February 17, 2018

All-In Start-up for Libraries | Library Leadership

From left to right: Steve Potter and Diana KanderGovernment services, such as public libraries, are often told to run their organizations “like a business.” However, when a start-up takes a risk and fails, it’s considered part of the business’s evolution. Whereas when a library takes a risk and fails, the entire program can be seen as wasteful. Can the director of a library afford to don the black mock turtleneck of a visionary entrepreneur like Steve Jobs and still stay ­employed?

While it seems the charge to be both entrepreneurial and a good steward of tax revenue or donors’ contributions is contradictory, library leaders and entrepreneurs might find they have a lot in common.

Most successful entrepreneurs, despite their reputations, do not see themselves as risk-takers. Rather, they take educated chances or place small bets and do not go “all in” until they have built a strong foundation for success. Successful library leaders should adopt the same strategy, choosing smart risks that improve the library if they succeed—without imperiling it if they fail.

Big ideas

Leaders of mission-driven organizations are frequently so passionate about what they do that they jump into a solution before doing the requisite work needed to define the problem. For-profit entrepreneurs have the same potential problem. In her All in Startup: Launching a New Idea When Everything Is on the Line (Wiley, 2014), Diana Kander defines the problem this way:

[Some entrepreneurs are] great people pushing flawed concepts for which no one was ever going to become a paying customer. Startups fail because by the time the founders figure out that their idea isn’t good enough, it’s too late to make it better. They only realize that no one actually wanted their product or service after they’ve already run out of money.

Does this sound familiar? How often does a library start a new program, certain of its success, only to see a lukewarm reception at best?

A library leader might say that is where the similarity ends: even the least successful story time will attract one or two followers. Reaching those few individuals does advance the library’s mission, albeit in a very inefficient way, potentially diverting resources from new ventures. In fact, it could be argued that there is actually more at risk when mission-driven organizations miss the mark. When a start-up enterprise fails, there may not be much residual effect beyond personal loss. But when an entrepreneur in a mission-driven organization fails, not only does the program itself fail, but related outcomes can significantly impact other aspects of the organization.

Kander identifies four big ideas that entrepreneurs need to consider if they want their ventures to be successful. These apply equally to profit-driven and mission-driven entrepreneurs. A progressive library should consider them carefully when contemplating a new program or activity.

1) One step at a time

Programs are about finding customers, not developing new activities

Far too often, mission-driven entrepreneurs begin by thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” Focusing on the activity first skips important questions: Does anyone want this new service or activity? How many want it? A profit-driven entrepreneur will measure success with sales or profits. How will a mission-driven entrepreneur measure success? Does the new activity align with the mission or goals of the organization?

Librarians often follow the same path as a traditional ­businessperson:

Step 1: Come up with an idea for a new service. This could be via a “eureka” moment, or hearing about a groundbreaking program at a conference. Either way, begin by focusing on specific details.

Step 2: Develop the service and secure resources. This may mean reserving the program room or buying new books. You might have to convince someone to give you what you need or have the autonomy to create a small service with resources you control.

Step 3: Brand the service. Promotion and marketing are important in mission-driven organizations. However, it is often difficult to determine the value of promotion, so take on low-cost, low-risk options such as putting up signs in the building, posting on Facebook, talking about upcoming events during other programs, or creating bookmarks.

Step 4: Find customers.

Soon it may become clear that the new service is struggling. The natural thing to do is step back to retool. Maybe all that is needed is a tweak of the original idea. Maybe refocusing the marketing might do the trick. But what if, after all that, the outputs remain unchanged? This is known as the “start-up loop of despair.” The entrepreneur may continue to nibble at the edges, but the problem is with the order of the initial steps.

If an entrepreneur considers the customer potential right after developing the idea, chances of failure are far fewer. If there is not enough customer potential, no amount of planning, marketing, or resources will persuade people to use a program they don’t want.

A better model to find new customers and to develop successful activities and programs would be as follows:

Step 1: Come up with an idea for a new service.

Step 2: Find customers. Librarians cannot simply approach people and say, “Would you like it if the library started to do this?” Simply asking for affirmation on a new program idea will not show whether someone would really use it; libraries must solve people’s problems to engage them.

Step 3: Develop the service. As librarians learn what problems they can solve, they should tweak the program accordingly to maximize the potential customer base. They should also develop measures of success at this point. Does the library need a certain number of new library customers for the program to succeed? Would it be successful if the use of resources was ­increased?

Step 4: Brand the service. Once librarians—or entrepreneurs—know what problem they are addressing, promotion becomes a lot easier and less risky. Libraries that know their primary customers can focus on them and won’t need to “paper the town” in fliers or bookmarks (or their virtual equivalents). The important part is marketing services to someone who wants the new service.

2) Mitigating migraines

People participate in programs to solve a problem

When people buy something, there is typically a reason. Why does someone purchase a car? While a buyer may choose one car over another based on its features, the initial reason to buy a car is to get from place to place. Buying an item is first and foremost about solving a problem.

Participating in a program or an activity is much the same. Why do parents of small children borrow 20 or 30 library books every week? Because the parents understand that early literacy activities build a strong foundation for their children, and a preschooler needs more books to gain these skills than parents might want—or be able—to buy.

