15 Questions with Sam A. Yagan ’99

Before Facebook, there was TheSpark; and before Mark Zuckerberg, there was a posse of Harvard Grads carving out a crimson
By Catherine A. Zielinski

Before Facebook, there was TheSpark; and before Mark Zuckerberg, there was a posse of Harvard Grads carving out a crimson corner on the Web. Sam A. Yagan ’99 and the other founders of SparkNotes have struck gold again with OkCupid.com, an online dating site for the younger set. FM sat down with the seasoned Web savant just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Fifteen Minutes (FM): You were an applied math concentrator here at Harvard—did you envision yourself going into the Internet world while studying here?
Sam Yagan: I started my first company while I was a senior on campus. When I started at Harvard I definitely did ultimately envision myself being an Internet entrepreneur, I just didn’t realize to what extent.

FM: You’re also the founder of SparkNotes, for which we all thank you very much. How did you come up with that idea?
SY: A couple of my classmates and I had been toying with Internet ideas, and we decided we wanted to do something more substantial. So we thought ‘what’s popular with students?’ and basically everyone used CliffsNotes. But they had some real flaws. We realized we’re at Harvard with all these awesome English majors—for example, the person who wrote the SparkNotes on Moby Dick wrote a summa thesis on Moby Dick, so it’s definitely one of the best study guides on Moby Dick on the planet. According to the Wall Street Journal, we had more Harvard grads working for us in ’99 than any other company in the world.

FM: How did you transition from SparkNotes into the world of online dating sites?
SY: After we sold SparkNotes to Barnes and Noble, we were like, well, the model of taking a product that exists that people pay for, and making it free and making it better, is a real powerful combo. So we thought ‘What other verticals can we enter with that model?’ The only three things people were paying for online were porno, gambling, and dating. We canceled out the first two—I am married after all—but we thought that dating would be a great venue for excitement, and we could definitely come up with a better Web site than Match.com. We made it really fun, and free.

FM:You paid Harvard undergrads to write SparkNotes at first. How much did you pay them? Do you still use Harvard undergrads?
SY: While I was working there it was $300-$500 per SparkNote. It depended—Ulysses was probably a little more. After we sold to B&N it went up a little. I believe they don’t really do a lot of new Spark Notes, and I don’t think they still use undergrads, sorry.

FM:  How was your love life while attending Harvard?
SY: We were all math majors, and all super analytical. We definitely weren’t dating experts. We just observed what it was in life that drew people together and made them click, and our approach of observing how people date in the world allowed us to transfer those observations into an online Web site. How they decide whom they like, where they go on dates—we try to transfer this online.

FM: Do you feel like the Harvard dating scene helped or hindered you for the real world?
SY: Our approach is much more about modeling the real world on the Web rather than using the dating expertise we learned, but I wouldn’t say it was the awesome Harvard dating scene that influenced us to start up the Web site.

FM: Specifically, did you create OkCupid to find some romance for yourself?
SY: We were all married, but our employees definitely use it a lot. “I work for OkCupid” is definitely a great pickup line, and apparently the chicks love it.  

FM: How can you afford to do a free dating site? And why not charge monthly fees like all the others do?
SY: We have 15 employees, while Match.com, etc. have about 300. Although we have a fraction of their workers we have an equally good Web site.

FM: A lot of the Web site seems to have pink and purple lettering. Is this to lure more females into the dating realm?
SY: Any dating site, just like a nightclub or bar, you always want to attract the women, because wherever the women are, men will surely follow. Indeed, we have a higher portion of women on our Web site than others: we’re 1:1 while most are 2:1 male to female.

FM: Who is the average OkCupid.com user? Male/female? Age?
SY: If you’re under 30, you probably don’t pay for any sites, from dating to music. In your 40’s or 50’s, you go to what you see advertised. So most of our users are under 30, a little more Web savvy than most, equal male to female, and on the whole a little geekier than your sort of mass-market Web site. You have to think a little, answer questions, etc. 

FM: Have you attended any weddings of successful OkCupid users?
 SY:We get invitations all the time, we even get users who ask us to pay for their weddings, which is a little surprising. But no, I have not personally gone to any weddings.

FM: How successful is your Web site in relation to other Web sites?
SY: The fact that we’ve gotten to be almost as big as Match.com, who spend $100 million a year on advertising and we spend $0, to me, shows we’re pretty successful.
FM: Any new ventures in the future?
SY: We’re committed to becoming the biggest dating Web site on the web. Overthrowing Match.com is our job.

FM: What advice would you give to Harvard students looking for love on the Web?
SY: Use the Web just like you use the Web for everything else in your life, thus use it as part of your overall strategy. Don’t only use the Web to find people, and don’t never use it. Meet some people who aren’t in the Harvard community, and it’s a great opportunity to meet people on other campuses, etc. But you should also be going to parties and meeting people the good old-fashioned way, staying inside on a Friday web-surfing isn’t the best recommendation.

FM:What are your thoughts on the current hookup culture among college campuses? Does it help or hinder your business?
SY: It makes online dating more useful because you can look for any type of relationship you want, from a hookup to marriage. So its easier than figuring out what the other person wants down the line—in this format, you know up front.

FM:  I read that Boston is the biggest city that uses the Web site, per capita. Why do you think Bostonians are turning to the web for love? No skills on the streets?
SY: Not at all—I think it’s because Bostonions tend to be pretty Web savvy. They’re young, single, and technologically savvy. Imagine San Antonio, not a super young or wired population, where you wouldn’t have a huge Internet culture. It also helps that it’s so cold, because you can be like “it’s a little cold, why don’t we stay in and find love online?”