- Sam Yagan is a lifelong entrepreneur and exec.
- He is the cofounder of OkCupid, and was head of the dating site conglomerate the Match Group for seven years. His first company was SparkNotes, which he founded while at Harvard.
- Yagan told Business Insider that when SparkNotes first launched, the team got a flood of hate mail, but it was “the best kind of hate mail to get.”
Sam Yagan cofounded his first company when he was an undergrad at Harvard.
That company was SparkNotes, the book summary site beloved by time-crunched students across the US.
Yagan had been recruiting for consulting firms when his roommate and friend, Chris Coyne, pitched him the idea of a humor site called The Spark, and a study guide site called SparkNotes. In the spring of Yagan’s senior year, they set the site live … to a flood of hate mail.
But the nasty messages weren’t what you might expect.
“People were pissed,” Yagan said on an episode of our podcast, “Success! How I Did It.”
“Because we didn’t have the SparkNote they needed!” Yagan said. “Because we only had 10, and they wanted ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Or they wanted ‘Hamlet.’ Or they wanted whatever book we didn’t have. And it was, like, really real anger, because they’re, like, ‘Oh we found this site with free study guides,’ and then they’re scrolling and they don’t see what they want.”
But as Yagan said, “that’s the best kind of hate mail to get, is we need more product. And so we spent that summer, we hired a couple of editors, and their foil was to get a hundred SparkNotes up by the fall, and the rest is history.”
Before the launch (and hate mail) Yagan and Coyne had turned to the most convenient workforce: other college students. “One of the nice things about being in a school, a liberal-arts school with a good English program, is we had all these friends who were just getting done paying a hundred grand to a school to allow them to write papers, and so we went with this great offer: ‘We’ll pay you 400 bucks to write a paper,'” Yagan said.
“And their heads exploded. They’re, like, ‘Wait a minute. You’re going to pay me to write a paper? This is amazing.’ And so I remember it was, like, we had spring break late in March that year, and we went to people right before their spring breaks and said, ‘Hey, can you spend your spring break writing this paper?'”
By the end of spring break, they had their first 10 papers — enough for a site, but just the beginning.