Can API be your spirit animal?

Article published in Grow With Tech Magazine, InfoShare May 2017

It is believed that globalized economy and new technologies made Application Program Interface the most wanted in the town. API drives the innovation, enriches applications with data and allows to automate business processes. In the year of the post-truth, which demands higher and higher transparency not only from brands but also from governments, opening up the data with API is not only prospective business model but also the way to retain the trust.

Spot the gorilla

Since the year 2000 when the first web API was launched by Salesforce, the power of API influence has been widely spreaded all over the world. On one hand, we see thousands of APIs used as a way to expand products’ functionalities. On the other hand, we can easily see how opening up the data changes the society and helps to build smart cities with free and fast access to the information. Applications dealing with air pollution, diseases’ spreading, traffic jams, etc — nowadays we don’t need to wait for evening television news to learn what is happening around us. And this is something we owe to the power of API.

“The hardest thing to do is see what is right in front of your eyes”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The quote from famous German poet and novelist is very accurate in the case of API. Opportunities multiply if you just let yourself to spot the gorilla (for those who don’t know this term, it’s from bestselling author Richard Wiseman, who copyrighted in 2004 the classic book about recognising hidden opportunities “Did you spot the gorilla?”).

There is a lot of open data which you can use to identify new sources of revenue. Visit for example where you can find 150+ AP offline documentation sets, with 750+ apps working together using APIs or check the activity of the Open Data Institute (ODI) founded by the inventor of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee and AI expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt. At the latest ODI Summit 2016 you could have been inspired by such projects like “London’s pigeon air patrol” — the initiative of Plume Labs which uses live pigeons to collect the data about air pollution.

If your first thought is “yeah, great! But i don’t see money here!” you’re wrong. There is a lot of grants from open data incubators to be used. Meet for example ODINE, the programme that supports European startups to innovate with the open data. In the first ODINE batch there were e.g. an app for parents tracking infectious illnesses in schools, a global search engine for the Internet of Things that indexes dozens of public open data assets and millions of connected devices from temperature sensors and air quality monitors to sharks, a service which offers market intelligence to help entrepreneurs and local councils assess the business potential in empty commercial properties in deprived urban centres or a B2B e-marketplace that aims to make one company’s bio-based residues and waste another company’s raw material. As you already see, API sharing economy smoothly enters into future global trends.

Future global trends

You won’t be mistaken, if you name the future global trends as macro drivers for development impacting not only businesses or societies but also culture and personal styles. And while some of them like globalized economy and new technologies are already well recognized, you can easily use them for your company’s strategy, new products and services.

Some quick facts:

  • The sharing economy and the five main sharing sectors (peer-to-peer finance, peer-to-peer accommodation, car sharing, online stuffing and music video streaming) are considered to have potential to increase global revenues from $15 billion now to $335 billion by 2025,
  • Subscription Economy Index is already growing 9 times faster than S&P 500 (15.1% vs 1.7%),
  • The world economy is going to get digital and has 4 main triggers: digital data (to better predict and facilitate decision making processes), automation (to create systems to work autonomously and organise themselves), IoT (sensors bridge between digital and real life) and digital customer access (direct, transparent and demanding access).

Does it all surprisingly fits with an API? Hell yeah!

Successful startups built on APIs

If you are still in a doubt whether API might get you where you dream to be, here are couple startups which built their success on API as a core product offering:

  • Stripe — hundreds of thousands customers from 25 countries in 2016, valued at more than $9B,
  • Twilio — 28,000+ customers in 2017, went public in 2016 (NYSE), market cap around $3B as of Feb 2017,
  • SendGrid — 40,000+ customers in 2016, has raised $78M from firms including Bain Capital and Bessemer Venture Partners,
  • Keen IO — 50,000+ developers at 3,500+ customers in 2016, has raised $29.22M from investors including Sequoia Capital and Pelion Venture Partners,
  • Algolia — 2,300+ customers in 2017, has raised $21.22M from investors including Accel Partners and Storm Ventures.

What stands for their success? Of course coming up with the innovative idea, working harder than others, having the courage and keeping the faith when it was needed the most. But they also learned fast that what the market needs is often not a singular customer need. They collected data and found the way to solve diverse business problems with one engine solution.

The word “product” in the context of API wasn’t used here accidentally. It is believed that even though for many startups and companies an API is a feature expanding the core service, you should think about an API in the terms of a product. A product that needs its own outstanding package, user-friendly customer service and seductive slogans. Developers understands well what is an API without all of it, but making an API your core product equals making it marketable and understandable also to non-technical people. CEOs who make final decisions, managers of different departments that will use the data your API delivers in their everyday, assistants who often do the first search for those on higher ranks — in most of cases, these are the folks who you need to convince. And you won’t do that with your technical mumbo jumbo jargon.

Where to start: the magic of communication

The majority of people are visualizers concentrated on what they want to see — a solution to a problem, and not an API documentation. They want to see what API gives TO THEM and what are the benefits FOR THEM. There are two easy ways to do it right: a demo and a metaphor.

The API demos are a must have — you need to showcase an API in action and present its power. Your potential customers need to understand what’s in store for them. There is a reason food and cosmetics industries promote their new products with small and free samples — it’s the most effective way to convince people that you have something they’re going to like more than the stuff they pay for right now.

The metaphor is also a must have — how you will otherwise communicate new concept and new meaning of your innovative API? If it’s innovative, it means that no one before had this idea or was able to conduct it right! So probably the market is neither conscious of it’s awesome pros nor is ready to accept the life without it. Just like with smartphones. If you know someone around you who just switched to a smartphone, you see how within first days they are not fully convinced and using a fraction of the smartphone functionality.

But let them play for a week and they will die before you can take it back from them. Think about finding an unique metaphor for your API that will make your target customers feel just like this person who is not willing to life without a smartphone any more!

“If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a metaphor is worth 1000 pictures”

Thomas J. Shell

A metaphor is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another. One of best examples ever: Time is money. You see how something transparent is being explained with something very real and physical? So you just need to explain your intangible API with something your customers care about and understand.

Article published in InfoShare 2017 Magazine — Tech, New Media & Startups Festival

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