Meet The Marketing Genius Behind Duolingo

Gina Gotthilf grew Tumblr internationally and Duolingo to 200 million users. Here's how she did it with $0.

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Hey! Shamus here, and welcome to another edition of The Dealroom, a newsletter (and podcast) sharing the stories of world-class entrepreneurs to inspire the next generation. Now, onto Duolingo!

Note: This story has been edited for reading clarity

Gina Gotthilf shares the story:

My original plan was to live and work on a farm, but I was quickly snatched back into the business world by an opportunity that fell into my lap. 

Q: How did you get that opportunity?

So, right before my visa expired, I thought, “Okay, there are a couple of people that I emailed who I thought were really interesting and I never got to meet. So I'm going to email them and say, ‘Hey, I have to leave the country; I would love to have coffee with you.’”

One of these people was Mark Coatney. Mark was leading media at Tumblr. They were small at the time, and I said, ‘Hey, if you guys help me do an awesome job for my client and make me look good, then you can use this as a case study for other big brands.’

We ended up working a little bit but over email. I met up with Mark once. We had a coffee, I told him a little bit about myself and that I’m from Brazil. When Tumblr decided to expand internationally, they were like, ‘Who do we know in Brazil? Oh, that girl!’

They contacted me, and I was like, ‘This sounds really nice, but I am no longer doing the career thing. I'm out.’

They were like, ‘Yeah, that's cute. But, let's explain to you why it would be good for you to work with us for at least one month.’

I accepted because it made a lot of sense. That month, I was just hustling to grow Tumblr and find the connections to put it in front of the media.

Q: What were some of the growth hacks that you employed to grow Tumblr?

Growth hacking didn't even exist as a concept. Of course, everyone was trying to make things grow through marketing, but the concept of growth that we know today didn't exist.

My mandate was, ‘Can you help us grow without any cash?’

I just thought, ‘How can I get this in front of as many people as possible, but for free?’

So, I ended up doing a lot of PR, but at the time, I didn't know it was PR.

I was like, ‘I bet that I can convince journalists that these New York people are special people worth talking to if I positioned them in a certain way.’ 

And so I just started finding all the journalist names that I could on Twitter, on LinkedIn, etc. I would literally go through the newspapers and magazines and write down the names of authors who I thought might be interested in something like Tumblr. Finding ways to interest these journalists and get them to talk to these guys worked out really well.

I also did things that led to PR. We brought some important comedians onto Tumblr, and that became a story. We started partnering with the government, and that became a story. We did their biggest-ever community meetup for 1,200 people, and that became a story. 

Those events in themselves didn't lead directly to growth, but then the story led to growth.

It's a playbook that I ended up reimplementing at Duolingo. 

Q: What do people most misunderstand about PR?

There is so much people misunderstand about PR. First of all, people often think of PR as like these like very strict stories that you want to tell.

And often, when it's a startup context, it's about fundraising. It's like, ‘We raised a round!’ Then people will come and say, ‘We did PR, and it didn't work with growth.’

A story about fundraising does not work for growth. It's a very different kind of story than the one that works for growth because the story about fundraising makes your company look really successful, and investors might be interested, but it doesn't make someone like you and me read and go, 'Wow, I really want to download that app.’

For Duolingo, we would find stories like someone who was able to double their salary because they learned English with Duolingo, and they're working at a mall in a restaurant. If I read that, I think, ‘I want to double my salary, too. If that guy did it, I definitely can do it too.’

Q: What are growth hacks that people are ignoring today that they shouldn't be?

I think that’s a million-dollar question. It's not about tactics. It's about understanding how things are evolving, where the opportunities are, and where you can jump in.

Over the past five years, people have all become their own little media brands. Everyone is on TikTok, has things to say, has a platform, and wants to be something. I don't think that has been leveraged to its full potential from the super micro influencer perspective because people make decisions based on what their friends tell them and what their families tell them.

That's the most important node that you can capture. When you have a social following of any sort, you have a smaller group of people who really trust you. Leveraging that—we haven't quite figured it out yet, but it can be huge.

For the full story of Duolingo, you can listen to my interview with Gina Gotthilf on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or by clicking the image below.

Have a productive week!