Tips for Building Developer Platforms that Work—for Users and for Your Business
September 7, 2021
A developer platform can be a powerful tool not only for building and growing a new business, but also for defending an established business against competitors and market disruptors.
Paige is Co-founder and Partner at Calyx Consulting, a consultancy that launches and scales successful platforms. They help companies including Zoom, 1Password, and HubSpot understand their core audiences so they can speak with them like actual humans and spur them to action through relevant programs. Prior to founding Calyx, Paige was the Head of Developer and Platform Marketing at Slack.
Paige and Blake talked about what goes into building a successful platform that will deliver solid, long-term ROI for your business. From why you should build one to who it serves to how to scale it once it’s up and running, Paige shared a lot of useful insights.
Start with the Why
The first question Paige asks when consulting with a company that wants to build a developer platform is, “Why should this platform exist?” And the answer to that question can’t be only that the company wants to create a developer ecosystem. A developer platform has to serve an actual and specific purpose.
“Developers’ time is split. There are more and more platforms vying for their attention,” Paige says. “You need to really hone in on the compelling reason why developers should spend time with your APIs beyond just the fact that you have an open API.” In other words, why should developers care about your platform? What’s in it for them? In most cases, what developers care about most is unlocking growth and revenue, which translates into getting more users.
“It’s not enough to just have a bunch of apps, you actually have to have perspective on the problems that you will solve for users.”
Getting to the “why” behind a platform means digging into the core use cases the platform needs to unlock—the jobs-to-be-done that the platform will solve for users. “It’s not enough to just have a bunch of apps,” Paige says. “You actually have to have perspective on the problems that you will solve for users.”
Identify Your Developers (And Listen to Them)
One of the biggest challenges in building a new platform is determining which developers to target. Because “developer” is a blanket term that can be applied to almost anyone, you need to first drill down to which specific personas you are trying to reach. “Great marketing always starts by deeply understanding who you’re targeting and aligning your message appropriately,” Paige says. “There are probably two or three core personas—primary user, secondary user, and maybe a decision maker—that you need to nail down.”
The good news is that you don’t need a months-long research project to get the insights you need to move forward. A few in-depth interviews with current and prospective developers should give you the information you need to better understand those crucial early adopters.
The key to effective interviews is asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers. You want to ask about the developer’s role and dig into what keeps them up at night. You want to get a really clear picture of both what motivates them and where they are experiencing pain points. As they respond, listen closely to the specific language they use to describe their problems and goals. This is the language you will want to mirror back to them in your marketing messages. “You want the people who come to your website to immediately recognize that you understand the problem,” Paige says. “You want them to think, ‘This sounds like me. I’m going to try it.’”
Attract Developers by Meeting Them Where They Are with the Right Message
Paige uses a two-part strategy for attracting developers. First, know what to say. Second, know how to get that message in front of the right people.
The most effective message will be built around solid, persuasive value propositions. “The value you’re offering could be growth for an ancillary product or for the developer’s main service,” Paige suggests. “Or, in the case of an internal developer, it could help solve their own problems, professional recognition, or professional development.” She points out that professional recognition, for example, is a core pillar of Salesforce’s massively successful developer community.
Once you have crafted a compelling message, you need to get the word out to the folks who need to hear it. You need to find the right channels and tactics that will help you find and engage with your target audience. “We think about this in terms of ‘watering holes,’” Paige says. “There are existing watering holes like blogs, newsletters, community groups, meetups, social networks, etc. Start out thinking about where those places are, and how you can tap into them rather than trying to get people to come to you out of the ether.”
Get Users to Build by Delivering Great Enablement and Support
Once you’ve got developers on your platform, the next step is to get them to build something by providing exceptional enablement and support. “Your job is to reduce friction as much as possible for developers who are in the process of getting started,” Paige says.
This support starts with a good product, well-built APIs, and developer tools, but it includes a lot more. It’s really important, for instance, to have great docs. “Everyone says docs are table stakes, but I work with a lot of companies that don’t treat products as first-class citizens of product,” Paige says. Paying attention to all the little details and ensuring it’s easy for developers to find the information they need quickly is critical to helping them build momentum with their projects.
