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Quibi Chief Product Officer Tom Conrad wants to prove skeptics wrong with a new streaming service that competes with Netflix and Disney. | Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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New test for Snap vet: Prove Quibi doubters wrong

Tom Conrad is in charge of making a video service that gets people hooked.

Talk to Silicon Valley or Hollywood insiders about Quibi, and you'll likely hear a variation on this theme: The new premium video service would be doomed if it didn't have Jeffrey Katzenberg pulling the strings.

Tom Conrad's response: "Well, fortunately, we got Katzenberg."

In reality, Conrad himself may be just as important to Quibi's success.

Conrad is Quibi's chief product officer. Before that, the seasoned executive was instrumental in Pandora's launch and growth, and he led Snapchat's product team during one of the service's most challenging times. "There are a very small number of true product visionaries," said Pandora founder and former CEO Tim Westergren. "Tom is one of them."

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Now, Conrad's job is to package Quibi's content in a compelling product — an app that captures the attention of the millions of subscribers it needs to succeed. The plan is to build and launch a mobile-only streaming service that serves bite-size videos peppered with interactive features. It's a complete reimagining of TV.

Former colleagues say Conrad has a singular ability to channel what people really want from a product. The question is whether he can prove the skeptics wrong with an entirely new kind of streaming service that competes with giants like Netflix and Disney.

Launching with Spielberg, Teigen and Murray

Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman announced the video service in August 2018. Armed with a $1.4 billion war chest, Quibi struck deals with major studios for shows with episodes that are 10 minutes or shorter, with production budgets similar to those of traditional TV networks.

On the content side, Quibi's no slouch. When the service launches April 6, it will release more than three hours of those short episodes every day. Some of the marquee projects include a Steven Spielberg horror series, a "Judge Judy" remake starring Chrissy Teigen, a comedy starring Dave Franco and Bill Murray, and a reboot of "The Fugitive" starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Viewers will find news shows produced by NBC and the BBC, weather, gossip, and even a meditation series with cinematic visuals called "The Daily Chill." Quibi will charge $4.99 a month for a subscription that includes limited commercials and $7.99 for an ad-free version.

The company hasn't shown off its app yet, but during a keynote at CES in January, Conrad debuted Turnstyle, the feature that is meant to make Quibi's barrage of star-studded content stand out amid a flood of new premium video services.

Every Quibi show will be optimized for full-screen viewing in landscape and portrait mode, and the app will stream both recordings simultaneously in the background, allowing viewers to switch back and forth simply by rotating their phone. Most Quibi shows are being recorded in 8K and then edited into the separate landscape and portrait versions for Turnstyle. Conrad also previewed a horror show that will let viewers switch between multiple camera perspectives.

The interactivity goes deeper. Spielberg's series for Quibi will only be available at night, for example, with the app using a phone's GPS to determine sunset and dawn at a viewer's location. And a dating show, "The Hot Drop," will allow viewers to submit their own videos for the chance to participate in future episodes.

In an interview with Protocol, Conrad teased other forthcoming tricks: "Something where you can participate in the show," he said.

Why Quibi won't be available on TVs

On their own, some of these features may sound like gimmicks. But for Quibi, they're part of an ambitious strategy to leapfrog flush incumbents like Netflix by reinventing entertainment for a smartphone audience. "We are obsessing over mobile video like no one else," Conrad said on stage during CES.

To be fair, the industry has been aware of the power of mobile for some time. More than 70% of YouTube viewing happens on mobile devices, and both YouTube and Netflix have big teams working on mobile app experiences. But by focusing exclusively on mobile, Quibi can try the kind of novel interactivity that others can't.

"We don't want to prune branches of the tree because, in the living room, we can't support the experience," Conrad told Protocol.

Future Quibi shows could make use of a phone's gyroscope, location or camera. Launching on TV as well as mobile wouldn't allow show creators to fully embrace those mobile features. "We want to make sure that we give those shows a medium to mature in," Conrad said.

His focused approach mirrors his work at Pandora, where he aimed for a simple and consistent user experience. His attention to detail was key to growing the music service to 80 million monthly active users, recalled Pandora's former vice president of engineering, Carl Edwards.

"Tom obsesses over what the user is doing," he said. For example, early on, Conrad decided against giving users too many confusing levers to fine-tune their personalized radio stations on Pandora, instead opting to rely on the now-iconic thumbs-up and thumbs-down feedback buttons.

