The Psychology of Building Ecosystems

September 2015

Brain triangle backgroundYou are walking down a street and come across a house where a party is being thrown. You peek inside and see an elaborate sushi bar with a massive mermaid ice sculpture at its center. There is a band playing and you’re pretty sure they’re famous, or at least once were. There is a bartender serving martinis made from some exotic fruit that can only be a found on a remote island in Indonesia. A full catering staff wearing white tuxedos is buzzing around. But the party looks empty. There are two or three high-profile-yet-sad looking guests who are glancing at their watches. The host walks through, and takes a few selfies with the guests. The head of the host’s social media assistant then posts the photos to instagram. #partyoftheyear

You keep on walking. A few doors down you come across another party. It is raging. You peek inside and through the dense crowds of people socializing and dancing, you spot a few kegs, and a stack of empty pizza boxes. You stop someone who is walking out of the party and you ask them if they know the person who lives here. They say they don’t know them personally, and their friend had told them about the party.

This is a lot like the platforms and related developer ecosystems that we encounter:

Some organizations bring platforms to market and despite huge investments aimed at catalyzing a developer ecosystem, have all but failed to build a critical mass of people building on their platform. These platforms feel like the first party. A few key companies have been paid (or otherwise incentivized) to come and build something on top of the platform, but they don’t want to be there, and don’t put their best effort in. Think Facebook on Blackberry OS.  They’re waiting to leave. And people walking by can tell it’s not the party where they want to spend their precious Saturday night.

Other organizations have managed to bring together an army of developers and companies around their platforms, and in many cases, with less effort and investment. And in doing so, these organizations have succeeded in creating a great deal of opportunity for participants in their ecosystem, new revenues for themselves and lots of value for the consumers and/or businesses they serve. These platforms feel like the second party in which people are coming on their own, having fun, and telling their friends.

So why is it that some organizations have succeeded in attracting, building and sustaining a massive ecosystem of developers (Salesforce, Apple, Google, Arduino, etc.) while many others, despite significant investments and strong platform offerings have failed to get a developer ecosystem off the ground?

Organizations that have succeeded in building vibrant ecosystems around a platform always have a set of important core technical assets that they expose, but often recognize the rest of the equation.

Organizations that build successful ecosystems of developers and companies around a platform are often successful at 1) understanding, establishing and maintaining a set of core beliefs amongst their target developers whom they wish to attract and retain to develop products and services on their platform, and 2) providing the right level of inspiration to these developers. There are lots of things that go into a building a successful and self-sustaining ecosystem but these are the fundamentals.

Let’s deal with these individually.

It’s ultimately about establishing a set of beliefs with the developers and/or organizations who you want to build on your platform. In order to use a platform, developers need a number of things to be in place. Developers need a set of well-developed, core capabilities that they can use to build things. Developers need good tools and documentation. They need a channel through which they can get support. They need to be able to download files, get API keys, etc. without needing to jump through too many hoops.

However, in order to want to use a platform, developers needs to believe a number of things:

  • The platform will be important in this market
  • This platform provider is committed to helping partners succeed
  • The platform is robust and not buggy
  • We (the developers) will be able to develop something unique and differentiated on this platform
  • This platform will be around, and still relevant in a few years
  • Developing for this platform is the optimal use of time and money
  • We (the developers) will be able to properly monetize this investment
  • The incentives appear to be at worst fair, and at best in their favor
  • We (the developers) will be able to get help from other developers within this ecosystem, and / or directly from the organization providing the platform

All too often, organizations provide the technical resources needed to build, but fail to effectively shape these beliefs.  In many circumstances, this seems to happen because the platform and the corresponding policies and strategies were developed without these beliefs in mind.  In these circumstances, evangelism and marketing may result in short-term blips of interest from developers, but over the long run, the platform will likely not be viable.

Inspiration is like oxygen for an ecosystem. Google first opened up the Google Maps API more than a decade ago.  Within a year of this, the market was flooded with several interesting web applications that used Google’s map capabilities to provide interesting benefits to users.  As developers saw the capabilities that Google was exposing, their imaginations went to work, and we saw hundreds of web apps emerge over the next year that used Google Maps as a core ingredient.

Inspiration is an incredibly important ingredient for any ecosystem – it is like oxygen.

When organizations provide a set of building blocks that genuinely inspire developers to create, the requisite beliefs become easier to establish, and it is easier to get an ecosystem going. However, far too often companies expose capabilities, either alone or through partnerships that don’t offer developers enough practical latitude to build genuinely unique and creative solutions.

Some organizations provide platforms that can only be used to build variants of the same thing, and offer few opportunities for developers to be creative and to differentiate. Some organizations partner, but provide a set of capabilities that do not necessarily belong together. Or, they are very difficult to combine in a meaningful way. On the other hand, some organizations provide a set of capabilities that immediately excite developers. Google did this with its original maps API, and Microsoft is doing this now with Hololens.

There is no question that the world is getting increasingly excited about platforms. Platforms are being viewed as a panacea for technology companies who are finding it more difficult to compete using traditional tactics. The challenge that we face is that we are fundamentally gated by a single resource: developer time. We have a finite number of developers who have a finite amount of time to develop. While the number of platform choices that these developers have is increasing, at the end of the day, the pie is not expanding as quickly. And this means we’re going to see more platform failures in the future simply because developers can’t afford to spread themselves across the number of platforms that are emerging.

Those that ultimately succeed will do so because they’ve managed to inspire developers and affect their beliefs.

About the Author

Dan Ledger is a principal at Endeavour Partners by day, and an embedded systems and app developer by night.  He can be reached at

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