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The Platform Paradox

I mostly hear VCs contend that they don’t behind products, they behind platforms. we find that proof retrograde and in many ways dangerous for founders. Platforms can yield a durable rival advantage, and it’s easy to know given startups would wish to emanate one. But good platforms are scarcely always innate from companies initial formulating good products with narrow, though constrained use cases.

Founders have a tough time usurpation this advice, given they hear that VCs customarily wish to behind businesses with unicorn potential. They have problem devising that a niche indicate resolution could fit a bill. So they dream adult a story of how their startup could spin a platform and remove concentration on a problem they’re solving.

The Difference Between A Platform And A Product

Given all a contention of platforms, networks, marketplaces and plane strategies, it’s startling that some-more hasn’t been combined defining and delineating these terms. Before we explain given entrepreneurs should omit a platform logic, we will do my best to yield definitions to these opposite concepts. we do not cruise these definitions to be extensive and am open to enchanting with anyone who thinks about these concepts differently.


Products are collection or services that we have some disdainful tenure of or entrance to. iPhones and GoPros are products. Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop are products. Candy Crush and The New York Times mobile app are products.

You competence compensate a prosaic price, a SaaS fee, trade your courtesy for ads, get some volume of giveaway use or extract in in-app purchases, though a judgment is a same. You buy or pointer adult for something and use it. A good product solves a specific need for a user either a pardonable application or a unsentimental one.


Amazon Web Services, iOS and Android are platforms. The specifying aspect of a platform is a ability for others to build products and eventually beget income on tip of it, mostly in ways a platform creator never imagined. Platforms beget income by holding a cut of proceeds, and costs tend to scale in suit to their use.


People mostly upset “platforms” with products that posses network effects, though they are opposite things. LinkedIn is a network, that after became a platform for recruiting. Pinterest is a pleasing seductiveness graph and not a growth platform, yet it is apropos a platform for promotion as it grows. Both services offer APIs, though an API does not a platform make.

Marketplaces like eBay, Airbnb and Etsy are networked products that feel like platforms given we can make income regulating them, though extent a ways we can use them. we can’t sell a automobile on Airbnb or lease a palace on eBay. The primary value in marketplaces is subsequent from a liquidity. You’re not building value on tip of these networks, you’re exchanging value within them.

There is value to be combined on a margins of these services — inventory government collection for eBay energy sellers, or home cleaners for Airbnb hosts — though a primary value origination accrues to a association who creates a network. Airbnb is no some-more a platform for housekeepers than a high arise bureau building is.

Reasonable people can remonstrate with these definitions. For instance, any of these companies is a “product” association of one arrange or another. But they during slightest explain some vital distinctions.

Humor VCs When They Bring Up Platforms

Most VCs have never built companies and some do not entirely conclude a hurdles of doing so. Founders might have a good thought for a startup that would solve a genuine problem. There might even be a transparent income model, though a founders fear that it all sounds too small. Instead of touting their product, founders dream adult some epitome thought that combines a multibillion-dollar Total Addressable Market (TAM) that relates tech in some impossibly bold, nonetheless obscure way.

VCs start by looking during a billion-dollar platform thought and wish to trust that you’ll birth your association to grasp a finish state on day one. There is zero wrong with portrayal a large design of what your association will spin over time, though make certain those VCs know that you’re going to start by elucidate a genuine problem for business and that you’re going to build a product now that hopefully can spin a platform over time. Most importantly, tell them you’re not going to get dreaming building a showy platform that no one wants today.

This is how platform proof becomes dangerous. When specs are extended adequate to request to many opposite customers, they mostly work good for no one. Product managers dally with tiny customizations, though try to safety a extent to do anything. Horizontal platforms leave startups watchful for markets to come to them. That can take a prolonged time. It customarily never happens.

Narrow, straight product use cases mostly seem considerate compared to a guarantee of a platform. Unfortunately, products and platforms are jointly disdainful during early-stage startups. It is scarcely unfit to offer a high-quality use box while also being a platform.

When we hear founders who hardly have a demo speak about their “platform play,” we hear a owner though a transparent grasp of their customers’ needs. Abstraction lends itself to grand pronouncements, though is customarily so ubiquitous as to be unactionable.

