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Chapter 2: The Platformer Advantage

Our first move when facing the "How do I earn visibility?" question (the HDIEV question) is to examine the landscape around us and observe what others are doing to earn visibility. As we do, we will first notice others who have inherited or lucked their way into visibility, and then we will notice those who are successful at intentionally  earning visibility.

Among those who are successful at earning visibility, there are two subgroups. The first is like my acquaintance Stacy.

Stacy had a great business teaching designers how to build strategy into their service offerings. Then Stacy started using a new project management SaaS (software as a service). The SaaS product is quite difficult to learn, but Stacy really liked it and published a few videos on how to use it.

The videos went viral. Stacy casually mentioned that she was building on a course that goes deeper into how to use this difficult product.


7: This should remind you a bit of Matt Cutts, but without the employee dynamic at play with him and Google.

Stacy now makes more money selling this course than from teaching designers how to build strategy into their service offerings. The SaaS platform owner has recruited Stacy as a tech evangelist for the product. [7]

Stacy is a platformer . A very visible one.

For our purposes, a platform can be:

  • A business process framework (i.e., EOS, 3HAG, Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, TDD)

  • A programming language (i.e., Python, Ruby, C#)

  • A software framework (i.e., React, VueJS, Laravel)

  • An actual platform you can build stuff on (i.e., AWS, Linux, Windows, Salesforce)

A platform is a “thing,” often, but not always, a product that lots of businesses use and need help understanding, planning for, implementing, operating, extending, supporting, fixing, optimizing, and upgrading—like the project management SaaS that Stacy became an expert on.

Among those who are successful at earning visibility, platformers are our first subgroup. Our second subgroup is everybody else, and we'll examine them later.

“I’m flying, Jack!”
– Rose DeWitt Bukater, Titanic

As we study platformers, we notice that their visibility is linked to the platform itself in many ways. While the platform is actually an idea, framework, or software product, the platform is also a thing  that you can stand on and use to earn visibility. The platform is infrastructure that lifts you above the crowd and makes you more visible.

Platform Performance Characteristics

The infrastructure of a platform can take many forms. Here are some of the most common ones.

Directories   of preferred, certified, or authorized vendors . My acquaintance Stacy encountered the new, difficult-to-learn project management SaaS before it created a directory of vendors who can help implement it, but if this SaaS platform is like most, it will eventually create a vendor directory. Others will get the kind of visibility boost that Stacy has from the platform, though without the first-mover advantage that Stacy enjoys.

Platform vendor directories reduce search cost and promise to reduce risk via the vetting we presume the platform does on those listed in the directory; prospects are incentivized to discover and use the directory if they need help understanding, planning for, implementing, operating, extending, supporting, fixing, optimizing, or upgrading the platform. And vendors are incentivized to get themselves listed in the directory to benefit from this low-cost visibility boost.

Communities and events . Salesforce reports that over 171,000 people attended their flagship conference Dreamforce in 2019, and over 16 million people viewed the event online. Sixty-eight people delivered keynote talks, and we can safely assume the speakers were not able to assemble such a large audience without the help of the Salesforce platform.

Platforms attract communities of users, and those users have needs. By also joining and serving those communities, platformers can earn visibility more easily than if the platform did not exist.


8: Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers

Whole product ecosystem . Geoffrey A. Moore has given language [8]  to a strategic play that a lot of vendors implement; helping risk-averse clients adopt the platform by making the core product into what Moore calls a whole product —the core product (Salesforce, for example) combined with all the other stuff that risk-averse companies need to successfully use it, including:

  • Standards and best practices

  • Service providers who know how to plan, implement, and support the core product

  • Integrations with other products the user may depend on

  • Training to help the user get more value from—or reduce the pain of using—the core product


9: If you're feeling a low-level sense of discomfort about whether this win-win balance can persist over the long-term given the asymmetry in size between Stacy and the platform vendor, your instincts are good.

Indie consultants who are platformers can assist the platform vendor with every single one of those parts of the whole product ecosystem. Stacy helped the difficult-to-use project management SaaS by creating training content. It doesn't matter that Stacy owns this content rather than the platform vendor, because as long as the training is available within the whole product ecosystem, the platform vendor gets access to a larger more risk-averse market than they otherwise would. Stacy is happy, and the platform vendor is happy. [9]

In the early days, the difficult-to-use project management SaaS vendor needs to remain focused on their core product, so they have every incentive to partner formally or informally with those who show up to contribute to their whole product ecosystem. Curious, ambitious folks like Stacy who figure out best practices early or create training content will be embraced. Services firms who start offering support for the platform will be freely sent opportunity.

"These were the happy days; the salad days as they say."
– H.I. McDunnough, Raising Arizona

During this time, the platform vendor is incentivized to leverage the perceived objectivity of indie consultants. Their platform is new and poorly understood by the market. When a third party (you, maybe!) shows up with published content that explains or analyzes the platform and presents it in even a mildly favorable light, they will amplify your content by sharing it. Even if you have more visibility than the new platform does, this can help further expand your visibility. The platform vendor is striving for greater visibility in the market too, and so in those early days of the platform, platformers gain an informal "visibility partner" from the platform itself.

