This is the final post in a series about the key pivots our company has made in the past few years. In part 1, I discussed our first major pivot: the decision to begin producing and owning our own content. That pivot led to the creation of our Milestone Documents series of reference books. In part 2, I explained our decision to wind down our reference publishing and focus instead on reaching educators and students directly via MilestoneDocuments.com. We spent the last half of 2010 redesigning the site, switching to a subscription model, and gearing up for a late 2010 launch. Alas, by the time of the launch, yet another pivot was practically begging to be made. This is the story of that pivot, which turned out to be critical.
The Adoption Model
Over the course of the fall of 2010, while working with our designers and developers on version 2.0 of our site, we began to mull over the possibility of marketing our site directly to college history professors as a textbook replacement. At first, it seemed a distant possibility. However, we decided to poll some of the scholars who had written our expert commentary to ask them whether they might use and assign a site such as ours to their classes.
To our surprise, a fair number of these historians responded positively to our inquiry. They loved the idea of having a large number of primary source documents to choose from, they liked the all-digital paradigm, and they were in favor of anything that might reduce their students’ textbook costs, which had soared to $100 apiece and beyond. We quickly settled on an approach in which we would give away the site to all students whose professors assigned it for the first semester. The idea was to let professors try it out with their students risk-free, and then—presuming the professors (and students) were pleased with the service—begin charging students a fee of $50/semester thereafter. At that level, we reasoned, the site would still offer a tremendous savings over a traditional textbook.
We quickly made plans to attend the American Historical Association annual convention in Boston in January 2011, where with very little notice we would attempt to launch our new adoption campaign to professors attending the conference. We had a large banner printed that said “Ditch the Textbook,” and we set up a couple of tables with computers on them.
Making a Splash
It’s hard to describe what an outlier our little booth was at that first convention. Amidst a sea of booths filled with books, ours was a spartan square devoid of “stuff”: no books, no brochures, just me and Andrea Betts with our computers and a cheeky, slightly outrageous banner that drew stares, guffaws, and occasionally even hostile responses from attendees (“I’m not ditching my textbook. I WROTE the textbook!”). However, more typical were the warm greetings, serious interest, and outright praise (“This is great. You are the future!”). We signed up a number of professors for semester trials that spring, and we made connections with many others who would later on become loyal customers.
Settling In for the Long Haul
By the end of that first semester, we knew we had a product that could succeed. Surveys of the professors and students using the site were almost uniformly positive. Most of our professors signed up to continue using the site in the fall term. At the same time, however, we realized that we had launched the site in a form that was not quite ready for prime time. It lacked any central organizing place where professors could interact with and direct their students. Our coverage in certain key areas was lackluster. The site didn’t offer professors enough flexibility in choosing which elements to assign to students.
And, very importantly, we realized that our price point was too high. Sure, $50 might be a bargain to students used to having to pay $100 or more for a textbook. But a number of our professors confessed that they preferred to assign our site not as a replacement to their traditional textbooks but as a companion to it. In those scenarios, we were making the crisis of expensive textbooks even worse.
What has followed in the wake of that first semester more than a year ago is a series of course corrections. We added unique home pages for every class using the site. We added tons of new documents and new controls for professors. Finally, we dropped the price to $19.95 per semester.
These actions are not additional “pivots” in my mind but something less radical. Every business, especially an upstart like ours that is pioneering a new approach in a digital format, has to make constant improvements and enhancements to find the sweet spot where customers (professors) and users (students) alike are thrilled with the service and loyal to it. That’s exactly what we’ve done. And while we are still working hard to find our way to that elusive sweet spot, we are getting closer every day.
So what’s ahead for our service? Are there additional pivots in store? One should never say never, but my guess is that we have only just now joined the battle, and it took those 3 initial pivots to find the battlefield. Our service has matured to the point where it is a viable choice for a sizable and growing number of educators—not only at the college level but also at the high school level—and our challenge is to do the hard work of telling our story, reaching out to customers, and making our product ever better. First came the pivots, laying the foundation. Now comes the execution, building upward toward the sky.