Boiler Room Product — Year one

The hurdles of creating a Product team from scratch

This is coming to you as part of a forthcoming series of articles written by the Product team here Boiler Room. Firstly, here’s a quick intro into the early beginnings and the issues we faced in building the team.

Written by Ricky Burgess, Design Director.

Boiler Room? You mean that DJ thing?

For those who have no idea who we are, here’s a quick cut and paste job…

Boiler Room is a global online music broadcasting platform commissioning and streaming live music sessions around the world. The first Boiler Room session was recorded using a webcam duct taped to the wall of a disused boiler room, and the session was broadcast live online on U-stream. Since then, we have hosted shows in around 100 cities worldwide, from Stockholm to Shanghai.

The company has been rapidly growing since its infancy, with offices in London, Berlin and New York. The basic setup consists of: The Music team, the Broadcasting and Production team, the Commercial team, the Marketing team and last but not least, the Product team.

Now this last addition is a pretty new one and its what we’re going to try to explain in this particular article. All good?

The organic birth of a digital product

Boiler Room has been a predominantly online platform from the beginning, and a pretty successful one at that. From showcasing the early talents of now household names such as Jamie XX, James Blake, Hudson Mohawke and Disclosure to reaching millions of views across Youtube and DailyMotion. That being said, the digital side of things was always pretty lo-fi and it kind of felt right.

Jamie XX in the early days

Regular live streams on would bring like-minded fans from all around the world to watch streams of nearly unknown DJs with a shared passion that created somewhat of a community; The Boiler Room chatroom has become synonymous with online underground music culture for reasons good and bad), but we won’t go into that.

All this was put together without any kind of a roadmap, strategy plan, user testing or market research. It all came together through the vision of its creators and the shared passions of those around them; be it locally or globally.

Inheriting a little too much to do

I joined Boiler Room as Design Director just over 18 months ago. The company was in the final stages of securing its first round of funding and building a skeleton team for the design and development of a new website was one of the priorities. I’d just moved from a global Digital Agency, DigitasLBi and was looking for something totally different. Something smaller that I could properly run with. Joining along with me was a new Lead Developer (the only developer at the time!) Harry Lachenmayer.

In short, we had taken on a lot of work. A shit tonne. Alongside trying to develop a vision for what this Boiler Room thing could become, the ‘product’ we had inherited was a nightmare. And it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nobody expected this ‘webcam duct-taped to a wall’ operation to get this serious. It just hadn’t been planned for. It was built on fairly shaky foundations that was making day-to-day very difficult.

We were juggling daily fixes of the site, requests from all departments that they had ready and waiting for these two sitting ducks as well as a deluge of commercial projects (all pretty special in their own right — Ray Ban, Ballantine’s, Adidas, The Guardian, Barbican, Fiat…. I suddenly had more portfolio material that I’d collected in 3 years of agency work. All this just a few months in).

A small segment of the commercial projects we were juggling at the time
We were lacking focus on the actual job in hand. Distractions from other areas of the business were becoming a real issue.

The penny drops

Every new release or concept that we had excited the rest of the team with was delayed. And delayed. And delayed… There was just too much getting in the way. Too many critical things that needed to be fixed. On top of this I had come from an agency background, working on large platform builds for the likes of The National Trust and Tesco; To put it bluntly, I had no idea how to manage this challenge as a Product. I’d been agency-ised good and proper. I was desperately trying to learn the methods and processes that would help us work more efficiently, but it wasn’t enough.

We needed a Product Manager.

The basic things we were lacking were pretty crucial and we knew that no real progress was going to be made without the help of someone who could fill this gap.

We needed someone to co-ordinate the team
By now we had expanded our development team and were working with an outsourced team who were building our new iOS app (badly). The general project management was just something we couldn’t handle amongst everything else.

We needed someone to create a vision
We knew that however much we gave it a go, we just couldn’t prioritise what we were working on in any useful way. We were too fixed on solutions that hadn’t ever been validated in any way. It was the way the company had always managed before and we had just slipped into the habits ourselves. We needed to plan and prioritise with clearer direction.

We needed someone to set up a real product design process
Hardly any useful research or testing was being planned in and we were essentially working blindfolded because of this. We needed someone who approached things logically and with users in mind at all times. Ideas were being thrust upon us from above and too much time was being taken in finding a solution. Even when we did launch new features, we had no idea how they were being received.

Where we are now

6 months after finding our saviour in Joel Blackmore - Head of Product, there have been some huge changes in the way we all work as individuals and as a team. Joel himself will explain in much more detail than I could how we have developed a way of working and an overall strategy for where we are heading as a product in the next article.

For now, and from the point-of-view of a designer brought in to lead the progress of a platform such as Boiler Room, all I can say is that the moment when we, as a skeleton team yelled for help was the turning point. Months, even years could have been spent treading water and getting nowhere; Developing feature after feature that nobody wanted or needed. The realisation that our eyes were bigger than our bellies in terms of what we wanted to achieve within our first 12 months led to some pretty drastic changes in how Boiler Room approached Product Design.