more complicated problem than we thought it would be. And so we didn't solve it. We decided not to address it and just find out where we could get the best volunteers. And so the first 10 places that we picked to go, were the best 10 volunteer hosts that we had. I think a couple were here in Seattle, which is where I'm based. We had someone in New York, we had someone in London, we had someone in, oh golly, I can't remember now, Los Angeles perhaps? But we decided not to be specific about language or not to be specific about city and just be specific about the process. So creating the right conditions, putting the right structures in place, and introducing the right people, which ultimately, it only comes down to the hosts or the leaders that you have in place because then you can take your learnings and iterate on them and mobilize the hundreds of people to impact the potentially millions.

Derek: And the playbook and some of this documentation and other things, was it instinctual? Was there any sort of basis of those things that you created that off of or you just kind of say, 'Hey, this is what I thought would work, or this is what was natural for who we are as a company who are looking for,' ... Where did you come up with those things and those rules?

Laura: Yeah, I'm sure a lot of that came from from Yelp where I cut my teeth for almost a decade. I was responsible for a lot of Yelp's global expansion. So deciding what cities we would go into, how once we were in those cities, we would grow our community from the ground up. Again, I think all these kinds of buzzwords I'm using like playbooks and wikis and master docs come from that. But ultimately, what they all are just scalable systems.So to make it very, very simple so it doesn't sound buzzwordy at all, what you do is you plan an event yourself, you eat your own dog food, and you say, 'Okay, I live in Seattle. I am going to try and use the tools I have to get 10 people to show up to a bar and speak in Spanish for an hour, and I'm going to record it every single step along the way.' So I'm going to document the email that I send to people. I'm going to document the response that I send when they RSVP. I'm going to document that email that I send to the business to reserve my space. And then basically, this should be like a Bible when you're done so that if you fall off a cliff, the next community manager can just pick it up and be able to replicate everything that you've already done. And you basically do that until it works. So you run five events yourself. You figure out a process and a system that works. You document every single step along the way. And then once you've done those things, you can grow to 10 cities, you can grow to 50 cities, you can grow to 100 cities.

Derek: Look, I know it's hard to believe that you could run 500 events in a month, and that's why we have Laura telling you about it because she's got a very believable voice and it's actually true. But while Laura is one of the most incredible people in the community space, it really is possible to have people in hundreds of cities getting together around your brand and your product and your mission. And we're here to help, and so if we can help brainstorm with you, educate you on how the top companies in the world are doing this, please just text 'bevy' to 474747. Again, that's B-E-V-Y, all lowercase, to 474747. We'd love to talk to you about how to grow your community. Okay, so let's talk about that. So you get to 10 cities. You dog food your own product, you come up with some rules. Maybe you made one or two mistakes along the way and corrected those. How do you go from being in 10 cities to being in 30 cities?

Laura: Hopefully, you have a high class problem of having a lot of people who want to volunteer for you. So the next step to grow and scale is to make sure that you have the leaders in place. So whether that's a call to action, or whether that's an application process, or whether it's a social post, the next step is letting people know that you need them and onboarding those people so that they understand how to do it. But truly, you're only bottle necked by the amount of people who apply and the amount of people you can onboard. So once you have your process in place, once you have your system and all your documentation, if 100 people apply, the only limitation you have is how long it will take you to get that playbook in the hands of 100 people.

Derek: And as these people are coming on, how are you choosing who's a go and who's not a go? How do you say-

Laura: This is key. I think you and I kind of waxed lyrical about this awhile back. There is nothing more important than your leader in any community. And I would argue that that goes back to this 190 principle, that there's a creator, there's a consumer, and there was kind of a lurker, or there's a contributor and a lurker. But that person who is your one, that person who's going to plan your events, they are the driver of all of your success. So for us, we started looking at feedback surveys of what made a really good event. We said, 'Okay, people really like it when the leader has a pretty significant language knowledge versus a leader who is a really great event planner,' for example. And so depending on community, this could really change because if you're not going there to actually practice a language, if you're just going there to learn or to spend time together, the leader's qualifications could be completely different. So for us, we put in some benchmarks. The person had to be at least conversationally fluent in the language that they were hosting, and then beyond that, a lot of it came down to the responsiveness of the applicant. So we had them fill out a little questionnaire. We asked a couple of leading questions like, tell me about your dream event, or what ways do you think that you could help people learn a language in a personal setting? And generally, it matters less what their actual answers are and more that they give thoughtful responses to those questions.

Derek: That's a really interesting insight because you're going to have to work with these people. Right? And so it's sort of like when you apply for a job and everything you do, whether you like it or not, is part of the interview, how you respond to the emails, how concise you are, how quick you are to respond. Right? All of those things come into play, and even more so probably with volunteers because it's all gonna be digital or most of the relationship's going to be digital. So if you're sort of botching or there are almost any concerns, right? Like you can't fire volunteers, you can't yell at them, you can't force them to do things. And so it's like if you're going to communicate like this, I probably don't have time and the resources to teach you how to unlearn the bad habits you have. So it's just not gonna work.

Laura: That's exactly it. I think we don't say red flags, we see yellow flags, and if there's a yellow flag, they normally get pushed out of the system. There is one exception, and I would say that when someone ... People can demand a lot when they produce a lot. Right? And so when, maybe in the very beginning as the leaders were starting to apply, yeah, they basically needed to fit into a mold. But when I started recognizing some of these super leaders, the ones that are just ... You know them when you see them, but they have that whatever, that 'je ne sais quoi' of being a magnetic person and planning wonderful events, and they're bilingual, and they're mentoring others, and they can basically do whatever they want. I'll give them anything.

