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Can you build a business on someone else’s platform?

From business idea to $100k product launch

That’s the title of a blog post that inspired me and my co-founders to build a Slack app. After spending the last few years helping clients turn their ideas into products, it was time to build our own. After countless interviews with teams big and small, we landed on the perfect idea. Now, we just needed to build it. 

That’s where things get a bit complicated. We’d planned to launch an MVP in a month, which turned into two, which turned into three – you get the idea. Something that should have taken a few hours, ended up taking a few days. 

Why? Because we were building our app on someone else’s platform: Slack. Learning how to work with the Slack API was like learning a new programming language – which is always easier said than done.

Which begs the question, was it worth it? Should you build an app on someone else’s platform?

Why we chose Slack

For us, choosing Slack was a business decision. Revel is a project management app for agencies. Generally, when you launch a new app your job is to convince people to ditch the products they’re currently using and use yours instead. 

In a market with 100s of existing project management tools, it’s hard to stand out. By building on Slack, we’re not convincing you to switch platforms – we’re plugging into a tool you already use everyday.

It helps that the tool we’re building on is welcoming developers to their platform with open arms. As Slack’s rivalry heats up with Microsoft, the company increasingly leans on their app marketplace as a unique selling point. So much so, they’ve even set up their own investment fund aimed at Slack apps, and released their own Javascript framework to make building apps easier.

Cautionary tales

The argument against building on someone else’s platform is simple: the platform could end your business whenever it chooses. Either by taking away your access, or copying your product. 

Zynga

We all remember FarmVille – the social media game that took Facebook by storm. Zynga, the company behind it, hit a valuation of $10 billion in 2011 with a business model almost entirely based on Facebook games. It’s hard to imagine now given Facebook’s size, but at one point Zynga accounted for 12% of their revenue. 

This all changed in 2012. With Facebook’s disastrous initial public offering, Zynga’s valuation collapsed overnight. That same year, Facebook ended a deal with Zynga that gave it a privileged position in the newsfeed. Facebook was changing, and Zynga was left behind. Easy come, easy go.

Duet & Luna

Duet and Luna were both apps that turned your iPad into a second screen for your Apple computer. Then one day, Apple decided to build the exact same feature. Now everyone can turn their iPad into a second screen for free. 

Just like that, and their USP was gone overnight. Worst of all, according to TechCrunch, Apple had previously reached out to Luna’s CEO to demo the product to them. If you’re a startup founder, you might get your hopes up when a big company reaches out to you and ask yourself “is this the start of acquisition?” Instead, they never heard from Apple again.

This situation is such a common occurrence within the Apple ecosystem that there’s even a term for it – Sherlocking, a reference to Watson, a search app that was killed off by Apple’s Sherlock and later Spotlight. 

Should you build on someone else’ platform?

When we started Revel, we were acutely aware of the dangers we faced. That’s why we’ve always viewed building on Slack as a stepping stone.

We’re using Slack to build up an initial user base, as well as gather some valuable product feedback. We’re then going to take these and expand onto other platforms. First, by adding Revel to Microsoft Teams. Then, by building out our own web platform that will one day supplant Revel.

Should you build on someone else’s platform? Yes, but you shouldn’t rely upon it.