Kevin Sayar on Taking the Helm at Kanopy

Kevin Sayar, previously at ProQuest, was named the new CEO of streaming video platform Kanopy in October. LJ caught up with him at the Charleston Library Conference to hear his thoughts on early days at Kanopy.

Kevin Sayar head shotKevin Sayar was named the new CEO of streaming video platform Kanopy in October. Sayar was previously at ProQuest, where he held multiple roles, including senior vice president and general manager of ProQuest Books, and SVP and GM ProQuest Workflow Solutions, the company’s software business unit. Prior to his time at ProQuest, Sayar was president and cofounder of ebrary, one of the pioneering online ebook companies, founded in 1999.

Sayar succeeds Kanopy founder Olivia Humphrey, who is relocating with her family back to her native Australia. Humphrey will stay on as Kanopy’s executive chairman of the board.

LJ caught up with Sayar at the Charleston Library Conference to hear his thoughts on early days at Kanopy.

LJ: What was your path from ProQuest to Kanopy?

I was consulting for ProQuest while also getting to know some other players in the industry. In that process I was able to learn about Kanopy, and what was going on in the two markets that they play in—the academic and the public library space. It wasn't too long after that I was approached and [told] the news that Olivia was planning on moving her family back to Australia and they were looking for a new CEO.

It's a very small company, and I'm familiar with small companies. It’s a really amazing culture—passionate folks work there. I felt like it was a good fit because I've done a lot of similar things and it seemed like the right time for me to join.

How does your experience align with what Kanopy is working on?

When I met with Olivia I felt like I got lucky. There were so many parallels—not just cofounding ebrary, an ebook platform in the early days, and all the challenges we went through, but specifically the business models. I had subsequently acquired EBL eBooks [which became ProQuest EBook Central], the first ebook company to actually develop a patron-driven acquisition model, and we had experienced some of the same pain points with regard to challenges for librarians to manage their budgets, and the sustainability of that model. We were able to make the necessary changes with the libraries' help.

You can find yourself in a situation where halfway through the budget cycle you've spent 100 percent of your budget. So the question becomes: How do you get the benefit of both [circulation and affordability]? Being high visibility, having tools, having control, and then having some automation in there as well—you don't have to have a very manual workflow. When I started doing that due diligence and talking to Olivia, it was very apparent to me that [Kanopy was] looking to solve this almost for the first time. They were caught a bit by surprise.

Are people concerned with budget issues in terms of their Kanopy subscriptions?

A couple of short-term solutions have already been put into the marketplace to help librarians deal with the challenges. It's not just the users that really value the product, librarians value the product as well. They are eager to help in terms of solving the sustainability of the model to see that digital streaming media has a place in the future of supporting scholarly learning and the curriculum that it supports. I feel confident that we're going to be able to work together and find the right solutions. The first step is really understanding. So with that in mind, we're doing a survey of our existing customers, and have deep conversations with them. Once we get that under our belts, we'll be able to pretty quickly turn around and publish a loose road map in terms of how we're going to address some of the challenges and still [give libraries] the benefits. You should expect a progress report at ALA Midwinter and ER&L. But the response, already in the couple of days that I've been [at Charleston], has been positive and really encouraging.

Kanopy serves both public and academic libraries. How comfortable are you moving between the two spheres, and what opportunities do you see for cross-pollination?

I'm more familiar and experienced in the academic space. But I also had customers in the public library market—it was just considerably smaller.

If you look at the parallels between the mission of those libraries, and the patrons, I think the difference is content, really, in terms of the curation that you bring to the table. The usage is actually very similar. The commonalities are great, but administratively you might need some different tools in terms of how you make it easier to make those titles available to the patrons and users. Overall there's a lot of overlap, which is why it makes sense that [Kanopy is] in both markets.

I know it’s early days, but what are your next steps?

I think that it's important to take a step back. I was lucky that the timing of Charleston was such that two weeks in [to the Kanopy position] I had a chance to speak to many of the librarians that I've known over the years and have great relationships with and trust—I know that they'll speak to me directly about their challenges—but I think it's important to really listen at this stage. What I don't want to do is knee-jerk react.

Given that streaming media are becoming important course components in higher education, are you looking into any role for Kanopy in open educational resources (OER)?

OER was something I was interested in and looked into before taking on this role and one of the things I thought was that there may be potential for us to play a role in the future. But it's early days, and I think we have our arms full as it is right now. We'll be tracking that pretty closely and looking potentially to partner, but I don't think it's an initiative that we would take on on our own.

What else are you seeing that is encouraging or exciting you?

In the early days of ebooks there was so much education required on both the publishing and the customer/librarian side that our role in the middle had this educational component, to actually get the industry to move in this direction of the transition from print to electronic. Now I am listening to customers. We know that both students and patrons need digital media. We understand and see that many of them are accustomed to digital resources and we know that we have to find a way to support the desire for resources within our budgets.

When you look at the usage patterns, and you look at exactly what's being used and who is using it, there's no denying the fact that digital media is becoming core to curriculum. That's the part that I think is the most exciting. Everyone wants to help solve the problem. It's not a situation like we had with ebooks where we just wanted people to read the ebook. Many students still wanted the physical book in their hands, which we had to overcome over years and years.

I know there are some challenges and some frustrated customers, but I also know that I've been here before, and I know we can help solve [the challenges], and it's really good to hear that [customers] want to help us solve them together.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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