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A brief history of SparkNotes

JUMP TO :  1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 |


1998

November 1998—Chris spends Thanksgiving weekend at home in South Portland, Maine with his friend and Harvard College roommate, Eli. The two discuss the rising Internet frenzy—Ebay had gone public weeks before—and resolve to generate an idea for a web business during the Thanksgiving break. Chris had already been mulling over an idea for a web-based dating service. The software he envisioned would anonymously pair up people with possible dates they identified by email address and then notify both if a match occurred.

Later that night, Chris generates a list of possible URLs for the venture. Many are already reserved, including Spark.com, so he settles on TheSpark.com, an homage to the "Spark" that his software would provide for dating relationships everywhere.


1999

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January 1999—TheSpark.com launches on January 7, 1999 with the slogan, "Internet Like Burning." The site features the "SparkJournal" and an early version of the matchmaking software, later called "Pimpin' Cupid."

March 1999—Pimpin' Cupid begins to generate a buzz and a sizeable following. Chris realizes he needs more programming power to expand the site's features. He also needs a business plan. He finds a solution to each problem in his friends and freshman-year entrywaymates Sam and Max. Max will handle technology. Sam will handle the business.

Lawyers are summoned. Signatures abound. Deals are struck. TheSpark.com becomes TheSpark.com, Inc. on March 29, 1999.


TheSpark.com: May 1999

April 1999—Recognizing that TheSpark's user base was made up mostly of high school and college students, the founders brainstorm ideas for an academic resource that would entice students to return to the site frequently. Max suggests an online version of literature study guides. Other study guides now faced the bricks and mortar-filled dustbin of history. All that was missing was a name, which came easily: SparkNotes.

Max, Sam, and Chris hire friends to write the first few SparkNotes. On April 7, SparkNotes launch with six titles: Julius Caesar, A Doll's House, Iliad, Macbeth, The Scarlet Letter, and A Tale of Two Cities. The launch also highlights the company's first tagline: "Academic Solutions for Your Demographic." Chris's high school friend Mike serves as our mascot.

May 1999—SparkNotes immediately win over students. Requests begin to flood in for more guides. This demand pushes the founders to seek their first non-freelance employee to oversee the expansion of SparkNotes. They post an ad for a "Manager/Editor" on the Harvard Student Employment Office website.

Meanwhile Justin arrives back in New Jersey from a brief stint in Tokyo, Japan in May 1999. He sees the posting and calls up Sam, who is ensconced in his dorm room preparing for final exams. Realizing that they already know each other from Kirkland House at Harvard (Max and Sam lived downstairs), Sam offers Justin the job without a formal interview or face-to-face meeting of any kind.

June - August 1999—Max, Sam, Chris, and Justin meet together for the first time June 5, 1999 at the house the founders are renting in Allston, Massachusetts. Though they're sharing the house with four other roommates, the place becomes TheSpark/SparkNotes' first office.

Justin is given the mandate to post 100 SparkNotes to the site by September 1, 1999.

September 1999—Max, Chris, Sam, and Justin work together in the Harvard Computer Lab. Justin hires and commissions 100 SparkNotes, assigned to about 20 different writers around the globe. The guides launch on SparkNotes.com on September 1, 1999. We sit back and wait for the back to school traffic to start, inaugurating what would become the ritual end to SparkNotes' annual dormant season.

Later in September, we move into our first true office at Suite 202, 2285 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, MA. The building is old, the office quickly becomes fetid, and four more employees are hired to provide programming, web design, and humor writing. Eli leaves the company to pursue other ventures, namely skydiving and photography.



SparkNotes front page: October 1999

October - December 1999—Pimpin' Cupid has over 1 million users and SparkNotes traffic increases by tens of thousands each week. The two features make TheSpark.com an attractive web property with millions of hits per week.


