S4E02 - Deborah Belevan from Duolingo on Leading the Duo-logue: A Mission-Led Approach to Investor Communications

With the ever-changing landscape of investor relations, having a mission-led corporate culture can drive more innovative and successful investor relations programs. In this episode of Winning IR, Mark Fasken sits down with Deborah Belevan to discuss how the company’s dynamic and mission-driven culture has impacted its award-winning investor relations program. From earnings calls to shareholder letters, Deborah shares her best advice and experience for thinking differently and building stronger relationships.

Listen to the full episode to learn more about:

  • The unique dynamics of IR at Duolingo
  • Embracing long-term strategy over short-term goals
  • Engaging investors with a vision for the future
  • Focusing on sustainable growth and educational impact
  • Duolingo’s approach to video earnings calls and how they manage their earnings process
  • How a quarterly shareholder letter strengthens analyst & investor relationships
  • How company culture impacts your ability to innovate

About Our Guest

Deborah Belevan, IRC, CPA, is the Vice President of Investor Relations at Duolingo, the leading mobile learning platform globally. She is an accomplished IRO with extensive experience in IR and corporate communication, IPOs, accounting and finance, and sales and equity research. She is also an engaged community member, serving on the board of NIRI New York since 2018.

Episode Transcript

Mark Fasken: The world of technology has experienced so much growth and innovation in the last decade. But is there a way to translate the innovation we feel in our daily lives into the function of IR? Today's guest is Deborah Belevan, Vice President of Investor Relations at Duolingo; a company that has not only innovated and changed consumer brand marketing as we know it, but has brought that same innovation into the IR function.

Deborah is an accomplished IRO, leading IR at companies like Virtue Financial and Hudson Group before joining Duolingo in 2021. She's also an active member of the IR community and has been an active board member of NIRI New York for more than five years. We had a really interesting discussion on today's episode about what it means to take a mission led approach to investor relations and how Duolingo channels the company's mission driven culture into high performance and continuous improvement within their investor relations efforts.

The Unique Dynamics of Investor Relations at Duolingo

So Debbie, one of the Genesis for this podcast episode was you won an award from IR mag for best innovation in shareholder communications. You're also very well known in the investor relations community, and I think the more we dug into it as you and I spoke before this episode, we got into this topic of sort of being mission led, talking a lot about innovation and the culture that exists at Duolingo around innovation, sort of pushing the envelope a little bit.

And so I do want to talk today about being mission led, sort of operating principles. How do you innovate as a team and build an innovative culture? And so one of the first questions I wanted to cover, was for listeners who are unfamiliar, can you describe Duolingo's workplace culture and explain how it impacts the investor relations function?

Deborah Belevan: Yeah, absolutely. It's a really fun topic. I think our culture is what makes working for Duolingo so rewarding. It's also really important to our investors because they understand that our culture has really been a key ingredient of our success. First, we have a very mission driven culture. That mission is to develop the world's best education and to make it universally available.

And everyone at the company is super passionate about this mission. We all know that we're working towards a common goal, which is to teach better and reach more learners around the world. And so while we're very early in this journey, the work we're doing feels very impactful. And we're also a company of high performers who are focused on continuous improvement in everything we do, whether it's making the app a little better every week through testing and experimentation, or improving our processes of how we work together.

We're also a little bit quirky, as you may have noticed, if you follow us on social or if you saw our five second Super Bowl ad. We definitely don't take ourselves too seriously, but I can't talk about our culture without referring to our 12 operating principles. And one of these principles is to be candid and kind.

It's really rewarding to work with colleagues who are not only brilliant, but there are no egos. Everyone's very down to earth. We thrive on collaboration. And we test everything that's an operating principle that embodies our strong culture of innovation and experimentation, and that definitely carries through to our IR program.

Mark Fasken: We made a bit of a joke, when we were prepping for this episode, because one of the guiding principles is "Just ship it", which for, for anybody who's listening and it's not like in the software world, it's, it's a very software development focused term of like, just get, get the, get the code out, get out the door. It doesn't need to be perfect. It needs to work because we want to test it. Do you feel like that's something that the IR team, I mean, obviously there's a certain amount of rigor that has to occur in investor relations, but do you feel like that "just ship it" ideology has sort of embedded itself in the IR team a little bit? 