It’s also important to offer education in a variety of mediums. Paige finds that webinars are surprisingly popular, but developers also find a lot of value in other materials like YouTube videos, written getting-started tutorials, and lots of really robust code samples.
“People assume that if you just create a good API, developers will just figure it out themselves—like a built-it-and-they-will-come approach, that’s not always true. It’s also not always true that developers prefer a hands-off arrangement. A lot of them want to be told what to build. They figure you’re the platform, you know your product best.”
Another surprise to some people is the fact that many developers appreciate guidance around what a great app looks like. “People assume that if you just create a good API, developers will just figure it out themselves—like a built-it-and-they-will-come approach,” Paige says. “That’s not always true. It’s also not always true that developers prefer a hands-off arrangement. A lot of them want to be told what to build. They figure you’re the platform, you know your product best.” So, don’t be afraid to create things like design suggestions or idea lists. Don’t feel like that kind of guidance will step on anyone’s toes. Many developers will thank you for it!
A similar rule applies when it comes to getting people to adopt the things developers build on your platform. You need to provide guidance. “It’s absolutely your role as a platform to help users discover and adopt relevant apps,” Paige explains. “People aren’t going to an app store to browse. They have a job to do or a problem to solve. They just want to know if you have a tool that will help. If you understand the user, the roles, and the jobs-to-be-done, you can curate recommendations and help those find the right tools quickly.”
Find the Metrics that (Really) Matter
Paige’s main thought on metrics is that it doesn’t matter so much what the exact metric is, it’s more important to align all your developer-facing teams around something that feels directionally correct. You can always optimize later.
“Ultimately, it comes down to usage as a proxy for value,” Paige says. “You want to see if people are using the things that people build on your platform.” For example, at Slack, they tracked not only the number of things that were built, but also the number of things that were actively used. This ensured that Slack didn’t get too caught up solely in their mission to get more developers; they were also tracking and optimizing how the platform was generating actual value for the end user.
Scale with a DevRel/Developer Marketing Combo
On the topic of scaling a developer platform, Paige makes the important distinction between DevRel (developer relations) and developer marketing. At the same time, she makes the point that the two roles are complementary and should work together closely. They shouldn’t be thought of as isolated either/or options.
In most cases, DevRel comes first. This is an especially appropriate and important role for small startups (which should hire a DevRel person sooner than later). But as you bring more developers onto your platform, you’ll need the reach of developer marketing campaigns (like webinars and meetups) to drive continued growth.
- Early and critical first hire
- Developer advocate
- Initiates and nurtures 1:1 developer relationships
- Voice of the developer
- Communicates product feedback (including bugs) back to the product and engineering teams
- Focused on scale
- Builds programs and campaigns
- Partners closely with DevRel
Don’t expect immediate ROI. Do expect long-term value.
Developer platforms can be hugely impactful, but the ROI they deliver can be hard to quantify. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not worth the investment. “People think that if you can’t put an exact dollar amount on a platform—i.e., the amount of revenue generated—you shouldn’t invest,” says Paige. “But that’s a really narrow-minded way of thinking about the benefits to your core business.”
“People think that if you can’t put an exact dollar amount on a platform—i.e., the amount of revenue generated—you shouldn’t invest, but that’s a really narrow-minded way of thinking about the benefits to your core business.”
There are many success indicators and “soft” benefits that you can monitor to get a sense of your platform’s value to developers and to your business. If users are consistently active on the platform, that’s a good sign that they are getting value from it. And, in general, developer platforms tend to help improve retention, reduce churn, increase expansion opportunities, and deliver better lifetime value.
It’s best to think of developer platform ROI as a long-term bet that delivers long-term ROI. And while that may not offer the immediate gratification of some other strategies, it does offer an incredibly important way to build a strong and enduring business.
To learn more, listen to the full conversation on the BUILD Podcast. You may also want to check out our Developer-Focused Go-to-Market Playbook, which provides an overview of the replicable strategies companies like Stripe, Snyk, and MongoDB are using to reach and engage notoriously sales- and marketing-resistant developer audiences.