Many SHS students turn to SparkNotes as a tool for homework assignments at one time or another. Few are aware, however, that not so long ago, the creator of SparkNotes was also an SHS student. Max Krohn ’95 graduated from SHS, went on to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude and went on to obtain a doctorate in computer science from MIT. Krohn’s roommate Sam Yagan, another classmate, Chris Coyne, and Krohn created SparkNotes in 1999.
Originally, SparkNotes was created as part of a website called TheSpark.com that Coyne had envisioned as an online dating service. Krohn and Yagan joined Coyne to work on the website. Krohn joined as the computer programmer and Yagan joined as the business head.
Once Krohn and his friends realized that the user base of TheSpark.com was largely comprised of high school and college students, they tried to think of academic applications that would get users to return to the website more often. Krohn came up with the idea of creating online literature study guides. He and his friends called the study guides SparkNotes.
What is Krohn’s response to teachers who urge their students not to use SparkNotes? “In a nutshell: don’t use SparkNotes.” In retrospect, he has some regrets about developing SparkNotes “since I love reading, and I love literature, and I learned so much from my English teachers at Scarsdale High School,” including Seth Evans and Paul Sheehey, who are still on the faculty.
Nonetheless, Krohn believes that SparkNotes can be a valuable tool in certain instances. “I often use SparkNotes to better understand plays that I’ve seen, but haven’t read. I recently read SparkNotes to get me through some tedious portions of War & Peace that I otherwise didn’t have the patience for. I wanted to be sure I could skip a few chapters without missing anything. When you’re writing bigger papers in college and beyond, sometimes you do need to get a quick summary of a book and don’t have the time to read it. It seems totally fair to use SparkNotes as background reading in such a context,” he explained.
By early summer of 1999, TheSpark.com/Sparknotes had gained a considerable following and the website obtained investors. Because the investors had taken a huge risk to invest in the venture, they managed to “get the better of [the group]” when it came to deal terms, according to Krohn. “Boy, did we have a lot to learn,” he commented.
By the fall of 1999, the business had almost gone bankrupt and by February of 2000, Krohn and his friends sold it to “a now-defunct… online arm of the dELiA*s dress company.” Soon, that company was also struggling financially, and it sold TheSpark.com and SparkNotes to Barnes & Noble, where Krohn stayed for about a year. Notwithstanding his expertise in online dating, he met his wife while working there.
In 2003, Krohn, Yagan, Coyne, and another friend, Christian Rudder, joined up again to start another business. This one, they decided, would only be a dating website. They wanted this website to be similar to their original dating applications on TheSpark.com in that it would be free and based on personality quizzes. They called this dating website OkCupid.
OkCupid struggled to become profitable for seven years due, in part, to the “Great Recession,” said Krohn. However, in 2010, the advertisement markets rebounded and OkCupid “became very profitable almost overnight,” noted Krohn.
By the end of 2010, Krohn and his friends sold OkCupid to Match.com for $50 million. “We think OkCupid is a great business, with a strong future, andMatch.com agreed with us,” Krohn said.
Krohn notes that, demographically, OkCupid is great for college students and recent grads because it serves a younger population than most other dating sites. As for safety concerns, Krohn noted that “[t]he same safety issues apply whenever people are getting to know each other, regardless of whether they meet through OkCupid, Facebook, a party, a bar, a supermarket, or a coffee shop.”
In addition to his advice about the websites that he helped to found, Krohn urges high school students who are looking to meet someone to “be honest.” He also offers the following academic advice to students as they head for college: “Study computer science in college! It’s a great field, with tons of applications.”
By Jonathan Faust