Cammie Dunaway is the CMO of Duolingo (NASD: DUOL), who has helped build the beloved language-learning app to over 500 million registered users, $150M+ run rate scale, and a $5B+ valuation after its 2021 public financing. We go deep on Cammie's role in building the business and the work that she did to set the stage for a successful transition to the public markets. Rewatch the full event below or explore the summarized key takeaways here.
When asking anyone who has gone through the public financing process before for advice, their first tip is: start early. Duolingo was no exception. The executive team started holding mock earnings calls two years before actually going public, asking Board members to roleplay as investors. The company also started meeting with investment bankers two years before because most of the executive team (everyone except Cammie) was new to the public financing process and wanted to be as educated and prepared as possible. About a year before going public, the finance team even hired an IPO consultant.
In Cammie’s case, she started setting up calls with other CMOs for advice about a year in advance. She’d ask for vendor recommendations, lessons learned, and any other advice folks had to offer.
While Duolingo started operationally preparing for their IPO very early on, they also aligned the entire company on a joined philosophy. Duolingo believed that the discipline of getting ready to go public would make them a better company, regardless of the actual outcome. The company set a public-readiness OKR in 2018 (three years before actually going public). While they didn’t know at the time when the company would be going public, they wanted to be ready. Setting a clear OKR around public-readiness aligned every org within the company, from HR to finance, to have internal systems and personnel in place to start working on the IPO process whenever it formally launched.
Find the Right Partners
Going public takes an entire village, and it’s important that you choose the right partners for your company. Cammie had to make three important partner decisions during the IPO process: the PR agency, the roadshow video production company, and the exchange. To source candidates for potential partners, Cammie leveraged her calls with fellow CMOs and the company’s IPO consultant for recommendations.
During the IPO process, some companies many not use a PR agency, while others will work with a permanent PR agency for everything including the IPO; some, like Duolingo, only use a PR agency for the IPO process. From the recommendations she received, Cammie selected three PR firms as final candidates. The decision eventually came down to the PR agency (Brunswick) that had the most experience with consumer technology companies similar to Duolingo, as well as that had the most chemistry with Duolingo’s CEO. A high-leverage tactic the company used with the PR agency was to answer press inquiries. They would point the press to the PR agency, who in turn would point the press to where in the S-1 they could find an answer.
The second big partner was a partner to run Duolingo’s roadshow video presentation. Cammie watched 30-40 roadshow presentation videos curated by Duolingo’s IPO consultant, with widely varying levels of quality. She eventually zeroed in on finding the company with the best storytelling ability that she felt resonated most with Duolingo’s brand, Glass & Marker. Cammie also emphasized that it’s important to find a company that has worked on roadshow presentation videos before because there are many legal guidelines that have to be considered during the process. From a financial perspective, Duoingo spent about $250,000 on their roadshow presentation, which was in-line with what other Guild members had experienced when receiving quotes.
Choosing which exchange your company will list with is a very personal decision. While many companies prefer the “prestige” of the New York Stock Exchange, Cammie felt that NASDAQ embodied the values of Duolingo much more, aligning with the brand belief that “language should belong to everyone.” Going public with NASDAQ also allowed more Duolingo employees to participate and be on the platform on IPO day which was an important consideration for the company.
Know Your Message
During the public financing process, it’s critical to be deliberate and consistent around how you frame the narrative of the company so that when listing day comes, no one is surprised by what you are communicating to the public. Remaining consistent in your company’s story also will allow you to really drive home your company’s vision.
At Duolingo, they identified the four key pillars that the company wanted to focus messaging on: Mission & Culture, AI & Gamification, Market Leadership, and Growth Opportunity.
The PR agency then looked over all of the company’s PR over the past 18 months to identify any gaps or room for improvement in messaging. These messages would flow through all assets during the IPO process including the roadshow video, the investor presentation, and more.
Set Clear Communication Goals
To measure success, Cammie created quantitative metrics for their marketing programming, based on the metrics of other companies that had gone public recently. The goals were categorized into external and internal goals. A few external goals included generating 3.2x lift in Google Trends Search and securing 50 unique headlines during IPO week. Internal goals included reinforcing company culture and mitigating risk.