Executive Seminar with Kevin Guthrie

Kevin Guthrie is the co-founder of Ithaka. Prior, he co-founded JSTOR in 1995, and he also has experience as a professional football player, sportscaster, and film consultant.

Guthrie began working in the technology upon co-founding JSTOR in 1994. As a Princeton graduate, he was aware of the University’s President’s plans to expand the library to accommodate a greater collection. After struggling to establish a career in professional football and a brief stint in the film industry – he was a consultant for the Oscar-winning film “Rain Man” – he became intrigued by his alma mater’s dilemma. He investigated the idea of digitalizing publications to create an online database. Eventually, JSTOR grew to include over 2,000 journals that extend back as far as the 17th century.

JSTOR’s original objective was to benefit higher education through facilitating access to information. The enterprise since inception is a non-profit that aims to help libraries and academic institutions help save space and increase access to academic content. Guthrie realized that libraries and schools as non-profit institutions best relate to similar institutions. Consequently, he created a two-prong pricing tools: a higher price to permanent access, and a lower price of annual subscription. This plan proved immensely successful and raised significant capital to establish an endowment for the organization.

Originally, Guthrie dedicated himself to creating a well-balanced team and appealing product. He recruited technicians to build the product itself, as well as librarians to help shape it into something desirable. He acknowledges that the two personalities initially were reluctant to work together, however, this diversity of backgrounds was necessary for providing the user with a helpful experience. Moreover, he surprised his funders through his large investments in design. He felt much of the company’s success is contingent visual appeal and made a strong first impression a top priority. Wearing a striking plaid blazer himself, he notes that many companies are still undervaluing the importance of aesthetics.

After working on JSTOR for eleven years, he found its success overshadowed its original mission. Consequently, in 2005, he created ITHAKA as a parent company to help embark on new projects that are central to the original mission. The organization still focuses on the broad mission of making education less expensive through technology, but they can now exploring other means of using technology to benefit education.

Currently, ITHAKA has all the elements of a big company – multiple offices and multiple products – causing him to make sure the company constantly adapts to changing demands. In a larger organization, he finds it harder to push a singular vision. Instead, to instigate change, he must boil ideas down to simple goals that individuals can carry out. As a leader, he also advances the company through creating a brand that attracts both clients and talent. In order to implement this, he focuses on creating a culture that would attract the most qualified people.

However, as the company has gained size and an impressive track record, Guthrie has noticed his employees are more reluctant to adapt to change. The people who began alongside him – in fact, seven of the eight starters are still with the company – are keen on innovation, likely because they are aware of how much of their success was contingent on luck. The people who joined the team later, however, tend to favor traditional approaches that seem reliable for continuing growth. Consequently, he feels that he has to actively push against this conservative mindset in many of his employees.

Guthrie is highly optimistic about JSTOR’s future, and is excited to be at a stage where he can play a very strategic leadership role. As more content becomes available online for free – both legally and illegally – he strives to enhance JSTOR’s role as a search service. Traditionally, search engines struggle to sift through books, often presenting the user with too much information or failing to provide a full text. He plans to implement strategies to better connect users to books, which often contain the most essential scholarly ideas. Moreover, he shares that JSTOR is also considering introducing a social-network function to the website that could connect people researching similar topics.

He advises students to be opportunistic, and fully dedicate themselves when an intriguing opportunity presents itself. Exhibiting his belief that experiences are more important than salary, he learned the skills that were necessary in each position he took and felt he naturally ended up in his current role. Finally, in line with his ongoing attempt to streamline larger ideas into practical information, he boils down to the success of JSTOR and ITHAKA to the following values: great talent, extremely simplified goals, accountability, and impact.