Death of Brittanica (Part 1 of 3 Part Series)

Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood in Busan, Korea, I still remember how a family that owned a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica (often displayed as a centerpiece in the living room in pristine condition) was considered “well-off.”  The venerable publishing house the past week announced that it will no longer print its much revered reference material and that it has completed the company’s transformation from print to digital, signaling the beginning of a new era, if you will. 

The truth is the print edition of Britannica had been in decline for over a couple of decades.  When Microsoft approached Britannica to license its content in order to digitize them in the mid-80’s, its executives politely declined fearing cannibalization of its print business.  That led to MS developing its own version of one-time wildly popular online encyclopedia, Encarta – presumably discontinued in 2009 due to…   yes, another game-changing entrant called Wikipedia.  The ultimate humiliation for Britannica executives came when this time they approached MS in the mid-90’s to rekindle the conversation seeing how popular Encarta had become.  This time, Microsoft executives politely declined, citing consumer research data that showed partnering with Britannica would reduce Encarta’s brand equity.  Ouch…

What is the lesson here?  We must continue to innovate, evolve and stay close to technology and social trends in order to stay relevant.  I can still see the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman knocking on our door.

Next Up : Death of Door-to-Door Vacuum Salesman and the Avon Lady.     


About Richard Lee
Experienced finance and operations professional. Currently partner in five companies, adjunct professor of economics at Columbia College and executive contributor to a small business blog (; following corporate finance, M&A and management consulting tenures with Orbitz and Diamond Technology Partners; and six years of service with the United States Army.

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