2000

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February 2000—Following a whirlwind tour of numerous suitors' offices on both coasts, the founders agree to sell TheSpark and SparkNotes to iTurf Inc. iTurf, hungry for traffic and eager to become the turnkey solution for teen websurfing worldwide, sees TheSpark and SparkNotes as a surefire way to reach its core demographic. Although iTurf's business plan remains shadowy and elusive, the deal gives TheSpark and SparkNotes what seems like sure footing for dramatic expansion.

March 2000—iTurf puts a significant budget behind expanding the SparkNotes collection into academic subjects beyond literature. To do so, we need to hire another editorial employee. Justin asks Ben Florman, a standout SparkNote writer, to come in for an interview. Ben shows up in a blue button-down shirt and gets the job.

March - August 2000—The iTurf business model remains mysterious, as does iTurf.com editorial content, featuring stories such as, "What Color is Water?" The SparkNotes budget remains generous, and we spend a lot of it giving away 30,000 SparkNotes t-shirts.

Ben and Justin get to work with the goal of relaunching SparkNotes.com by September 1, 2000 with a new look and hundreds of new study guides. Ben edits furiously. Justin scrambles to manage over 130 freelancers single-handedly. They both eat Bi Bim Bop from Café Avec-the local French-Korean place.

After an interview in which she advises TheSpark's programming intern about which archaeological dig he should attend that summer, Tammy comes aboard as a programmer and joins Max in iTurf's New York City headquarters.

Everyone else remains in the increasingly squalid Cambridge office.


The SparkNotes front page: September 2000.

September - December 2000—The vastly expanded SparkNotes site launches to great fanfare and a big midnight dinner of Chinese cuisine. Traffic grows steadily.

Later, iTurf realizes that its elusive business model will never surface and decides to sell off its web properties, including SparkNotes. Barnes & Noble enters the picture as a possible acquirer. Ben, Justin, Sam, and Max meet with the Barnes & Noble braintrust. Afterwards, we have dinner at a place that serves French fries in champagne glasses.


2001

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March 2001—The Barnes & Noble acquisition of SparkNotes closes. Our first mission is to create 50 print versions of SparkNotes literature guides.

May 2001—Cliff Hillegass, the founder and former president of Cliffs Notes, dies at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska on May 5. He was 83.

June - August 2001—After a torrid round of recruiting, including a fruitful visit to the Columbia Career Fair, SparkNotes hires a flotilla of new employees. We more than triple in size.

The new editorial team works feverishly on the lit guide project, while also setting into motion a line of test prep books, and continuing to expand the content on our website.

September 2001—We hit our final deadline for the first fifty lit guides, while Barnes & Noble rents the barren 11th floor we occupied to a bank. SparkNotes is thrust into tight quarters on the 9th floor of 76 9th Ave. Our ping-pong table vanishes.

October 2001SparkNotes Test Prep is in full-on development mode, and the SparkCharts program begins to fulminate. Work on a redesign of the website begins with a lunch at a Belgian restaurant. Discussion focuses on how to optimize SparkNotes’ search engine.

November 2001—The first fifty SparkNotes literature guides go to the printer.


2002

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January 2002—A new streamlined SparkNotes design launches. The new design provides better navigation and search capabilities, and also solidifies SparkNotes' domination of the color blue.


The SparkNotes front page: January 2002

February 2002—SparkNotes literature guides go on sale at Barnes and Noble stores nationwide. Justin calls stores in Alaska, Montana, and New Mexico. It's true—SparkNotes are (in Barnes & Noble stores) everywhere.

March 2002—The three original Spark employees move on to different ventures. Dan, now affiliated with the company as a consultant for almost two years, steps in as Publisher. Tammy takes over technology. Justin and Ben run editorial. Within a few weeks, Robert joins us as Associate Publisher. Our editorial group begins the transition from a lit guide machine to a broader educational publishing imprint, both online and off.

With Tammy consulting from poolside in Florida where she is vacationing, we launch a new version of our message boards with better thread handling and awesome user awards. Users vie for the (now defunct) "Toilet Talk" and "Satan's Servant" awards. Message board activity significantly increases.

