In a recent NextMontreal tech podcast (which I participate in on a weekly basis), I used the phrase, “piggyback and steal.” I thought it was reasonably catchy, so I jotted it down for this blog post. Without context it makes no sense, so let me add some. During the podcast I was talking to Frederic Guarino about how often startups build their products atop one single platform (such as Facebook or Twitter). The results can sometimes be very painful. The platform is in complete control. They can change their UI or feature set and significantly impact a startup’s ability to build traction. They can build the startup’s functionality themselves and in almost an instant put the startup out of business. Instead of innovating, a startup that relies exclusively on a single platform often finds itself reacting to the platform’s changes, fixing code that stops working, changing tactics, etc. Being dependent on someone else’s platform is tough.
Where a lot of startups really fail is when they have an expectation that the platform they’re building on will acquire them. How many Twitter clients did Twitter buy? How many URL shorteners? Banking on an acquisition by the single platform you’re leveraging is insanely risky. When the big guy doesn’t buy the little guy, and the little guy has put all his eggs in the big guy’s basket … bye bye little guy.
Having said that, when building a Minimum Viable Product, it’s often easiest to build within an existing platform to leverage a large user base. If the fastest way to build a product, learn and iterate is by piggybacking on a big platform, it makes sense to do so.
So go ahead and piggyback, but make sure you’re ready to steal too.
As the plucky startup you can’t be overly cautious about how you handle the big platform. You don’t necessarily want to compete outright, but often you can’t avoid some form of competition. I say, embrace it. If you’re too cautious, you’ll never get the traction and scale you need, and you’ll be stuck piggybacking until you’re squashed. And the way to compete is by stealing — stealing users, stealing brand, and stealing buzz.
Before Foursquare, people used Twitter to share their location. Foursquare leveraged Twitter, encouraging people to tweet every time they checked in. Foursquare identified a use case on Twitter that wasn’t being served as well as it could. They piggybacked on Twitter and then stole the check-in activity from them. Stocktwits was very similar. It started by using Twitter as a way of aggregating discussions about the stock market. Now Stocktwits is a community onto itself.
It’s possible to identify use cases that exist on giant platforms like Facebook and Twitter and do a better job at them. It might be a “feature play” but a lot of startups do start as features and scale from there. And there’s already some amount of validation built in from the fact that the use case you’re tackling is being attempted in other places.
Piggyback and steal.
You don’t want to bet your fortunes on having a symbiotic relationship with the giant platform forever. Startups have to be much more parasitic. Even Zynga, which has had insane success with Facebook games, is putting a lot of attention in other places, such as mobile games on the iPhone. Startups are risky. Don’t be too cautious or too slow when it comes to making the move from piggybacking to stealing.
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