The ecosystem approach to creating a flourishing tech business is good (as you learned in part 1 of our inspiration story). But without a live, vibrant community around it, many brilliant plans for “ecosystems” remain just a plan on paper. Creating the preconditions that will enable the Add-on Mart community to emerge is our 2022 BHAG at PortaOne. What happens if those preconditions aren’t in place by December 2022? Well, 😂 then it’s our 2023 or 2033 BHAG. Ultimately, there’s no alternative but getting them right, mate.
Our social media team is going to follow this story up with two LinkedIn questionnaires. One is to find out from our existing customers and prospects what apps should appear next in the Add-on Mart. The other is for developers in telecom and beyond. For that one, we’d like to hear which instruments you need to become a part of our community. Stay tuned for those.
The “It Works Just Fine” Issue
The curse (and blessing) of PortaSwitch is that “it works just fine” on many customer installations aged 15+ years. Even at that age, it requires little maintenance or licensing fees. Often, a customer will find us again and say, “Wow, PortaOne still exists after 20 years and has managed to launch a bunch of new products!” But in many cases this only happened after they said, “Well, it’s probably time to upgrade that Pentium III server.”
Unbundling the New Features from PortaSwitch
Another issue with PortaSwitch is that many customers don’t update on time. (If that sounds familiar, you might be interested in reading our recent story on PortaSwitch update strategies.) This lack of updates is denying these customers access to the new features that have appeared in recent builds. “People come to us with requests such as: ‘We can’t update to MR95 now. However, please do something so we can have that new self-care portal,’ explains Andriy Zhylenko, CEO of PortaOne.
While neglecting PortaSwitch updates is terrible for many reasons, the Add-on Mart community can provide such clients with a way to access some of those essential new features without needing an update. Another Add-on Mart goal is to create a system of transparent reward for independent developers who expand what can be done with PortaSwitch.
Today’s story about the Add-on Mart community starts with WordPress – the same engine and business model that helps us publish stories like these so you can read them. Then, we’ll look at the “gig work” and microlabor communities (Uber, UpWork, Fiverr, Glovo) and the enterprise-level communities of SAP and Zendesk. Finally, we’ll close with some painful lessons on “what not to do,” for your entertainment and education.
The WordPress Model
Steve Jobs and Marc Benioff may not have known it back in 2003, but another group of developers was also trying to figure out the application economy. That’s when American Matt Mullenweg and Englishman Mike Little first released a fork of now-defunct software called b2/cafelog. They named it WordPress.
The “forked” nature of the service drove its growth and defined its business model, turning WordPress into the open-source poster child. We’re trying to use this business model for PortaPhone by WebTrit. Fork prong number one: the power of WordPress lies in its “free to install; buy third-party consulting to customize and manage” philosophy (and license). And prong number two? An ecosystem of WordPress plugins and themes then augments this philosophy with solutions.
Plugins and Themes
A “plugin” allows the execution of third-party code within WordPress. It also allows the plugin’s author to integrate with the WordPress administrator’s interface. For example, for our own WordPress setup we use Yoast for search optimization, MonsterInsights for better integration with Google Analytics, Molongui to manage authors, and Updraft for backups. A “theme,” meanwhile, customizes the design and UI. For example, we use the Elementor engine on top of WordPress. It provides an ultra-customizable theme.
Add-on Mart Community Lesson #1
What we can learn from WordPress is to build a “Plugins First” product mentality. And make it centered on the people, not the software.
With WordPress, a vibrant community of authors, content strategists, designers, UI specialists, and programmers can sell their services online. That’s a grassroots B2B model that came true! No wonder the community promotes WordPress to its own clientele. At PortaOne, our own story was a difficult choice. We had to pick between WordPress and the built-in blogging engine in HubSpot – the CRM we use. Ultimately, in 2020 we went with WordPress (the author of this story was an advocate). We have never regretted it.
