I work in a very niche industry, sending handwritten notes. My company is self-funded and grows organically. Our largest competitor had millions of dollars in venture backing and was acquired by a Fortune 500 company. We still managed to put them out of business.
How did my team drive the market leader into the ground? There are several reasons for this, but the one I want to focus on here is "platformization." We built a platform and they simply built a website.
But what is a platform?
A platform is more than a website. A platform is more than an app. A platform is more than a plug-in for Salesforce.com, or a custom integration into some obscure system. A platform is all of the above. When done correctly, a platform is everywhere and so easy to use, you don't even know you're using it. A platform integrates, automates, and makes your life easier and you pay for it without even thinking.
You buy from Amazon on your phone, desktop or even using Alexa. You watch Netflix movies on your phone, tablet, game console or TV. Through my company, you can send a handwritten note online, via an app, or automatically when your online store makes a sale or your prospect hits a certain stage in your CRM system.
If you only have a website, transactions must come to you. With a platform, you exist everywhere the transaction naturally occurs.
While your company can become a platform at any point in its lifecycle, it's obviously best to plan for it from the beginning. Here's my three-step plan for designing your online business as a platform.
1. Build your mobile app (and backend) before your website.
In my prior life, I built a mobile development company. We built some very popular mobile apps for some very big companies. However, I'll be the first person to tell you that most companies don't need a mobile app.
Then why am I telling you to build one? Why not start with the website?
While the website is easier and cheaper to build, your developers could easily fall into very common trap of combining the "look and feel" of the website with the functional part that does the real work. Out of laziness, or haste, or lack of planning they would be intermingling the code that runs the user interface with the backend logic. You can't be a platform if these two parts (user interface and logic) are combined.
By building your mobile app first, your developers have no choice but to separate the backend logic (which will reside on a server) and the user interface (the cool stuff on the phone). The glue that connects the two is called the "application programming interface" (or "API"). This API is the key to having a platform. If you build mobile first, you get a great API without even asking for one!
2. Leverage your new API when building your website.
Now that you have a working backend, it should be easy to build a website. The website should try to only use the same APIs used by the app. Instill in your team the rigor to keep up the standard of separating the logic from the look and feel. (In techy talk, this is called "Separation of Concerns".)
If your developers do it right, your website should be built in record time. By leveraging the API you built for mobile, you can drastically reduce complexity and costs by having one set of code running everything.
Even better, you now have a platform. A user could register on your website, then immediately log in on the app. A user could start a transaction on the app and finish it on the website. It sounds like magic, but if you plan right, it's easy.
3. Publish your API and spread tools.
You've proven your API works. After all, you have a website and a mobile site running on it. Now tell the world about it.
First, have your team document your API and publish it on your website. Tools such as Swagger make it easy to write-up documentation that developers can quickly use. Submit your API to sites such as ProgrammableWeb to gain more exposure.
To make it even easier, create simple wrappers around your API and publish them on sites such as Zapier or Microsoft Flow. This will allow non-programmers to create very powerful integrations with the click of their mouse.
By making your integrations and listing your APIs on directories, the word will spread.
You'll be amazed by what people do with your service. Many people will automate tasks without even contacting you. This is when you know you've created a true platform and it will be time to plan for growth.