Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

June 26, 2008

It can be a frightening time to be in the publishing business. The economic mechanisms that support the reproduction and distribution of information in print have been disrupted by the economics of digital media. The newspaper industry provides just one example. As Eric Alterman pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, “In the Internet Age,… no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad.” Print circulation is at its lowest level since records have been kept and online revenue from advertising and subscriptions are nowhere close to making up for those declines. It is well known that journals and scholarly presses are also struggling to adapt their business models.

At the same time that established publishing organizations are struggling, more and more academics and academic organizations are attempting to enter digital publishing. They are digitizing new content daily, developing new software tools, and collecting new data. Naturally, the creators of these online academic resources (OARs) wish to make them broadly available and to ensure their continued availability and currency.

These new digital resources have generally been created from one-time grant funding or short-term commitments of resources. However, unlike a printed book, digital resources require continued investment. The software systems and platforms on which they depend must be upgraded and kept current. It is the nature of digital resources to be continually growing and changing, attracting new content, and rapidly cycling through revisions and additions.

Increasingly, therefore, foundations, government agencies and universities are asking where they will find the recurring funding to sustain these online resources over time. They are requiring the leaders of such projects to develop sustainability plans that include ongoing sources of revenue; in short, they are looking for academics to act as publishing entrepreneurs. Success in such endeavors requires entrepreneurial expertise and discipline, but in our experience at Ithaka, few OAR projects employ fundamental principles of project planning and management. Why don’t they?

What we have observed is that deep cultural differences separate the scholarly mindset from the mindset of the e-entrepreneur. Most people overseeing online academic resources are scholars, raised in the academy, accustomed to its collegial culture and deliberative pace, shielded from traditional market forces. However, the rapid changes and ruthless competitive landscape of the Internet require a different mindset. The challenge for a successful OAR project leader is to marry the scholarly values essential to the project’s intellectual integrity with the entrepreneurial values necessary for its survival in the Internet economy.

To assist project leaders in successfully managing digital enterprises, Ithaka embarked on a project to study the major challenges to the sustainability of these online academic resources. Working with support from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Strategic Content Alliance, we interviewed a range of people both in the academy and industry. During that effort, the fruits of which were published last week, we identified several aspects of the entrepreneurial approach that seem particularly important to creating sustainable digital projects:

1. Grants are for start-up, not sustainability. Most often, project leaders should regard initial funding as precisely that -- start-up funding to help the project develop other reliable, recurring and diverse sources of support. The prevailing assumption that there will be a new influx of grant funding when the existing round runs out is counter-productive to building a sustainable approach. There are exceptions to this assertion -- for example, if a grantee offers a service that is vital to a foundation’s mission or is exclusively serving an important programmatic focus of the funder -- but these cases are unusual.

2. Cost recovery is not sufficient: growth is necessary. Project leaders need to adopt a broader definition of “sustainability” that encompasses more than covering operating costs. The Web environment is evolving rapidly and relentlessly. It is incorrect to assume that, once the initial digitization effort is finished and content is up on the Web, the costs of maintaining a resource will drop to zero or nearly zero. Projects need to generate surplus revenue for ongoing reinvestment in their content and/or technology if they are to thrive.

3. Value is determined by impact. OAR project leaders tend to underestimate the importance of thinking about demand and impact and the connections between those elements and support from key stake holders. The scholarly reluctance to think in terms of “marketing” is a formula for invisibility on the Internet. Without a strategic understanding of the market place, it is only through serendipity that a resource will attract users and have an impact on a significant population or field of academic endeavor. And of course, attracting users is essential for garnering support from a variety of stake holders: host universities, philanthropies and government agencies, corporate sponsors and advertisers. The most promising and successful online resource projects are demand driven and strive for visibility, traffic and impact.

4. Projects should think in terms of building scale through partnerships, collaborations, mergers and even acquisitions. Project leaders need to consider a range of options for long-term governance. Start-ups in the private sector, for example, aim for independent profitability but they also consider it a success to merge with complementary businesses or to sell their companies to a larger enterprise with the means to carry those assets forward. Not-for-profit projects should think similarly about their options and pursue different forms of sustainability based on their particular strengths, their competition, and their spheres of activity. Given the high fixed costs of the online environment, collaborations and mergers are critical for helping single online academic resource projects keep their costs down and improve chances for sustainability.

5. In a competitive world, strategic planning is imperative. In the highly competitive environment of the Web, project leaders must embrace the best operating practices of their competitors -- a group that includes commercial enterprises -- for mindshare and resources. That means they will have to act strategically, develop marketing plans, seek out strategic partnerships, understand their competitive environment, and identify and measure themselves against clear goals and objectives for how they will accomplish their missions successfully and affordably. An academic disdain for “commercialism” can doom many a promising scholarly project to failure on the Internet.

Historically, academic projects have been shielded from commercial pressures, in part by funders, but mainly because their economic environment operated independently from other areas of commerce. This separation between the “academic” and “commercial” economies is no longer meaningful. The project leaders that are most likely to succeed in today’s digital environment are those who can operate successfully under the pressures of competition and accountability, and in the messiness of innovation and continual reinvention.

6. Flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness are key. OARs need to develop the capability for rapid cycles of experimentation (“fail early and often”), rather than spending years attempting to build the optimal resource in isolation from the market. Unfortunately, many OARs are structurally set up to do the latter – their grants commit them to promised courses of action for several years and tie them to specific deliverables. Leaders of online academic resources may not realize that many funders would prefer nimbleness if it means that the OARs will have a greater impact. Funders, for their part, must recognize that multi-year plans need to be highly flexible to allow for adaptation to new developments in technology and the marketplace.

7. Dedicated and fully accountable leadership is essential. Running a start-up – and developing an online academic resource is running a start-up – is a full-time job requiring full-time leadership. The “principal investigator” model, in which an individual divides her time among a variety of research grants, teaching assignments, and other responsibilities, is not conducive to entrepreneurial success. New initiatives aiming for sustainability require fully dedicated, fully invested, and intensely focused leadership. If a principal investigator cannot provide it, he or she will have to retain a very capable person who can.

If new digital academic resources are going to survive in the increasingly competitive online environment, the academy needs a better understanding of the challenges of managing what are essentially digital publishing enterprises. Leaders and supporters of these projects must orient themselves to an entrepreneurial mindset and embrace principles of effective management. If they are unable to do that, important resources serving smaller scholarly disciplines will disappear, leaving only those projects that are commercially viable.


Kevin M. Guthrie is president of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for higher education. From 1995 to 2003, he was the founding president of JSTOR.



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