How Houghton Mifflin Harcourt moved from product to platform

The 180-year-old publisher is now a digital platform player, thanks to an open API strategy.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt tells a new story with APIs

Traditional business model: You can't get any more traditional than Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), the 180-year-old book publisher that counts the Curious George series, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow among its prized literary assets. That’s not to say HMH hadn’t evolved with the times -- the firm branched out from books first into educational materials and eventually into online learning products serving educators, students, and parents in the K-12 education space.

The platform vision: HMH's platform play grew somewhat organically as the firm transitioned over the years from print textbooks into a series of online portals that delivered content for its various customer segments -- primarily teaching materials for teachers and study aids and testing systems for students.

Though the portals developed as separate and unique brands, HMH began to see opportunity in building a consolidated platform that would provide a more unified user experience while attracting third-party developers to its ecosystem of 16 - 17 million active users. "We basically are consolidating the user experience to unify people, solidify our brand and help people get access to stuff much easier," says Brook Colangelo, CTO at HMH.

The HMH Marketplace, currently in beta and slated to launch in early 2016, is being designed to serve as a one-stop resource for educators, with third-party-developed applications, digital learning tools, games and original content all in one place, Colangelo says.

To seed the marketplace, HMH released a developer portal, including a series of APIs that allows developers -- as well as schoolteachers -- to build supplementary products in a sandbox environment that can be directly integrated into the HMH platform. In that way, HMH can provide its user base with access to products and services it might not otherwise offer. “We have a duty and an honor to deliver solutions to our customers that match their needs, but not all those solutions need to be built by us,” Colangelo explains.

Another big plus: A platform-based ecosystem makes for a stickier user experience, Colangelo says. “It’s different from a traditional product where you ask, what’s the revenue or the ROI? Opening up our APIs is more about increasing our level of engagement with our customers," he says.