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Don’t get Suckered into Someone else’s “Platform” Scorecard

I’ve been doing Web Services, API and Integration with Partners since 2000. The field has grown considerably from being niche to being on top of corporate scorecards.  C-level executives are now pushing their product and business development teams to “become a platform”, “create an ecosystem of partners and apps” and “leverage the community.” Majority of the time the request to integrate and be in someone else’s ecosystem doesn’t serve anyone any good.  For a startup that needs to maintain its focus and has limited resources the implications can be disastrous.

Usually these requests come around a launch of a new API or a marketplace.  Some company comes to you and says: “hey we were thinking it would be great for you to integrate with our API, or support our marketplace.” They claim that the integration is going to take a few days or hours and that in return you are going to be featured in their marketplace or displayed on stage at their conference.  In a case of a big company folks get excited and it seems like a no-brainer to invest into this feature.

The critical step of seeing if the integration will provide sufficient customer value is skipped and what you have is a Zombie product or a Zombie feature – something that has a few users but doesn’t drive any meaningful results for your company.  The first thing to do when such requests come your way is to figure out what your customers or your partner’s customers think about it.  Here are a couple of red flags you should watch out for:

  • No customer has asked for this type of integration before.  Chances are no customers are going to ask for this integration after you do the work either.
  • The partners go-to-market plan is to list you in their marketplace and hope that people will find you.  This works only with two partners and only some of the time: Google and Apple.  If it’s anyone else (as of Spring of 2016) the marketplace play by itself yields limited results.  Ask yourself, your friends and your customers what marketplaces they visited looking for apps in the last little while.  Most likely the answer is: none.

The second critical step is underestimating the amount of effort it takes to maintain an integration.  At DocuSign we have a special team of people that are dedicated to working with partners.  Your product changes, your partner products change and the requirements change.  There are a few things types of integrations that cost a different amount of money to maintain:

  • Plugging in a JavaScript widget.  The cost of maintaining something like that is comparatively low.  Good examples of such widgets are file pickers from Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and other cloud services. 
  • Calling a back-end API.  Depending on the API the cost can be medium to high.  If there are many API’s that need to be called throughout your system, or if you need to refactor your back-end to take advantage of the partner platform the costs could escalate.  Don’t forget that no matter how reliable the promises are from anyone’s platform there are always glitches, authentication key resets, changes in the interface and billing considerations. 
  • Building an App on the Partner Platform.  The costs here are almost always high, don’t believe the hype when people show you how quickly you can learn this platform and how developers are ultra-productive.  If you build an app on someone else’s platform you are signing up for having staff (full time or contract) that knows how to use these tools, maintain that build environment and keeps up with interface changes of the host platform.  Some of these plugins or apps will take a whole team of people to maintain.  You might be able to get away by hiring a system integrator, but don’t get fooled into thinking that you will “build it and forget it”, sustained engineering is a real cost.

Another key element of the platform game are the people that are involved.  Often times the folks that are urging you to integrate are Business Development, Marketing and Product Management folks from these companies.  In a lot of cases their goals and salary is pegged by having “as many integrations as possible” to realize their platform vision. I hope that over time these score cards are going to improve to urge these folks to focus on the partner success rather than just having their marketplace look full.   In the current world you can get into a situation where you have little to no customer demand for the integrated product, ongoing cost of maintenance and the BD person who got you to invest has moved on to the next partner.

While working on DocuSign partner products we have had some great integrations: Salesforce, Google, Microsoft have been phenomenal partners that brought customers, exposure and focused on the joint customer success.  We have built teams of people on both sides that worked on co-marketing, joint product design.  Some of these partners helped introduce us to their customers making the integration work very worthwhile.  We have also made some bad moves as well.  Plugging into marketplaces that did nothing but created nuisance and continuous integration costs.

Evaluation of partnership opportunities always needs to come back to customer demand and partner commitment to working together.  The successful ones have never been a quick way to riches.  Don’t get suckered into someone else’s Platform Scorecard – use these lessons to separate signal from noise, focus on the customers and drive meaningful partnerships.  If your competition is integrating with systems that you passed on, most of the time you should be happy because they just wasted a bunch of time.


PS: if you enjoyed this post you might also like to read up on Zombie Products and What will make you better than 99% of Product Managers today.

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