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August 9, 2012

Plugins, Platforms, and My Plan for World Domination

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about WishList Member and its future. Specifically, how the web as a whole is evolving and what role WLM will play in that web. Looking into my magic “crystal ball”, I’m seeing some exciting things ahead if we take the right approach and develop the right mindset for the changes that are occurring with the greater internet.

Of course, none of this makes sense unless you know my Secret Plan for World Domination (add in ominous tone). I don’t mind sharing it, because while it’s simple to understand… it’s pretty damn difficult to implement. So, knowing it is like 1/100 of the battle.

However, I’ve personally never seen this put together in one grand strategy before… and, if you’ve never seen it, it can be quite enlightening (if I do say so myself). So, here it is…

My Not-So-Secret (Anymore) Plan for World Domination

This is derived from looking at big companies and watching what they’re doing. This isn’t something I’ve actually ever used before (although, I am trying like hell to convince Stu and Tracy to) so there’s no guarantees you’ll actually dominate the world (in fact, your computer may explode just attempting this… you’ve been warned).

However, if you watch what companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google are doing… you start to see a pattern. I’m not sure they even know explicitly that this is what they’re doing, but it seems pretty clear to me. So, what is it?

  1. Build a platform
    1. solves a major want/need of market
  2. Help developers develop on platform
    1. provide an API
    2. developer training
    3. developer certification
  3. Build a marketplace
    1. sell products built by developers using API
  4. Build a central server
    1. access and store data about all users of all products
    2. analytics to learn more about market
    3. use to build interest graph based on activity (ala Amazon)
  5. Build a community/social network
    1. use to build social graph (ala Facebook)

Now, let me explain this in more detail.

Build Your iPhone

You start by building some sort of application/device/etc that in and of itself solves a major market need. The iOS devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad) are a good example. Each one revolutionized its industry when it came out and solved major needs and wants in the market.

BUT…

This “thing” you build has to be more than just a product. At least, it has to be set up so it CAN be more than just a product. I have no idea if the first iPhones came with apps and an App Store… or, if it was always Apple’s intent to create those things.

But, they figured out very quickly that their devices would win long-term by having apps and an App Store, they adjusted, and they turned their device into a platform that other developers could build on top of.

Likewise, the first version of WordPress didn’t have interchangeable themes and plugins. But, its developers figured out very quickly that having these things was necessary and they re-wrote WordPress… changing it from an application into a platform.

You have to build something people want in and of itself… but build it in a way that it can be developed on top of and made better.

Make It Extensible

I know I’m biased, because I am one… but, I firmly believe that “other developers” are the key to the success of any kind of application/device/etc. You can have the greatest team in the world… and you’ll still never be able to replicate what can be created by a thriving community of developers building applications on top of your platform.

So, you need some sort of API for developers to work with. With Apple and Android, you can create apps that access “platform” services using different sets of APIs. WordPress has APIs for hooking into its platform, etc.

And, that’s a big part of the battle. A robust API that give developers easy access to as much of your platform as you reasonably can. But, you also have to get developers to want to develop on YOUR platform.

For example, mobile developers can choose from iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows, and Palm (there for a little while). But, many choose iOS. Why?

Well, the App Store is a big part of it and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But, the platform API also has to be easy to use, well documented, supported, and constantly developed.

When Apple launched its app store, Blackberry also had apps available at roughly the same time. Not to mention, Blackberry’s target market was mainly business professionals who presumably had the extra money to spend on apps.

Why didn’t developers flock to Blackberry like they did Apple? Well, Blackberry was closed source, not very well documented, and had little support. Trying to build a Blackberry app was like trying to climb Mt. Everest… so nobody did it.

So, it’s not just about building an API and forgetting about it. It’s about building it, constantly upgrading it, documenting it, providing training, and generally treating your API like your first-born child.

Because, when you do and you’re able to get developers to WANT to develop on your platform, you’ve essentially just hired 1000s of skilled developers to build out your platform for free (in fact, they’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your platform).

