This is the second 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. We had a great time producing those sets, and they were well received by critics and customers alike. And yet, a couple of years into that effort, some clouds began to appear on the horizon.
Hat tip to our managing editor Ben Painter for finding the video clip. I suppose I play the part of Ross, only shorter and with no hair.
In 2010, on a rainy evening in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Andrea Betts (our former vice president) and I convened a gathering of informal advisers and friends, all veterans of the reference industry, to help us brainstorm about the future of our Milestone Documents product line. The talk naturally settled on the troubled state of the library market. It had been hit hard by the recession, and many of us had begun to think that in an era of chronic public funding shortages, it might never recover. One person in the group made a startling pronouncement:
“If I were you, I would spend at least 10% of my time thinking what we would do if the library reference market disappeared altogether.”
As we had only just begun our drive to build a business as a full-fledged reference publisher, this was sobering indeed. And yet the notion struck a chord on a couple of levels. First, it was clear that the market WAS under severe pressure and that the trouble might be not merely long-lasting but indeed permanent. Second, we faced a practical dilemma familiar to many small businesses: Go big or go home. That is, in order to increase our profile in the marketplace and make a larger splash, we needed to invest substantial funds not just in new products but also in new marketing and advertising efforts.
What Do We Want Our Company to Be?
The issue of where to invest our limited funds dovetailed with another dilemma: Leaving aside the troubled market, did we even want to be a reference publisher in the long run? Having created a cohesive body of content around a topic that we excelled at and loved, not just collectively as a company but individually as well (my own college degree was in history), did we really want to reinvent the wheel repeatedly for new products on new topics? That, after all, is standard procedure for reference publishers.
The full answer revealed itself only much later. But even at that time, we made the conscious decision not to abandon the brand we had worked so hard to build (Milestone Documents) but instead to double-down on a side experiment we had begun in 2008, around the time our first reference set was published: selling our content directly to individual students and educators via the Web, as opposed to reaching them through an institutional middleman (the library).
From the beginning of our Milestone Documents content effort, we knew we wanted to dip our toes into the direct-to-consumer market. Thus, in early 2008, we hired a web developer to create a simple e-commerce site where students and teachers could purchase our content by the article for a few dollars each. We thought we might see incremental revenue from this effort, and we wanted to experiment with a paradigm that others in our industry were talking about but hardly anyone was doing. For our part, we had nothing to lose by experimenting.
By 2010, when we were seriously questioning whether to continue as a reference publisher, we knew there was a market for our content via the direct-consumer model. But we didn’t really know how big that market was. Our Web sales had been extremely modest, but at the same time our site was very rudimentary, and we had done no outreach whatsoever. Also, most of our content was not yet on the site; we hadn’t yet added the content from our other sets that had subsequently been published. We felt that we hadn’t really given the direct model a fair shake.
In the end, faced with investing in a new reference set or giving our direct model a more serious chance to succeed, we decided on the latter route. It was perhaps a riskier move, but we were increasingly convinced that it was the only viable long-term strategy. If the library market was in permanent decline, we obviously had to move quickly into another market.
In the last half of 2010, we hired a new design firm to overhaul the look and functionality of the site and a new development firm to beef up the back end. And we made another crucial decision: We would switch the site from a per-article sales model to a subscription one built around monthly or annual plans.
MilestoneDocuments.com 2.0 was launched in December 2010. And the rest, as they say, is history. Right?
Not so fast. By the time of the 2.0 launch, we had yet another pivot staring us in the face, daring us to reconsider our strategy yet again. Did we have the energy to pivot once more? Did we have the resources? In the next installment, I’ll tell the story of pivot #3.