Deborah Belevan: You know as I thought through our operating principles and figuring out which ones really apply to IR, "Ship it" was not one that came to mind, because we do have to like check everything, double check the numbers, make sure everything makes sense before it goes out the door. But I will tell you when everything's checked, we are like 'ship it'. Yeah, put it on the wire, file it. Yeah.

Mark Fasken: Get it moving. That's great. Yeah. Yeah. I think that's how you maintain, you know, a level of innovation and a level of speed for sure. Great. And so you mentioned Duolingo's 12 operating principles. Can you maybe give us some examples of how you apply those in the IR role? 

Deborah Belevan: Yeah, absolutely. So first I'll say that while I'm a one person investor relations department, which has been the case for most of my career. At Duolingo, IR is really a team sport. Several of my colleagues in the finance team, they get involved in IR, whether it's helping to craft our messages, set guidance, or helping me speak with investors. I think it's a really unique dynamic, which not only makes our IR efforts more impactful, it makes everyone on the team a lot more versatile. And it's a great example of our operating principle, "all for one, one for all". 

Embracing Long-Term Strategy Over Short-Term Gains

Deborah Belevan: Another principle we stand firmly behind is "take the long view". So despite the short term demands that come with being a public company, this is something our leadership really does not waver on and we make sure our investors understand that maintaining a long term focus is really fundamental to our strategy. For example, there are things we could do tomorrow that would boost revenues in the short term, but if it's not good for learners, or the long-term health of the company, we just won't do it.

Engaging Investors with a Vision for the Future

Mark Fasken: Yeah, I think that's great. So so you take a long-term view, And so when you're sitting down with investors, are you giving them extended guidance or talking more about the vision than maybe the quarterly results? Do you find that actually manifests itself in the conversations that you have with investors on a daily basis? 

Deborah Belevan: Well, we do give long-term top line and profitability targets, but we are always quick to remind people as we're talking about all the different initiatives that we're working on, that some of these are going to see results in the short-term But a lot of these are like laying the found work for long-term growth. 

Focusing on Sustainable Growth and Educational Impact

Deborah Belevan: “Teaching better", for example, that's one of the things that we're working on, and it's not going to you know, drive bookings tomorrow, but in the long-term it's going to help us attract more English learners who are who make up the majority of the world's language learning population.

So those are the kinds of things that we're always telling people we could rush and try to, for example, one of the reasons that our model is so successful, is because we have a freemium model, and 92 percent of our users are using the app completely for free, and that's because the free user experience is so awesome.

It's a great app. We don't put any of the learning content behind a paywall. And so this freemium strategy allows us to gain people, and over time we convert them to subscribers. If we wanted to, we could make the free user experience more annoying with more ads or take away things and make you pay for it, and that would boost revenue in the short term, but it's not good for our long-term growth. So that's an example of taking the long view. 

Mark Fasken: Yeah, I think that's great. Awesome. Okay. I want to move over to this topic of innovation and really appreciate you walking us through some of the principles and examples, I think Duolingo in itself is a very innovative company and seems to have a very innovative culture. The Duolingo IR team, you know, you were one of the early adopters of video earnings calls. And I think that's where that IR Mag award came from. Just sort of wanted to get a little bit of insight from you on what motivated the decision to depart from sort of the more traditional voice-only earnings call format? And what were some of the steps that you took as you made that move and sort of planned out that, that, that call? 

Deborah Belevan: Yeah, it's actually a very funny story. It, it wasn't funny when it was happening at the time, but I'm glad it motivated us to make the switch. So we were in the middle of an earnings call taking questions when the operator suddenly disappeared.

And we were like, operator, are you there? And after a couple of minutes of awkward silence, the operator came back on the line and another operator came on the line to take over. Unfortunately, it sounded like they grabbed this guy from, from happy hour, he was very jovial, and so the awkwardness continued until the rest of the call after the whole ordeal, our CEO just asked, why are we using 1990s technology?

Why can't we just have a zoom meeting? So while I'd love to say that this was my idea, but most of our IROs know this is a very unconventional format and it can be risky, but once we started doing video, we never looked back.