More on that now…

Build Your App Store

The bottom line is that developers are usually good at developing and not very good at marketing and sales. We can build killer apps, but typically have no clue how to sell them.

So, you do it for them.

We talked about making an API that’s developer-friendly in order to attract developers… but, there’s another major piece and that is money. As a general rule, developers will go where they can make the most money… as long as they don’t have crawl over hot coals laced with shards of glass to get there.

Take Apple and Android, for example. I think it’s safe to say at this point that purely looking at the platform itself… Android is a better platform. It’s more powerful, more open, easier to use, more device-flexible, etc.

But, Apple still dominates the market. Why? Because their marketplace is better. Why is their marketplace better? Because more developers develop on iOS… AND, developers who develop on both still typically care more about iOS. Why? Because they make more money on iOS. Why? Because more people use iOS and are more willing to pay money for the apps on iOS. Why? Because the apps are better. Why are the apps better? Because more developers develop on iOS and…

You get the point.

It’s a self-feeding loop that when done right will make your platform THE platform for both users and developers.

Getting these first three steps right can put you on the level of Apple and Google. In fact, doing just these three things can put you head and shoulders above your competition in virtually any technology market outside of mobile devices.

BUT… it’s also where a lot of companies stop, which I think is a mistake. And, it’s also what, IMHO, Google is doing right that will enable them to beat out both Apple and Facebook… because you need to do more.

Integrating It All

At this point, if you’ve done everything right… you’ll have a kick-ass platform with a robust API, used by 1000s of developers to build add-on applications that they sell in your lucrative marketplace. And, your competition will be treading water.

BUT… they’ll eventually figure it out and start to compete again… or be replaced by someone who will.

Apple essentially destroyed every mobile device maker there for a few years… and still probably is to a point. BUT, its competitors adapted. Google built Android, phone manufacturers switched almost wholesale to Android, and now it’s become a viable competitor. Plus, Microsoft as slow and stubborn as they are will probably figure it out at some point, too, and become a viable competitor.

In order to continue to win, you need to develop something that is difficult for your competitors to replicate. And, something where having a 2 or 3-year advantage means a whole hell of a lot.

To me, that “thing” is consumer intelligence. Using your platform to gather massive amounts of intelligence on your customers, developing systems to analyze that intelligence, and develop strategies for better serving your market while increasing profits.

And, this is where the idea of “Central Server” comes in. The CS is kinda like the “SkyNet” of your business. It’s a place that all your devices, websites… really any point at which you make customer contact… those places can connect to the CS and pass it critical customer data. That data is analyzed (programmatically) and used in some way by the rest of your systems.

Amazon is good at this.

One of the first things you do when you visit Amazon.com is create an account. This uniquely identifies you with Amazon and from that point forward, any time you visit the site while logged in, they track virtually everything.

It’s not just purchase history, although that is a big part. The pages you visit, what you click on, how long you stay, etc. And, all that data is stored, analyzed, and used to create the “context” of your shopping experience.

It’s not just about the “Your Amazon” or “Recommendations” page. Your entire experience is based on what they know about you and your interests. Products are recommended to you based on past purchases and visits combined with product intelligence… i.e. what products usually sell together… and so on.

The result? You rarely buy one thing on Amazon. The recommendations are so tailored and so specific that once you decide to buy one product, you typically end up buying 2 or 3… or more. And, of course, Amazon profits.

So, the simple things to do here are:

  1. Start collecting data from all locations in one central spot
  2. Analyze that data to build an interest profile for each user
  3. Tie the analyses to business objectives and create functionality to make it happen

Of course, an interest profile only answers one part of the question of influence… that is, WHAT influences an individual’s buying decisions. Another major piece of the puzzle is WHO influences those decisions… and that’s where Facebook gets it right…

Your Social Graph

The final piece of the puzzle is to build some sort of community for your customers. It’s interesting, because to most people it’s such a foreign idea that it’s easy to brush off. But, make no mistake, you can build a community around virtually any product (platform) and the companies who do gain a serious advantage over their competitors… not only in consumer intelligence, but also in customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Companies like Threadless and Mini have build used communities to generate real bottom-line profit increases.

