A CEO who based his $700 million company in Pittsburgh says he's getting employees who want to work in tech but avoid the Bay Area

Chantal Heijnen for DuolingoIt’s cheaper to live in Pittsburgh than Silicon Valley, said Luis Von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo.
  • Luis von Ahn cofounded the language-learning app Duolingo in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • Von Ahn says having a tech company headquartered in Pittsburgh, rather than Silicon Valley, is an advantage.
  • For one, Pittsburgh has cheaper housing; Von Ahn estimates at least half of Duolingo employees own a home.

A tech company in Pittsburgh may sound out of place, but it is actually helping Luis von Ahn recruit talent for his language-learning app Duolingo.

“I like it, and it’s really on the up,” Von Ahn said about Pittsburgh in an interview for an episode of Business Insider’s podcast Success! How I Did It.

Von Ahn has been based in Pittsburgh since attending Carnegie Mellon University for his PhD in computer science, where helped create the cyber-security technology captcha to distinguish a human from a robot. He then cofounded recaptcha, the second version of captcha, which was eventually acquired by Google. In 2014 he cofounded Duolingo, now valued at $US700 million.

Over time the company grew and expanded, making it was difficult to move the office, he said. “Being in a city that’s on the upswing is pretty good because you’re just getting a bunch of highly talented people wanting to move here. That has helped us,” he said. He also said being near Carnegie Mellon has attracted “really amazing people” to the company.

And on top of all that, it’s much cheaper than Silicon Valley.

“We’re getting just a good number of people who are just either moving from the Bay Area or just don’t want to go there to begin with, fresh out of college, because here you can get an apartment that’s pretty nice and you can just pay, I don’t know, a thousand bucks a month, and that is completely unheard of in the Bay Area,” Von Ahn said.

San Francisco is the second most expensive city to live in the world – a two bedroom apartment costs an average of $US3,664 a month and the income needed to qualify for a mortgage is well into the six figures. Average rent for an apartment in Pittsburgh is $US1,250 a month, while the median home sells for $US145,770, according to SmartAsset.

“Many of our employees – I’m going to assume maybe half of the employees in Duolingo own a home, and that’s completely unheard of in Silicon Valley,” Von Ahn said.

Recently Duolingo advertised for hiring near a busy San Francisco highway using cost of living as incentive: “Own a home, work in tech, move to Pittsburgh.”

“I don’t know what that billboard will do,” Von Ahn said. “We hear that enough, that we thought it was worth putting up the billboard.”

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