Microlabor and “Gig Work”: UpWork and Fiverr, Uber and Glovo
The 2000s gave rise to the digital marketplace for physical goods and software. Then the 2010s were the age of software-assisted monetization of human time. (We used to call this “a job.”) Services like California-based UpWork and Israeli firm Fiverr monetize human time in a wide array of professions: from web designer to chemical engineer. Meanwhile, services like Uber in San Francisco and Glovo in Barcelona support freelancers with a niche specialization: mobility. (A.k.a. delivery drivers, and what we used to call “taxi cab drivers” in antique English.)
COVID-19 and the lockdown took this further by making remote work a new normal even for college professors, law firm partners, and doctors. Workers like these couldn’t imagine themselves as remote employees before this. Remote work means the most entrepreneurial types often start looking for new opportunities. (Remember: “you could be earning.” 😉) Plus, the resulting recession is causing employers to seek alternatives to previously in-house positions. The result? Welcome to the new boom for software-assisted monetization of human time.
Add-on Mart Community Lesson #2
The lesson here is to fight transaction costs, and enable microtransactions (and gig work). While services like Uber and UpWork get some (deserved) criticism, one thing is certain. This business model has substantially simplified the hiring transaction for both customers and contractors. Sure, those who need a more grounded and balanced approach can still hire a horse-drawn carriage (or an HR agency). Still, anyone who needs a cab to the airport “here and now” will most likely reach for their smartphone.
We aren’t just making Add-on Mart for our long-term ISVs (independent software vendors), such as WebTrit. We’re also making it for our clients (telco operators) who need a way to recuperate development costs they invested into PortaSwitch. And hey, why not help them make some long-term recurring profit, too? And, as the border between telecom and the “plain vanilla IT” keeps on morphing, we’re also happy to welcome individual developers and entrepreneurs to the Add-on Mart community. Our tech team is working hard right now to enable seamless checkout and self-deployment features.
Zendesk: Marketplace Pioneers in Enterprise-level Customer Conversations
It’s fun to write about Zendesk. This company is a classic “from Copenhagen loft to Silicon Valley unicorn” Cinderella story. And soon the three founding “Cinderellas” will likely walk out of the castle (or loft?) with $9.5B in cash. Zendesk is also excellent at customer communications. We use it ourselves for our customers.
Zendesk launched its marketplace in 2012. Currently, it features over 1,200 apps. It has also experienced integration with a third-party marketplace. A couple of years ago, Zendesk launched its Sell Marketplace after acquiring a CRM startup called Base. Sell Marketplace is now a part of a larger Zendesk Marketplace.
Add-on Mart Community Lesson #3:
The Zendesk lesson is to support your tribe with a good vibe. And by vibe, we mean via marketing campaigns, content, and events.
We love top-notch content marketing (you could have guessed). And we are implementing various initiatives to invite more developers and customers into the Add-on Mart community. Zendesk is an excellent source of inspiration here as they send their own marketplace-oriented content marketing to interstellar heights. There’s a marketplace guide, a portal for virtual and real-world events, a dedicated section on the Zendesk documentation portal, a YouTube video explainer, and a gazillion tonnes of affiliated content. Just one example of that is the YouTube overview below.
A Few Hard Lessons to Avoid with the Add-on Mart Community
The great teams that inspired us worked hard to make it happen for their companies and communities. But you don’t get bread with one meatball. Alongside their successes, those business pioneers also made a few awful mistakes – mistakes that cost people money, or worse. But the only way to be perfect is to never do anything. So, while we plan to avoid stepping on the same rakes, we are truly grateful to those who blazed the trail for us.
The Rules Should Be Fair
The determination and vision of Jeff Bezos (combined with some random luck) led to Amazon’s global dominance in e-commerce. But recently, some sellers, experts, and government antitrust agencies have been pointing to a few allegedly anticompetitive practices. In “Amazon’s Toll Road,” report author Stacy Mitchell reasons that “Amazon is exploiting its position as a gatekeeper to impose steep and growing fees on third-party sellers.” Another publication argues that the Seattle-Arlington-based tech giant “spies on its sellers.” Specifically, they say it uses sales data from third-party sellers on its marketplace platform to improve its own product offerings.
