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Three Elements of a Successful Platform Strategy

We typically think of companies competing over products — the proverbial “build a better mousetrap.” But in today’s networked age, competition is increasingly over platforms. Build a better platform, and you will have a decided advantage over the competition.

In construction, a platform is something that lifts you up and on which others can stand. The same is true in business. By building a digital platform, other businesses can easily connect their business with yours, build products and services on top of it, and co-create value. This ability to “plug-and-play” is a defining characteristic of Platform Thinking.

Consider the market for smartphones. Nokia and Blackberry today are a shadow of their former glory. Their technology and products lag Apple and the Android ecosystem. But the triumph of Apple and Android is not from features and functions. It is from the app store on which external developers create value. Microsoft has gotten excellent reviews for the technology in its new phones, but it is the ability to create a successful platform that will determine its ultimate success.

The use of platform thinking extends beyond the tech sector. Retailers are shifting from distribution channels selling products, to engagement platforms co-creating value. Online retailers like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon led the way, and now traditional retailers are following.

JC Penney has made platform thinking a pillar of its reinvention strategy. Its stores are featuring more and more “boutiques” managed by others. It is no coincidence that JC Penney’s CEO, Ron Johnson, was previously at Apple. Johnson has said, “All those boutiques are the apps. What J.C. Penney is creating is a new interface.” While JC Penney’s pricing strategy has been controversial, analysts have been very positive about the in-store platform.

Nike is also shifting from products to platforms. Building on the success of its Digital Sport products, Nike recently launched its Nike+ Accelerator to help companies build on the Nike+ platform. Nike’s announcement reflects platform thinking. “We are looking for people who want to create companies that build upon the success of [Nike+] to make the world more active.”

The rise of platforms is being driven by three transformative technologies: cloud, social, and mobile. The cloud enables a global infrastructure for production, allowing anyone to create content and applications for a global audience. Social networks connect people globally and maintain their identity online. Mobile allows connection to this global infrastructure anytime, anywhere. The result is a globally accessible network of entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers who are available to create businesses, contribute content, and purchase goods and services.

Readers will recognize a number of intellectual foundations to platform thinking. These range from Geoffrey Moore’s ecosystems to John Hagel and John Seely Brown’s focus on “pull.” Where traditional ecosystems push, these new platforms pull. Platforms also rely on the power of network effects — as they attract more users, they become more valuable to those users. And there’s a growing academic literature that explores the unique quality of value creation on what are called “multi-sided platforms.”

In our view, the success of a platform strategy is determined by three factors:

  1. Connection: how easily others can plug into the platform to share and transact
  2. Gravity: how well the platform attracts participants, both producers and consumers
  3. Flow: how well the platform fosters the exchange and co-creation of value

Successful platforms achieve these goals with three building blocks:

  1. The Toolbox creates connection by making it easy for others to plug into the platform. This infrastructure enables interactions between participants. For example, Apple provides developers with the OS and underlying code libraries; YouTube provides hosting infrastructure to creators; Wikipedia provides writers with the tools to collaborate on an article; and JC Penney provides stores to its boutique partners.
  2. The Magnet creates pull that attracts participants to the platform with a kind of social gravity. For transaction platforms, both producers and consumers must be present to achieve critical mass. Apple needed to attract both developers and users. Similarly, eBay needed both buyers and sellers. Platform builders must pay attention to the design of incentives, reputation systems, and pricing models. They must also leverage social media to harness the network effect for rapid growth.
  3. The Matchmaker fosters the flow of value by making connections between producers and consumers. Data is at the heart of successful matchmaking, and distinguishes platforms from other business models. The Matchmaker captures rich data about the participants and leverages that data to facilitate connections between producers and consumers. For example, Google matches the supply and demand of online content, while marketplaces like eBay match buyers to relevant products.

Not all platforms place the same emphasis on all three building blocks. Amazon Web Services has focused on building the Toolbox. Meanwhile, eBay and AirBnB have focused more on the Magnet and Matchmaker role. Facebook has focused on the Toolbox and Magnet, and is actively building its Matchmaker ability.

In the future, we will see more and more companies shifting from products to platforms. Even those in the extermination business may worry less about building better mousetraps, and more on building mousecatching platforms. For example, imagine a smart mousetrap with sensors that wirelessly communicate to a cloud-based MouseCatcher service. Homeowners and exterminators could monitor the status of the trap on their smartphones, receiving a text message when it is out of bait or needs checking. Smart traps already exist. But the shift from products to platforms would focus on building the service (the Trapp Store?) that enables anyone with a smart trap to connect and communicate.

Every business today is faced with the fundamental question that underlies Platform Thinking: How do I enable others to create value? Building a better mousetrap still might not have the world beat a path to your door. But the right platform might just do the trick


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Sangeet Paul Choudary is a Singapore-based entrepreneur and author of the blog Platform Thinking.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Age of Social Products

We are moving from a world in which physical products are separate to one in which they are connected.  Computers were just the beginning.  Appliances and engines now send alerts when they need to be serviced.  Cameras upload their photos automatically.  Vending machines trigger their own restocking.  Crops feed and water themselves.

