P2P. It only took 2 years

Jason 'Igwe' Njoku
Nov 17, 2017 · 5 min read

In March 2015, IROKOtv was in existential crisis. For four years, we had promised and raised money on the back of SVOD and the African dream. Yet up until that point, it was pretty much a nightmare. For all intents and purposes we had 100% failed to make any dent in that reality. The only solace we had was that others had spent considerably more and had pretty much gotten nowhere. So if we spent $1m over 2-years, the other guys spent $10m. And we ended up in the same position. Well, to me that’s capital efficiency. To my board, it was the end of the road. They were fast losing faith. For the life of us, we simply couldn’t get out an Android app that made sense. It was then I seized head of product role at IROKO and decided that if I couldn’t do it? Then fuck it. The captain (that would be me) will have to go down with the ship. So I had nothing to lose. I turned off streaming (it’s really hidden away in settings) and focused on downloads.

It was about this time I started talking of burning bridges, killing the dotcom (which had people calling our investors asking whether everything was okay with me and at IROKO), and exiting staff so I could pour that money into product and engineering. And to spice things up, my wife was desperately ill whilst having our 2nd child. Not good times. It was like my personal Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and Sherman’s March to the Sea. For anyone who hasn’t heard me before, IROKOtv shouldn’t have really made it out of 2015. It was the channels and content sales which kept us afloat. If we were just an SVOD platform. Dead. All of the 7months’ effort, the money and engineering energy we threw at migrating to a new architecture was for a simple reason. To build an Android app. That’s it. We needed to reset our entire organisation around product + engineering in order to have a chance at participating in the future. There was an idea banging around IROKO at the time around peer-to-peer file sharing. That was then, and remains today one of the top 10 downloads (alongside Whatsapp / Messenger / Instagram) of any app store in emerging markets. ShareIt 1B downloads. Xender 500m+ downloads. Doesn’t matter, they are up there with the biggest social media apps globally. That’s demand. People are actually moving files. Why not movies? They utilise the Wi-Fi Direct protocol. So it gave us a small window to go Beyond Data

Wi-Fi Direct, initially called Wi-Fi P2P, is a Wi-Fi standard enabling devices to easily connect with each other without requiring a wireless access point. Wi-Fi Direct allows two devices to establish a direct Wi-Fi connection without requiring a wireless router. (further readings)

So we started the process, which we knew was going to take a really really long time of trying to build Wi-Fi direct into IROKOtv. It ended up taking 2.5 years.

  1. Standardisation & DRM. We had to spend 13months standardising and re-encrypting our entire video library. We hired ~40 quality control, video editors and invested tons of money in new audio and video automation tools to smooth out the notoriously wild file formats, normal within Nollywood. This was a deep effort between our content operations and engineering teams. Tempers frayed and people cried. It was that intense.
  2. Unbundling .iroko files from irokotv. Earlier this year we announced the second step where we unbundled the new DRM (encrypted files) from IROKOtv, so anyone could use xender or shareit to move our movie files between themselves without data. We hard tested this with the agents and over the last 10 months have seen the dramatic impact it has had on our Nigerian (and thus African) business. There have been so many strange nuances of this that it has caused untold pain for our Android ratings over the year
  3. Bringing Wi-Fi Direct inapp. The only other app which has attempted this that I know of is YouTube Go. And that is without the headache of moving encrypted movies, confirming active subscriptions and validation of licenses to play those movies. This has been a Herculean effort. You can see our ratings dip immediately after we introduced Wi-Fi Direct.

It took us until mid-June to regain our earlier ratings and then figure out ways to stabilise the app thereafter. We are still a long way from getting back above our 4+ ratings. But with time, as we twisted and contorted our Android product to allow Wi-Fi Direct, the positives will outweigh the short term suffering of users. Yesterday, we started rolling out P2P in IROKOtv. It’s still buggy as hell and is not even compatible with all devices, but that’s Android fragmentation and is something only time and bug smashing can solve. For now, P2P needs to be in the wild. Today, Africa represents 47% of IROKOtv’s total subscriber base. I am pretty confident it ends the year as the largest driver of our subscription growth and total base. It hasn’t been easy. In 2015 IROKO descended into a civil war as I hard moved the business into this new direction. In the end, I like to think of myself only as the cheer leader who tried to support our CTO Dean Collins and his gang of Wizards (product managers and engineers) to build this truly game changing step in the distribution of content in Africa. For me. This is definitely one of our greatest achievements.