At that indicate we ask about how a platform will strech vicious mass. What follows is constantly hand-waving of some sort. The selling devise customarily involves a few pivotal influencers and a hodge-podge of unquantifiable selling programs, though it is scarcely unfit to build vicious mass when no one understands what specific problem you’re solving.

Having a large prophesy is customarily a good thing unless it becomes a outrageous distraction. To spin a platform we initial need to build a product that speaks to a constrained use case.

Build a Single Player Mode

If you’re stranded on a thought of building a platform, during slightest persevere time to building a convincing “Single Player Mode.” Whatever we build should offer value even if customarily one chairman signs up. Instagram helps people take improved photos, and a network comes afterward. Pinterest can offer as a mood house for crafters; a connectors it enables spin it into a sewing round with tellurian scale. Minecraft is like a world’s biggest LEGO set, and an Internet tie turns it into a world’s biggest playgroup.

Don’t Trust Me—Study Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Jobs

Platforms can be constrained businesses, though it’s scarcely unfit for a startup to emanate one from scratch. Remember when Google attempted to build a Glass Collective (imitation is a biggest form of flattery) with support from A16Z and Kleiner Perkins, though still finished adult killing a project? Ultimately Google should have prioritized building a constrained product rather than building a platform for a product nobody wanted.

The existence is that many platforms in a startup universe emerge as a byproduct of a successful product solution. Amazon’s AWS, Facebook and iOS are arguably 3 of a many critical platforms in tech today, though any association entered a platform business rather unwittingly.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) has spin a core partial of a startup infrastructure and has substantially been a single-most critical creation obliged for a blast of startups given a formalization of a HTTP standard.

But remember, Amazon didn’t set out to build a general computing infrastructure platform, they sole Harlequin intrigue novels, DVD box sets of Lost, tennis rackets and millions of other products.

It wasn’t until they mastered a filthy art of shipping and receiving that they incited their courtesy towards computing services. Their platform was a byproduct of a many desired and devoted indicate solution, not a company’s focus.

Even when they did make a pierce into building a platform, it was marketed directly to a specific patron — startup founders. Privacy regulations in medical and financial and confidence concerns in a enterprise, done it a bad fit to start, so they abandoned those markets. They didn’t make gossamer promises to a far-reaching swath of companies, they built a use box that was accurately what high-growth startups needed.

Amazon was founded in 1994, didn’t offer AWS until 2006, and customarily started breaking out gain for AWS in 2015. There’s no reason your business couldn’t spin a platform in time, though keep in mind that it took one of a many successful web companies in story over a decade to get there. Pace yourself.



This was not a platform.

Building a platform wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s strange goal. He didn’t even have print pity in V.1 of TheFacebook.com.

Before it became a platform that popularized Farmville, it was a elementary product that let college students hunt their friends’ friends. Now it powers login opposite a web and is a fastest flourishing ad platform in history.

Facebook was founded in 2004. It wasn’t until 2007, and a user bottom with hundreds of millions of users, that it announced its first efforts during apropos platform. That’s 3 years of building an extraordinary product, listening to their user base, and focusing on Facebook a product and network. Remember, a platform that has connected a billion and a half people couldn’t be accessed though an .edu email residence a decade ago.



Apple didn’t even have adequate apps to fill out a home screen, never mind an app store, during launch.

It’s tough to remember, though when a iPhone launched in 2007 it was “just” a best smartphone a universe had ever seen. It didn’t even have duplicate and paste, and a “There’s an App for That” ad campaigns and billion dollar payouts to developers were still a integrate years away.

Software engineers were knocking down Apple’s doorway to build apps, fundamentally charity Apple a platform from day one, and a association rebuffed them, enlivening developers to build web apps instead.

Think about that. Apple was roving a prohibited strain of success with a iPod, had billions of dollars in a bank, and legions of fanatics and accessible voices in a press. The company had a event to build a platform from day one and paused, realizing that it needed to concentration on a product’s core use before opening it adult to a wider audience. Today, iOS is one of a many critical platforms in a story of computing, though it started simply as a sharp product.

Unless you’re smarter than Steve Jobs, start by elucidate a problem for your patron and customarily spin a platform when you’ve spin a customary in elucidate that problem.

Featured Image: Alex Emanuel Koch/Shutterstock

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