The Lesson from Amazon’s “Dark Side” for the Add-on Mart Community
Even if things go super well for us, PortaSwitch won’t be the only softswitch and billing option available. If, in some bizarro world, PortaOne decided to one day (God forbid) “go evil,” most of our Add-on Mart community members would simply switch their products to a competing ecosystem. The sales data issue, though, is more complicated. Here’s a story to explain why.
In 2020, we developed our extended payments integration. Then, in 2021, we ported it to the Add-on Mart. Among other things, our solution provided integration with Stripe’s new payments API. For those not (yet) illuminated: Stripe is a decent gateway that many companies use for processing online payments. In 2022, we discovered that our customer DeskPhone had created their own Stripe integration for PortaSwitch, using the benefits of some newer APIs that were not available in 2021.
Can you guess what happened? Correct. Both apps (the in-house and the customer-made one) are now available from the Add-on Mart. It’s up to you, our customer, to decide which one best serves your business needs.
Focus on Your Core Business and Avoid Outsourcing It
eBay became the industry leader in mergers and acquisitions. By 2011, the e-commerce giant was regularly spending billions of dollars on M&A. While this steady M&A flow ensured growth, experts doubted some of eBay’s investments, including Skype. So, eBay wrote down $1.4B of Skype (of the total $2.6) and acknowledged that the acquisition “had not performed as expected.”
Microsoft acquired Skype for $8.5B in 2011, allowing eBay to snare “a net gain of $1.4 billion on its original investment in Skype.” It looks like the “excellent used car” story you tell at a dinner party after finally getting rid of it (while keeping quiet about all the expensive repairs).
What’s the Difference Between Installing an App on Smartphone or an Enterprise-Grade Business System?
“We could have picked one of many out-of-the-box marketplace solutions for Add-on Mart,” reasons Andriy Zhylenko. However, unlike App Store or Google Play, we (naturally) expect a much smaller number of apps overall. After all, it’s unlikely you will run the “PortaOne edition” of Minecraft or Angry Birds on your PortaSwitch. (Or maybe you will. Who knows?)
Most importantly, deploying a new app into a customer’s PortaSwitch installation is not as easy as clicking the “Install” button on your smartphone. It requires some skill, and some configuration changes to the system. So, if a telco launches a new module that provides advanced analytics for recorded calls, there are a few steps beyond “make it available to our subscribers.” For one, they also have to configure their PortaSwitch to monetize that new feature. That could take the form of bundling it into high-end products, and then creating an optional “a-la-carte” add-on as well.
Building Better Deployment for the Add-on Mart Community
That’s why PortaOne decided to develop a custom-made solution. So far, we have used our product (PortaBilling) to maintain the information about our Add-On Mart customers and their subscriptions. There is also a self-care portal for customers, which they can use to activate new modules, pay invoices, and so on.
Since the functionality and language of Add-On Mart are very different from any other portals we have developed for communication services so far, we decided to write a new portal from scratch using the no-code bubble.io platform. There is a “quick and dirty” storefront for our main website, which Klaus Haertel created using Stacker.
And behind the scenes are the core Add-On Mart components that ensure things like authorization, running of the code in the Kubernetes environment, centralized log collection, monitoring, and so on.
How Will It Work?
We are now implementing the next version of the service activation flows. (Does “generation” sound too pathetic?) These changes will allow customers to deploy new add-ons for their installations in that seamless “App Store style”:
- Click to activate.
- Provide a few configuration details (e.g., a domain name for your service or a company logo) via the web UI.
- In a few minutes, the code runs in your Kubernetes compartment.
You’ll see more announcements (and blog stories) this autumn.
