What Duolingo learned from Jerry Seinfeld to be come a $3.2 billion dollar company

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December 30, 2022
5 min read

Tech stocks tumble

This past week, tech stocks took a tumble, but one startup managed to hold its ground remarkably well: Duolingo, the online language learning app. In fact, despite being down just 1% over the past six months, Duolingo is now worth a staggering $3.2 billion. So what's the secret to Duolingo's success?

The power of streaks

One key factor is the company's use of behavioral science principles to drive engagement and progress. One particularly effective technique employed by Duolingo is the concept of the streak. You may be familiar with this concept from comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who used it to skyrocketing his career. Seinfeld committed to writing one joke per day, and he would mark each day on a large calendar with an X once he had written his joke. The more X's he accumulated, the harder it became for him to break the streak. The calendar served as a visual cue of the hard work he had put in, how far he had come, and a reminder that breaking his streak wouldn't just mean missing a day of joke writing - it would mean breaking his streak altogether.

Three key theories

Duolingo employs a similar technique. Each time you complete a daily language lesson, you add a notch to your streak. This simple but powerful trick taps into several key behavioral science theories:

  1. Loss aversion: Psychologically, a loss feels twice as painful as a subsequent gain. We strive not to lose rather than gain. By framing a missed day as a loss of the streak you've worked so hard to build, Duolingo motivates users to keep going.
  2. The Ikea effect: We tend to take more ownership over something we had a hand in building. By building their own streaks, Duolingo users feel more invested in their progress and are less likely to let it go. If the streak was simply given to them, they might be more likely to let it slip.
  3. Goal gradient theory: We're wired to feel progress, and the closer we are to achieving a goal, the more likely we are to strive for it. Duolingo's streak technique provides users with a sense of progress towards a daily goal, as well as a larger journey of learning a new language.

Duolingo's use of the streak is just one example of the company's clever use of behavioral science principles to drive growth. It's clear that these strategies have been highly effective, as evidenced by Duolingo's impressive track record and valuation. Have you noticed any other brilliant techniques that Duolingo has leveraged to drive growth?

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Decoding the Why explores how high growth companies can ideate, validate and accelerate product growth by leveraging behavioral science.

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