Mark Fasken: And so after an earnings call, how do you evaluate it's success and gather insights for improvement? And maybe the second part of the question is what feedback have you received and what benefits have you found in hosting the video earnings calls? 

Deborah Belevan: Well, we've gotten really great feedback from the investment community. Our analysts are really good sports. They turn on their cameras when they're asking a question. There's one analyst in particular, he likes to stash a Duo plushie in the background to get extra points. 

But the video format works really well for us because our CEO and our CFO have a great charisma on camera and they're great at talking about the business without relying on notes, but it helps that we have three Q&A prep sessions leading up to the call. So there's definitely preparation and practice to be sure everyone's well prepared and on message and we also have some fun with it. Like sometimes Duo, he'll make a cameo appearance, or we'll play a funny TikTok video that a learner created about us. So we get to show off our brand personality as well.

Mark Fasken: So on the topic of the video earnings call or just your earnings call in general, what specific steps are involved in your planning process at Duolingo? 

Deborah Belevan: Sure. So we have a very detailed earnings process. It starts before quarter end, and it leads up to the earnings call. We have a day-by-day calendar of tasks and meetings and everything from closing the books, to updating the forecast, and setting guidance to drafting and getting sign offs on all the deliverables like our press release or our shareholder letter.

It's great for keeping everyone on the same page and for moving everything forward on schedule. And it also gives our CFO full visibility as to what's happening and when. Some might say it's pretty intense, but it just works really well for us given the multiple team members working on the different workflows.

And speaking of innovating, we're actually in the process of experimenting with transitioning from keeping our day by day tracker in Google Sheets to Asana. And so far, that's going really well.

Mark Fasken: I imagine that you may get a bunch of questions from the NIRI community, because I did see a post a little while ago about monday.com Asana, what should you use? 

Deborah Belevan: Yeah, and I answered about Asana. I've already had a couple of people follow up. When I talk to people about our IR program and things that we do, I feel like our, our program's on steroids with a lot of the innovation that we're, we're always trying to figure out how to make things better and everybody's so, So motivated to continue to like figure out how we can optimize our process, but it just comes from the overall culture. 

Mark Fasken: Yeah. I mean, it's a very like product, engineering oriented mindset of like, you have to have this process, everything's sort of documented. I mean, it's, it's really interesting to see.

Deborah Belevan: Yeah. And efficient too. We're all about efficiency. 

Mark Fasken: Absolutely. Well, if you're doing it all as a team of one, clearly it's efficient and well coordinated. 

One of the things that I also though did want to ask about was the, the post earnings call regroup that you all do. Cause that, that's one thing that I think is also sort of indicative of this culture where you all want to move forward. So you'd sort of talked a little bit about you know, after those calls use the team all gets together. Maybe you could just give the listeners a little bit of insight into into that, that post review call that you all have. 

Deborah Belevan: Sure. So back to our operating principles. Another one, "strive for excellence". And I think that's the one that our CFO is most passionate about. And he encourages all of us to deliver world class work. So we're always challenging each other, set the bar higher each quarter and see how we can continue to improve. Just an example of what this looks like in action; a couple days after the earnings call, we'll have a post mortem meeting, and everyone contributes to a list of ideas that we've captured, of ways that we can continue to improve upon the earnings cycle.

Most of this is internal process flow, so nothing actually folks see from the outside, but amazingly enough, we always find several things we can be doing better to optimize our process. 

Mark Fasken: Another example of some of the innovative approaches that Duolingo has taken to communication was also the introduction of a quarterly shareholder letter. And so, why did you decide on this format and what advice would you offer to companies who are looking to initiate a similar tactic? 

Deborah Belevan: So, our first two quarters, after going public, we, we actually started with a standard earning slide deck along with our nineties audio call, of course, but we quickly pivoted to a shareholder letter.

Some companies we admired were already doing quarterly shareholder letters. And we just found it a lot more effective way of sharing management's commentary at the same time when we release results, and then using the majority of the time on the earnings webcast for questions. So we've got nine shareholder letters under our belt now, and it's really evolved over time as we've gained valuable learnings.