This shift has many monikers:  “The Internet of Things” and “The Internet of Everything” are two of the most popular. But the history of the Internet suggests that this is just the beginning.  The real change will happen when products aren’t just connected, but social.  Instead of the Internet of Things, we should be thinking about the Social Network of Things. To take advantage of this shift, you need to start thinking about the social life of your products.

What makes the Internet of Things possible is the confluence of multiple technologies:  inexpensive sensors, wireless networks, and cloud computing.   The ability to access data and computing resources from anywhere means that products don’t need to have computers and memory built into them.  They can just use the cloud.  Put sensors, a simple processor, and a wireless connection together and you have the makings of an intelligent and connected product.

The Internet of Things is already expected to transform customer servicebusiness models, and advertising.  But we should remember the evolution of the Internet.  The early days (Web 1.0) was about computers talking to computers.  A few years later (Web 2.0), people started talking to people.  The Internet was disruptive as a connected infrastructure, but it became explosive when it got social.

Today, most of the discussion about the Internet of Things is about products being connected.  But just because your product is connected doesn’t make it social.  For products, the real revolution will come when objects aren’t just passing information back and forth, but collaborating around a shared purpose.

This insight is behind Google’s recent acquisition of Waze for $1.1 billion.  Google already has the best map and traffic program, so why would they want another one?  Was it just to keep it out of the hands of Apple or Facebook?  We think not.

Among other things, Waze cracked the code on social products.  Google Maps is a data network, while Waze is a social network, in this case of cars, phones and people.  Waze creates a constantly updating repository of traffic information, much like Wikipedia creates a dynamic repository of encyclopedic information.  However, in this case, it is cars, phones and people who are collaborating to create the body of knowledge.  Waze provides a glimpse of how the car can become a social device by using the little data created by each individual car and driver.  According to the head of Google Maps, the goal is “to harness the power of Google technology and the passion of the Waze community to make it easier to navigate your daily life.”

Waze shows us how the cars of the future will not only connect to each other but also leverage the collective intelligence of that community of connected cars. We can see this in other areas as well.  Connected e-readers already help every individual reader benefit from the actions of the community. Nike is betting on a future with connected shoes, where each individual shoe learns from the data aggregated from a network of connected shoes. Social products leverage the power of the community to learn from other products.

So how do you create a social product?

First, you need a product that is smart and connected.  You can build your own (like the thermostats and home alarms from Nest) or use someone else’s device.  It might be a smartphone (think Waze), a consumer device with open APIs (like Nike’s FuelBand), or a commercial device with a strategic alliance (likeOpower and electric utilities).

Second, you need to make the product social.  This requires a platform where people and products are connected in a collaborative network.  Each individual product and each user benefits from being part of a community of fellow products and users. For example, Nest’s thermostat and smoke detector work together.  When the alarm detects carbon monoxide, it tells the thermostat to turn off the furnace.

In the case of Waze, each car and driver benefits from the information gleaned and aggregated from the community of cars and drivers.   That’s not all.   A Department of Transportation study demonstrates how cars of the future will talk to each other.  Cars within 1,000 feet of one another will send out their speed and location to the others, which will then notify the driver as needed.  Google’s driverless cars will be able to make adjustments automatically.  In this future state, is it the cars that are driving, or the social networks?

If you are considering building a strategy around social products, you have a few choices.   You need a connected product, a social network of people, a social network of products, and a collaborative platform for interaction, data exchange, and analytics.  The good news is that you don’t have to do all of this yourself.

  • Instagram leveraged an existing connected product (smartphone camera) and an existing collaborative platform (Facebook) to create a social network of connected camera-phones.
  • Qualcomm Life is creating a new collaborative platform to transform existing connected devices (for mobile health and fitness) into social products.  Recognizing they also needed a social network of people, they recently purchased HealthyCircles to help physicians, patients, and families coordinate care and support.
  • Nike is creating an entire ecosystem of connected products (Hyperdunk+ shoes), social network of products (FuelBand), social network of people (Nike+), and collaborative platform (Digital Sports).

The Age of Social Products will change the basis of competitive advantage.  Companies have traditionally focused on product supremacy, outdoing their competitors with better features and attributes.  In an age of social products, competitive advantage comes not from product features but from network effects.  Companies succeed by having products that better leverage the intelligence of the network of other connected products. This is a shift in mindset from standalone-product thinking to connected-platform thinking.

The Age of Social Products is dawning.  Companies that create products that are smart, connected, and, most importantly, social, will not only survive, but thrive.


Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.

Sangeet Paul Choudary is a C-level advisor to executives globally on platform business models, an entrepreneur-in-residence at INSEAD and the co-chair of the MIT Platform Strategy Summit. He has been ranked among the top 30 emerging business thinkers globally by Thinkers50. He is also a co-author of Platform Revolution (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) and the April 2016 HBR article Pipelines, Platforms, and the New Rules of Strategy.” Follow him on Twitter at @sanguit.


Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.