The Rise and Success of Sparknotes

Once upon a time, two years ago to be precise, four Harvard graduates of the class of 1999—Sam, Max, Eli
By Anais A. Borja and Amelia E. Lester

Once upon a time, two years ago to be precise, four Harvard graduates of the class of 1999—Sam, Max, Eli and Chris—set up shop in a little office in nearby Davis Square. They had a modest income but an extravagant plan. Leaving consulting job offers and generous grants and fellowships behind them, they set forth to the corner of Massachusetts and Meacham Aves to consummate their cyberspace vision. That vision was known as Pimpin’ Cupid. It was a simple yet profound concept: an online dating service that pairs up potential soul mates via e-mail. Sam A. Yagan ’99 muses “It was a fun idea, we were all friends, and we thought ‘why not?’ Little did this motley crew realize that the industrious Cupid would be pimpin’ over a quarter of a million people in its first month.”

Pimpin’ Cupid expanded to a one-stop portal student homepage— The website, however, almost immediately became dominated by the introduction of the famed online study guides, Sparknotes. Even Pimpin’ Cupid was overshadowed by the monolith that was Sparknotes. The phenomenal success of the study guides manifested itself recently in the acquisition of them by corporate giant Barnes and Noble. And the original Pimpin’ Cupid, Sam Yagan, now finds himself ensconced in a plush, New York high-rise, orchestrating this multi-million dollar venture. Meanwhile, over 200 Harvard students and graduates have ably assisted in literally writing the success of an empire whose foundation rests upon the acclaimed Sparknotes, writing notes across a bevy of academic fields ranging from literature to physics to philosophy.

How did an online dating service expand into study guides? Capatalizing on their “Hahvahd-smahts” and can-do ambition, the founders decided to “build a company” around Pimpin’ Cupid’s burgeoning user base. Yagan cites three major reasons for deciding to expand their business into study guides: “Firstly, we had a compelling offering to the student demographic already at our site; secondly, no online product existed like Sparknotes and we felt that we had a clear plan to improve upon the existing offline study guides; and finally, we knew that we had access to great writers simply by being at Harvard.”

Indeed, the opportunity to be a published writer, whose voice is heard by thousands, is a reality for the some 200 Harvard affiliates who staff Sparknotes. The connections are easy to establish: the company seeks Harvard students, the student employment office regularly posts Sparknotes listings, and the selection process is straightforward and non-competitive. Furthermore, a recurrent theme in interviews with past Sparknotes writers is that the Harvard management team led by Yagan is relaxed and understanding. Lara M. Buchak ’03, who worked for Sparknotes between her freshman and sophmore years highlights the team’s youth as being conducive to a “very funny…fun, party-type atmosphere.” Kyle D. Hawkins ’03 concurs, asserting that “they are very understanding of deadlines, and perhaps most importantly, generous with money.”

One possible reason for the lenience and benevolence of the Sparknotes management is that they know their writers’ status as Harvard students is one of the major drawcards. In stark contrast to the attitudes sorrounding other, somewhat ill-reputed study guides on the market, Yagan asserts that “teachers and parents actually like their kids to read Sparknotes…we are even on the syllabus in some schools”. Hawkins contests that the “study guides such as Cliff’s Notes and Monarch notes are outdated, some written pre-Cold War, lack the freshness that is a hallmark of Sparknotes.” He then goes on to argue that “since Harvard students are living and breathing the subjects they are concentrating in and are at the cutting edge of new developments in their discipline, it is only logical that the quality of the text will be better than those written 50 years ago by an outdated source.”

Sparknotes’ novel approach to learning is evident on its website. Most obviously, it is free – a boon for students everywhere. Indeed, Bryant Matthews ’02, who wrote for the Spark in the summer of 1999, says that “the free nature of the guides is what draws the students in and keeps them coming back”. Moreover, the guide’s online presence allows the experience to have a fully interactive format. Matthews points to the “ability to click on particular terms and phrases and receive a pop-up definition”, for example, as being particularly useful.

This success is even more impressive when it’s considered that the company was run independently for the first year. Like innumerable other dot-coms, its revenue consisted solely of advertisements and small venture capital gains. Then, a corporate takeover was intiated by Delia’s, an online teenage retail store, in early 2000. The latest acquisition by publishing giant Barnes and Noble in March 2001, however, promises to revolutionize Sparknotes forever. Rumors abound that the takeover will mean that Sparknotes online will no longer be free and that Barnes and Noble is envisioning the study guide as a direct competitor to Cliff’s Notes. Yagan denies these rumors, though. He continually asserts that, “Barnes and Noble does not have a vision for Sparknotes other than our vision. The vision for the website remains unchanged.” He goes on to point out that “the same management team runs the company as in the past and that the company hasn’t fired anyone…. We continue to develop the website as the primary educational destination.”

Yagan quickly qualifies this remark, however, by noting that “various agents and publishing companies have approached us to us to do physical print versions of the sparknotes and we have been considering that in terms of finding other distribution outlets for our product. It is just good business.” Bryant G. Mathews ‘02 speculates that if Sparknotes did branch out into book form “it would lose its distinctive character.” Yagan prefers to emphazise that there is a viable demographic for “an intelligent study guide on the market,” regardless of its interactive capabilities.

What are the implications of these developments for the Harvard student interested in writing for Sparknotes? Hawkins worries that the takeover might “alienate Harvard students.” Indeed the bureaucratic nature of a corporation such as Barnes and Noble could easily stifle the “the laid-back” spirit lauded by all of its writers. However, Yagan assured that there is nothing sinister about the acquisition. Indeed, one reason Sparknotes is branching out is that “we have basically outgrown the Harvard labour pool. Although, 40-50% of our full-time employees are from Harvard, we are still experiencing a shortage of writers.” So after surviving the internet crash and two takeovers, The Spark is now hiring.