In the second part of our 50 VOD
Professionals survey we interview Anthony Rose, the
former head of the BBC iPlayer and now the co-founder and CTO of
zeebox. Rose talks about his time at the BBC, building brilliant
products and gives some great advice to would-be entrepreneurs.
KAUSER KANJI: Hi Anthony. I guess you're
familiar with the 50 VOD Professionals survey we've been running on
the site lately?
ANTHONY ROSE: I am, yes!
KANJI: And so we've been trying to work out who
the most influential people are that work in the UK's new
television sector. Now you have past influence in that you were one
of the main driving forces behind the development of the BBC
iPlayer but also current influence with your zeebox work. So, let's
start by talking about your role at the BBC. What were you doing
ROSE: So back in 2007 the BBC had been
developing the iPlayer concept for several years with varying
degrees of success and they bought in Erik Huggers from Microsoft
to lead the team. I'd met Eric a few times at conferences so we
knew each other a little and he called me - I was living in
Australia at the time working for Kazaa and Alt.net which were
sister companies - and said how would you like to join the BBC?
Over a couple of weeks we worked out what the job might be and I
started having a play with iPlayer - the pre-release version - and
it really wasn't a brilliant consumer proposition at the time.
KANJI: Right -
ROSE: Essentially, there were many, many little
issues with it which amounted to iPlayer being a difficult-to-use
service. And my first thought was the developer team is terrible -
they can't develop a product. But actually, when I got to the BBC I
found that the dev team was actually brilliant - a number of them
work for me now at zeebox - but the problem was that they'd been
pulled in lots of different directions. For example, they'd been
asked to build the product to comply with things like parental
controls and editorial control and for portraying channel logos
everywhere. And if you looked at all the things that were on the
requirements list, none of them essentially was for consumers.
They all came from different parts of the business. There was
no consumer advocate. So I said, right, I'm the consumer advocate
and told the teams to stop talking to the rest of the business,
just talk to me and we'll establish a direction. This is the
challenge for any large organisation. What's important? Who tells
you what to do? If you listen to too many people you won't get
KANJI: So how did you change things?
On iPlayer: "I asked what do consumers
actually want? Let's focus on them. Every week, we're going to go
through the top 10 things that people are saying are a problem and
we're going to fix as many of those things as we can."
ROSE: Well, I did two things. First, I said
don't listen to anyone else but me! There's one voice that will
filter all the business requirements and that's me. And second, I
asked what do consumers actually want? Let's focus on them. Every
week, we're going to go through the top 10 things that people are
saying are a problem and we're going to fix as many of those things
as we can. These were all minority edge cases: problems with Flash,
with different browsers, with Macs etc. And each of them was only a
few percent of people but collectively it didn't work for anyone.
So we imposed a zero tolerance approach to the top 10 items, to
being robust in how we dealt with them. And that got the product
out the door.
KANJI: You'd expect the early adopters to flag
up technical issues but what about the mass market? Was there a new
set of challenges once the iPlayer went into general release?
ROSE: Yes, your use cases definitely change. So
instead of "does it work on Macs" we might ask, for example, how do
we encourage more women to use the iPlayer at lunchtime? They're on
an office computer, they're eating, they don't want to do much
typing to find content so how can we help them? I guess my time at
iPlayer was a combination of forming a larger vision as to how the
product should evolve and big picture things - should it be on
connected TV? Should it be on smartphones etc.? - and, at the same
time, doing the minute stuff like working out bandwidth costs,
making deals with CDNs, negotiating with third-party partners. The
takeaway point is figure out what the product should be and then
make sure all the pieces are in place to be able to deliver it.
KANJI: And how did your role evolve?
ROSE: My remit increased to be in charge of 250
people and it included things like search and the BBC homepage and
programme pages and so on.
The BBC iPlayer launch film in
KANJI: And so after the BBC you moved to
ROSE: Which became YouView -
KANJI: And how was your time there? You were
only there for eight months…
ROSE: Some of the things that worked very
successfully at the BBC were less successful at YouView. The
ability to focus on a brilliant consumer proposition isn't so easy.
For example, with the iPlayer we said there's a lot of stuff on TV,
the audience want recommendations so let's build a recommendations
engine. The only thing holding us back was the hours in the day.
