The technology industry’s buzzword du jour is “platform.” Conceptually, the idea of a “platform” is not new, but technology companies’ desire to become platform companies, and the number of new companies claiming their status as a “platform” has accelerated dramatically over the last few years.
This is partly because success attracts more success — when technology companies adopt a platform model and succeed massively because of it, newer entrants are attracted to that momentum, and look to emulate them. But becoming a “platform” isn’t an overnight decision, and there is no common path towards it. There are, however, common traits between successful platforms. The fact that each new platform creates new and unique economic and employment opportunities is just one of those traits.
A perfect platform storm is brewing, spinning platform “flywheels” faster than ever — an increase in solopreneurship, the rise of serverless technologies, and lower barriers to entry for app creators is making this all possible.
What’s a flywheel?
Traditional funnel-based measurement and business strategy starts with a customer’s first interaction with your business and ends at the point of sale. A flywheel-based model instead captures the forces and frictions that, measured together, generate energy to grow your business, and create a holistic view of how quickly or slowly your company can expect to grow in the future.
A “force” is a business activity that speeds growth. “Friction” is just the opposite — an activity that slows growth.
When orchestrated well, more force and less friction creates a virtuous cycle of momentum and growth. Most forces have a complementary friction point — for example, at HubSpot (where I work), we invested in a freemium model because more and more customers prefer to try software before purchasing, and often don’t want to speak with someone to get started. The force in this scenario was changing buyer behavior, which created a friction point — a sales process that, up until a few years ago, required a constant human touch.
Force and friction in the platform industry have evolved in parallel, too.
Adding force: The rise of micro-entrepreneurship
The way we work, and our motivations to work, have changed significantly over the past few decades. Gone are the days where people worked the same nine-to-five for life. Modern traditional employment has become much more flexible. At the same time, we’re seeing a rise in nontraditional labor — gig work, freelancing, and micro-entrepreneurs striking out on their own or supplementing a day job with what are increasingly known as “side-hustles.”
For developers, or anyone with the ability to code, side-hustles independent from traditional employment are becoming more and more common. Steph Smith, a self-described “indie maker” and Head of Publications at Toptal, recently wrote a fantastic piece on maintaining a side project while working a full-time job. In it, Smith describes the pull she felt to devote her nonworking hours to side projects:
“What if we stopped imaging “me time” as relaxation time, but instead exactly as it is titled — time to focus on yourself and align with your goals. If you need rest, then rest. But if your goal is to one day become an entrepreneur, a significant portion of “me time” should be invested in getting there since it won’t happen on its own. “Me time” shouldn’t just be non-tiring activity, but anything that helps an individual get to the future state that they wish to be in.”
Smith’s words clearly resonated — over 50,000 people read her piece just days after publication.
Justin Ribeiro, co-host of TheWebPlatform podcast, recently described how he leveraged open APIs to create a speedometer on his iPhone when his car’s dashboard stopped working. There was no intent to monetize the app — Ribeiro built it quickly for fun, and at no cost. And, it was incredibly useful.
More and more developers are learning by doing, through side projects and self-education. Sites like Indie Hackers, Hacker News, and Product Hunt include thousands of side projects, built by people who have taught themselves to code, and people who, like Ribeiro, are enjoying the process.
Removing friction: A lowered barrier to app development
As developers’ appetite for independent work has grown, technology providers have innovated to make that work easier in three important ways.
First, the advent of serverless technology has greatly lowered the cost and technical knowledge required to build product. For any technology to work, it needs infrastructure — servers, storage, and networking. This cost can be prohibitive for indie makers, and not everyone with the technical skills to build an app also understands how to orchestrate this infrastructure. Serverless removes these blockers: Instead of paying for your own infrastructure and someone to manage it, it simply runs your code for you. Not only does this reduce upfront costs, it enables makers to create more quickly and independently.
Third, companies that have historically been gatekeepers are opening up their marketplaces to more makers. Google announced earlier this year they’d open up the Play store to Progressive Web Apps, while Apple inked partnerships with firmware companies like Samsung and LG to include proprietary iTunes and AirPlay technology on their smart TVs. Speculating as to whether this was a proactive or reactive move is a chicken-or-egg question, but the resulting status quo is the same — the doors of previously walled gardens are opening.
What does this mean for the platform industry?
As these trends continue, the platform industry will be affected in a few ways.
Short-term, we’ll see an explosion of “indie” makers. Between the greatly lowered startup cost of building products and the clear signals by gatekeepers that their marketplaces are trending toward being more, not less open, the platform industry’s barrier to entry has been dramatically lowered. Platform companies are increasingly giving “indie” makers genuinely viable paths to monetize the value they create, and pursue a clear path to entrepreneurship.
Long-term, I’d bet this will create more economic balance in platform ecosystems. Today, most B2B platform ecosystems are populated primarily by venture-backed SaaS companies, but we’re seeing this evolve quickly to include bootstrapped developers creating valuable solutions for customers.
Technology platforms are exciting because anyone can take part in the micro-economies created around them. Structural shifts in the platform industry, coupled with deliberate efforts by platform providers to create “open” ecosystems, can help create new economic opportunities for those creators to pursue their own unique path of innovation and entrepreneurship.