Lessons from Twitter: How to Play Nice With Ecosystem Partners

A revolt seemed to be brewing last week between Twitter and its third-party developer community, when — just days after investor Fred Wilson suggested that Twitter would likely be “filling some holes” in its service (creating new features or buying those who had already created them) — it bought Tweetie, an iPhone app for Twitter.

But this dust-up is about more than just Twitter: it’s like a real-time instruction manual in managing developer relations — something that any service which hopes to become a broad platform needs to think about. How much of what is core to your business do you control, and how much do you leave to outside apps? How do you manage that relationship?

As Liz described in her take on CEO Evan Williams’ keynote, which opened Twitter’s first annual developers’ conference, there was a real message of rapprochement toward third-party developers. “Twitter has always been about developers,” Williams said. “Twitter is the ecosystem more than any other web service that has ever existed. You’ve helped define it, poured in your time and energy all the while putting up with our growing pains. And for that we thank you.” While Williams said that the company was “getting into areas people never thought we would,” he also said that it was fundamentally “a collaboration and that is not changing.” It seemed obvious that Twitter was trying to placate some of the developers who had gotten irritated by Wilson’s words and the Tweetie purchase — and rightly so, since those developers have helped put the company where it is today, and to some extent hold the key to its continuing growth and relevance.

The service now handles 3 billion requests a day through its API (application programming interface), and 600 million search requests, and the company’s traffic has grown by 1,500 percent per year for the past three years. Last year, the company had just 30 employees; it now has 175. Many of the features Twitter wanted to add over the past year or two, it couldn’t, Williams said, because it was simply trying to keep the service from crashing on a daily basis.

The bottom line to all of this is that Twitter is clearly trying to strike a balance between the services and features that it considers to be core to its business — and its future as a business — and those that it is willing to allow third parties to create. Whether it has struck the right balance remains to be seen, but that struggle is one many other businesses are either confronting now, or will have to at some point. It’s all well and good to talk about an “ecosystem,” but every ecosystem has a food chain. Eventually someone has to eat someone else, and that’s when things can get difficult.

If you have a company with outside developers, and you want to draw some lessons from what Twitter has been going through, think about how you deal with your ecosystem:

  • Do you provide a well-orchestrated and clearly described road map? Developers need certainty, or at least predictability.
  • Do you communicate changes quickly and effectively to your development community? Don’t let them find out about it on Twitter or Hacker News.
  • Do you tell them that they should develop features, and then go and develop those internally? Don’t say one thing and do another.
  • Do you let them know what features are coming so they can prepare? If you want their continued help promoting your product or service, it’s the least you can do.

The reality is that, as a company, you almost always need outside developers if you want to grow your product beyond a certain level. Twitter could never have achieved the kind of ubiquity that it has right now without third-party apps, services and features that added to the bare bones that the company provided. And that’s why it ultimately pays to make nice.

Question of the week

What are your pet peeves about working with ecosystem partners? What would you do differently in their shoes?
Relevant analyst in ecosystems
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