My last article on Meaningful Transformation got a very good response from people, and several people wrote to ask what product looks like in companies that have successfully transformed? I decided to answer this by sharing one of my favorite chapters from my upcoming book EMPOWERED.
This chapter was written by SVPG Partner Jon Moore, and is based on his experiences during and after the transformation at The Guardian, which was one of the most impressive transformations I have witnessed.
By SVPG Partner Jonathon Moore
In June 2007, the world of technology changed forever. Steve Jobs stood on stage and unveiled the iPhone—a device that was limited in functionality but rich in intuition. It was a time of revolutionary change for all businesses, and none more so than the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Under the stewardship of then-editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, it was arguably the most digitally ambitious newspaper in the world.
But it was also in crisis. For the first time in nearly 200 years, the Guardian’s future was anything but guaranteed. Advertising was in freefall, and virtually all other revenue streams were in the process of being replaced by newer, better digital-first rivals.
As newspapers all over the world began the task of moving to online subscription models, the Guardian chose an alternative, ambitious but potentially perilous strategy: to remain free online. “Nothing good ever comes of putting up a wall,” was the message delivered across the organization.
The decision was founded on a belief that the Guardian’s progressive editorial content would wither and die behind a paywall—even if it meant considerably shortening our runway, as paying newspaper customers switched to free online content. It was a decision of some consequence and one I backed wholeheartedly, believing that a progressive but small echo chamber was never going to change the world. Reach first, revenue later.
It was into this environment that I joined one of the most impressive product and technology organizations anywhere in traditional media. Many of my new colleagues had chosen to leave ambitious startups, Google, or Microsoft, and like me, had also experienced success at scaling other well-known media organizations. All shared a deep desire to ensure the longevity of one of the most exciting and important media brands in the world.
But this rapid influx of smart technologists also created cultural chaos.
The Guardian’s long-standing identity as a newspaper was under threat, and like many organizations in rapid transition, the working environment was at best confused and often fractious.
Many long-serving journalists and editorial staff were understandably uncertain of their new colleagues. Our ways of working were alien, our desire to create change was threatening, and although it was not always publicly acknowledged, our motivations were frequently questioned.
I had been tasked with creating and executing an immediate mobile strategy. It was a superb challenge at an exciting time. Our then-digital director, Mike Bracken (who went on to substantially advance product management within UK government circles) had created a team of significant talent.
On entry, I had spearheaded the organization’s first iPhone app, liaising closely with Apple. Our small team worked hard to ensure we made the most of the then-revolutionary touchscreens and, because of that, I paid special attention to photography from the outset.
Our innovative iPhone-based technology immediately downloaded the most important and popular content without request on app opening. I wanted our app to always be useful, even when signal strength was poor or absent (as it frequently was in 2007). This feature alone proved a revelation to many.
From the moment we hit the App Store, it was a success. We received hundreds of thousands of downloads over the next few weeks, and in time, many millions more. A significant proportion were from new international customers, fueled by the global reach of Apple’s new ecosystem. Our application quality, combined with the Guardian’s world-class journalism, shone through in customer feedback. And because of that, Apple was happy to showcase us in multiple, consistent marketing campaigns—both local and global—many above the fold.
While most of the competition had launched apps that were at heart essentially advanced RSS readers, we had worked hard to embrace the myriad new possibilities of the touchscreen form. For Apple, it’s never been enough to just get involved. What they really look for are partners who appreciate their tools sufficiently to push the actual customer experience forward.
In parallel to operational delivery, as the lead PM, it was clear to me that to be truly successful, I was going to need to bridge a growing divide between the editorial and technology teams.
Evangelizing is never more important than when your integrity and motivation are in question. But virtually anything worth doing in technology will usually strongly challenge the status quo, and this was no different.
In countless meetings and showcases with senior editorial managers, over many months, I communicated my strong belief that, if successful, my role would essentially create “more eyeballs for your amazing content, and more eyeballs for us to monetize”. My job was to gain maximum reach from the emerging new distribution channels.
To do that, I believed I needed to build a world-class product within which to showcase the unquestionable world-class content.
Having established some success early in my tenure, it was then that the technology world shifted again. Toward the end of January 2010, Steve Jobs confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in tech by formally announcing Apple’s new tablet: the iPad. The next day, I received a phone call from Cupertino. “Steve loved what you guys did with the iPhone,” I was told. “We’d like you to replicate it for the iPad. And by the way, he’s planning to showcase his favorite apps on stage at the public launch.”
Clearly that was great news, but then came the curveball: “We need the app submitted by the last week in March.” That gave us little over seven weeks to submit our app for final review.
This was a major problem. We had added significantly more functionality than most and designed our product bottom up. And not all of it was portable, even to an iPad.
