Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Platform or Application...Fish or Fowl?

Everybody claims to have a platform. But having a platform and being a platform company can be two very different things. To be clear, I am talking about "innovation platforms”. In his book The Business of Platforms, Michael Cusumano differentiates between transaction platforms and innovation platforms. Transaction platforms bring together different parties to conduct transactions just like Amazon, eBay, Über, AirBnB, and others do. Innovation platforms provide the foundation for a variety of technology applications.  

The innovation platforms deliver benefits such as greater engineering efficiency by providing a shared technology layer and the ability to customize the deployment for every enterprise.  But the ultimate prize is when the platform attracts other vendors who build their commercial applications on it. This way, the platform enables an ecosystem of partners who build applications that take the platform into new markets.  

A platform strategy is quite different from an application strategy. Platform vendors are courting applications, while application vendors compete with them. Yet, most application vendors claim to have a platform too. So, can they have their cake and eat it? Let’s take a look at a few examples: 


AWS is decisively a platform company. As far as I know, they don’t build or sell any applications. AWS is clear in its strategy to attract developers from companies that build applications on it. AWS lives off that. And it lives pretty well. Those application companies are the AWS customers and AWS treats them as such. 



Apple too is a platform company. Apple has not one, but multiple platforms including MacOS, iOS, and AppleTV. Apple also builds applications - from office applications such as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote to consumer entertainment applications such as Apple Music, Photos, and Apple TV+. Yet, Apple keeps all its platforms open to any competing application. They have no problem knowing that most MacBook users use Microsoft Office or Google Suite instead of Pages or Numbers. They also don’t make it at all difficult for their consumers to run Netflix or Spotify apps, even if those applications clearly compete with other parts of Apple’s business. That’s what platform vendors do.  


Contrast that with Salesforce. Salesforce started as an application company but over the years, it developed a robust and widely used platform, Salesforce Platform. Yet when it comes to deciding between selling their applications and letting partners have their share of the deal, Salesforce sales reps never hesitate to push the partner under the bus. Just ask companies such as Conga, FinancialForce, or ServiceMax, companies that have built their business atop the Salesforce Platform but eventually ended up competing with Salesforce. Once Salesforce saw that there is a large enough market opportunity these vendors uncovered, it decided to build an application of its own. That’s not how a platform vendor operates. 


Microsoft is a converted platform vendor. The company operated as an application company for decades, but since the Satya Nadella era, it appears to have shifted to a platform strategy. For years, Microsoft Office had a complete lock on the desktop productivity market and the company did everything it could to protect that franchise. Sure, Windows was the platform, but the big money was always in Office. In fact, Microsoft’s repeated failures in mobile computing can be directly traced to its strategy to defend MS Office at all costs. They tried, again and again, to squeeze the bloated Windows OS onto a smartphone in order to make it possible to run Office on the mobile devices. That strategy actually made a lot of sense, but it didn’t work. It took another 3 years after Stephen Elop’sBurning Platformmemo before Satya Nadella took over as CEO and made Azure the primary focus of the company. Today, Azure makes billions for Microsoft and I am writing this article in a free version of Office 365, the cloud-based successor to MS Suite...on a Mac. Microsoft is finally behaving like a platform vendor.  


Oracle has gone through the opposite transformation as Microsoft. Oracle started as a platform vendor. Oracle Database was a platform upon which entire commercial applications were built. Back in the days when I was marketing on-premises software such as Documentum and OpenText, running on Oracle DB was a thing. Yet, Oracle started diversifying into applications back in early 2005. The biggest moves were the hostile take-over of PeopleSoft in 2005 and the introduction of Oracle EBS in 2007. Since then, Oracle was investing more and more into applications, and good for them, because as the cloud arrived, running on Oracle DB became less relevant. Today, Oracle is a full-fledged application player that competes with a myriad of other application vendors. 



Eh, sorry...does IBM still make software? I have no idea. 


