Every Product Should Have an Origin Story
Lessons from theScore, Part 1
Building great products takes teamwork, determination, and a good deal of luck. But at the end of the day, you can’t make something truly great without a clear origin story. That may sound strange or even counterintuitive, but if you don’t know why your product exists, or the problem that it’s meant to solve, then you haven’t made something great. And you can’t understand a product’s “why” unless you appreciate where it comes from.
Last fall I joined Connected as a senior product lead for their sports business. I felt they had the leadership and team to execute on their ambitious mission to help their clients build better products.
This story, however, begins at theScore, the mobile sports application that grew to compete with ESPN and Team Stream for users and revenue worldwide. I spent 15 years there in total, 12 as product lead.
Originally launched as a specialty cable TV channel back in 1997 called “Sportscope,” theScore grew out of a sense that the traditional sports broadcasting of that period was no longer giving fans the content they were looking for. Their “panel of experts” formula, consisting of hot takes and sweeping multi-sport coverage, had worked for more than a generation, but when the internet came along and gave fans a voice of their own, the old format began to feel stale. The internet, after all, was fragmenting audiences, allowing fans to gather around individual sports and produce content on their own — content that was specialized, thorough, and impassioned. The internet also broke news instantly, which made TV coverage seem sluggish by comparison.
The internet was fragmenting audiences, allowing fans to gather around individual sports and produce content on their own.
This new fan-driven environment was mostly ignored by the sportscasting establishment, who had grown used to the supply-driven, limited distribution of content available via TV. Yet as sports fans who lived through this period of transition, we had become increasingly dissatisfied with the options on offer, and we decided to try a different approach.
And so, as a reaction against the stagnating world of expert-led sports TV, our programming mission became clear: to make the “voice of the fan” heard. With a ruthless focus on their interests, we developed a detailed, scrolling ticker of scores and odds, a rolling 20 minute loop of game highlights, and a roster of broadcasters who were sports fans first, announcers second. By building out programming that made listening to viewers our top priority, theScore was embraced by a young, enthusiastic audience and achieved rapid growth.
Our success, in other words, had everything to do with our origin story. Growing out of a dissatisfaction with the status quo (we were sports fans ourselves, after all), we had found our “why” and developed a product with a clear purpose.
As the internet came into its own and the user, or more specifically the blogosphere, emerged as the new source of authority, we found ourselves already ahead of the game. We had been promoting “user-generated content” the whole time — long before it became de rigueur in digital.
Growing out of a dissatisfaction with the status quo, we had found our “why” and developed a product with a clear purpose.
Take our program Diamond Surfing, a live event interactive TV show that allowed users to decide what MLB games to watch by voting online, handing the controls to viewers in real time and slicing and dicing live broadcasts into a crowdsourced mixtape of that evening’s best moments. theScore’s on-air personalities, to offer another example, were the “regular guy” set. They shunned the pontification and traditional play-calling of their peers in favour of real talk and humanized banter, sprinkled with pop culture references and user feedback for good measure. They weren’t just talking; they listened.
When mobile finally came on the scene, and distribution powers were put literally in the hands of users, our obsessive fan focus made us ideally suited to take advantage. In 2008, ScoreMobile was one of the first apps submitted for approval to the newly minted Apple App Store. User adoption grew so swiftly that the original broadcast business was sold to Rogers in 2012 and theScore went mobile only. (Our app lives in the App Store Hall of Fame and is one of the top 3 sports apps in the US, having got there without any initial marketing or promotion.) When mobile became the next big platform, theScore’s mission, which had grown out of its origin story, had long prepared us to scale.
This was our tale, a David and Goliath story about a Canadian upstart that took on the traditional sports media oligopoly in the US and won — all by making a product built by sports fans, for sports fans.
Jonathan is our sports product lead. He began his career as a web developer at theScore and progressed through a series of roles to lead product, engineering, design and QA for sports, e-sports and fantasy with a total mobile reach of 10 million users.