How to build platform partnerships alongside a product
Sonya Penn's lessons learned @ Twitter
Building partnerships repeatedly at scale is hard. Like winning a gold medal hard.
Doing it within a company that operates two different business models is … next level hard. Like winning 28 Olympic medals hard.
Most technology companies begin with a product. Later, they realize that a developer platform can enrich their product and help deliver a better experience for end users.
But it is an enormous challenge to build a product and a platform simultaneously.
What does that mean - to build platform alongside a product? Some examples:
Product: a mobile device that comes with software.
Platform: Apple’s App Store is a marketplace of apps, some of which compete with those pre-installed on by Apple.
Product: a database that organizes a company’s customer data (a.k.a. CRM).
Platform: Salesforce’s AppExchange is a marketplace that enables companies to build apps that compete with certain Salesforce capabilities.
Product: a social media platform.
Platform: Twitter’s Developer Platform allows developers to build experiences using Twitter data.
These product vs. platform dynamics require a tight coordination across teams internally, especially among the partnership leaders trying to convince developers to build on the platform.
That is why I wanted to talk with former Twitter exec Sonya Penn, who offers an illustrative look inside the realities of building Twitter’s developer platform alongside Twitter’s product (during the pre-Elon era).
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Tell me about your role at Twitter?
I was the General Manager of our data business and developer platform. The business I ran began as a data licensing business following Twitter’s 2014 acquisition of Gnip. Over the last few years, we expanded beyond data licensing and launched a full-fledged developer platform with APIs that served B2B developers, B2C developers, academics and others who built experiences using our APIs for Twitter users.
To give you an example, our platform is used by companies like United Airlines. If you have a bad experience and complain on Twitter, tThey don’t find that complaint and respond by reading their timeline on a mobile device… they used a product built by a developer using our enterprise platform to identify and analyze and respond to all the tweets about their brand.
I oversaw all commercial functions of Twitter’s developer platform - sales, marketing, BD and developer relations team. We were our own organization within Twitter.
How did the business grow during the time you worked on it?
By the time I left our data licensing and developer platform business represented nearly 10% of Twitter’s overall revenue.
We were an important complement to Twitter’s ad business. Internally our business was described as dependable, durable, diversified and high-margin.
Building alliances internally
Your team was enterprise-focused and platform-oriented within a company that was consumer-focused and product-oriented. Did that create conflict?
Yes and no.
There are things a product company is always going to do better itself and should be doing as part of the core product. There are other things that will make the user experience better that are better built by an ecosystem.
To make that work there needs to be a strong vision and incredible communication. It's not two separate strategies. It's one common strategy and that's what we were working towards at Twitter.
Can you give an example of something that the platform brought to Twitter that enhanced Twitter's product?
One example that I love is around user health. As you know, Twitter and social media can be a toxic place. And it is very, very hard to solve that broadly within the product. And that becomes an even larger issue as certain users become more prominent. That is one reason why health became a huge priority for Twitter. But it's a really hard nut to crack.
When we launched this developer platform one of the use cases that we saw come to life and that we supported through partnerships was companies and organizations who could make the conversation healthier for end users.
For example, one of our partners, Bodyguard, built a solution hired by sports leagues that deploy the solution to their players in order to filter out hateful replies when they posted a tweet. That just made a healthier, safer conversation. If you enable an ecosystem of partners then you can solve that problem in a variety of ways and without using Twitter engineers.
How did you draw the line at Twitter on what the Product team should be building and what to turn to the platform and Twitter’s developer to build?
It’s tricky and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s critical to have an open dialogue internally across teams. There needs to be a clear and unified vision of what the product is and what it is not. You need to talk openly about what is outside the scope of the product. Address questions like where do you want a single solution versus an array of solutions built by developers? Where are there data and privacy issues that need to be managed internally by the Product team?
What you want to avoid is going to developers and asking them to build something on the platform and then a year later going back to them to say “just kidding, nevermind. Our Product team is going to own that now.”
Most developers want to build on a platform they can trust so you need to be consistent. But we also had some developers that were open to experimentation with us. What is important is to be clear and transparent with the community.
How did you build those internal partnerships with Product and Engineering to navigate these platform challenges and opportunities?
It's making sure you're on the same page. I always wanted to make sure that we had shared goals with our products and engineering teams. That doesn't mean that every key result looks the same. But we all should be driving towards the same outcomes.
I don't think this is just hard at Twitter. I think it's hard to do everywhere. How do you build roadmaps? How do you bring in these different perspectives? We tried to a lot of different things and ended up building out cross-functional teams to make prioritization decisions at the ground-level. That was critical.
In terms of organizational structure, why did Twitter break-out this enterprise platform team into its own business unit?
We had very specific needs - we had a different customer, we were building a different type of business, there was a lot of zero-to-one work and having fast feedback loops was essential.
We thought many times about folding vertical teams into the broader Twitter organization but ultimately it worked for us because we were able to be tight-knit and have shared goals across functions. Our business changed a lot and when we had to pivot we could stay aligned across functional teams as we re-prioritized.
Running a SaaS business is very different from running an ads business. The tools and systems, processes and initiatives don’t always work the same way.
Building with partners externally
Is there an example of a partner that stands out in your mind for the way they showcase Twitter’s platform?
There are many examples! Sprout Social and Sprinklr are examples of companies that offer brands a full 360 experience of an “enterprise” version of Twitter. Brands use these products to understand conversations, trends, audiences etc. They use that understanding to plan and build campaigns which they schedule through these products. And they use the products to engage with their audiences, within the timeline as well as within private customer care conversations. These partners make the platform more informative and create a more engaged conversation between brands and their users.
Other examples include our partner Dataminr who provides its customers with real time alerts – creating unrivaled risk detection based on the public conversation and Black Swan which leverages the data to create powerful analytics which allow brands to more accurately predict future consumer trends.
These are powerful use cases and make the Twitter platform as a whole much more powerful to brands as well as end users.
Given Twitter’s rocky past where the company had shutdown certain developer APIs, how did you build trust with your partners?
There were so many different ways that we tried to build trust and meet developers where they were.
We vastly increased our communications with the developer community. We published more blog posts. We hosted webinars and open office hours. We held small events. We increased our channel presence. We tried to be more present and actually give developers a place to voice that feedback. We wanted to consistently have an open, bi-directional conversation.
As you look back, what lessons will you take with you from your time at Twitter?
One thing I learned is the power of a platform. Not just like building a thing for a set of users but building a thing that so many more can build on top of to serve even more use cases and users.
It creates an incredible network effect – to me the idea and impact of this is so powerful.
Organizationally, for me, it really is about communication. At Twitter we used to say “communicate fearlessly to build trust” and I believe that with all my core.
What advice would you have for those building a new platform?
Always lead with the value. Get to know your customers. Get to know that ecosystem. Think about use cases. Be obsessed with the use cases.
And then if you really are thinking about a platform and an ecosystem, never forget that an ecosystem is dependent on itself and all members of this ecosystem are dependent on each other. If one part fails it all fails. Always keep in mind that the ecosystem boosts itself up. But it all can collapse. The health of the whole ecosystem is really important when you’re building a platform.