Great Products Become Platforms
Posted by Bob Warfield on September 16, 2007
The VC in NYC says the best products become platforms at some point, but he doesn’t say why so much as he gives examples. Being a reductionist at heart who agrees with his proposition, I wanted to delve into the Why?
Think about what a platform is: a framework on which applications can be run. Whose applications? Applications produced by others–if you build all the applications for your platform, you don’t have a platform, you have a core product with a bunch of modules. Let’s try it again:
A platform provides a framework on which applications written by others can be run.
Now we’re getting something. Platforms encourage others. Platforms are therefore also the essence of Web 2.0, which is all about collaboration. By encouraging this behaviour, we are building a viral loop with lock-in into our product. That drives not just traffic, but loyalty. The loyalty comes from having invested in the platform, and from having seen reciprocal benefit in doing so.
Can a product be great without including a platform? Yes, but it’s a lot harder for it to do so unless there is another mechanism to encourage viral adoption. There are other such alternatives, the Web 2.0 demonstrates many, but none are quite so potent as a platform which enables others to invest more heavily in your success in order to further their own ends.
Can a platform be great without including a great product? Yes, but it is much much harder. The role of the great product is to provide the initial hook that gets a large enough audience interested in the product to make it worthwhile to invest in the platform. We call that great product the “killer app” for the platform. Unless the platform requires terribly little investment, why would you get involved with a platform that has no audience? Only because it solves some problem you have so much more easily than solving it yourself that’s the platform itself becomes the best application.
Geoffrey Moore espouses a similar philosophy when he says:
The key thing to remember, however, is that an offer cannot present itself as a platform until it has achieved ubiquity of use as a product.
Amusingly, in this case, he’s talking about movies and other media as platforms. There is the opportunity for sequels merchandising and all the rest. Harry Potter is very much a platform. If the initial offering in the series isn’t fantastic, the platform isn’t worth much. The first Harry Potter book made the platform viable. He does go on to point out that you can jump start a platform without the awesome product by giving it away for free.
The morals to this story for product and platform strategists are:
1. Make provision for a platform in your product.
2. If your platform has no killer app, the cost of using it had better be almost nothing, and it had better solve a fairly difficult problem.
3. Find a killer app for your platform. If you have built a platform, consider building a killer app on top of the platform and giving it away to drive platform acceptance.
4. If possible, launch the killer app before revealing there is a platform. The platform audience will be much more receptive after seeing the killer app.
5. Make provision to help any apps built on your platform to succeed by helping get the word out about them. Preferably build the mechanisms for getting the word out into the platform itself so they are automatic.