Let Someone Else Be The Last Mile: Be The Platform

Back before I came to the US, I worked for a cable company in Canada who was part of a consortium which launched the first high speed internet access trials in Canada. Think something like, Xfinity – all of the cable companies in Canada got together to form something we called Wave (along with a funky fresh Silicon Valley inspired logo) and we built a whole new infrastructure to launch this brand new service. We needed to do everything, from upgrade the plant so that it was two-way (try to get a typical cable guy to understand that when you disconnect the cable for a neighborhood for “just a minute” you are actually killing off their livelihood instead of just interrupting their All My Children episode) to build servers and content to serve over that network, to taking customer service people who were used to talking to cable TV customers and turn them into PC and network technical support.

While upgrading the plant so that it was two -way was expensive and time-consuming, (every little leak in the cable had to be tracked down and patched – while downstream video to your home might show up as a little interference or not at all – when that leak was turned upstream and amplified you ended up with a whole mess of noise – one time we tracked down a problem to one house where it leaked a ton of noise into the plant when the guys was vacuuming, good luck tracking that down – but we did!) by far the hardest thing was selecting, training and running a customer support team which could solve everything from installing software onto your computer, to troubleshooting network connections and speed, and dealing with customers who had technical skills ranging from super-uber geek to practical Luddite, and everything in between.

Back then, there was nothing we could have done about it – this was a brand new service and a brand new product which had never been done before. We had to not only educate customers as to why it was better than dial up, we had to provide better support. We took on a lot of the support that typically the customers would do on their own – at the time the other internet service providers just published their phone numbers and it was your responsibility to go buy and set up your modem and connect to them in order to connect to the internet. Even now, the cable companies (and the phone companies) typically provide both the modem and the technical support.

In retrospect, that last mile to the customer was the hardest. But back then, there was no other option. Things are different today.

For the best example of this, look at Twitter. Twitter only grew as fast as it did because it wasn’t envisioned day one as a be all, end all service, where Twitter provides both the front end and the back end, the client and the server, or the program and the platform. That’s what most companies do. But not Twitter. From Day One they thought of themselves as a platform, partly because they were too small to do it all on their own, and partly because they weren’t afraid to give up some control of the end interface to the customer, as long as they had control of the platform.

So they launched, and developed a very strong ecosystem. They handled the platform and the last mile for some, but for others they let them handle the last mile, and just reaped the benefits of the platform. They were successful in part because they let someone else handle that.

So here is a question: what about you? Are you going to continue to provide the “full stack” solution to your customers, and keep sinking all of that cost and resource into managing that last mile, or will you open up your business as a platform and open up new sales channels for others to sell.

You do this, and maybe one day your developer ecosystem will bring you more business than your own.