The following is a guest post from Alan Wells, co-founder and product designer at Glyder, a 500 Startups-backed company that gives small businesses the content and metrics they need to be effective online marketers. He’s been designing mobile and social software since 2007, including roles at Affinity Labs (acquired by Monster.com), Zynga, and a design studio he founded (acquired by Nextive). He blogs at www.adub.net and tweets @alanwells.
It is common knowledge that if you’re building software for small businesses, your number one challenge is going to be user acquisition. Historically, small businesses have been hard to reach, requiring a huge sales team, expensive direct marketing campaigns, and hard-to-secure channel partnerships. This was true in 1998 when OpenTable was founded (they had to hire a local sales team in every city they launched in), it was true a decade later when Groupon started and built a 5,400 person sales team in the following four years, and even in 2012, the difficulty of reaching a large number of small businesses was a common refrain in among savvy seed stage investors.
But as Bob Dylan once said, “the times they are a-changin’.” When my co-founder Glenn and I started Glyder in late 2011, we bet the future of our company on the fact that building a company serving a large number of small businesses without an expensive sales team or giant marketing budget was just starting to be possible. We saw that several small-business-focused companies were opening up channels to reach their large user communities; Constant Contact was at the forefront of this movement when they announced the Constant Contact Marketplace in 2010. Watching what was happening in the consumer internet world with Facebook and Twitter’s platform efforts, we believed that a true platform for small business software would soon emerge.
The first generation of small business marketplaces and partner directories were a huge step in the right direction – they offered mostly open APIs and exposure to a large number of users, but none of the nascent small business platforms were quite as easy to build on as the more mature consumer platforms we were used to working with (three quarters of our team used to build social games on Facebook and mobile). We know this from first-hand experience – we’ve built Glyder integrations for many of the most popular marketing and CRM tools in the small business space.
Given this context, we were extremely excited when Constant Contact called us and invited us to take an early look at version 2.0 of its API platform. We had already seen benefits from integration and marketplace listing with Constant Contact, and hearing that one of the largest small business companies totally understands the value of being a platform and considers it to be a top priority for its business was the news that we’d been waiting to hear.
I’ve seen first-hand how successful platforms evolve – I was working at Apple when the iTunes Music Store launched in 2003, started working on apps for Facebook shortly after its platform opened 2007, and joined the Zynga mobile team to work on iPhone apps after Apple released the first iOS SDK in 2008. The Glyder team has spent the last few weeks working with Constant Contact’s 2.0 APIs, and we are convinced it is on track to become the first true small business platform. We’re betting that it will grow into a robust, vibrant ecosystem and a critical channel for any small business focused startup because it provides three key things that I’ve seen over and over again in successful platform ecosystems:
An Open, Standards-based API that Empowers Developers to Craft Great Experiences
The new Constant Contact API is a pleasure to work with – it’s RESTful, supports JSON and standard HTTP error codes, and has great documentation (that you probably won’t need to reference much because the calls are logical and predictable). These sound like basics, but it’s an important foundation for a new platform because it lowers the friction for building on top of it, and sends the signal that Constant Contact cares about making life easy for developers.
In addition to the basics, we really like that the API platform gives us the ability to interact with the full suite of Constant Contact features. Almost everything that can be done through the Constant Contact web interface can be done programmatically through its API, including account creation (even Facebook and Twitter don’t let you do this). This level of API support is critical for mobile apps like Glyder, as it empowers our team to build great, fully native mobile experiences that leverage Constant Contact’s robust infrastructure without being bound by the UI/UX conventions of a web application.
A Marketplace Connecting Qualified Customers and App Developers
If you’re a small business software developer selling a software-as-a-service product, your ideal customer would likely be someone who believes in using technology in his or her business, is willing to pay money for software that solves a problem or saves time, and wants to find a solution that works and stick with it for the long haul. It turns out that Constant Contact has more than 500,000 customers just like this, who have already demonstrated they are willing to pay for business software, and with a stunning monthly retention rate of 97.8%.
The Constant Contact API platform is your gateway to reach this audience of a half million (and growing) pre-qualified customers that Constant Contact has already done the hard work of acquiring, and like the successful consumer platforms, there is no cost for building on the platform and tapping into this audience. Building on the API also provides the benefit of associating your solution with a name many small business owners already know and trust – given that more than 100 startups focused on local businesses were funded in the second half of 2011, most of us can use all the help we can get to stand out from the crowd.
A Standard for Business Identity and the First True Commerce Graph
Successful consumer platforms all have one thing in common: they provide identity and allow third party developers to access this identity to reduce friction during signup, onboarding, and/or payment. On Facebook and Twitter, this identity also includes your social graph, which enables application developers to show you relevant content within seconds of signing up and build tailored, social experiences without asking you to rebuild your social graph in every app.
When we started Glyder, we were disappointed to find that there wasn’t yet an identity standard for small businesses (the closest thing was a business Facebook page, but as a developer you can’t access that data without asking someone to connect with a personal account first, which scares many business owners). Furthermore, there wasn’t a platform that provided what I call the commerce graph – the business equivalent of a social graph, the connections between a business and their customers. Again, you could tap into the list of Facebook fans for a page, but the abilities for interacting with fans are far more limited than what you can do with the traditional friend relationships that have been the basis for Facebook’s most successful app developers.
With its API, Constant Contact is effectively establishing a business identity standard and enabling what I believe is the first true commerce graph. Through an OAuth-friendly authentication flow, you can shorten your signup process, which is a win for any app but particularly critical for mobile experiences like ours. After authenticating, you can tap into the commerce graph, which is provided by the customer lists that Constant Contact users have already created and curated, along with the history of interactions for those relationships. For most small businesses, their email marketing list is the closest thing they have to a CRM system. I believe the potential here goes far beyond email marketing or CRM – I predict developers will use this data to enable a variety of novel experiences for businesses and consumers that haven’t been possible until someone provided the necessary plumbing (identity and the commerce graph).
And One More Thing…
Aside from the technical abilities of the Constant Contact API (which the Glyder team is quite happy with) we’ve also been impressed by the people behind the platform. The Constant Contact team is responsive, supportive, and very much wants to help third party developers succeed. Constant Contact truly embraced the idea of building an open ecosystem that adds value for both their users and application developers. The company’s long track record of authentic devotion to serving small businesses combined with its forward thinking platform strategy is one of the major reasons that we’re spending our limited and valuable our resources integrating with Constant Contact. If you’re a developer or startup focused on serving small businesses, I would encourage you to give it try and share your thoughts and feedback with the Constant Contact platform team – I know they’d love to hear it.
What’s your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section.