Developers are the new kingmakers, driving up the valuation, and sometimes revenue, of companies like Twilio, Xamarin, Docker and many others. But marketing to this audience requires a fundamentally different approach in skillset, leading many to assume traditional marketing isn’t the way to go if you’re trying to appeal to a developer audience. We go on a walk with Paul Kopacki, CMO of mobile platform Realm, and formerly of Heroku, Sencha & Apple, to discuss why developer startups exist, and why marketing is an integral part of their success.
Tim: So, you’ve been at a bunch of startups. You’re at Realm now, you did Heroku before, you were at Sencha, which was really popular with developers, and Apple. You’ve seen many different generations, of developer marketing, and marketing in general. And so I figured we’d chat a little about that: why do developer startups in the first place. Like, why is that is a thing in Silicon Valley?
Paul: I think a lot of people see the opportunity around a platform, they just see a much bigger opportunity when you’re talking to developers. You’re one level down from the app level, so when you’re talking to developers, you’re talking about monetizing what those developers then build. So I think if you can do it, it’s harder to do, but if you can do it, the opportunity is much bigger.
the most financially obvious example is maybe the app store, with Apple and Google Play, where literally they don’t produce any of these apps — they just make a lot of money off of applications being developed
Tim: Right, we mean stuff like for example right now Uber is trying to have a developer platform, or Adobe is trying to have a developer platform with PhoneGap. It is like the stage of having a platform business that relies on developers seems a very appealing one, and the most financially obvious example is maybe the app store, with Apple and Google Play, where literally they don’t produce any of these apps, or contribute in any sort of way beyond the distribution and some APIs. They just really kind of make a lot of money off of applications being developed, right?
Tim: And so it’s a big model, right? And definitely big business, billion dollar businesses for of some of them. But it seems to have different shades of grey. Like, I always think about it like you may think like Twilio and GitHub and Xamarin are in the same business of doing developer tools, developer platforms. But that’s not exactly true, right? There’s many different shades of developer startups.
One of the key differences, is where you’re trying to monetize, and who’s making the decision.
Paul: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think you describe the difference between platform and developer tools. I tend to, I don’t think there’s necessarily bright line, because a lot of the platforms have tools built in. But you can think about tools, I would say Xamarin is probably closer to the tools category than maybe something like Twilio is. Although I’m sure you could argue with that. And when you build the product, you tend to cross the lines anyway, ‘cause they’re grey lines and you cross some when you actually build the product and you bring it to market. I think one of the key differences, though, is where you’re trying to monetize, and kind of who’s making the decision. You can look at a model like Atlassian, where they started really selling to individual developers, they didn’t really have an enterprise model. And they just got of adoption at the individual developer level. Developers said, “These are my tools, “this is what I want to use to do my job.” And that’s really how Atlassian got that up and running. And it turned into what they are today.
Tim: And it’s a big kind of different thing, right? There’s these kind of big collaborations tools, like Atlassian or GitHub, and then yo also have, you know, a lot of service plays like Twilio that kind of make smaller chucks of money on a consistent basis with specific APIs, specific services. And there’s kind of like, big heavy infrastructure stuff, which is typically like enterprise plays of like, let’s sell a gigantic corporation a license for this database or this application framework of some sort. And so, you’re right, it’s kind of very blurry, but they do have some specificities, in terms of how you make your money and how you relate to, I guess, the application life cycle the developers are building.
You asked the question: why do people get into this business? It’s usually because these entrepreneurs are developers. So to solve a problem that is then adopted by lots of their peers is just very attractive, you know? It’s a space that feels natural for them
Paul: Yeah, and I think that, you asked the question why do people get into this business or how do they get into this business, and when they get into the business, even if they start at that individual developer level, they usually wanna move into that enterprise place because of the reason I said, there’s more money there, that’s where the big dollars are. But why do they start where they start? It’s usually because these entrepreneurs are developers. So they understand the problem space well, the people they’re hanging around with are developers, that’s who they measure themselves against. So to solve a problem that is then adopted by lots of their peers is just very attractive, you know? It’s a space that feels natural for them.
Tim: Yeah, it’s true. It seems like, you know, a lot of entrepreneur’s stories is driven by passion, you know, first and foremost. And it does seem like it comes from, usually, from a technical place. You know, this problem needs to be solved it’s a pinpoint developers have. And it does seem to be kinda core to also, like, marketing those companies effectively, right? Where, it seems like there’s a lot of startups where you’re like, you can kinda create needs or you can create categories, and kind of solve a problem that maybe isn’t there. But at least the perception can be when it comes to developer startups, your tool has to be real. It has to solve something real, and it has be this very elegant, proper solution. Would you agree with that kind of basic framing of how to get out and build developer tools and actually convince people to use them?
