Rob Zazueta | Director, Platform Strategy
December 20, 2013

Preparing Your API for Open Innovation


When most companies consider building out an API program, they turn to the open APIs of Facebook, Twitter and Google for inspiration. The success of those programs and how they fostered open innovation on their platform, leading to epic growth and revenue, is the stuff of tech industry legend. 

But it’s not enough to open your API and ring the dinner bell for developers. Even after you’ve properly identified your goalsand designed an interface that delights developers, the challenges of exposing your API for open innovation require a lot more planning and perseverance. While your IT operations team wrings their collective hands over security and scalability as they shudder at images of barbarians banging on their network’s gates, you should be equally disconcerted by the prospect of what should happen if those fortifications are built for nothing.

In a partner first API approach, you must the spend time building relationships with the right companies to drive mutually beneficial outcomes. In those instances, you have some level of control in the success of the product. With open innovation, you’re putting out a line and hoping enough developers bite to help reach your goals and drive your metrics in the right direction. With the right PR strategy and a charismatic Developer Evangelist leading the charge, you can see a big boost in API uptake out of the gate. But, as the API team at Edmunds can attest, success from an open API program is a long game and requires consistent, dedicated attention.

Fantastic developer support and community building are the biggest factors determining success with an open innovation approach. No matter how well designed your API is, developers will run into problems, and they’ll need solutions quickly. Unless developers are your primary customers, you can’t rely on the support team that handles most of your customer issues to also support developers – the skills required are far more specialized. In the early days of your program, your chief developer evangelist may be the sole person responsible for helping developers when they run into problems, and they need to be able to respond quickly and competently. The best evangelists are willing to dive right into the code with their developer customers and troubleshoot their issues, acting as a liaison with their own engineering team if the problem arises from an internal issue. Tools like the Call Inspector can be a lifesaver in these situations, especially when you’re supporting a developer who stubbornly refuses to admit the fault is in their code.

Of course, you’ll also want to send your evangelists to sponsored hackathons to promote your API and expose it to more programmers, and you should rely on our amazing Developer Outreach team to be your guides. But you must approach hackathons strategically. You’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting developers to create dozens of amazing products using your API, driving tons of new users and revenue to your system. Very few projects built at a hackathon survive after the prizes are awarded. Instead, use the event as an opportunity to work with developers using your API “in the wild” to get their feedback and suggestions for improvement. Identify the best hacks and showcase them along with the teams that built them on your developer portal. Also, seek out the kinds of uses of your API that your team may not have considered. Developers are an incredibly creative group, and you should encourage their creativity.

An open API doesn’t mean you have no control over what’s developed. Don’t be afraid to influence developers by suggesting solutions your customers are seeking. While several API programs have boasted massive funds to foster development against their API, you don’t need much more than a good rapport with developers and to show that you’re listening by responding to their needs. Use Mashery’s reporting tools to identify the applications most active on your API and reach out to those developers to find out how you can help make them more successful.

The development community is big in number, but small in feel, and developers often turn to their peers both in person and through sites like StackOverflow to seek recommendations for which technologies and APIs to use. By consistently listening to your developer community, proactively reaching out to them in person and at hackathons and responding to their needs, you’ll be able to activate your developer community to become evangelists on your behalf. Getting the right support team in place and knowing how and when to respond to developers appropriately is no small feat. The Strategy Services team can help get your program ready for open innovation and make sure you make the right decisions as you put your team in place, and our Developer Outreach team can help make sure you’re putting your best foot forward when engaging with the broader developer audience.