The many flavors of developer-focused software
October 12, 2021
Software for developers tends to get lumped into one broad category. But it actually comes in many different flavors, each with its own unique challenges when it comes to designing a go-to-market strategy.
To better understand the hot new products coming to market, I use this framework:
- Open source: These products have an open-source (free) component and typically monetize based on what upmarket buyers might need through proprietary features, managed hosting, or services. Open-source audiences demand high value in exchange for payment, but consistently innovate and provide impressive feedback loops for commercial purposes. Examples: Cypress.io, MongoDB, and Elastic.
- API-first: API-first businesses are hard to explain, but you know them when you see them—they’re part of the backbone of most products. Audiences for these products can be challenging to target from a value proposition and messaging perspective. These businesses usually move into the applications space. Examples: Twilio, Stripe, and Marqeta.
- Developer apps: While I wouldn’t want to create another general category, developer apps are essentially any other product created for developers that doesn’t fall into the open-source or API-first buckets. Examples: Datadog, Snyk, and Logz.io.
In our latest Developer-Focused Go-to-Market Playbook, I stress that selling to developers isn’t impossible—it just requires marketers and sales teams to adjust their tactics outside of the established SaaS playbook. For developer-focused tools, I suggest taking this a step further and adjusting your tactics based on your specific software “flavor” as well.
Open-source business models are almost a misnomer in and of themselves. OSS Capital Founder Joseph Jacks does an excellent job explaining the progression of open-source business models. If you’re working to commercialize an open-source model, understand that community is key. If you’re insincere, or if you try anything shady, your community will let you know.
GitHub is a great example of a company that has always put community at their core, cultivating fans since day one. Early GitHub users were contacted if there was going to be a meet-up in their area, they received swag for hitting certain thresholds on the platform, and power users were often hired to manage the community itself—ensuring that they natively understood what would and wouldn’t fly with the majority of users.
MongoDB is another solid example of a business that stayed true to its community. MongoDB was in a David-and-Goliath situation against relational databases, and they fought the good fight by meeting with users toe-to-toe. At one point, Mongo was hosting more than one event per day. These events weren’t all the massive conferences we see now. The majority of the early traction they received was with small user groups focused on students and tech enthusiasts who eventually went on to bring Mongo into the companies they worked for.
API-first products have a high switching cost, so it helps to be a category creator or have an innovative go-to-market approach. Because APIs don’t always have a user interface, you don’t have as many options or as much time to really drive home the value of the product to users. As a result, you have to be incredibly precise with the product’s documentation, website messaging, and any sort of campaigns you send to users.
One of my favorite API-first companies is Stripe. They were successful with gaining discovery and enabling to unlock the product’s value by creating world-class documentation. They also treated their documentation as a conversion tool, something that’s still incredibly rare in the developer-focused software industry.
Twilio has also done a spectacular job building hype around their product outside of their product. Jeff Lawson’s best-selling book, Twilio’s massive conferences, and even a video game designed to train developers to code in Twilio, keep their audience engaged—and it also helps them discover new use cases to leverage their product.
The developer tools space is getting crowded and it’s increasingly difficult to stand out. Even if you have a wonderful offering, you still have to convince developers of that before they’ll use it. One of the tried-and-true ways to get a developer’s attention is to make yourself discoverable in their workflow, or when they’re searching for a solution to an issue.
A great example of this is Algolia. They sell search tools and, as a result, are widely applicable to about a billion use cases. So to make sure people stumble upon them when trying to solve for these use cases, Algolia has created landing pages for every single customer and use case they’ve seen.
Yes, this is time-consuming, and ideally it’d be done programmatically. But if you can crack that code, the long-tail ROI of capturing those searches is absolutely worth it.
Forget how you think you should sell to developers
Throw out that B2B SaaS playbook and pick up a new one, one that teaches you how to think critically about what your potential buyers need, what motivates them, and how they discover products today.
Innovation wins not only from a product perspective, but also from a go-to-market perspective. You can have the best product in the world, but if no one’s trying it, then no one’s going to get value from it either.
Invest time in taking your developer-focused product to market. If it’s really as good as you think it is, the world will thank you.