Nothing lives in a silo anymore. It's impossible to live your life without interacting with anyone. The same is true in our jobs; we no longer provide software in a silo. Software is expected to work with all the other solutions in the ecosystem.
There are many different stages of an ecosystem strategy and the later stages are only accessible as your business grows and partnerships mature. Today I am going to talk specifically about the platform ecosystem which is where most fully mature tech partner programs sit.
What is a Platform Ecosystem?
First, what is a platform? A platform is a surface or thing you use as a foundation, something that elevates you up. This can be a physical space such as a stage or a digital platform like twitter giving access to an audience. Platform ecosystem is when your product has become a platform that customers and partners now build off of. They will use your product or products as the foundation for them to build and scale in a way they couldn’t before. And you truly reach this stage when you have companies that are only using the platform you provide to do business. To put it succinctly, you have achieved becoming a platform ecosystem if there are entire businesses that exist only because you do. A couple key examples:
Salesforce Appexchange: https://appexchange.salesforce.com/
- 3K+ Solutions
- 10MM + Installs
- 1K+ Solutions
So how do we get there and what do we need to build?
There are a couple stages that most companies go through
before they are ready to become a platform ecosystem. Some
companies move through these stages quickly and others can
take a dozen years before they get there.
Bespoke Integrations -> Customer APIs -> Technology Partnerships -> Platform Ecosystem
This is where your team is building integrations in a one-off fashion as part of your roadmap. These types of integrations are usually either customer requests or are required to compete in your category/do business. This stage is not scalable as every integration is a tradeoff against your other priorities, but it's a great learning opportunity to prepare for future stages. We recommend focusing only on integrations that provide immediate value and documenting your processes, resources, and timelines to build the integrations and take them live. At the same time, start creating your backlog of future integrations so you're ready to hit the ground running once you have a more scalable integration model. Companies usually are in this stage for 1-3 years.
When you realize you cannot keep up with customer requests and market demands you will switch to creating APIs. These APIs are used by customers to build their custom integrations and maybe even connect into Zapier. The main drawbacks of this stage is that you are still building bespoke integrations but now you are also maintaining public facing APIs and any integration built by customers is not repeatable for any other customers. During this stage you should be focusing on what customers are building with your APIs, demand feedback from customers and improve your APIs rapidly, and do everything you can to get a separate product team dedicated to integrations/partnerships/APIs. Once you enter this stage you will always have customers using your APIs even as you progress to future stages. This is a great resource for you in the future to prioritize partners based on customer usage.
Many companies start their technology partner program at the same time as their customer APIs. In the beginning, tech partner programs can be extremely limited because they don’t have great APIs, have to do all the work in house for integrations, and don’t have a dedicated team. Early on, Technology Partnerships are just bespoke integrations with a formalized relationship, but the goal of this phase is to make the program scalable and efficient. One key focus is to move from building all integration yourself to enabling 3rd parties to build directly, which removes you as the bottleneck. At the same time, focus on creating repeatable partnership motions, standardizing your program, and cleaning up your APIs. Once this is all in place, you will have the foundation to start creating your platform ecosystem. Companies can be here for 1-3 years.
This stage is when you have standardized everything related to
technology partners and those partners can build the full
integration without (much) intervention or assistance. This is
where companies can start to truly grow at an exponential rate
because they are no longer the bottleneck and explore
monetizing your program through direct partner sales. During
this stage you need to focus on scale, refinement, and
developer/partner success. Maybe you will start to see
billions of revenue flowing to your partners, who only exist
because you do?
You cannot skip directly here because you have to learn from each of the previous stages and create process and support at those stages. When you are building bespoke integrations you learn from those other companies’ programs and develop the muscle to go to market with your integrations. When you build customer APIs you learn how to support 3rd parties using your data and how to deliver success. When you launch a Technology Partner Program, you learn what is important to your partners from a program perspective and how to create meaningful relationships with 3rd parties. You tie all of that together to create a platform ecosystem that can grow and scale quickly while bringing value and success to all of your partners.
Hopefully the above helps to lay out, at a high level, the
platform ecosystem and common stages to get there. The
platform ecosystem elevates companies above their competitors
because it creates a way for them to become the core solution
that everything else works around. At this point they are no
longer just a part of the ecosystem, they start to define it.
Today most companies believe that they don’t need to show off their integrations and partners until they have a platform ecosystem. That is not true. Your customers care from day 1 who your partners are and how you fit into their ecosystem. This can be a hard problem to solve because building a partner marketplace takes time and resources away from other priorities. That is why we built Partner Fleet, so that companies can create a beautiful marketplace without taking the marketing and engineering teams from their priorities.