From the get-go, our biggest risk was feasibility. After a day or two of intensive investigations, it was clear that achieving the same level of excellence was going to be impossible. We just didn’t have sufficient time. With quality sacrosanct, we needed another product—and fast.
I knew exactly where to look. I’d previously made the decision to put photography front and center in our iPhone launch. It was immediately apparent these new touchscreen devices were also the world’s most impressive (and expensive) digital frames. The qualitative and quantitative data proved that decision to be a good one.
Our photography content was consistently among the most popular, helped to drive strong frequency, and resulted in consistently positive customer feedback.
There was no more time to collect further evidence. Our new product would focus specifically on news photography, and given timelines, I would “thin slice” the scope. We had a small, empowered product team (five people: product, design, and three engineers).
I had to ensure we were focused on what could be built as quickly as possible. We would then rely on rapid iteration to make it as good as possible.
The concept moved from whiteboard to customer prototype in days. We would deliver a single, curated photo per day that communicated an important world event. We’d include a few other details, but only a few—highlighting the story behind the photo and how it was shot.
The inclusion of the latter allowed us to gain impressive sponsorship, proving early that we were capable of achieving revenue gains. The photos would build, over time, into a stunning library of the world’s most arresting photographs. If we got it right, I figured we could create the world’s first and best digital “coffee table” app.
I needed to befriend the Guardian’s photography team, then led by a fabulous craftsman, Roger Tooth. He was incredibly patient and very willing to devote time and resources to a project that had a limited chance of success.
With so little time, things moved quickly. While my designer and I focused on iterating our prototype, our three-person engineering team got to work figuring out the base details of how we would create the systems and services to ensure consistent content delivery.
One other key challenge was the fact we didn’t have any hardware. We’d seen an iPad, but there was no hands-on opportunity (that would come a little later in Cupertino, but for that to be successful we needed to be relatively code complete). As a result, we had some fun prototyping both the hardware and software in unison with some creative use of cardboard and laptop screens. It was basic but allowed us to iterate incredibly quickly.
With value, feasibility, and usability starting to work their way down my list of risks, there was one area remaining that worried me significantly: business viability.
Up to that point, very few of the senior stakeholders had had much (or any) visibility of the work. It was a decision I’d taken deliberately, though not lightly, early on. I’d secured agreement with my technology director and with Alan, that in order to take advantage of this opportunity, I would need to move unusually quickly. I would have to seek apology later.
With a product now in late build that I was increasingly confident of, the time to make those apologies had arrived. In truth, although Alan was almost certainly concerned that I had failed to involve more senior editorial figures, he didn’t waver in his support once he’d seen the prototype.
I also had very strong advocates in the photography team. In truth, I had been so impressed with how passionately and knowledgeably Roger talked about his art, I’d even baked a short video of him into the app.
Alan, a longstanding believer in the power of technology, felt it was time to expose the work fully at the highest level, and invited me to present to the Group’s board. In the room were the great and the good of both British media and technology, but there was one particularly friendly face: former Apple and Microsoft exec, Judy Gibbons.
I’d previously worked for Judy at a venture-funded startup, and she was then (and remains) a fabulous external mentor for me. With my showcase over, she immediately responded with words that set the tone for approval: “Truly excellent, it looks amazing and how did you manage to move so fast?” With those words out on the table, the rest of the meeting went smoothly. We submitted the app for approval the next day.
As expected, I heard nothing back from Apple (a conversation with them can often feel like shouting into a dark alley). But when Steve took the stage two weeks later, he rapidly got to his selected iPad apps. He skipped over many well-known US brands.
“We’ve got a lot of news apps” he said, “the New York Times, Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today.” But then he paused, took a step back, and turned to look at the huge image of Guardian Eyewitness that had appeared on stage. “This is a cool app,” he continued, “Guardian Eyewitness. Rather than text, this gives you the day in pictures. And it’s really nice.”
Virtually anyone who cared about technology was watching that broadcast, which was a pretty big audience. The resulting usage followed a similar path to the iPhone launch, and although smaller due to fewer base hardware sales, in many ways it was improved.
Due to the nature of the content (stunning, family-friendly photographs), we had also unwittingly created arguably the perfect app to showcase the iPad’s then-revolutionary screen technology. As a result, Apple was even more industrious in their use of our app in virtually all early iPad marketing campaigns. And for the best part of a year, we tracked close to a 1:1 relationship between unique iPad sales and unique Eyewitness usage.
We had proven that quality photojournalism—combined with an innovative and immersive digital experience—resulted in millions of new Guardian consumers. But perhaps more important, we had demonstrated that the Guardian could lead the world, not just editorially but digitally. The Guardian is now close to being consistently revenue positive, a significant step forward and one that will guarantee a strong global, progressive voice for multiple generations. Long may it continue.