Vikram Savkar – VP of Wolters Kluwer’s Legal Education

I am a big believer in the power of simplicity: consumers value this over just about anything else, except of course price. So many of the most successful websites in the world today are also the simplest.

Vikram Savkar is Vice President and General Manager of Wolters Kluwer’s Legal Education Group and a member of the Executive Committee of Wolters Kluwer Law & Business. In this capacity, he is responsible for managing operations of the market-leading publisher of textbooks and other learning solutions for law schools in the United States and abroad, and guiding a transition of the group towards digital and services innovation.

Prior to joining Wolters Kluwer in 2012, Mr. Savkar was Senior Vice President & Publishing Director of Nature Education, the newly formed educational division of leading scientific publisher Nature Publishing Group, and member of the NPG Board. In this capacity, he led the successful launch of a number of innovative products in open education and digital textbooks in the hard sciences.

Prior to NPG, Mr. Savkar held a number of leadership roles at Pearson Higher Education, the leading global educational publisher, including Director of New Ventures, in which role he was responsible for incubating products in emerging market spaces, including XML-based custom publishing. He began his publishing career at Pearson as a project manager of higher education textbooks.

Mr. Savkar was born and raised in Virginia, graduated from Harvard College with degrees in physics and classics, and prior to joining the publishing industry worked for three years as an assistant to the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He and his wife reside in Cambridge, MA.

Where did the idea for Connected Casebook come from?

We’re fortunate that as a leading publisher of law school textbooks, we have an “install base” of 200+ schools already using our products on a regular basis. We were able to perform extensive research with these customers when it was time to design the Connected Casebook, our next generation approach to law school publishing. Some clear demand trends jumped out at us from the research. For example:

– Law students are looking for a much higher pace of feedback on their learning progress than they customarily receive in their law school classes

– Law students consult a very big range of sources when preparing for class, and want tools that bring these sources together in a coherent and efficient way

– Faculty are looking for organized ways of giving all of their students extra exercises and tutorials without having to dramatically increase their 1-2-1 coaching time

We developed an initial vision for the product based on these findings, and then revised over several months through an intensive prototyping process in which we developed partial solutions and socialized them with target users.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I think of managing a group as being divided between “up and out” and “down and in” responsibilities and I try to ensure a balance in each day between these two modes. “Down and in” means working closely with each of the functional areas in the group – sales, marketing, editorial, digital, operations, finance, and so on – to push forward key strategies, understand and resolve risks and problems, and make sure that all of the necessary connections between the areas are smooth. In practice, this involves a lot of conversations, some as formal meetings, but mostly informal check-ins and brainstorms. “Up and out” means, partially, working with my management at Wolters Kluwer, but also staying abreast of what’s happening in the wider education world and building networks in key places out there that will help us move our own strategies forward. The second half of this involves reading news and reports, scheduling coffees and phone calls with people who are doing interesting things, attending conferences. I also carve out time for myself to just sift through and diagram what I’m hearing, so I can make sure that I am able to synthesize it into an actionable future for ourselves.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The first step after I’ve had an initial idea, is drawing. This can be sketching a conceptual diagram on a white board, or it can be literally drawing a screen for a future website, or anything in between. Forcing the pen onto the paper in an attempt to make something concrete out of a general vision results in a big step forward in clarity. When the drawing is done, I generally feel much closer to understanding which part of the vision is valid, and which part (and there’s always a healthy amount of this) is just not going to work.

After this, it’s important to socialize the idea with a trusted group of advisors, as well as many potential customers as possible to formalize the idea into a plan that can be executed.