Google is probably the one company that looks like it is trying to be both. Google Chrome on the desktop, Android on the mobile device, and Google Cloud Platform are all legitimate platforms. At the same time, if anyone stole some business away from Microsoft Office, it’s Google. The Google Suite or Workspace as they call it now (so, 1990s) is becoming quite prevalent today. But in terms of strategy, Google is behaving like a platform vendor. Right now, I’m typing this article in Office 365 within Google Chrome and Google doesn’t seem to mind that at all. This is very different from when you tried to use a Windows version of WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3 back in the 1990s. And so, Google is a legit platform vendor. 


The supposedly hottest of the unicorns is at crossroads. Their payments infrastructure looks very much like a platform, powering payments for companies such as SAP, NetSuite, Salesforce, Zuora, and Aria. However, the moment Stripe introduced its own billing application, it effectively declared a war on all those companies. Sure, it will pretend for a while that they can all be friends, but ultimately, Stripe applications such as billing, invoicing, and spend management compete with the vendors that would want to use the Stripe payments infrastructure. That makes Stripe an application vendor, effectively abandoning its platform strategy.



Here’s another beloved unicorn. Snowflake has been so far strictly following a classical platform strategy. Their data warehouse is under the hood of many commercial applications today. All those applications are taking Snowflake into places that Snowflake would have never ventured. Snowflake doesn’t offer any application of its own. Sure, they provide some tools and utilities such as data science and machine learning, data engineering, and cybersecurity, but those are never competing with the applications such as billing or fleet management that are taking advantage of Snowflake. Yes, Snowflake is a purebred platform company. 


There are very few real platform companies. There might be many that claim to have a platform, but when it comes down to deciding between their immediate interest and the interest of their ecosystem, they are forced to show their true colors. Prioritizing the ecosystem over the short-term interests is a tough call to make for any software company. But those that dare to take that path earn the great prize. Just look at AWS, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Snowflake – these platform companies are pursuing the platform strategy and killing it.  

Sure, you can be a very successful application company that doesn’t really care about being a platform. If you grow big enough, you may even attract an ecosystem of applications. Salesforce and Oracle are a good proof of that. But you can’t be both. You can’t pretend to have a platform company while competing with the companies that hitch their future to your platform. Yet that’s exactly what companies like Salesforce and Stripe do. 

The bottom line is that you can make a great, successful business out of being a platform or an application company. But you have to choose. 


Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Secrets of Good Messaging

So many companies say they need help to raise their game in messaging. The CEOs and CMOs all believe that they have a great product that delivers incredible value but they are failing to communicate it. Having the right messaging, they say, will solve many of their GTM challenges. 

So, what are the secrets of great messaging? I’ve been working on messaging for a long time and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly and I’ve made my own share of mistakes. As I write this post, I don’t want to try to describe the structure of a positioning statement or how to build a story arc. For that, you should read some of the works by Al Ries, Geoffrey Moore, Simon Synek, and Andy Raskin. I read them too. Instead, I want to impart a few tips of a different kind: 

Messaging is not a magic spell 

I have heard Sales leaders ask many times: “How do we message our solution?”. What they seem to always expect is a script. A precise language that every AE will learn to win every deal. It’s like a magic spell that needs to be uttered exactly the way it is written in the Book of Spells. Once we train and certify everyone on that exact language, then we have our messaging. 

Alas, that’s not how it works. The exact language doesn’t matter. It must not matter. What matters is the substance. Messaging needs to be a convincing argument, not memorized lines. Your sales reps are all different individuals, everyone with her and his own personality. That personality includes the way they speak. To be credible, they need to deliver your messaging in their own words. 

Also, chances are that a good number of your sales reps are in others countries. They speak German, French, Italian, Japanese, or Hindi. They have no choice but to translate your messaging into their own words. If the messaging substance is there, they can do it easily. If your messaging is trying to mask the lack of substance with fancy lines, you are hoping for a magic spell.