Finally, we can't ignore the simple physics of market size. Adopting a new platform involves change , and change creates new problems. For our platformers, every new customer that adopts the platform they are focused on is a potential new customer for their consulting services. The platform is actively working to expand its market size, and that expands the market size for indie consultants who have specialized in that platform.

This moment in the platform's evolution—which can easily be a three to five-year-long moment—is a beautiful one. The platform is growing and spinning off opportunity for platformers, and the platformer's efforts at gaining expanded visibility benefit both themselves and the platform. Everybody is winning all the time.

As indie rock podcaster John Roderick likes to say about that moment when a new band is blowing up, "Every time the phone rings it's more good news."

The Role of Platform Latecomers

Word gets around about this place in the market where the salad days are happening. The "Oakies" in less fertile parts hear about it, and they migrate to the promised land of this new, vibrant, growing platform.

Additionally, no platform—no matter how large it ultimately becomes—needs an infinite  supply of whole product support. At some point, there is enough training, and potential standards and best practices have converged on a right-sized corpus of guidance. At some point, there are enough  vendors to provide good-enough quality planning, implementation, and support for the platform.

While there may always be room for new approaches to fitting into the whole product ecosystem, at some point, the predominant story becomes equilibrium  rather than growth . Commoditization rather than exploration and customization. Efficiency and reliability rather than innovation.

"All good things come to an end."
– Chaucer

"All good things come to an end become commodities."
– Philip Morgan

The eighth and ninth wonders of the world are compounding interest and commoditization.

Commoditization is why, if a car breaks down, it can be fixed in days rather than weeks or months. The mechanic can order an off-the-shelf part that drops right in. No craftsman is involved; instead, it's engineers, CAD, precision manufacturing, and sophisticated distribution.

Commoditization is why there is the concept of middle management. It is why we plug devices into a power socket or Ethernet connection and they just work. I'm convinced that commoditization equals compounding interest as the other most powerful human-invented force on the planet.

Commoditization is a good thing for humans.

Commoditization is a bad thing for platformers.

The early years of a platform are years of growth, innovation, and opportunity. The salad days.

As the platform matures into commoditization, the salad wilts, at least for those who have businesses that are optimized for growth, innovation, and that sort of thing. Imagine raising a human child on a diet rich in fat and carbohydrates and then when they become a teenager, the only food available to them are salads with no fatty salad dressing. That would be one hell of an adjustment. They would probably live, but they'd hate every minute of this new diet they'd be forced to eat.

This is what commoditization does to a platform ecosystem. As the predominant story becomes equilibrium rather than growth, it forces change on all members of the ecosystem. Both the platform and the indie consultants, hanging off it like baby possums off their mother, are forced to change.

What Happens When the King Gets Hungry

If you would like an image to set the tone for what's next, search for the painting "Saturn Devouring His Son" by Francisco Goya.

Once a platform reaches that equilibrium state, growth often starts to level off. Usually, the platform (if we personify it as a person rather than as a business) starts to look around for new sources of revenue or profitability. The king gets hungry.

For a stable platform, the next wave of innovation is often not the product itself, but new forms of monetizing the product or the product's customer base. This "second-wave innovation" may take one or more of the following forms:

  • Vertical integration , by adding a services division.

  • Bigger clients , and raising the bar for partners (" Pffft!  We can talk about gold partner status  when you've brought us five $50K projects").


10: Examples: unbundling and charging for the now-unbundled component, moving important functionality out of lower priced tiers and into higher ones.

  • Pure rent-seeking  stuff that pisses off customers and weakens the customer segment that you, an indie consultant, depend on [10] .

This "second-wave innovation" couples with what has already been happening without the platform's direct involvement; the aforementioned increase in supply of whole product ecosystem componentry. The "Oakies" in less fertile platform ecosystems hear about the growing, vibrant platform ecosystem and they migrate to the promised land. The supply of talent increases at the same time the platform itself begins sharing the opportunity the ecosystem offers less generously.

At this point, our platformers have a choice—to fundamentally change their business from one that thrives in dynamic, expanding ecosystem to one that thrives in a stable, fixed ecosystem. The former is a business that can "figure shit out" and get paid for doing so; the latter is a business that can deliver quality with high consistency and low cost. Innovative versus efficient. Those are two very  different kinds of businesses, and evolving from one into the other is not easy.

Many platformers will choose to migrate to another younger platform instead of evolving from an innovative "figure shit out" business to an efficient commodity business. They're starting over, but in an environment where the question of how they earn visibility has a familiar answer.

Some platforms, it should be said, end up like the RMS   Titanic . They die a sudden death that takes many of the businesses that were riding atop it down to a watery death.

Other platformers will attempt the difficult evolution from an innovative to an efficient business. They will choose that route rather than migrate to a different platform or figure out how to earn visibility without the help of a platform.

You can see, I hope, that during the salad days, the platform is delighted to help you solve your visibility problem in exchange for help with their whole product ecosystem problem.

As the salad beings to wilt, the king gets hungry and starts to alter the deal. If you are a platformer, you pray that he does not alter it further.

That's our first subgroup of businesses that are succeeding at visibility: platformers. Next, we'll look at the other subgroup.