April - May 2002—Our literature guides exceed sales expectations. Test Prep, SparkCharts, and 100 more literature guides enter the editorial and production homestretch. All will be completed by mid-July, 2002.

June 2002—We breathe a big sigh of relief as we leave behind the cramped cubicles of our old offices for our current, spacious surroundings near Union Square.

An article about SparkNotes appears on the front page of the New York Times. Subsequent press coverage includes NPR, The Today Show, CNN, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, and many more. SparkNotes even makes Liz Smith's gossip column in the New York Post.

July - August 2002—Work on online Test Prep reaches a frenzy. At the same time, we double the number of online Literature and Philosophy notes we offer, inaugurate a new section of Drama notes, and increase by 10 times the number of classic books online.

Eight SparkNotes Test Prep books (covering the SAT, ACT, and SAT II tests) go on sale in Barnes & Noble stores nationwide and sell strongly. On August 15, we launch yet another site redesign, this time of just our front page.


The SparkNotes front page: September 2002

September 2002—Work progresses on several new SparkNotes print product lines, including No Fear Shakespeare, Barnes & Noble Reader's Companions, SparkCharts, Library of Great Authors, and more Test Prep. As back-to-school season gets underway, our site receives twice as much traffic as it did the previous year.

October 2002—First, we migrate our servers.


Thrilling, isn't it?

Printable SparkNotes, our first e-commerce venture, launches, making just about enough to cover the cupcakes we buy for Halloween the next day. SparkNotes are now available in three formats: free on the web, PDF downloads, and for sale in print. All thrive, and traffic on the site reaches all time highs.

November 2002—SparkNotes hires Hanna to run a new K-8 division that will serve the needs of younger students. Hanna hires a staff and sets a publishing plan in motion. While attending the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference, we discover that teachers use and endorse SparkNotes nationwide.

December 2002—SparkNotes.com now has five million registered users and is the most popular stand-alone education site on the Internet.


2003

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January 2003The SparkNotes Test Prep website launches, featuring interactive practice tests and diagnostic feedback that complements the SparkNotes Test Prep books. SparkCharts, a series of laminated quick-reference subject review sheets, launch to great acclaim and success. To accommodate our surging online traffic, we plan a major site redesign and technical overhaul for Spring 2003.


SparkNotes front page: March 2001

April - May 2003—The new redesign is completed and launched. SparkNotes unleashes a bunch of new SparkCharts, some covering stuff beyond purely academic topics, like HTML and Java. Over 1.6 million SparkNotes literature guides are now in print. Online and in print, SparkNotes continue to be today's most popular study guide.

June 2003—SparkNotes releases No Fear Shakespeare. The new editions feature Shakespeare's original text on the left with easy-to-understand translations into plain English on the right.

July 2003—Changes afoot. Ben and Justin K. move on from full-time SparkLife to pursue their separate passions: novel writing and roller derby. They begin working on the SparkNotes Guide to the New SAT, which hits Barnes & Noble bookstores everywhere in June 2004.

August 2003—SparkNotes has its best summer ever, with book sales at an all-time high. In a back-to-school frenzy, SparkNotes.com membership tops 7 million and traffic hits new peaks.

September 2003—Laurie joins SparkNotes as Editorial Director, bringing along tons of experience in educational publishing. Fran joins the web team as Web Editor. SparkNotes adds several more staff members and a flurry of unprecedented productivity ensues.


Some folks from our editorial and design teams: December 2003

December 2003—The web team toils through the night to bring you SparkLife, a fun complement to our online study aids.


2004

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January 2004—SparkNotes 101 Literature and 101 Shakespeare both hit Barnes & Noble bookstores across the nation. FlashKids, a grade K-8 division of SparkNotes, debuts its fantastically colorful new line of books and matching website. The public is blessed with SparkNotes Study Cards and a Greek Classics Study Guide.

February 2004—The SparkFish make their home in the office kitchen.