Is this thing useful, is it better than the other things out there? And it’s very competitive. If you build something that’s pretty good, there’s a bunch of other developers out there who might think, “Oh, I can build something better.”
Paul: I would agree, I think that the standard for developer tools and platforms, anything developers use, is pretty high, and it’s really high on the utility scale. Is this thing useful, is it better than the other things out there? It’s really like, how good is the product? And you know, it’s very competitive. If you build something that’s pretty good, there’s a bunch of other developers out there who might think, “Oh, I can build something better.” And then they go build that better thing. You know, you don’t have that in the consumer space. Like, if you’re building apps for consumers, consumers aren’t saying, “Well that’s pretty good, “but I’m gonna go build something better.” They don’t have the ability to, right? They’re downstream from that development process.
Tim: And that’s also maybe why you see a lot of competition, right? And it’s like very, very dense. It’s very rare that you have only one NoSQL database, you know? And apply that to whatever sub-industry, right? And it seems like sometimes you also have this problem in that it’s not just competitors kinda coming out, but it’s also like your customers, or your ideal customer, ideal user will be like, “You know what? No, no no, “I don’t need to use your application framework, “I’m gonna make my own, “I’m gonna do that instead of using this.”
Tim: So you’re right, there’s this very, very high bar to utility, but still, you know, let’s be realistic. I think coming into this world, I remember being like, oh, I don’t know, “marketing doesn’t work on developers”, you know, “it’s all about having a great product.” And like what we are talking about. But that’s not true, right? Marketing does work with developers.
Okay, go anywhere where there’s like 20 developers working together, and walk around. And then walk around again six months later, and see how many developers have new headphones.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, marketing works on developers, it works differently. I usually, people tell me marketing doesn’t work on developers, I say, okay, go anywhere where there’s like 20 developers, 20 software engineers working together, and walk around. And then walk around again six months later, and see how many developers have new headphones. Developers are very susceptible to certain kinds of marketing, and they buy new headphones every three to six months, for reasons I can’t really discern, right? So somehow they are susceptible to certain kinds of marketing and the key is just to understand what that is. Look, the product’s gotta be good. You can’t have, marketing can’t carry you in developer marketing. In the developer market, you actually have to have a great product. But then how do you get the developer community to understand it’s a great product, how do you get them to actually try it, how do you get them to really think about it the right way. That’s the job of marketing.
In the developer market, you actually have to have a great product. But then how do you get the developer community to understand it’s a great product, how do you get them to actually try it, how do you get them to really think about it the right way. That’s the job of marketing.
Tim: Yeah, you’re right, I would say maybe it can carry you for some time, but not usually forever and so, to bring out all the haters out there, I would say MongoDB might be a case study of that, in my opinion. Where, you know, it was like a great company, great developer message, and great marketing plan for sure. But then, you know, the product had very typical, I think, issues of just growing up and being exposed to a larger use base. And the marketing kind of couldn’t really cover that. And now you kind of see it loosing a bit of traction. I’m sure they’ll do great and everything will be fine, but, you know, there’s only so much marketing you can do sometimes before you loose the coolness, right? Before developers move on to something else. And that’s maybe another aspect of that audience, right?
If your marketing gets ahead of a product, that’s a mistake because now your marketing is not credible, you’re marketing things that maybe don’t really exist, and that’s going to kill you in the developer market.
Paul: I think that’s true, and I think it’s speaks to this alignment between really three things. It’s where the product is, where the company’s marketing is, and where the market is. Keeping a sense of those three things and trying to keep them aligned as possible is really the key to success. If your marketing gets ahead of a product, that’s a mistake because now your marketing is not credible, you’re marketing things that maybe don’t really exist, and that’s going to kill you in the developer market. If you’re marketing ahead of the market, you’re just, like, putting messages out there that nobody’s gonna receive. And if you’re marketing behind your product, then you’re not really doing you’re job as a marketer.
Tim: Right, right, that can be really tricky. So what are some of the stuff that concretely works? You know, I kind of feel like people like to think of, like, concrete kind of programs or things they can do and so, I don’t know, my experience has been, for example, that content marketing works pretty well with developers. What are some of the things you think that are like, these are good tools to have in the toolbox when it comes to trying to get your message out there in front of developer audience.
