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Hamid Palo

Hamid Palo is the product manager for the Trello app ecosystem at Atlassian. He also led partnerships and mobile at Trello. Prior to that he co-founded a large social network in Bosnia and wrote virtualization code at Microsoft. He loves platforms and Borussia Dortmund.

So, you’ve decided to start an app ecosystem. Maybe you have a great product that your customers love, and you want to make it even better for them. Maybe you’re in a very competitive market and are looking for a difficult-to-copy differentiator. Maybe you just need more features and integrations and can’t build them all yourself.

When done right, app ecosystems transform simple products with narrow appeal into mission-critical powerhouses of productivity. They add oodles of features and integrations that allow products to do amazing new things. They boost retention by creating lock-in as customers start depending on these ecosystem features they can’t get anywhere else. They create a defensible competitive advantage — competitors can duplicate individual features but not the wealth and breadth of functionality a vibrant ecosystem adds. Just witness the success of tools like Slack, Jira and Salesforce.

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While the benefits are pretty clear, actually getting an ecosystem off the ground is very hard to do. We have been at it for over two years at Trello, a project management product of 25 million registered users and over 80 third-party apps, and we’re still figuring it out!

Here are the key five things we’ve learned along our journey that we believe anyone starting an app ecosystem can learn from.

1. Solve Real Problems

Define very clear jobs to be done or use cases you want the ecosystem to cover: A good rule of thumb is that your core product should solve at most 80 percent of the needs of your customers, leaving 20 percent for the ecosystem.

For example, Trello’s core product is very simple: boards, lists and cards. To maintain the simplicity of the tool and make the ecosystem valuable, all other features can be added as an app, including features like calendars and reporting. This allows your users to customize the product to their unique needs and preferences, while also opening the door for your partners and third-party developers to fill the gap.

2. Put the Developer First

This is stating the obvious, but so many companies miss it: developers must get a return on their investment of time and money spent building for your platform. This is why it’s crucial to leave at least 20 percent of your product for your ecosystem. Developers must be able to add enough value to make money. If they don’t, they will not build. If they’ve already built something, they will stop investing. When developers stop building, apps deteriorate and users stop using them. This vicious cycle is hard to stop.

3. Transparency and Fairness

You must have a level playing field for your developers. Do not play favorites or give preferential treatment, including to internal developers. Establish clear lines of communication with your developer community, and be as transparent as you possibly can be. Trust goes a long way.

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Establish a space to communicate with developers openly and consistently. We have a Slack channel that works well.

4. Expose Your APIs — All of Them

No playing favorites also means no private APIs. Your developers should have access to all the APIs you have access to. Without them, they cannot build compelling apps for your ecosystem. A good way to do this is to treat your own apps as a third-party product.

5. Build Some Apps Yourself

Getting an ecosystem off the ground is a chicken and egg situation. You need users in order to attract developers, and you need developers making awesome apps to get users. Getting past this can be pretty straightforward — just build some apps yourself. This had the added benefit of keeping the core product very simple.

Don’t Forget: Choose the Right Metric

Without the right metric, you have no idea how well you’re doing. Even worse, is a metric that measures the wrong thing. Make sure to measure the value your ecosystem creates, not the number of apps. The number of apps is a vanity metric — the failed Windows Phone had 300,000 apps but did not have Snapchat or Pinterest. A good metric is the percentage of your MAU that actively use and depend on third-party apps.

These tips don’t guarantee success but are a good place to start when considering building an ecosystem. Ecosystems are fundamentally different than the traditional product-to-market pipeline. In an ecosystem, your job is one of matchmaker — you have to match developers and customers. You must enable your developers to make amazing apps your users need, and then tell your users about them. Your success is completely dependent on how well you can do that.

Feature image via Pixabay.

InApps is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners, an investor in the following companies mentioned in this article: Real.

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