March 2004—During the Ides of March, Tammy and Fran stay late to work on online Test Prep and become delirious, nearly consuming a prosciutto-covered pizza. Luckily, the newly-redesigned Online Test Prep relaunch goes off without a hitch. Students clamor for our revolutionary free diagnostic test offer and gobble up the Test Prep books—now free online!


SparkNotes front page: Spring 2004

April 2004—The tech team works day and night to massage the all-seeing, all-knowing SparkTests into submission and debuts them as part of a polished SparkLife section. Later in the month, the office is flooded with four thousand tiny plush dogs—Flash the Dog, the Flash Kids mascot. Staff members cheer with delight as Dan pelts us in the head with stuffed toys.

September 2004—The arrival of the back-to-school season brings with it a whole slew of new SparkNotes products. SparkNotes now has more than 1.75 million books in print. SparkCharts are now available as printable, downloadable PDFs, No Fear Shakespeare gets all excerpty on the web, and Spuzzles vocabulary and U.S. history crossword puzzles make a game out of studying.


2005

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SparkNotes front page: Winter 2005

January 2005—A new year and a brand new SparkNotes. Working busily through the winter holiday season, the tech team and Dan O., designer extraordinaire, design, build and perfect an entirely new SparkNotes website. Our motto, "Smarter, Better, Faster," suddenly seems most apt—the new site looks fantastic and works like a charm. After only five years of existence, SparkNotes is the same age as the average kindergartener—yet we're helping make education more fun and enriching for people everywhere, and schooling every other study guide shop on the block.

July 2005-SparkCollege, a new line of SparkNotes books, geared toward college applicants and college students, hits stores. Titles like 10 Things You Gotta Know About College Application Essays and 10 Things You Gotta Know About Paying for College are must-have items for every high school senior.

Mel, a bright-eyed, young web designer joins the team and immediately begins work on SparkMobile. SparkNotes goes beyond books and the web, and is now accessible using most cell phones. Tammy leaves to the sounds of a weeping web team.

September 2005-With Fran and Justin S. leading the way, SparkCollege gets its very own web channel. SparkCollege provides students with honest tips and customized advice on applying to college. College applicants worldwide are stress-free. Mike comes on board as the new director of technology.


2006

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February 2006-Shakespeare goes virtual, when No Fear Shakespeare hits the SparkNotes site with some serious flare. Fran, Dano and Mike work tirelessly for good reason. The site looks great and, most importantly, it helps more and more people understand the language of Shakespeare. The site reaches a record number of hits. Esther joins as Assistant Web Editor.

August 2006-SparkLife finally gets a much-needed facelift. With the help of Mel and Esther, SparkLife looks fresher and now features plenty of content from readers-turned-contributors.

September 2006-SparkNotes.com is chock full of goodies and bursting at the seams with useful study tools. The homepage gets a brand spankin new look, designed by Mel. Web traffic booms. The SparkNotes Team rejoices.



October 2006-The entire SparkNotes office is blindfolded and taken to a remote location where they're force-fed fruit and champagne. The cause for celebration? SparkNotes has sold its 10 millionth book! Everyone is ecstatic and even the hired waiter can't help but jump for joy.


2007

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June 2007-When news breaks that the LSAT is going through some changes, SparkNotes test prep editors decide to go above and beyond high school and college diagnostic testing. The LSAT and the GRE become the first two graduate school entrance exams to be covered by SparkNotes. To celebrate the expansion, our online Test Prep channel gets a whole new look. SparkNotes is growing up and even more titles for graduate school students are planned for '08.

The SparkNotes office is expanding so fast, desks become scarce. Forced to share their computers, editors resort to setting up workspaces in bathroom stalls and underneath tables. To everyone's relief, the web and art teams move to a brand new space around the corner.

SparkNotes is better and faster than ever before. With tons of new titles on the horizon and exciting web plans in the works, there's no chance we'll be slowing down anytime soon.