My approach to early ideation has evolved over the years, particular in relation to customers. I used to hold off on collecting a lot of customer feedback to a product idea until it was fairly well organized. These days, I’ve come to appreciate what one learns from customer reactions even to early stage sketches. You have to sift through feedback at this early stage critically, accepting neither enthusiasm nor the opposite at face value, but in aggregate it’s generally useful and insightful.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Crowd-sourcing represents a potentially profound change in how businesses operate, and I think we’re just at the beginning stages of realizing the impact of this. Today we can crowd-source a wide variety of activities: journalism, code development, tutoring, customer service, and so on. This ease of networking consumers and suppliers has already had a major impact on some industries: encyclopedias, movie studios, textbook publishers. But the full impact will only come once people have figured out how to harness the inherent unruliness of crowd-sourcing at massive scale as a core operational strategy for mainstream businesses. When that happens, it will kick-start a new wave of innovation within nearly every industry.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I like synchronous communications like face to face conversations or gchats, and try to work through as many issues as I can that way rather than over emails and other asynchronous approaches. There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, waiting for a face-to-face conversation can be a delay in the short term . . . you could fire off five emails back and forth with the person you’re working with in the time you’re waiting for an opening to sit down with her over coffee. But on the other hand, launching new products is not something that can be done approximately: in my opinion making a successful product is all about getting all of tiniest details and nuances exactly right. That sense of precision and “perfect” alignment with a customer’s tastes and needs is what makes the difference between the 5% of products that take off and the 95% that probably do the same kind of thing functionally but never catch fire. And I happen to think that having meaningful discussions about the tiniest details and nuances is very difficult over email, but very easy when you are in a room with someone drawing together on a white board. I believe that holding out for personal meetings wherever possible helps me, in the long run, get to the “right” answer faster and better than I otherwise would.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I worked as a short-order chef on Sunday nights at the student-run grill in my dorm in college for two years. Actually, I loved that job: it was energetic, social, and I got $20 a week in cash that I could spend at the grill immediately after my shift was over. But I wasn’t really very good at it – there were a few “dropping the plate” incidents while carrying the food out to the customers – and eventually even my closest friends started avoiding my shifts, which I took as a bad sign. So I would say the job was great, but I wasn’t a great fit for it. What I learned, of course, was that you can’t really fight who you are and shoehorn yourself into activities that you don’t have a natural proclivity for. It’s better in the long run to ask yourself what you have a knack and passion for, and build your career around that.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I had an opportunity early in my career to work as a traveling sales rep for a very small book publisher based out of Cambridge, but instead chose an editorial role at a larger publisher. Everything that I’ve been able to do has emerged out of that editorial role, so I don’t really wish that things had played out differently. But I do think that having had a pure sales role early in my career might have accelerated some of the things I eventually learned, and I would recommend a sales role to anybody who thinks they may be entrepreneurial at some point in their life. There’s really nothing like getting a door slammed in your face and realizing the impact of that on your commission to clarify the importance of having a really clear strategy to commercialize, not just implement, your ideas.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I am a big believer in the power of simplicity: consumers value this over just about anything else, except of course price. So many of the most successful websites in the world today are also the simplest. Google Search and Wikipedia could both be far more complex than they are, but their creators consciously kept them very streamlined and easy to use, and the results are obvious. So I try to keep simplicity as a conscious goal for my group as often as I can. Whether working to improve the user experience in an application by merging two or three different workflows into one straightforward one or redesigning incentives and targets to align more naturally with strategy, we push to simplify how we approach our challenges. Often, of course, the realities can be intractable, but I don’t think you should ever stop trying to find a simple path through a complex problem.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

It’s crucially important to have a very strong sales strategy right from the beginning of any new venture. Often I feel that people can be focused exclusively on the product in the early days, and try to figure out how to sell it later (the “field of dreams” approach), but I think that’s a mistake in most cases. When I have invested early and in a major way in top quality sales talent at the beginning of a venture, I haven’t regretted it: there’s nothing like getting genuine customers on board early to inject a real sense of belief in every member of the team, which pays off hugely in the long run.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Building on the previous question, there is one particular time that I recall when I did not bring in dedicated sales talent until well after the product launched. It was a sponsorship-driven model and I was trying to be conscientious so I wanted to build up a steady audience first, in order to be able to show a strong value prop to potential sponsors. But what I missed was that a really good sales person doesn’t just sell; she can be a core member of your product team, helping you understand what you need to do to make sure your product is saleable, because she is already out there having conversations with potential customers. Once I did hire a sales person we made progress rapidly.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

My wife and I have single friends who ask us if we know anyone to introduce them to. Unfortunately, we can’t always find the right match among our own circle. But I’m confident that somewhere in the circles of one of my close friends is someone who could be a great partner for the people that we know . . . it’s just not easy to tap into these circles. I’m not aware of a major dating site that’s focused exclusively on people connecting friends to friends of friends, but I think there should be one. Traditional online dating can be hard, particularly for people who receive lots of unwelcome and sometimes hostile attention. Being “introduced” by mutual and trusted friends could solve this problem, and could help people find better matches because they are brokered by intermediaries who actually care about the “seekers.” I have a name – some variant of “Set up” – and I sketched out a vision on a napkin. But this idea is not really what I do, so hopefully someone else will give it a go, as a public service. If anyone’s interested, I’ll help them!

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

We no longer keep peanut butter in the house because when it’s there I’ll finish a jar, with a spoon, in about an hour.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’ll be whimsical, since I’m near Walden pond at the moment: Walden is a book entrepreneurs should read (as should everyone), because of its intense focus on the idea of authenticity. Probably for most of us authenticity won’t look like living in the woods, but trying to find our own way of being authentic in what we do is possible and necessary. Particularly in a time when there’s a lot of froth out there in the business world – start-up after start-up chasing easy arbitrage – it’s important to dig for authentic value. In the long run, it will win.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I heard a talk by Seth Godin fairly early in my career that had a big impact on me. He spoke about the importance of making products “remarkable.” I found that very liberating . . . “beauty” and “remarkableness” were qualities I had until that time associated with art, not business, but coming out of that talk I felt a freedom to try to make what we do in business “beautiful” and it’s served me well.

It’s both cliche and honest to admit that I admired Steve Jobs’ emphasis on design as a key driver of business success, and have made design a core concern of mine in everything I do. I remember well when the iPod came out . At the time there were many other products on the market that did exactly the same thing, but the iPod was just so much more “beautiful” than any of them that it made people make the switch to digital music. That’s something we should always remember: the goal is to build not just a better, but also a better-looking, mousetrap.

And for something completely different, I’ve read a lot of baseball blogs over the years, particularly those that do in depth, usually quantitative, analysis of what makes teams successful. I read these because I love the game of baseball and am a long-time Red Sox fan, but also the perspective that I gain from these does I believe make me a more rigorous evaluator of my own business operations. It’s easy to fall into thinking that you really “know” your own business; forcing yourself to take a step outside and take a fresh look at what the cold hard numbers say is beneficial, and sometimes it takes something out of left field (yes, intended) to make you do it.


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