Of course, specific words matter. For instance, productivity, efficiency, and utilization are all referring to the same message - you can accomplish more work with the same resources. That’s the substance. Your messaging should decide which of those words you will use. Consistently. But how you describe the problem and your solution, that your personalized delivery.

Messaging is strategy 

Your messaging is an important strategic tool. But, of course, it has to reflect your strategy. For that, it is required that a) you have a strategy and b) your product marketers understand that strategy. Strategy is usually developed by the CEO and his closest team. Andy Raskin always talks about how he likes to talk to CEOs. Well, they also have the biggest budget. But a strategy is only effective when all stakeholders are aligned. If your Product Marketing team is out of the loop, your messaging will not be in line with your strategy. 

You might think: “Of course we have a clear strategy!”. Most CEOs believe that. If you really do, congratulations! But there are many companies that are not really aligned, even if the CEO thinks otherwise. Just ask yourself questions such as: 

  • Are we a platform vendor or an application vendor? 
  • Do we want to grow our professional services business or do we want our partners to handle that? 
  • Are we vendor agnostic? 

Think about these questions. If your alliances team pushes partners but your sales team sees them as competitors, you don't have a clear strategy. In that case, don’t expect your Product Marketing to magically solve this problem with some fancy messaging.

Messaging has to be differentiated  

All the pundits, from Al Ries to Andy Raskin agree that at the heart of your messaging need to be your competitive differentiator. Why should someone buy from you? From the business issue to the challenges to the solution description, good messaging is designed to “land” on your competitive strengths. Product marketers can help you tease them out, validate their uniqueness, and tell the story. 

But only if you have some competitive strengths. 

Because if you don’t have any strengths or you are not aligned on what they are, you can’t expect Product Marketing to make them up. Also, your competitive claim must have a proof point, which can come in the form of data, independent validation, or customer testimonial. Beware of vague statements such as “we know this industry better than anyone else” or “our solution is easy to use”. Your CEO might be able to make those statements and get away with it, but coming from a sales rep, these claims will be challenged or (worse) ignored.

Messaging has to be relevant 

Even if you have solid messaging that has some substance, is supported by your strategy, and lands on your competitive strengths, it won’t be effective if it is not relevant to your audiences. It has to refer to something they care about. I know, good marketing is supposed to convince prospects that they have a problem even if they didn’t know about it, but that’s an illusion apart from a few fashion trends. Usually, they do know they have a particular problem but it was not a priority or they didn’t think there was a solution for it.   

A good example is the content management space that has been trying to message the need for information governance for over two decades. Sure, there are some highly regulated or litigious industries such as pharma, oil & gas, or aviation that need to address compliance. But 80% of companies just don’t care and happily share their documents through Slack all day long. The content management industry has been latching onto every new regulation, from SOX to FRCP to HIPAA, and yet most companies eventually find an easier way to address compliance than by implementing a corporate information governance strategy. The information governance message is just not that relevant.

Messaging won’t replace your product 

At the end of the day, the customers are buying your product. Not your messaging. No matter how great and compelling your messaging is, if the product doesn’t deliver, it will fail. You may sucker a few customers into buying your weak product for a while, but it will catch up with you eventually.  

Yes, there are companies that are successful with aggressive over-selling tactics. Usually, we say that they sell their vision, spending more time on their future roadmap than on the current capabilities they can provide today. They get away with it, because they have already established that they will eventually deliver a good product that will catch up with what their sales and marketing promised. And even that only works with existing customers, who have already purchased a good product previously.


Good messaging is hard to create. It requires understanding the products and the target audience with its trends, issues, and challenges. Good messaging can be very powerful, making it easier for marketing campaigns and sales reps to connect with the buying audiences. That is a huge competitive advantage and an enormous factor when scaling your company.  

Good product marketers can create good messaging. But the entire company has to contribute to good messaging. It’s not just words.