If you think you’re going to satisfy every last one of your potential customers, it’s simply not going to happen. For every application, the list of features that your userbase will ask you to implement is a mile long. Often, a feature will only work for a very small number of people—and so perhaps you wouldn’t think twice about dismissing it. However, occasionally, and maybe more often than you’re comfortable with, your userbase will demand something that isn’t critical for you as a business, is too far from your core value proposition, or just barely doesn’t make that cut of potential user numbers—yet the numbers of people they might apply to would be significant. You just don’t have the resources to please everyone.
Many applications use APIs as the solution to this problem—letting others build mobile apps, plugins to other services, mashups, etc. to satisfy the far-ranging demands of their userbase, which expands because of it. Twitter, for example, sees over five times the tweet consumption traffic off of Twitter, through various API driven clients, than it does on Twitter.com. At that point, what you’ve got is an ecosystem—solving an order of magnitude more problems than you could on your own and becoming an integral part of the online habits of even more users.
These services, however, live outside of Twitter. They all basically have to market themselves on their own (except for the post origin links) and while Twitter integration with their stuff is deep, the value they add to the core Twitter on-site service offering is slight. A step further would be to actually create a platform—a place for apps to not only play more deeply within your product with advanced functionality, but one with a marketplace that enables discovery of third-party tools and services.
Some services seem to me to be much more conducive to platform plays. They have a core offering which is somewhat straightforward, but a multitude of ancillary and related use cases that would require a wider range of functionality than it would make sense for the company to build on their own. Additionally, having all this functionality would create significant synergies and cement their place as the “goto” application in their space—allowing them to focus on what they do well, but to satisfy a very wide range of customers.
Platform plays also create powerful barriers to entry. Imagine trying to build a single phone that encompasses all of the potential features of the iPhone if you had to develop all of those features on your own. On top of that, once you get a critical mass of developers creating for your platform—if you have the most volume—it’s tougher to unseat you as the application destination of choice.
I’ve been thinking lately about services that I think would benefit from a platform play and here are five that I think are pretty compelling:
Dropbox – Everytime I do something that feels somewhat manual and archaic with a file, I keep thinking that there should be a programmable folder that automates that task. Convert to PDF, attach to an e-mail, upload a photo or video, or copy to my Kindle could all be automated tasks that happen the instant I copy a file to a particular directory. Dropbox should have a marketplace of folders that I can download or even buy that have specific actions built in that occur when I drag a document into them. You could have the Publish to Youtube folder, post to Tumblr—even the mail-this-photo-to-my-nana-by-snailmail folder.
Eventbrite – This one is a little different. I see Eventbrite as the first step in the event participation value chain, and I think it’s a waste that the service just stops at RSVPs. There’s so much more to a event—making travel plans, connecting with others in your industry, talking about an event, consuming video streams, etc. Eventbrite could do a tremendous job really onboarding all of your users into all of the services that would satisfy their in-event needs instead of just losing the end user after the confirmation e-mail that you’re attending. Hot Potato, for example, would no doubt love to be a part of that RSVP process—where you could indicate your participation at an event and follow the livestream by downloading their application. How about a LinkedIn app to figure out all of the people who RSVP’d who have connections to you, or who meet a job title criteria that you’re trying to hire for. Transportation scheduling and booking, distribution of presentations, speaker and event ratings, etc. could all be little applications that built on top of the audience, offered by the organizer, that Eventbrite aggregates right at the start of the event participation process.
Backupify – Obviously, I have a little more insight into the future of this company being on the board through First Round’s investment. Needless to say that there are going to be way more cloud applications that will need backup and various forms of data management and migration than Backupify could ever build individual plugins for. What the company has learned so far though, is that managing the connection to various APIs for all of these services is a giant pain in the ass—one they’ve figured out how to do effectively. They’ve also figured out how to optimize for cost effectiveness with respect to S3 and the other cloud platforms they’ll soon backup to—not to mention that they’ll soon be pushing so much data to Amazon, Rackspace and others that they’ll be able to negotiate a different pricing structure than the average startup would be able to get on their own. Therefore, it’s not a jump to expect that Backupify will undoubtedly let others build points of connection onto their platform to backup every SaaS and cloud service on the market—giving users more confidence to port their whole business to the cloud and enabling better data interoperability.
Tweetdeck – To be honest, I tend to think of a lot of the buzz around “real time” as a giant head fake. When I look at my Twitter stream, I would easily say that most of the items I’m consuming don’t really need to come to me *right now*. In fact, a real time, chronological presentation is often *less* desirable. Take Foursquare checkins—not only are they generally good for at least an hour, but they make no sense interspliced in between Tweets. It’s just not an efficient way to consume them—as opposed to let’s say… a map. Having a column on Tweetdeck that was a Foursquare map—one that was written by Foursquare or a 3rd party developer that I could add on my own—would make a lot of sense. You could give it permission to yank Foursquare updates out of my other columns and display them geographically, so I can see, visually, where my friends are at any given time. Same with music. Anytime someone posts music, that could get yanked out of my stream by a web radio column with a big play button and a playlist on it. That wouldn’t really be appropriate for someone who didn’t like music—someone who’d maybe rather have a Stocktwits ticker panel or a video player.
Squarespace – I can’t say enough about Squarespace as a CMS/website building platform. It’s the easiest, slickest site creation tool I’ve seen. The architecture easily allows you to drop in a blog on any page or have multiple ones across the same site. You can also add in forms, guestbooks and file upload pages. The pieces are there for lots of other application widgets, but they don’t offer it. A marketplace of apps could be a major revenue driver for the company—it is for the hosting companies who have site creation tools that they sell a la carte. Many of those applications are created by 3rd party developers. Even if they’re not sold—easy plugins that were seemlessly integrated into the platform would make Squarespace even more powerful and take it up a notch in terms of the kinds of sites it could power—without overwhelming users who would just want a basic site.
Of course, managing a marketplace and a platform isn’t easy. It needs to be incredibly well-architected, and when you have hundreds if not thousands of developers poking around your software, they’re bound to find exploitable loopholes that you’ll need to patch up later. Done well, platforms can create very sticky and very valuable businesses—and done poorly you could really piss off a lot of people, including your users.