The notion of developing a platform is highly addictive for technology founders. It ticks every “this is awesome” box and its drawbacks do not become evident until after you’ve already overcommitted.
When you’re sunk deep in your idea, you start seeing the infinite number of directions it might go. It could be used for creativity or education or advertising or television or personal productivity or anything.
Possibilities are exciting.
You soon realise you can’t make good on them all yourself, but it’s a shame not to make a possibility… well, possible. Turning your back to one feels like short-changing your product and leaving value on the table.
So you spend a load of extra time making the technology generic and adding the hooks, knobs, and levers needed for someone else (ie. outside your company) to build atop your platform and come up with something wonderful you haven’t even thought of yet.
It feels like one of those perfect compromises where you get everything you want and don’t have to give up a thing. Unfortunately, the ability for something to happen does not mean that it will happen.
Let’s examine the salient players.
Your platform’s people
There are three groups of people you care about: investors, developers, and users.
Investors can’t evaluate a platform without traction, so we can safely ignore them on the basis that they will mirror what the users & developers do.
Users aren’t fussed what sort of technology is behind the products they use — only that those products do something they care about. You attract users with a strong, focused, and desirable use-case. A user’s love equation is a max, not a summation. It’s better to fix one problem marvellously than ten problems adequately.
Developers are the real sticky wicket, so they get their own section.
Why would a developer invest time in your platform?
During the mental gymnastics of a founder in the throes of platform lust, an argument along the following begins to take form:
If I focus on a use-case, I can only do one thing. But if I focus on the platforms, other developers will make all the use-cases for me, thereby multiplying my impact.
Consider why a developer might be frightened of a new startup’s platform:
- The platform provider goes out of business, changes its product, or experiences any of the other unpredictable and common volatility startups are prone to
- The platform provider realises this use case is core to their long-term business and uses 3rd party developers as free R&D (ahem, Twitter)
- The platform has not yet carried a successful product to web scale, so even in the unlikely case of success-for-everyone, the future is a bit scary
There are three ways to resolve these concerns:
- Build a successful use case to scale (eg. Etherpad)
- Increase your longevity by putting a huge amount of money in the bank from either investors (not practical at first for reasons previously discussed) or enterprise customers (eg. iOS, Facebook)
- Offer benefits to revenue and distribution which are so good that it’s worth taking the risk (eg. iOS, Facebook)
As a new startup, your path for all three is the same:
Build a killer use case first, and then generalise it into a platform.
Keep the platform in mind as an eventual goal while making technical debt tradeoff decisions on your first product, but that’s it. Ruthlessly cut platform features which don’t apply to the current use case. Because if you can’t make that first wildly successful product, nobody will care about your platform.
Think of yourself as a product company. You need to be one, and to do it successfully. You’ve chosen a difficult battle. But on the bright side, it’s one with an enticingly more scalable and defensible end-game than most.