Think Like a Start-Up: a White Paper

April 4, 2012, 1:19 pm

This project has been in the works for a long time. I think that the initial seed was planted during my time at Georgia Tech. It simmered while I was out in California. And it crystalized as soon as I arrived in Blacksburg. I thought this document would be a one-pager that I could finish over a weekend, but it grew into something much more involved.


I’ve been fascinated with startup culture for a long time and as I considered all the changes happening in academic libraries (and higher ed) the parallels were quite stunning. No, we’re not developing new products to bring to market, and no, we’re not striving for an IPO payday, but we are being required to rethink/rebuild/repurpose what a library is and what it does. The next twenty years are going to be an interestingly chaotic time for the history of our institutions.


Here’s a snippet that frames the paper:

The media and pop culture provide us with romanticized visions of dorm room ideas becoming billion dollar IPOs. And indeed, that does happen sometimes, but startups are more than rags to riches stories. In concise terms: startups are organizations dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty. This sounds exactly like an academic library to me. Not only are we trying to survive, but we’re also trying to transform our organizations into a viable service for 21st century scholars and learners.


This paper is a collection of talking points intended to stir the entrepreneurial spirit in library leaders at every level. I think it is also useful for library science students as they prepare to enter and impact the profession. My intention is for this to be a conversation starter, not a step-by-step plan. The future is ours to figure out and I hope that this captures the spirit of the changes ahead.


So here you go:

Think Like A Startup:
a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism






I’ll be exploring the startup theme for the rest of the year—via this blog, talks, and other venues. But I’m going to leave it at this for right now. It’s a long document, but give it a read. Let me know if something resonates with you or your workplace. I’d love to hear from libraries practicing a similar R&D methodology.


Just a heads-up: my blog will likely go quiet for a bit as I’m heading off to Silicon Valley to meet with some startups as well as with some established companies. This is my quest for an innovation experience—my alternative to ALA Annual. And of course I’ll blog the insights. BTW: I’ve found that entrepreneurs tend to love talking about the future of higher education, largely because it didn’t work well for them and they want to see something different.


Publishing Note: I opted to publish this as a white paper instead of in a journal largely because I wanted to control the design and content. It’s hard to explain, but I didn’t want my initial publication on this topic to be owned, bundled, and associated with a publisher. This self-directed process was much more labor intensive, but also very liberating.


Thanks: Ashley Marlowe for the design. Steven Bell, Tara Patterson, Laura Purcell, and Leslie Mathews for the tons of edits. And to all the students who shared their startup dreams with me over the years.


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