3 Keys to Building a Successful App Ecosystem

Spread the love
Openness, trust, and shared economic opportunity are among the keys to building a successful app ecosystem.

It’s been nearly 12 years since Salesforce launched the first app ecosystem for the enterprise. Since then, it seems almost every enterprise technology company has tried to replicate their success.

Having led the platform ecosystem teams at eBay, and now Atlassian, I’m often asked for advice on getting ecosystems off the ground and making them work at scale. As many enterprise companies trying their hand at this model quickly discover, it’s not as easy as it might first seem. To do it well, there are three key things you must get right.

Building a foundation of openness and transparency. Most ecosystems run by enterprise software companies today lean towards openness and transparency, but ultimately fall short. Sure, they create data APIs and say “you can write or you can read data” — but that’s not the same as a truly open ecosystem.

To capture the full value of ecosystems, companies must become comfortable giving up far more control. In other words, allowing for deep and open integrations, not just creating a bunch of APIs that allow people to execute some limited number of actions.

Open platforms, which allow for integration with both the APIs as well as the user experience, enable innovation outside of the constrained thinking that sometimes plagues enterprise technology platform product and engineering teams. By being open by default, the company will encourage ecosystem developers, customers and employees to innovate and deliver enterprise solutions that can surprise and delight customers, and also attract new customers in new markets.

Creating economic opportunity for everyone. The biggest mistake enterprises make when building an ecosystem is failing to stay in their lane. When a third party application appears on your platform and captures everyone’s attention, resist the temptation to copycat. Instead, champion their success. Staying on the sidelines can be difficult, but it’s critical for long term success.

Platform ecosystems must facilitate the free and open exchange of value between its users — without getting in the way. That means allowing vendors/developers to reach users (ie. your customers) in the most direct way possible, and not stealing their business when it becomes a runaway success.

Opportunity for everyone also means openness to “coopetition” (cooperation with your competition). If your primary goal is delivering the best experience for your customers, then allowing some of your competitors into your ecosystem is not optional. Not only does it feed into the ecosystem directly and make it stronger, it also demonstrates your commitment to openness and serving your customers.

One of the most impactful coopetition examples of all time is Apple’s decision to release iTunes for Microsoft Windows. This pivotal decision accelerated iPod adoption, which in turn helped pave the way for Apple’s massive success with iPhone that it still experiences to this very day.

Earning trust — and then keeping it. This brings us to perhaps the most important lesson of all: burn your users and your ecosystem is toast.

As any enterprise that has attempted to build a platform ecosystem can tell you, trust in the developer community is fragile. It is also what will make or break you in the end. Remember when Twitter shut down an entire category of developers without warning?

When operating an ecosystem, being transparent in everything you do is critical. While making changes to your platform is inevitable, the way you go about it will determine whether you can maintain the community’s trust through each evolution. You won’t always manage these changes perfectly, but always try to do the right thing and your community will notice.

Last year, our team arrived at one such crossroad. When we had to fully integrate a security standard called SAML into our products at the overwhelming demand of enterprise customers, we took great care to bring vendors providing SSO and SAML add-ons into the conversation early. Three of our lead product managers picked up the phone to explain the situation and help guide them through the transition and into emerging, closely-related opportunities.

By staying open and transparent, and bringing these developers into our circle of trust, everyone came out on top: enterprise customers had SAML fully baked into our products, Marketplace vendors discovered new opportunities with plenty of time to pivot, and the ecosystem as a whole emerged stronger in the end.

That’s the beauty of ecosystems: when done properly, they can offer enterprise software companies an adaptive and resilient way to keep up with the accelerating curve of technology and create economic opportunity for all.

Max Mancini is Vice President of Ecosystem at Atlassian, where he leads the company’s efforts to build a thriving ecosystem of developers and enterprise applications. He believes that platform APIs, and the ecosystem that supports them, enable innovation and opportunity for Atlassian’s entire community of developers, experts and customers. Prior to Atlassian, Max ran retail eCommerce engineering at Apple, and helped scale the developers program and mobile business at eBay.