Gadi Weiszlovits Lahav and Richard Still – Scaling up without slowing down

BY JAMES GADSBY PEET ON AUGUST 17, 2017

Gadi Weiszlovits Lahav (Head of Product at FT.com) and Richard Still (Technology Director at FT.com) tell ProductTank London how to scale quickly and successfully. Their advice is to focus on the right technology, agile processes and great people to create the culture and operation you need.

Digital Growth of Traditional Publishers is Possible

The FT.com has grown extraordinarily quickly into a profitable, digitally-centric publisher over the last 2 years. In 2015 they had a team of 6 people – they are now at 80. They have 650,000 digital only subscriptions and operate a strict paywall around their online content. This currently represents about 50% of their income as an organisation. However, this still only gives them about 1% penetration even in their most mature markets.

More like Netflix Than a Newspaper

The FT.com business model is to give their subscribers ‘all you can eat content’ which is of high quality and meets a very specific need. It also helps that many businesses see it as a justifiable expense which they take on behalf of their employees.

How to Build the Press Awards’ Website of the Year

After 18 months of Beta, the new look FT.com launched in October and has been critically acclaimed whilst also achieving commercial success. It is built around three pillars:

  • Simplicity
  • Speed
  • Personalisation

Since launch, the new website has driven engagement up by 20% – a key metric that is directly related to subscriber renewal, and hence profitability.

Performance = Profitability

For a digital first publisher such as the FT, every extra second which their website takes to load, accounts to millions in lost revenue from subscribers and advertisers. With their latest update, the website now loads in 2 seconds on mobile and 1.3 seconds on desktop.

How the FT.com Operates 9 Teams With 80 People

The 3 pillars of the FT’s digital operation are:

  • Technology
  • Process
  • People

Technology enables the team to create quality solutions that meet the needs of their users and achieve their business goals. They do this by having the freedom to choose the right tools for the job at hand. These tools are ‘born in the cloud’ and enable FT.com to be shipping updates to their site every hour of the day – without having to worry about maintaining their own databases and back office systems.

Make Friends With Your Procurement Team

If you do not have the ability to go out to suppliers and quickly bring in the tools that they offer, then you will never be as agile as you want to be. FT.com spent a long time understanding what their procurement team needed to be able to feel confident in a cost effective, secure supplier – and they are now fully bought into and engaged with their approach to technology. This also enabled them to create bespoke solutions with some suppliers such as Heroku – with whom they now have a blanket agreement that any add on in their environment can be spun up by the dev team directly, without having to go through a procurement process.

Make Sure Your People fit the Culture you are Trying to Create

All engineers at the FT.com are ‘full stack’. No one focuses on front-end or back-end and everybody has the authority and the skills to work across all their systems. This greatly increases productivity and means resourcing teams don’t have to worry about splitting work across different groups of developers.

At the FT, there is a focus on getting people to innovate. It is accepted that this will mean sometimes they need to pay to roll back some technology or content, but that in the end this cost is worth it for the increase in productivity you get from happy, engaged teams.

Finally, as you’d expect, there is a natural avoidance of any bureaucracy that gets in the way of individuals moving work forward. There are no governance boards that tell people ‘this is the way you must do it’ as this is naturally at odds with a culture of innovation.

Set up Engineering Teams That Support Your Products

Whilst much resource is spent on the development of individual products, services and content for end users, the FT.com also have teams working specifically on Performance, Security and other Shared Services.

Take Your Tech and Product Debt Seriously

In complex, multi product environments, things get very technologically tricky very quickly. Left unchecked, these systems and complexity will end up taking up so much overhead, that you will no longer be able to move forward. That’s why the FT are just as focused on removing poorly performing products as they are on building new ones. Each year, they also run a Tech Debt month, where code is only deleted – nothing new is created at all. This year, they are adding to that, by creating a Product Debt month where features and content is only removed.

Data is how FT.com Make Decisions

By creating a range of qualitative and quantitative data sources, the FT have managed to create an environment where decisions are more often than not, based on facts rather than opinion.

They meet customers every week in user testing & research sessions – to explore problems that they have or solutions which the teams have created. In addition to this, all members of staff either have access to their own data tools, or access to a specialist to help them interrogate more complex data.

Wait to hire the right people if you have to

Don’t be tempted to hire the short term tactical solution – this will always come back to cost you more in the long run. Have the confidence to wait months if you need to in order to find the right person for a role.

James Gadsby Peet

About JAMES GADSBY PEET

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!

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