For example, Threadless uses its community to develop its t-shirt designs. Artists can submit new designs, community members vote on their favorite ones, and the winners become new Threadless t-shirts. Not only does it help build comraderie and a sense of belonging, but it’s also a great way to identify hot products and sell them to eager customers.

Of course, HOW you run your community and what you use it for is more of an art than a science… but, one of the key components is understanding member relationships. That is, understanding how they’re connected to one another and who influence who, in what areas, and how.

Facebook is the leader in this area. It analyzes metrics like stated interests, likes, shares, comments, etc. of both a user and his/her friends to unravel the mystery of “what is this user interested in and who influences them the most”.

It can be tricky to figure out exactly how to weave this into your community, but some common features include:

  1. The ability to explicitly state what interests you
  2. The ability to casually “like” brands, products, companies, people, objects, etc
  3. The ability to form a connection with other members
  4. The ability to like, comment, and share other people’s content

These kinds of things help you narrow down a user’s interests and the people who influence him/her the most. Of course, there’s probably a ton of others, but the idea is to reach a point where you’re not only recommending additional products to your customers, ala Amazon, but you’re also providing input from friends (ideally, the ones who influence them the most) who’ve also bought/used that product and their experience with it.

Doing so, creates a literal vortex of influence that becomes very difficult for your customer to say no to.

And, that… in a really big nutshell… is my plan for world dominance. Which, of course, leads me back to WishList Member and where I think this company should be headed.

Platforms Not Plugins

Now having read all of that, you’ll get what I mean when I say that I believe WordPress developers should take on the mindset of developing platforms NOT plugins.

A plugin is an application that adds functionality to WordPress. A platform is an application that opens up a whole new world of benefits to the end user… an application that becomes the basis for entire new subsets of functionality.

Platforms are ultimately what wins.

And, things start to change when you take on a platform mindset. Speaking specifically of WishList Member, I see a number of things that would change with this new mindset:

1. Membership Site vs Content Protection. WLM was originally created and still largely is a “plugin that turns your WordPress blog into a membership site”.

And, in the beginning (I know, I was one of its first customers)… that’s largely all it did. It let you protect content and register new members using a recurring payment system. Simple.

And, in some ways, it was the simplicity that allowed it to flourish. It wasn’t trying to be everything to everybody. It did what it did and it did it well. That’s the reason I chose it.

But, with time and an increased user base, the scope of what WLM is being asked to do has expanded. For example, consider these features:

  1. One-time payments
  2. Sequential upgrade
  3. Pay-Per-Post

The features are clearly designed for something outside of the traditional membership, recurring revenue model. They were added because customers wanted the ability to offer modular courses and a pay-per-post model. There’s little about either of these that is the pure form of “membership site”.

Thus, what we’ve slowly been moving closer and closer to is “Content Protection”. And, this is a much larger idea… one the web is still figuring out.

Content protection is simply a “paywall” between your content and your customer that allows you to monetize “access”. Traditional content monetization models are being challenged and replaced and people and companies are finding new ways to monetize content. Content protection is really the technical side of content monetization.

So, the first shift I think we need to make to become more of a platform is away from “membership site” toward “monetizing content”… of which memberships sites are one subset.

This shift would bring with an increased set of features and possibly a change in the way payments are handled (although, not necessarily). I also think it would change the way we handle our interface.

Currently, WLM is largely self-contained… meaning, there’s a sidebar menu in the back-end of WordPress… you click on that and that’s where you find the majority of the interface for WLM.

To me, becoming more of a platform would involve embedding more of WLM into WordPress. Some possibilities might include:

  1. Creating a sub-tab called “Content Protection” in the existing Settings menu in WordPress where many of the existing WLM settings are housed.
  2. Integrating WLM’s “Manage Members” tab in WordPress’ existing Users menu.
  3. Integrating more of the “Manage Content” tab into the existing interfaces for Post, Pages, Custom Post Types, Categories, etc.