So you can use content marketing to bring a lot of attention, awareness to what you’re doing and maybe get more people to do that trial
Paul: Yeah, I think content marketing is a great way, it’s fundamentally experiential, you want people to try it. And if it’s good, and you try it, and you give them the right framework to understand what it is they’re trying and why they should like it, I think you’re in a good place. So you can use content marketing to bring a lot of attention, awareness to what you’re doing and maybe get more people to do that trial. But unless you get that initial adoption, you’re not really gonna succeed at marketing to developers.
Tim: So again, we’re getting back this idea of, like, the product still being key, right? So you’re saying, if I’m understanding you correctly, that, you know, use your product a lot in your marketing, get people to try it, get people to experience it, even if it’s indirectly through a demo or through a meetup, or something like that. That tends to the be the best way to convince people, as in like blah blah.
Removing any barriers to people trying it is really key
Paul: I think so, but I mean, there’s also much more, kind of one to many ways of doing it. I think the web experience of like how you actually discover the product, how you understand it, how you get access to it, really critical removing any barriers to people trying it is really key. And you know, sometimes those things fall between the cracks ‘cause it feels like maybe that’s the product team’s job, or maybe the product team thinks it’s the marketing team’s job. Fundamentally has to be done, I think it actually is, marketing has to really care about that whole user experience. The onboarding experience to get started, and even the user experience of the out of the box experience of the product. And while marketing doesn’t drive that, marketing is a key stakeholder there, and really has to influence that.
Tim: I agree, I agree. It tends to be like something that is seen as a pure engineering or product concern, and when it comes to developer stuff, it’s so critical, it’s really hard to not have, like, this gigantic loss in your funnel experience if you don’t have this onboarding. And it also explains why you see so many developers startups have free-tiers or be strongly open source, or at least open core, right? Because it’s all about that ease of experience, or that ease of getting started with it. What about pure marketing programs, like what do you think works well? You’ve been around, you’ve done all these things, I’ve seen Heroku do big conferences, I’ve seen meetup plans, I’ve seen tons of different things. So, what do you take away in 2016 within an age of what works with developers.
Events are like fighter pilot school. You spend a lot of money to put on a good event, and you deliver a great experience for a relatively small number of people, those people need to be the best and the brightest in the developer community.
Paul: Yeah, I think events work, they’re expensive. Events are really about, events are like fighter pilot school. Like, you spend a lot of money to put on a good event, and you deliver a great experience for a relatively small number of people, those people need to be the best and the brightest in the developer community, that’s what you’re trying to do. And you’re trying to influence them, you’re trying to turn them into advocates, keep them really close to you with the idea that each of them is then going to go out and influence a hundred or a thousand other developers. You can’t, unless you have a lot, a lot of money, you can’t really do a heavy event strategy and touch a lot of people. So you can do a great a event and reach the key people, the key influencers in your community and grow from there. Developers are no different than the rest of us, they’re busy, they hear about something cool, they try it out and then they get distracted and they forget about it. So things like retargeting actually work, right? It’s a classic consumer marketing technique, but it actually works because like, oh I visited your site, I signed up for your thing, and then I forgot about it. Well, retargeting reminds you about it. And not only reminds you about it, it does that other thing that marketing is doing, is it helps give you framework for thinking about it, tells you what to think about it, and that just makes it a little bit easier for you to get over that adoption curve and do that onboarding.
Tim: Yeah, for sure. And I’ve definitely also seen, like a lot of traditional marketing actually translate well, and usually it’s a question of like, copywriting and creative and nailing that, you’re not doing it the same way that would for consumers, but sometimes advertising works, depending on your kind of value proposition. I’ve definitely seen email marketing work pretty well with developer audiences. I mean that’s something you would expect developers to not like email, or feel like it’s very spammy.
The spammy question is really a question of tone, right? And so, if you’re talking to developers as if you’re a developer, if you actually understand that tone, you have the right people writing the copy, doing that, it doesn’t feel like marketing
Paul: The spammy question is really a question of tone, right? And so, if you’re talking to developers as if you’re a developer, if you actually understand that tone, you have the right people writing the copy, doing that, it doesn’t feel like marketing, if it feels like marketing they will have a bad reaction to it, it feels like spam. But developers talking to developers, that’s what they thrive on, like any other community, honestly.
The Startup Tapes chronicle the highs & lows of building a startup, through candid, immersive interviews with founders, operators & advisors. Tim Anglade, an Executive-in-Residence at Scale Venture Partners and formerly with Realm, Apigee, and Cloudant leads the project with the goal to de-mystify the process through which startups emerge, grow & succeed. His unfiltered interviews transcribe the conversations we often hear in the boardroom, amongst our portfolio community and with entrepreneurs and partners we engage with every day.
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