The important question to consider at this point is whether this particular program solves a problem. And beyond that, how important is the problem, and the solution, to the patron? One way to think about this is in terms of headaches, as Kander does in All in Startup. With a simple, run-of-the-mill headache, people often take an aspirin or two—or if aspirin is not available, they just suffer. Given that the headache sufferer will be free from pain in a few hours either way, how expensive or invasive a treatment would that person consider?

Now consider a migraine, or a painful and debilitating cluster headache that can go on for days. If there was a pill someone could take to break the cycle and cure the headache in one minute, would a headache sufferer take that pill, even if it cost $100? Many sufferers would jump at the chance.

When considering a new program or activity, consider whether this is a solution to a problem. Understand that it is unproductive to ask customers, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the library did this?” No matter what it is, most customers will agree that the library should try the proposed service. To develop a successful program, libraries must find the migraine in someone’s life. This may be a little difficult. For most libraries, we are not talking about life-altering activities…or are we?

What if we started asking people about the greatest threat to our community? What if we asked parents what their greatest concerns were for their teens and tweens? And what if the answers came back: lack of school readiness and the lack of activities outside typical school days and hours? A library response could be early literacy story time, teen lock-ins, or an active summer reading program. The key is to find an issue that concerns patrons and then develop a library response.

3) Crunch the numbers

Librarians are detectives, not fortune tellers

Many librarians, especially those working in reference and information services, see themselves as information detectives or knowledge Sherpas. The need for these skills doesn’t go away when a librarian gets promoted beyond the reference desk.

Progressive libraries are making the move to data-driven decision-making. Starting with the adoption of Planning and Role Setting for Public Libraries (ALA Editions, 1987), libraries attempted to be smarter and more focused by trying a variety of programs and activities, measuring the outputs, and deciding what to keep. This approach was better than previous methods, but there was still room for improvement.

The desire to measure success in terms of outcomes has made libraries even more focused on data. Products like Gale’s Analytics on Demand and OrangeBoy’s Savannah can help evaluate customer data, as well as target current nonusers.

The point is to consider the program or activity, research, and test. A successful progressive library will develop a clear understanding of customers, their needs, and how to react to those needs. How does a library find this information? Have the librarians dust off their reference skills and research.

Frequently people at this stage of the process are heavily invested in the preliminary vision for the activity and are subconsciously closed to alternate methods or different ways to cure “the migraine.” Apart from documentary research, interview potential customers to find out if the new activity or program meets their needs. Ask people open-ended questions. Do not describe the new activity and follow up with, “Does this sound like something that you would like?”

4) Big “small bets”

Successful library directors are luck makers, not risk-takers

When people imagine entrepreneurs, they may think of Chrysler’s recent commercial celebrating its 100th anniversary, which showed the Dodge brothers resigning from their jobs at the Ford Motor Company to start their own enterprise. While this appeals to the American mythology, the truth is a little different. The Dodges had a very successful company and developed an exclusive part supplier relationship with Ford. Eventually they realized that they could manufacture the cars they designed using the same parts that had been successful in Ford’s vehicles. Did it take guts to cut ties with Ford? It certainly did. But did the Dodge brothers take a wild, all or nothing leap? Not even close. The Dodges made a bet—a pretty small bet, really. After they ended their relationship with Ford, they continued to own over ten percent of the Ford Motor Company, as they had been paid in stock for much of the early partnership. They knew that their parts were what made Henry Ford’s cars hum. They just needed to take a small risk and a small leap. This is what true entrepreneurs do.

As a library manager, it is important to be a true entrepreneur, but it’s not necessary to leap off a cliff. Granted, a “small bet” is a matter of perspective. What a library like New York Public or Los Angeles Public views as “small” could equal a commitment to resources twice as large as a smaller library’s entire operating budget. Regardless of the resource allocation, the important point to consider is the risk associated with the behavior. Think about the three previous big ideas. If the library has developed a programming idea that centers on finding customers first, if the library has developed a program that addresses a “migraine,” if the library has done research into its customers’ needs, then a trial program will really be just a small bet. In fact, if a strong foundation has been built based on the first three big ideas, going “all in” on an idea may look like a big risk—but in truth, it will be a calculated, and likely successful, venture.

Diana Kander is the New York Times best-selling author of All in Startup: Launching a New Idea When Everything Is on the Line (Wiley); an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia; and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. Steven V. Potter is the Director of the Mid-Continent Public Library in the Greater Kansas City, MO, area. He serves as an adjunct professor for the University of Missouri-Columbia and, with John J. Huber, is the author of The Purpose-Based Library: Finding Your Path to Survival, Success, and Growth (ALA Neal-Schuman)

This article was published in Library Journal's June 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Stephanie Walker says:

    At the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, the Library has 2 IT divisions. We’re responsible for Academic IT for the whole college, meaning we cover anything to do with technology and teaching. But I also recently established a division called Library Entrepreneurship, Systems, and Network Support (LESNS), combining a traditional library systems unit with a formal, concrete mandate for entrepreneurship – revenue-generating or otherwise. AIT and LESNS, in collaboration with other units in the Library and other campus partners, have created 9 products. Every one solves a time-consuming headache of a problem and/or generates revenue for the Library. We have built everything from our own book scanner (at half the cost of commercial versions) to timesheet and inventory management programs to a file management system for promotion and tenure candidate files for the whole college.