A few days back when we covered Google+’ aggressive push to market the social networking service by roping in Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan, we called the entire initiative a case of too early- too soon, a case of premature scaling up marketing initiative without having the basic product in place.
Google + traffic is on a decline and the last thing Google should do is to get “everybody” onto the service, without the service having enough stickiness to compete with the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
A Google engineer beautifully compiles the entire stuff – this is an important read for all entrepreneurs, especially those building product startups (important points have been highlighted).
“That one last thing that Google doesn’t do well is Platforms. We don’t understand platforms. We don’t “get” platforms. Some of you do, but you are the minority. This has become painfully clear to me over the past six years. I was kind of hoping that competitive pressure from Microsoft and Amazon and more recently Facebook would make us wake up collectively and start doing universal services. Not in some sort of ad-hoc, half-assed way, but in more or less the same way Amazon did it: all at once, for real, no cheating, and treating it as our top priority from now on.
But no. No, it’s like our tenth or eleventh priority. Or fifteenth, I don’t know. It’s pretty low. There are a few teams who treat the idea very seriously, but most teams either don’t think about it all, ever, or only a small percentage of them think about it in a very small way.
It’s a big stretch even to get most teams to offer a stubby service to get programmatic access to their data and computations. Most of them think they’re building products. And a stubby service is a pretty pathetic service. Go back and look at that partial list of learnings from Amazon, and tell me which ones Stubby gives you out of the box. As far as I’m concerned, it’s none of them. Stubby’s great, but it’s like parts when you need a car.
A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.
Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don’t get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: “So is it the Stalker API?” She got all glum and said “Yeah.” I mean, I was joking, but no… the only API call we offer is to get someone’s stream. So I guess the joke was on me.
After you’ve marveled at the platform offerings of Microsoft and Amazon, and Facebook I guess (I didn’t look because I didn’t want to get too depressed), head over to developers.google.com and browse a little. Pretty big difference, eh? It’s like what your fifth-grade nephew might mock up if he were doing an assignment to demonstrate what a big powerful platform company might be building if all they had, resource-wise, was one fifth grader.
Any teams that have successfully internalized the notion that they should be externally programmable platforms from the ground up are underdogs — Maps and Docs come to mind, and I know GMail is making overtures in that direction. But it’s hard for them to get funding for it because it’s not part of our culture. Maestro’s funding is a feeble thing compared to the gargantuan Microsoft Office programming platform: it’s a fluffy rabbit versus a T-Rex. The Docs team knows they’ll never be competitive with Office until they can match its scripting facilities, but they’re not getting any resource love. I mean, I assume they’re not, given that Apps Script only works in Spreadsheet right now, and it doesn’t even have keyboard shortcuts as part of its API. That team looks pretty unloved to me.
Ironically enough, Wave was a great platform, may they rest in peace. But making something a platform is not going to make you an instant success. A platform needs a killer app. Facebook — that is, the stock service they offer with walls and friends and such — is the killer app for the Facebook Platform. And it is a very serious mistake to conclude that the Facebook App could have been anywhere near as successful without the Facebook Platform.
Facebook, though: they worry me. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure they started off as a Product and they rode that success pretty far. So I’m not sure exactly how they made the transition to a platform. It was a relatively long time ago, since they had to be a platform before (now very old) things like Mafia Wars could come along.
The problem we face is pretty huge, because it will take a dramatic cultural change in order for us to start catching up. We don’t do internal service-oriented platforms, and we just as equally don’t do external ones. This means that the “not getting it” is endemic across the company: the PMs don’t get it, the engineers don’t get it, the product teams don’t get it, nobody gets it. Even if individuals do, even if YOU do, it doesn’t matter one bit unless we’re treating it as an all-hands-on-deck emergency. We can’t keep launching products and pretending we’ll turn them into magical beautiful extensible platforms later. We’ve tried that and it’s not working.
The Golden Rule of Platforms, “Eat Your Own Dogfood”, can be rephrased as “Start with a Platform, and Then Use it for Everything.” You can’t just bolt it on later. Certainly not easily at any rate — ask anyone who worked on platformizing MS Office. Or anyone who worked on platformizing Amazon. If you delay it, it’ll be ten times as much work as just doing it correctly up front. You can’t cheat. You can’t have secret back doors for internal apps to get special priority access, not for ANY reason. You need to solve the hard problems up front.”
You know why is this so damn important? Because this is what happened with Yahoo. Multiple teams trying to solve the same problem (for example: rating/review of content across different properties was solved by different APIs and each one of those APIs were half-assed, came with a lot of constraints), but none of the teams were in-synch with each other. In short, they were competing with each other and that resulted in super mediocre set of APIs that always needed customization (or came with constraints too hard to beat).
Google: A Media Company OR A Tech Giant?
Google is evolving like a media company by launching Google +; launching celebrity channels on Youtube; recent H/B-ollywood tie-ups etc and the geeky noise tells me that engineers will face the same identity crisis as engineers at Yahoo felt (and are completely clueless now).
While we leave that for Google to figure this out., the biggest ever lesson for you (as a product startup) is to go slow on marketing and fix at least 1 product/market fit use-case for the product. We get a lot of mails from startups that want to be profiled and a bit of tough questions bring clueless answers.
Long story short : You can’t cheat. Eat Your Own Dogfood. Product/Platforms aren’t a 1-night stand business.