So Many Platforms, So Few Developers

As I walked around the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon today, I talked to a lot of vendors who decided to set up tables at the event for one reason: to lure developers to use their APIs and build applications on top of their platforms.

In fact, I spoke to almost a dozen vendors including Evernote, Twitter, Microsoft Azure, The Weather Underground, Pearson (the book publisher), GoGo InFlight and many others.  I even spoke to a hospital representative who was there because they had built an open source hospital management platform, and you guessed it, they were hoping to lure developers to join them and build applications on top of it.

With so many platform plays out there though, it’s exceedingly difficult for them all to achieve the necessary critical mass to get the developer attention they crave. The old chestnut holds of course. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. In fact, at a VC panel earlier this week at the BoxWorks customer conference, Rory O’Driscoll from Scale Venture Partners said, of course everyone wants to be a platform, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a realistic goal.

“Third parties only engage when you achieve critical mass. You have to do something else and become a platform. You aren’t born fully formed as a platform.” Using Box as an example, O’Driscoll pointed out enterprise file sync and share may be a commodity today, but it was considered pretty darn innovative in the 2009 timeframe and Box managed to get a lot people using the product. In turn, that got the attention of developers, precisely because they believed they could make money by building on top of Box.

Today, Box claims to have 47,000 developers building applications on top of its platform.

Without that critical mass, whatever that number happens to be, only a few people are going to come, and so companies proactively try to attract developers to the platform by showing up at events like the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, where they have a large captive audience of developers at their disposal. And they are trying a number of strategies including offering cash and merchandize for the developers who write the most creative programs on their platforms. Many of the vendors are also holding free API workshops to help the developers who are interested in them get started or learn tips and tricks to make it easier to build applications.

Some of the companies like Twitter, Yammer and Evernote of course have achieved that scale and companies are happily building on top of the platform for the very reasons that O’Driscoll outlined. They know that if they build there, they have a huge potential audience, so the investment of time and resources is worth it.

Yammer takes it a step further by working with a startup incubator called the Alchemist Accelerator. Participants get $28K, access to additional funders, customers and mentors from Yammer and elsewhere to help them build their products. At least some of these projects will ultimately be built on top of Yammer (although it’s not a requirement).

As Dana Evan from Jafco Ventures said at that Box VC panel, one of the problems every technology company faces today is the dearth of programming talent in the market and that’s led to intense competition around hiring, and in turn to attract them to the platform each vendor is pushing so hard.

“I’ve never seen the competition for developer talent as fierce as it is today,” she said. And that means you have a limited supply and great demand. For platform players, it means they have to work harder than ever to attract developers to build tools on top of their products.

To paraphrase the old Willy Nelson song, “Mamas, you may want to let your babies grow up to be developers,” because there’s crazy competition for their attention and that’s a great place to be. In that context, today’s Hackathon attendees all win.

Note: This article originally stated that the Alchemist Accelerator was part of Yammer. It’s actually an independent company run out of Yammer’s offices.