Initially, the CEO portion of the letter was much longer and we, we felt the need to share every new feature development, but we quickly learned it was best to just focus on the most impactful things for the quarter and just keep it short and concise. So we always aim to keep the CEO portion to three pages.

And we also keep the design really clean and simple. So we get a lot of praise from our analysts and investors who don't want to wade through several pages of fluff just to figure out what's most important. And another, another huge process improvement was transitioning the shareholder letter to Workiva, which has been a huge time saver.

Mark Fasken: So any tips for somebody who is maybe starting out or thinking about doing this and like things to do, things not to do. I mean, you, you gave some great points there, like don't make it too long. Try to keep it concise. Keep the layout simple. Was there anything else that you would recommend? 

Deborah Belevan: Yeah so the, our process has evolved over time too. So what we're doing now is we, we have a brainstorming session to hash out the outline because we used to just have, you know, I would just start writing the letter, and we would decide later on that the direction or the messaging needed to shift. And so we decided let's just start off by brainstorming topics.

We come up with a really robust outline and then we start drafting the letter off of that. We do it in Google docs, which allows everybody to, to review it, and comment, and edit. So it's a great collaboration tool. And then at some point we transition that into Workiva.

And then the back half of the shareholder letter, which has all the financials, we start that in Workiva. So all the numbers are linked. And so it's kind of a, you know, we have a couple of different platforms to begin with, but then we bring it all together in Workiva. 

Mark Fasken: That's great. It's awesome. And so I think at this point, some of the listeners are maybe thinking to themselves, it sounds like a lot, Debbie's getting a lot of support from different members of the team and management team and, and are probably wondering, you know, how do you get buy in from not only the management team, but just other departments and internal teams at Duolingo to experiment with some of these new processes, whether it's the shareholder letter or video earnings calls, or, you know, just a bunch of these different things that you're trying out, like, what are some of the steps that you take? 

Deborah Belevan: Well, to begin with, I'm just really lucky that we have a, we already have a really strong culture of innovation.

Our CEO, he's always the first to ask, why do we have to do it this way? Well, just like with the video earnings call, he's happy to challenge the status quo, which as we know at times isn't always the best for IR, but other times it can uncover much better ways of doing things, just like a funny example, he learned that there's no legal requirement to have an earnings call four times a year. But we told him it's probably best to keep the status quo for this one. So, you know, I love that he, he challenges us and, and, and to think about new ways of doing things.

Mark Fasken: That's great. That is a lucky position to be in for sure.

Deborah Belevan: Yeah, and it makes it much easier to introduce innovations because you know, we want to, we want to continue to stay cutting edge and doing what's most efficient and you know, optimal for IR and the whole, the whole group. 

Mark Fasken: Definitely. Well, you're also in an interesting position, in addition to having a CEO who likes to, to question the, the, the norm, you're also in an interesting position where the investors that you meet with have potentially, or perhaps quite often, interacted with Duolingo before. So curious, like, do you leverage that familiarity in your conversations and interactions? And how has it played maybe to your benefit or, or not? 

Deborah Belevan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, it's, it's so much fun telling our story. Because I'm not only a user myself, and fun fact, I just hit my 1000 day streak yesterday, but I, I also get to speak to investors who are also passionate users of the product.

So they understand firsthand what we're building. I can't tell you how many times I've had an investor proudly share their streak with me, or tell me how they're using their new language skills to connect with their in laws or, or how useful it was when they took a trip to Italy. So I've always said that IR, it's a lot more fun if you're lucky enough to join a company that has a product or, or a service that you can personally connect to, because that just helps you be a much better storyteller.

Mark Fasken: Absolutely agree. Great. Well, Debbie, really appreciate you taking the time to walk us through all this. Thank you very much. 

Deborah Belevan: Thanks. It's been it's been, it's been fun as always.

Mark Fasken: I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Winning IR. For more winning ideas, make sure to subscribe to this podcast.

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About Winning IR

Winning IR is a podcast exploring the diverse insights within the investor relations community. Join host Mark Fasken as he discusses the winning strategies, tactics, and shifts in thinking with innovative investor relations professionals who are redefining the profession.

Each episode features a different challenge, innovation, or perspective on the ever-evolving role of IR, giving you real, actionable insight you’ll be able to use to build a better investor relations program. 

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