Of course, there’s probably a lot more, but that’s a few examples. What this does, though, is make the interface more user-friendly. Instead of taking you off to a separate part of the admin, you get access to “Content Protection” features right where you’re already working.

There will probably always be some need for a separate admin screen for some things, but IMHO much of the interface in WLM could be integrated into existing WordPress functionality.

2. Admin Hooks

WLM has a pretty robust API for managing its core functionality. But, it has little in terms of ways to hook into the admin interface and alter it. When you talk about extensibility, extending the core functionality is one thing, but you also need to be able to extend the admin interface.

Making the shift to “platform” would pretty much require that WLM add in hooks for altering the admin interface… allowing developers to add in and save new fields, alter layout, and so on.

In fact, if WLM were to follow WordPress’ example, it would use its own hooking system for most of its admin interface… meaning very little of the default interface would “hard-coded” and instead would be hooked in. This would provide maximum flexibility while ensuring the reliability of the hooking system.

3. Developer Training

This is one area that I see would undergo a complete overhaul. As I mentioned, developers are the key to this kind of strategy and ensuring they’re properly trained is paramount.

Currently, we offer a Certification course, but in a lot of ways it’s just a product. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a damn good one… but it’s not deeply tied to the overall strategy… at least, not as much as it could be.

This is more of a mindset shift really… away from “creating a product” toward “investing the future of the company”… because the better trained developers are, the more the entire self-feeding loop… feeds itself.

This is one of particular interest to me since I am a developer. As a company, we need to make it as absolutely simple as possible to use our API, document it doggedly, and provide in-depth training on how to use it.

Of course, there’s probably a lot more ways in which WLM would change, but those are a few examples.

Going Forward

Frankly, I have no idea if WLM will follow this path. I don’t even know if it for sure is the right path… but I have a hunch. Facebook makes the claim that it is “creating the piping” for the internet… the walled garden so to speak. In a lot of ways, I see WordPress doing something similar… albeit in a less “managed” fashion.

And, WordPress serves as good example of this kind of shift… what was once just “blogging software” that has now become one of the primary “website builder” applications on the web. I think that shift for WLM is embracing the idea of becoming a true platform and providing “content protection” in its myriad forms… and not just a “membership site”.

Doing so, I believe will enable it to intelligently move out of the smaller niche of membership sites into the broader internet as a platform for all types of websites looking to monetize content. And, the current question of “how to monetize content on the web” is one WLM could provide a powerful solution for.

What About You?

Are you ready to implement the “secret plan”? Thinks it’s crazy? How would your company/product change? Hit me up on your social site of choice and let me know what you think!

 

4 Comments on “Plugins, Platforms, and My Plan for World Domination

Michael Phoenix
September 14, 2012 at 7:54 pm

speaking of training developers, I have been throwing around the idea of a summer camp for at risk youth that focuses on teaching coding and technology (among other things) where they walk away with a tablet and skills to begin building apps, plugins etc. Would be interested in chattin about this with ya if you're interested.

Reply
@StuMcLaren
December 2, 2012 at 10:49 am

This is why I'm so glad we have you on our team 🙂

You know as well as anyone that we've had these discussions a lot because you're right, it's less about selling a "product" and more about creating an "integrated platform" – and I still remember the "lightbulb moment" when you started sharing your master plan with us (which ultimately set the wheels in motion for a big overhaul).

Now its all about implementation. MUHAHAHA 🙂

Reply
alexanderbender
December 3, 2012 at 7:01 am

I love the blog. Great post. It is very true, people must learn how to learn before they can learn. lol i know it sounds funny but its very true.

Reply
Greg
February 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Excellent vision and strategic point-of-view John, and as Stu rightly points out execution (implementation is everything). We are all facing that never ending challenge.

I actually headed over this morning to connect with you about an old plugin of your that I have which for which I was trying to chase an update and road map future. In the process I've been able to get caught up on your professional/personal direction and raison d'etre at this point and am glad for it.

I appreciate you laying it out to see and understand, John.

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