Strapped For Mobile Development Talent? Hire Via API.

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Matt Brezina, who is the co-founder and chief executive of Sincerely. It makes the photo-printing apps Postagram and PopBooth. He is also a co-founder of Xobni. Here he writes about how developers are increasingly carving bits and pieces off the process of building apps and turning them into services they can sell to other developers. Pursuing that model, his company recently launched a way for developers to earn revenue through printing photos called the Sincerely Ship Library. This was republished from his personal blog here.]

It is easy for a team of developers to start a startup right now. Indeed, many are. There are now more than one hundred developers in each new Y Combinator class! These are people that could otherwise be working at your company.

Why would someone start their own company rather than joining yours? It isn’t because they are likely to make more money. A developer has a much higher expected return going to work for Google, Dropbox or Square than doing their own thing. I believe it is culture, not money that is driving their behavior.

“Do my own thing.”

I speak with lots of developers every week. If they are good I try to hire them. If I fail, it is rarely because they choose another startup. Usually they say, “I want to do my own thing.” This translates to, “I want to decide with who, how much, and on what I work.” This is a culture decision. This may be working only 20 hours a week. This may be working from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. wearing pajamas. This may be working while traveling in Asia.

If there is all this talent out there “doing their own thing,” how does a company capture their value?

The simple answer is to become their customer. And no, I’m not talking about contract work.

I’ve never met a talented person who said, “I’d rather do contract work.” Developers don’t like equating their time to dollars. They don’t like working on someone else’s stuff. Good developers want to be as close to their customer as possible.

Partnerships written in code

Luckily APIs are an innovation that allow developers to create measurable value for a company without being employed by said company. A developer gets paid for the value they create, not the hours they put in.

Instead of building a notification system for your iPhone app (requiring an additional engineer and $150k in total costs), it is easier to pay Urban Airship a fraction of a penny every time you send a notification.

I encourage developer teams to make a metered service that many companies need, but don’t want to build themselves.

As a company scales, they may end these API partnerships and vertically integrate – building every piece of their service and value chain. At two million notifications per day, it might make sense to build your own Urban Airship. But maybe you don’t ever want to get into the business of sending notifications, and you don’t have to.

It is often said the best path to success is focusing on what you are good at. Everything else you should outsource to a partner.

APIs are partnerships written in code.

Case Study: Sincerely Inc.

At Sincerely, many aspects of our service and business have been written by people who don’t work for us:

  • Postmark – instead of running our own SMTP server.
  • Appirater – instead of writing our own app review notification system
  • Hoptoad – instead of building our own crash reporting system
  • Urban Airship – instead of buildling our own notification system
  • Geckoboard – instead of making our own dashboard
  • Linode – instead of owning and running our own servers
  • Flurry – instead of writing our own analytics
  • Instagram – instead of creating our own community of photo content
  • Github – instead of hosting our own repositories

How we make ourselves hirable via API

Sincerely’s focus is making it easy to send real photos in the mail from a mobile phone. We’ve gotten good at collecting physical addresses from users. We’ve learned how to bill users for small transactions. We’ve set up relationships with print centers around the world. We’ve built powerful customer support systems that address the challenges of sending real things in the real world.

There seems to be a new photo app launching every week. It would be a huge undertaking for each of them to recreate what Sincerely has built. Our Ship Library for iOS makes it easy for any app to add photo printing and delivery functionality in less than 30 minutes.

I believe we’ll see a pattern of more companies launching APIs and launching them earlier in their lives. It is the first step of a business development strategy – and it is a step that developers are comfortable with. We get to talk to each other with snippets of code. We don’t have go through a big legal process to work together. We can even create value together without having money change hands. Heck, you can scale to hundreds of partners without having a business development guy – sounds like something a lot of developers I know would really like to hear.

What services do you wish developers “doing their own thing” would build?

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