How to out-innovate competition by marginal gains: a video player showcase

By 2010 no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France.

The new performance director of British Cycling Dave Brailsford was asked to change that.

Brailsford’s strategy was based on a concept called: “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved by just 1 percent in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains would add up being hugely significant.

They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere: from nutrition of riders, ergonomics of the bike seat, weight of tires, the best pillow for sleep to the best massage gel and proper hand hygiene.


British riders have won the Tour De France three times in the last four years.

Can marginal gains be applied to tech?

We applied this strategy at every iteration developing our HTML5 video player. Here is what and how we improved 1%:

1. Ads scheduling.

We do not like ads before every video. Actually, we skip them around 90%.

Improvement: Schedule ads across our session on the website. Every X minutes (across multiple videos) or every X videos.

2. Ads before content

The video player should not make us wait long while searching for an ad before content.

Improvement: Video player does not wait for ad and fast starts content. When and if the ad loads it will pause content and be run then.

3. Ad re-runs

We do not want to watch the same ad over and over again. Or more than Y ads.

Improvement: Limit the number of ads watched by a user in a day.

4. Ad wait time

Sometimes we wait quite a while to load an ad. Or have to a watch couple of ads in a row. Or maybe we prefer a banner as is not that distracting as a video ad.

Improvement: Allow publishers to specify ad wait times, number and types of ads etc. to make our experience smoother.

5. Load faaaster

We want video and pages to load ultra fast.

Improvement: Keep the video player size lowest to load as fast as possible. No dependencies. No sugar code. Bare metal.

6. Optimize revenue

If I am a publisher I want to maximize revenue and number of ads run. And I want this logic [run every page view] to be fast and not keep visitors waiting more.

Improvement: Build algorithms embeded in player to call every ad source in parallel to optimize for this. [ad-tech: waterfall and broadcast]

Results? Publishers working with us see multiple returns on ad impressions and audience engagement.

Marginal gains concept is similar to Kaizen: a Japanese term meaning striving to continuously improvement all business functions.

This strategy encourages a mindset where you question how things are currently done. You pay more attention to details and your way of doing things.

Do not chase high returns and oversee 1% improvements. Big companies have in place thresholds of returns over which is willing to pursue some improvement. This is where startups have a chance to improve and come to dominate a certain niche. With less or no bureaucracy startups can experiment, fail, learn and reiterate fast. Lean startup methodology in practice.

Take Slack for example. It entered an already competitive and crowded market but yet it managed to succeed wildly. Reasons of success: “mix of design, product, timing, team, hype and marketing”. Sounds to me as (small) improvements on multiple areas.

Takeaway from this example. Don’t be discouraged to build something and enter a competitive market. Don’t believe there is nothing else to innovate in a field. Markets are disrupted all the time.

Everything was made up by people that were no smarter than you. Steve Jobs

This doesn’t mean you should go build another Facebook if are not an expert in social networks and other things. You are far more likely to innovate and achieve success if you are a domain expert in the area you are pursuing. This way it’s easy to continually identify 1% improvements.

It’s better to like what you are doing. This gives you the strength to be inquisitive, experiment, learn, fail, improve and in the end succeed. If you don’t know what you are master craftsman at:

If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. Steve Jobs

Get out there, find 1% improvements and seize opportunities.

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