Derek: Yeah, that's really cool. And you optimize around those people or giving them whatever they need, and because they become your champions, they become the people you refer to, they become the people that everyone out there, they're the examples on the hill that everyone else is going to be looking towards and trying to emulate.

Laura: Well truly, and they are the key to our scaling success as well. So at some point, one human cannot manage ... I would say 100 volunteers is a max capacity. And so at some point, you have to start building this leadership rich model or a snowflake model that allows people to be leaders, to volunteers to lead others and to mentor others. So when you start identifying these people that are the super leaders among them, they should get more perks. They should get more opportunities because a lot of times, they'll be the ones that are creating content, building the playbooks, building the guides. They often get closer to the product than you do. So yeah, I think they're a huge key to success.

Derek: Okay. I'm going to jump way ahead because this is not the three hour podcast. This is like the 20 minute podcast, and I need to know. In a year, you go from one event to over 500 events in a single month, so it sort of boggles the mind. As I understand it, your full-time team, you did not get a staff of 20 people. How do you do that in a nine month or 12 month span, go from a single event to hundreds of events? And I know there's not enough time for you to talk about all the work you did over the last nine or 12 months, but just give us some of the highlights of how that's even possible to do that because I don't know that anyone ever has. I think this is one of the only times that this has ever happened. So what did you do that was so different?

Laura: I don't think it's doing something that's different. I think it's just really letting, again, really having a scientific process behind you, not not leaving things to chance, not waiting for things to matriculate, creating a process early, sticking with it, and then and then scaling it. So I think there's three things that are really critical for this. The first we talked about a little bit, which is building the right structures early. So this is making sure that you have all your scalable systems like your playbook, like your wiki, canned responses, a Slack group or an area for leaders to build community themselves, the snowflake model in place because you will not have time when you have 150 events a week that you have when you have two events a week. So you have to build this early because this is what is going to save you. It's going to optimize your process. It's the only way to scale is to have these systems in place early. And then on this note, you can't have it be brittle. So I'm telling you to build all these things, but you also have to allow them to be really flexible because you are going to change directions. No matter what you think the plan is going to be, 12 months from now, that will not be the plan. You're going to have to add layers, you're going to have questions about the product. So it's counterintuitive, but you can't over-plan your plan. You just need to build what you need to get, the metaphor I use is to get your airplane in the air. You have to have the engine, you have to have the wings, and you have to have the wind, and that is it. You can build all the rest of it when you're in the air. So that's the first one. The second one is that you really need to understand why leaders are motivated to volunteer for you, and that is different for every single community, but Dan Pink talks about three specific things. He talks about autonomy, he talks about mastery, and he talks about purpose. You have to build ways in your leadership structure to allow your leaders to have these three things because they need to feel like they're a part of it, they need to feel like they're getting better at something, and they need to feel like they have the ability to choose their own adventure, or else they'll feel like they're working for you, which is not what you want. So again, you need to bake in rewards for what you want people to optimize for and then allow your leaders to just grow themselves. So find great people, build the right motivations for them, and they just let them go. Let them loose like little birds. And then the last one, again, we talked about is you have to your own dog food. You have to do it yourself. There's this idea that you can work smarter, not harder. I think it's BS. I think during the building phase you're just going to be working smart and hard, but very early on, you can start identifying your all stars, and you can start building your team so that ... I call it like a soccer team. You're going to build a team with someone who's the goalkeeper. You're going to build a team with someone who's scoring the goals, who's a striker. You're going to build a midfielder who just runs around the whole time, but you're going to need to have people around you internally. I'm not talking volunteers anymore. I'm talking in your organization who are helping you with all of the logistical things, especially the things you're not good at.

So you have to be able to leverage their talents in different ways, and then I guess on that final is just set audacious goals. Don't be afraid to say like, 'Yes, we are going to get to,' ... Like I told you this. Right now, we're at 150 events a week. Next quarter, I'm going to be at 400 events a week. That's a pretty audacious goal, but if I do it right, I can get there.

Derek: What impact do you feel or does the organization feel that that ultimately has on the product and the users you have? Again, a great problem. You have 200 million users. Many, many, many of those are passionate and super loyal to the brand and love the brand, but at the scale that which we're talking about, maybe it has a huge impact and maybe it doesn't compare to that, or maybe it will eventually, but how do people internally, as this has evolved, as this has come together, what has been the response from the teams and the other marketing groups and the leadership of Duolingo?

Laura: Yeah, that's a good question. I think for the original question you were asking about how this has an impact on users and, of course, the percentage of people who, of the $200 million who actually get off their couch or wherever they're using Duolingo and physically come to an event is very, very small. Yet, we still continue to believe that this is worth investing in because of that original mission that I brought up in the beginning. If this provides people free and accessible access to education, this is us succeeding at our company's mission. So we see this as just an extension of our brand. We see this as an ability for people like Nor, the Syrian refugee, who is going to events in Istanbul and learning Turkish for free to be able to connect with her community and get a job as a software engineer. It's tangible, it's palpable, even if it is just a very, very small fraction of the people. And I think the people internally feel the same way. I think the events are misunderstood. A lot of people really want to squeeze whatever quantifiable metric they can get out of them, when in reality, you probably could spend that money and get a lot more people if you put together some sort of performance marketing campaign, but that's not the point. The point is that you are operationalizing your mission and your brand. You're connecting with people who are physically in person experiencing what you have to offer, and that retention and advocacy, likely at a cost per person, is much less than what you could spend on a marketing campaign. I think that the team understands the logic behind that.

Derek: Thank you so much for listening. If you like the show, please leave a review wherever you listen to this. If you'd like to see more about how to create your own event community, go to bevylabs.com/pod. Again, that's B-E-V-Y-L-A-B-S .com/pod.

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