It Matters Where You Start

On general purpose automation and app building platforms

The first computer programming class I ever took was in my freshman year of high school in Livingston, NJ (although I distinctly recall playing with a certain turtle when I was a toddler). I thought this was going to be my favorite class. I loved computers. I loved computer games. I loved the internet. I even loved Encarta. Now I could make my own? Radical!

Day 1 in that class, I learned we would be using something called Delphi Pascal. I had no idea what that meant. Over the course of that quarter, I came to understand that it was a development environment built for a dying language that people used to make the most boring things known to humanity. And that we were going to be graded on our ability to make windows pop up in a specific order.

We did not learn anything about the history of computers and programming. There was no material about the fundamentals of software development, no lessons that we could transfer to other languages and contexts. It was purely functional. For all I know, Borland wrote the curriculum itself to teach IT admins how to use their product.

This was before there were a zillion ways to learn to code online. This was what was available to me. This was my first exposure to programming.

Today, I am very happy and successful, but I do not know how to write code. Meanwhile, one of my classmates had been learning to code for years. He didn’t actually learn anything in the class — he was there for the easy A. He’s now an experienced engineer with a mega-exit under his belt and he’s the CTO of a hot startup backed by a top-tier firm.

This is all a relatively low-stakes way of saying that, when you’re attempting to learn a major skill or otherwise start something in your life that may have a multi-decade arc, it matters where you start.

Which is the real lesson I learned from that class. The last computer programming class I ever took.


I thought about that class and that lesson when I read two recent editions of Automate All The Things, the newsletter from friend of Automatter Aron Korenblit. Aron was writing about two separate issues, but they’re driving at the same broader theme.

  1. The outlook for vertical automation tools like Troops, WhenThen, and Alloy is bright because general purpose automation tools like Zapier and Integromat just don’t go deep enough (even though they can do just about anything with a little bit of scripting or clever use of webhooks). The top users who really want every piece of their workflows built in and made easy — including those who are most likely to be growing fast and upping their usage (and driving more revenue to their automation platforms) — will churn.

  2. No-code/low-code app builders like Bubble can do just about anything, but because it’s a general purpose tool, their best customers will want more of something — performance, flexibility, ownership — that they just can’t get from an app building platform. Once again, it’s churn from the top.

These markets are big enough that many companies can win, but I want to attack the issues Aron raises about go to market strategy. Each of these players needs to have a good answer for these questions if they’re going to be one of those winners.

  • Most people usually start out trying to solve one specific problem. Assuming it’s enough to nail the specific solution they’re going for, how long will it really take before they try to do something that the general-purpose platform can’t do easily? I suspect most customers will onboard users who can make the most of their general purpose products before they reach a point where they need every single endpoint covered by their automation platform’s no-code interface.

  • When a customer is just starting out, how valuable is depth and power vs. breadth and optionality? I strongly suspect that new customers prefer the hope that they won’t need to switch or use a second product in the future vs. the near certainty of multiple vendors if they start with a more focused product.

  • If it matters a lot which tool a customer picks up first, is the marketing advantage of the largest general purpose platforms even greater than it seems today?

When I wrote The Zapier Playbook, I didn’t spend much time on Zapier’s marketing efforts. But Zapier CEO Wade Foster acknowledged in the original interview that being savvy about marketing has made a huge difference.

David Rosenthal: Connect the dots for us between, there was this market opportunity right around when you started Zapier of all these software tools, they have APIs, SaaS is finally going mainstream, and then you guys won. In the interim, there were all these other competitors that didn't win. Obviously, there's a lot of luck involved, but like to your mind, were there a few key decisions, or features of you guys, or was it simply that you were good at marketing and nobody else was? What helped you win?

Wade Foster: We worked hard. That (I think) probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. We were definitely better at marketing than all of them. We found a repeatable model through our developer platform to just get enough apps on the platform that allowed us to get some network effects that we were able to just race in front of everybody else, and made it really hard for anyone else.

Today, Zapier has one of the best content marketing operations in tech. They are phenomenal at keeping prospects and current customers engaged. The more active Zaps you have, the less likely you are to churn.

But their real power is simultaneously winning the battle for mindshare among tech-savvy folks and the battle for domain authority on solving specific problems for everyone else. Their target customers are not usually searching for “e-commerce automation” or “best automation platform” or “no-code solution.” If you search these, you’ll get a lot of ads for enterprise products.

Zapier’s target customers start out with one specific problem and they usually voice it as “I want to plug this app into that one.” Start googling “connect X to Y” and Zapier will almost always show up on the first page of organic search results.

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Are app builders in the same boat? Maybe a new general purpose app builder could speed out ahead and become a de facto winner?

The network effects that Zapier leveraged — where each new integration enhances the value of the existing integrations for everyone — are less powerful for independent apps. These are single-player experiences and you likely have to win each customer on their particular UX needs. There might be room for a standalone app builder to find the single best niche for app builders, nail it, and then expand from there, but we haven’t seen it yet.

If new winners emerge here, they are more likely to emerge from the previous generation of website builders like Squarespace, Wix, and (most recently) Webflow.

Aron mentioned at the end of his app builders piece that Wix was getting into the app builder market. They already sell or have advantageous distribution deals for the primary complementary products — traditional or advanced website builders, domain names, and hosting. A product that supports more complex logic and plays nicely with their existing tools is a natural new business line for them. Bundle pricing becomes an attractive option for new customers.

Again, it matters where you start.

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