Tom Loosemore and BBC iPlayer (Big Bets 1)
This is a newsletter about big bets, explored through conversations with the product leaders who worked on them. In this first one, I catch up with my former colleague Tom Loosemore to talk about BBC iPlayer and more.
A good reason to do something extraordinary
Tom has worked on a lot of big bets in his career, including BBC iPlayer - the wildly popular online streaming service of the BBC, which was developed way before TV streaming was the status quo (in fact at about the same time as Netflix was working on the idea on the other side of the Atlantic).
I ask him where the ideas for these bets come from. “The real question is: are you strategic or organic with your choices?” he says. He thinks that the organic route - things like hackathons and Google design sprints - doesn’t work, because although it can generate a lot of different options, they never go anywhere unless they’re underpinned by where your org should play and why. As he elegantly puts it: “You have to have a good reason to do something extraordinary.”
I wonder if taking the strategic route over the organic one means that ideas have to come top-down rather than bottom up. He disagrees - “Ideas can come from anywhere. But no matter where they’ve come from, someone in leadership needs to have a strategy about where to spend the organisation’s money and time. It’s a bad idea to do too many of these bets at one time - I’ve been there, and it doesn’t work”.
In the case of iPlayer, Tom describes the idea of putting TV online as the “obvious next move” - not a stroke of genius from any particular individual. He thinks the really original idea actually happened in 2001, when the BBC put radio online with Radio Player, which allowed you to catch up on seven days of radio. After that, putting telly online was somewhat inevitable, it was just about how and when to do it.
Tom talks a lot about creating the conditions for success of a big bet within an organisation. Some of his focus on this no doubt comes from the fact that he’s mainly taken his bets within large organisations, but my experience says that it can be just as important within small ones. His title at the BBC was Head of Strategic Innovation, so I assume it was in his job description to take bets. Yes, he says, but even with that being the case, to make any big bet work he needed to give an idea ‘escape velocity’: enough energy and momentum internally to escape the gravitational pull of big organisations that prevents new things from happening. “You need to create conditions in which new rules apply to the big bets,” he tells me.
When building iPlayer, they took an approach he calls “slow and hot”, in partnership with his colleague Tony Ageh (Tony talks about some of his work on iPlayer in this great talk). Tony did the slow work of enabling iPlayer by having long negotiations around things like content rights. Meanwhile, Tom created “big, hot splashes” by leading a team that built prototypes to show how iPlayer could work and shopping them around the organisation, including among senior leadership. For example, they recorded everything that was on TV for a week using a PVR (personal video recorder, essentially a fancy set-top box) and then put it online. They built a version that enabled you to download (rather than stream) all the BBC’s recent programmes, and another one that was exclusively on social media. They even made a peer to peer version of iPlayer. Each of these prototypes explored a new option for what online television might look like - and, more importantly, they made the organisation excited about doing something different.
Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma describes how hard it is for established organisations to execute on new ideas. Tom’s take is that two things are required: proper investment to fund an experienced team, and a senior leader who can create a bubble around this team to protect them from the rest of the organisation. What’s proper investment? “It’s going to have to be at least six figures, and runway for a year.” These are bigbets after all, you have to commit to doing them properly, not put a small or inexperienced team on them and then act surprised if they fail. At the BBC, and in other organisations, Tom has always supported funding teams rather than projects: if you build a high-performing team, you’ll have created something valuable even if a particular idea doesn’t work out.
There’s a skill to protecting and nurturing projects within organisations that might otherwise kill them. For example, he tells me an early internal version of iPlayer was called the BBC Archive Testbed: “we picked a boring name so the lawyers wouldn’t get too nervous”. The early prototypes were built in 2004-5, but it wasn’t until 2006 that iPlayer got escape velocity. He describes the early product itself as terrible, but says it didn’t matter because there was so much momentum by that point. A second version, which turned it into a proper service, was subsequently built and then launched to the public.
Too early or too late?
So how do you decide whether a big bet is working? We agree it’s the hardest part: you can accidentally stop something promising in its tracks by walking away from an idea too early, or you can mistakenly keep grinding away at an idea long after you should’ve moved on. “The bigger the organisation, the more likely you are to leave it too late,” Tom says ruefully (he has worked in government, after all). “But the worst option of all is when you continually pivot on an idea.” I’m interested in this - pivoting seems like a good idea in some circumstances, or at least superior to sticking with something that you’ve proved won’t work. He clarifies: you can acknowledge you’ve found an important strategic area, but it might have to be addressed by a different product. But he’s seen many teams fail when they kept trying things that were too close to their original idea.
As a rule of thumb, Tom likes to have something in front of users within 3 months, get enough users on it to know whether it has momentum within 6 months, and then by a year he needs to see clear signals of success. In his role as Head of Strategic Innovation, he built a lot of new products - not just iPlayer - and most of them never went anywhere. With hindsight, many of them were very far-sighted - for example, an identity product that enabled you to sign in to other online services with the BBC, and a kind of proto-Twitter called ‘chat around content’ where you could write up to 200 characters per message. But either they were too early for their time or they weren’t strategically right for the BBC.
Tom left the BBC in 2007, the same year that iPlayer was launched to the public, and he stresses that he was just one small part of the story - “making stuff like iPlayer happen in a place like the BBC is a marathon relay race”. It’s interesting to understand what it took to turn something that’s now as established as iPlayer from an idea, to a bet, to a product. But I’ve found it just as useful to hear about the bets they tried that didn’t come off - after all, you’re probably not betting big enough if every project succeeds.
Some of my top takeaways:
Even truly innovative ideas don’t necessarily come out of the blue (BBC Radio Player > BBC iPlayer). The important part isn’t being the first to come up with some big idea, but having the bravery to do it, and executing on it well.
To make a bet succeed, especially within a large organisation, you need to work out how to give it ‘escape velocity’. A great way to do this on longer projects is with prototypes that get people excited internally.
You’ve got to make a big enough commitment (time, money) to your bets that you give them a chance to succeed. You don’t learn anything from a project that fails because of an inexperienced team.
Forwarded this email? Subscribe here. Enjoy this email? Forward it to a friend. And do hit reply if you have any feedback or bets you’d like me to cover.