The “Niche” Approach Still Requires Good Moderation
Craigslist’s open and anonymous nature (which we covered in part 1 of this story) invited trouble. Serious trouble, in fact: several murders and other violent crimes became linked to Craigslist postings. The service responded by hiring actual attorneys to manually screen ads in the sensitive categories.
Another case illustrating moderation issues (although not so “niche” as Craigslist) is Google Chrome extensions. Your Internet browser is the second most important piece of software in your computer, after your operating system. That means we have to be aware that allowing apps to execute code with those browsers might invite dark types of entrepreneurship. The known issues vary from fishing for passwords to malicious code injections. Worse, authors of legitimate extensions might unknowingly create risks.
URTechSupport channel (we wish we could find the name of its amazing creator) explains the troubles with Chrome extensions. Our dear Add-on Mart community members should be aware of these risks even when browsing for leisure.
Protecting the Add-on Mart Community by Fighting Spammers, Scammers, and Customer Data Dredging
The B2B nature of the Add-on Mart community means that encountering serial killers is unlikely (only serial “time killers”). But end-user data privacy is still paramount, given that the PortaSwitch business model is about selling our product to telcos, who then use it to sell their services to their end users.
That’s why we use multi-layered protection for end-user data. Each Add-on Mart app is first reviewed by Klaus, then by the PortaOne partner support team, then by our CTO Andrey Kosachenko. Modules should also be stateless (whenever possible), and not store private data. Finally, we provide guidelines to developers and ensure they are contractually responsible for data privacy breaches on their end. You can read detailed Add-on Mart app review story for more detail on this.
Great Ecosystem, Limited Community
Google is an example of a company that launched many visionary products ahead of its time, yet failed to build a community to let them grow. Just see The Google Cemetery for proof. The Chrome Web Store shows that enabling an extension ecosystem for a great browser does not always mean success.
Google launched the Chrome Web Store in 2011. While the free extensions instantly scored hit installs, the paid extensions did not. Chrome’s team struggled to find growth and revenue with this community for another nine years. In 2020, they gave up. Google first announced that the Web Store would stop accepting new and updated Chrome apps by July 2022. Then, Google changed its mind and postponed the deadline to 2025.
How We Envisaged Add-on Mart Community Growth Drivers
The marketplace itself is not so difficult to build. Even an Airtable via Stacker will suffice (hello, Klaus). But creating the Add-on Mart community is a more complicated and demanding task, as Google’s painful story teaches us.
Abuse of Externalities: Humans Are Not Machines
Here’s one last thought. In the “you could always be earning” economy (ahem, Uber) where human attention is the most precious commodity, it’s easy to lose the “human” part. And being citizens of the nation that is currently undergoing genocide by the Soviet-Russian empire, we have discovered much about that subject this year. Every marketplace needs community members (a.k.a. “humans” and not corporations) to prosper and grow. These communities also need safety (data privacy, in the case of Add-on Mart) and freedom of choice.
How We Give Back to the Add-on Mart Community
We see three practical directions in the work of “treating humans like humans.” First, we continue to build and improve PortaSwitch. Its “Swiss Army knife” versatility, combined with the ability to “do your development,” allows our customers to quickly react to changes in the market and capture the opportunities ahead of the competition. Take our customer Redworks, in Maastricht, the Netherlands. They established a work-from-home emergency response solution in just one week during the early days of the 2020 lockdown.
Second, PortaOne Labs is an educational hub that inspires technology students in Chernihiv and Sumy to launch their careers in telecom. Because of the war in Ukraine and the continued rocket shelling of our cities, PortaOne Labs now practices primarily remote education. We also welcome tech students to our regular YouTube product webinars.
Finally, we launched the PortaOne Accelerator. It offers:
- Free access to our products (if your team and business model qualify).
- Mentorship from our founders, executives, and product experts.
- Access to our marketing channels (including this blog) and a professional network of customers and partners eager for your new beginnings to succeed.
We hope our ecosystem and the Add-on Mart community will one day produce its Spotifys, Instagrams, and Snapchats for the telecom and beyond.