Learnings at Hotstar are also applicable at Facebook today: Ajit Mohan

The Facebook India VP & MD says Star made a big bet by putting its might behind Hotstar. Similarly, Facebook is also making big bets on video, Instagram, and WhatsApp Pay

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Jul 9, 2021 8:42 AM
ajit mohan

Facebook India VP and MD Ajit Mohan has said that the lessons he learnt while building Hotstar is equally applicable to his role at the social media giant. Some of the key lessons he learnt at Hotstar were putting everything behind building a product, having a strong tech backbone, and building a great team.

Speaking at SportsPro APAC 2021 during a session titled 'Getting inside Facebook's India plans for sport', Mohan said Star made a big bet by putting its might behind Hotstar. Similarly, Facebook is also making big bets on video, Instagram, and WhatsApp Pay.

"There are learnings that are equally applicable to my role at Facebook today. A lot of our work at Facebook in India is about making big bets and choices. In the Facebook context, that is on video, it's been on Instagram, it's been on building deep location relationship, it's been on using WhatsApp to fundamentally bring financial inclusion in India, and then it immediately goes from what are the bets you are making to how are you building the right team around you and then a lot of your work becomes how do you remove the cobwebs for these teams," Mohan said.

He continued, "Sometimes, these are intellectual cobwebs where you are going and aiding the problem-solving, and sometimes its operational cobwebs that large companies, even the ones as agile as Facebook, tend to have assumptions of what you can do and not do and that's the role that you can play by removing the cobwebs for your teams so that they can go and chase the big bets and create a real impact on the ground."

Facebook sees sports differently, say compared to traditional sports broadcasters. For Facebook, it is about building sports communities around individual sports stars. "A lot of focus has been on content, but the reality is a lot of people follow sports for what sports people stand for. We haven't figured out platforms where sportswomen and sportsmen can bring positive change in the world," he stated.

Reminiscing his stint at Hotstar, Mohan noted that one of the things that Star did right was the willingness to make big bets. "Very often companies stay away from making painful choices, whether that is a shift in strategy or allocation of resources. One thing that we got right was the belief that by building Hotstar, we were trying to save the future, and we were going to put a lot of energy behind it even if that meant undermining the traditional broadcast business of Star. Of course, the reality is both have thrived really well, and it continues to do really well even today. But it was willingness to put everything at stake."

He also recalled a conversation in the company on making starsports.com free even though the platform was doing well in terms of subscription. The rationale that was put forth for making starsports.com free was to lighten the burden of the customers who were already paying for data, which was quite expensive then. Hotstar eventually subsumed starsports.com.

"We had done pretty well with starsports.com with hundreds of thousands of paid subscribers, and we were talking about how can we keep growing, and the conversation went to why were we doing paid and why don't we just open it up and make it free because consumers were already paying a lot for data," Mohan said.

Having a subscription-only model for starsports.com also didn't make sense since broadcast television was quite cheap and the payment ecosystem was immature and under-developed. "So by asking people to pay twice, we were completely disconnected to what they were paying on broadcast television in India, and mobile as well web payment ecosystem was immature maybe that wasn't the right choice. That led to streaming IPL for free in 2014 and that led to building Hotstar from day one as a free service."

That, Mohan noted, was the kind of big bet that Star was willing to put behind Hotstar even if it challenged the traditional business or the economics of the distribution of cable & satellite of that time. "We had recognised that for us to be successful, we had to be a technology company than a content or a media company. We were among the first incumbent traditional media company to recognise that," he stated.

Media companies had always propagated the narrative that content is king. However, the emergence of OTT meant that technology has become as important as content. "We recognised early that while content was hugely important, and we benefitted tremendously from the extraordinary portfolio that Star had or continues to have ...that we are going to be successful, we are going to win in this only if we fundamentally became a technology company that was able to attract great product managers and engineers into the company," Mohan said.

Mohan noted that both Facebook and Instagram are fundamentally different. "Facebook outside of sports, and how it comes together for sports. Outside sports, Facebook continues to be a place where friends and families and groups connect and build communities. That continues to be its core purpose and its distinct identity whereas Instagram, given its own origins, are quite different. It was a lot more of a visual medium in the beginning, it always lent itself to more interest and passion, and therefore it's a fabulous enabling tool for creators and celebrities and brands."

He also said that Facebook is home to a thriving sports community whereas Instagram goes beyond that by enabling the creation of popular culture. "There are lots of commonalities between the two but the distinct identity on Facebook app and Instagram app remain and that comes together in sports quite a bit. A lot of communities are built around sports on Facebook app including watching a lot of videos, co-watching behaviours, and then on Instagram, there is a lot of video consumption, but you have a conversation that goes beyond the consumption of content to things that can enable the creation of popular culture."


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