Whereas at YouView, when I said "there's a lot of great content
here, we need a recommendations engine", six or seven shareholders
looked at me and said "What if it recommends other people's
content?" and I answered "That's what recommendations engines tend
to do!" So, it was more difficult with multiple stakeholders.
Ultimately, I decided to go back to my dot com roots and form
a new start-up.
KANJI: And that was zeebox?
On zeebox: "Within weeks we had a team
of eight people, working for no money. I paid for our first offices
in Old Street myself. We then raised about $6 million, grew the
team to thirty, Sky invested before Xmas and we're now about sixty
ROSE: Well, initially, I had no idea what it
would be! I started talking to venture capitalists around town
trying to figure it out. At the same time Ernesto Schmitt, who had
been at EMI [Schmitt was on the Executive Board and was
also President of Marketing and President, Global
Catalogue] had left the company and he was also
looking for something to do. A bunch of mutual friends and
acquaintances said we should get together so we met and set up a
few meetings to look for a great proposition. What could we build
that had a good business model, that was fundable, of its time and
that wasn't reliant on complicated business partnerships?
Eventually we hit upon zeebox and started putting the team
And since then it's been a rocket ship! Within weeks we had a
team of eight people, working for no money. I paid for our first
offices in Old Street myself. We then raised about $6 million, grew
the team to thirty, Sky invested before Xmas and we're now about
sixty people. We hope to be live in the US in the next eight weeks
with other territories to follow. So far, it's been a fantastic
KANJI: And what's your motivation? What do you
want to achieve?
"Changing the world - it's nice to say we played a
small part in doing that - but for me the great driver is building
a great product that lots of people will use."
ROSE: It's not so much a desire to change
things but rather looking at the direction of technology and
consumer behaviour and working out what is it that people want that
others aren't doing? And then, being ballsy, ignoring the naysayers
on things I suppose. Whenever there's something new there's always
27 reasons not to do it: what if no-one uses it, what if
synchronisation won't work, what if the system can't deal with the
load? There's a suspension of disbelief that you have to cross.
That's the key thing for entrepreneurs - to take a risk and a
gamble. How futuristic should your proposition be? If it's too
ahead of its time you get lots of good press and great awards but
no-one uses it; it it's not adventurous enough then lots of people
can copy you. Changing the world - it's nice to say we played a
small part in doing that - but for me the great driver is building
a great product that lots of people will use.
KANJI: Sounds like what Steve Jobs said about
the audience not always knowing what they want… [The
actual quote was from BusinessWeek, 25 May 1998: "It's really hard
to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't
know what they want until you show it to them."]
ROSE: It's a tricky question and I don't
profess to know the answer by any means. If you have some sort of
revelation, if you say "I had a dream!" it might be only you that
actually enjoys the product. On the other hand, you can do a survey
of 10,000 people and they might only tell you what's in the depth
of their experience right now. For example, years ago, had you said
to people that you'll be walking around with a phone stuck to your
ear they'd think what a ridiculous thing to do! People only tell
you what's already possible. It's like the Indiana Jones movie
where sometimes you have to take a leap of faith
[Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade]. The
most interesting bit is when do you listen to yourself and when do
you listen to others.
KANJI: It's fascinating that when you and
Ernesto got together you didn't know what the product would be.
What ideas did you reject before hitting upon zeebox?
"Eventually, we thought of zeebox and thought "Yes!
This is it! It's a tech play, it's new, it's fundable, there's a
great revenue model" and we got excited about it."
ROSE: Well I won't go into specifics but we
looked at a whole range. One we rejected because it was going to be
too late into the market, another was super-cool but we'd have to
buy content rights and that might take years and lots of money. It
was a fantastic time because in many ways the only thing between
you and finding the thing you want to do is your imagination. It's
a strange and slightly scary thing because you might think you need
to sort out a whole range of other factors but often it's YOU that
is the biggest factor. Assuming we could get funding, assuming we
could get the technology working the only thing stopping us was us.
Eventually, we thought of zeebox and thought "Yes! This is it! It's
a tech play, it's new, it's fundable, there's a great revenue
model" and we got excited about it.
KANJI: So finally, what's next for zeebox?
ROSE: Well, as I said, we're hitting the US now
- I think it's key for any dot com to get a handle over there - and
it's going to be tough and interesting but also a fun ride over the