"He has the rare ability to invent simple solutions to very complex problems," Westergren said. "It's the cornerstone to truly great product design, and he has it. It's just a gift."

A challenging time at Snapchat

Early in his career, Conrad worked for four years at Apple, where he contributed to the MacOS user interface, and he followed the company admiringly even after he left. When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, Conrad realized the significance of the new generation of mobile phones for the music industry.

Pandora employees bought the first iPhone as soon as it came out and began planning for Apple's eventual embrace of third-party apps. When the iPhone maker ultimately released the App Store in 2008, Pandora was available on day one.

"Tom knew, when the iPhone came out, that it was a game-changing vehicle for us," Edwards said.

After Conrad spent 10 years at Pandora, Evan Spiegel, the founder and CEO of Snapchat, hired him in early 2016 as vice president of product. Conrad joined the company at a difficult time: Facebook was copying some of Snapchat's most popular features, and growth was stalling. Spiegel's answer was an ambitious but controversial redesign that was panned by some of the service's most prominent users.

Accounts differ on Conrad's relationship with Spiegel. He was widely seen as an effective lieutenant to the product-focused CEO, capable of translating Spiegel's thoughts to the rest of the company. But a former employee who talked to Protocol on the condition of anonymity also mentioned challenges. "It was a job that was going to be incredibly difficult given Evan's desire to tightly control the product and design process," the person said. "It wasn't clear that Evan was ever going to let Tom do enough on his own."

And there clearly was friction, even beyond the redesign. At one point, Conrad is said to have moved the data science team to sit with the design and product teams to help them collaborate more easily. "They moved, and then Evan saw it and forced them to move back," the former employee recalled. In the end, Conrad parted with Snap after two years.

Quibi didn't make Conrad available for a follow-up interview about his time at Snapchat. A Snap spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment.

How Pandora missed Spotify's ascent

Things had been easier for Conrad at Pandora, where he was an integral part of the company, shaping its culture. "He was literally the heart of Pandora," Edwards said, recalling a collaborative atmosphere.

Still, the early streaming service faced its own set of obstacles. Crucially, Pandora was never profitable and had to pay more than half of its advertising revenue to rights holders to license music. "Pandora was one of those companies that was always fighting tooth and nail for every last dollar," Conrad said. "Scrounging and trying to make it work on a shoestring."

As Pandora became embroiled in fights with rights holders, while working to squeeze a few extra cents out of its advertising business, it missed out on a consumer shift toward on-demand streaming. The service's user numbers plateaued, and Spotify quickly grew to twice its size.

"We were always fighting against terrestrial radio at the end of the day," Edwards said. Conrad left Pandora in 2014, before it expanded into on-demand streaming and ultimately sold itself to SiriusXM.

Asked about lessons learned from his Pandora days, Conrad pointed to the value of personalization, which he said other video services still haven't fully realized. "Platforms still seem to be happy that their users kind of wander the virtual Blockbuster video aisles for tens of minutes before they finally settle on a piece of content," he said. "For me, that's not good enough. I want people to come to Quibi and in seconds find a great piece of content. That's really what we were trying to do at Pandora."

If you build it, they might not come

A chorus of online criticism directed at Quibi, combined with skepticism among industry insiders, may be taking a toll. In January, The Information reported that Whitman lashed out at reporters during a company-wide meeting, likening their efforts to develop sources inside the company to sexual predators grooming victims. Quibi called the report about Whitman's remarks "materially inaccurate," though Whitman eventually apologized for her comments.

During the reporting process for this story, a Quibi spokesperson abruptly canceled a follow-up interview with Conrad, saying he wasn't "available to participate in this profile."

Prelaunch jitters aren't uncommon for startups, but there may be another reason for Quibi executives to be nervous: Even the best app can only get you so far. If a company doesn't respond to a changing market or doesn't really offer what consumers want, product design can't save it.

Quibi's bet is that mobile viewers want and will pay for premium content designed for people on the go — that audiences want to watch movies in small installments every time they stand in line at Starbucks, and that the Netflixes and HBOs of the world haven't woken up to this opportunity.

But what if Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and Facebook and all those other quick fixes are good enough for those Starbucks moments? Conrad seems aware that success isn't guaranteed for a media service these days, even with Katzenberg and 10-figure funding. "We've built this thing like every startup," he said.

It's a company based on a thesis that may not be true. "The day comes when the market decides whether it's interesting or not," Conrad said. "We'll see."

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