In our latest podcast episode, we spoke with T Antonio, Senior API Sales Manager at Mapbox. Previously, T's had experience as an API partnerships director and as an Enterprise Accounts & Partnerships Manager at Postman. In a change of pace for this podcast, we discussed advice on where early API companies should start when building brand recognition and developer affinity. 

The conversation came down to two ways to get started: partnerships and freemium models. Let's dive into the takeaways. 

The Importance of API Partnerships

When Should Your API Company Start Considering Partnerships? 

"I was working with a startup API company recently, they have twelve employees, and they are already integrated with eight platform partners. So when it comes to, 'should we or shouldn't we take this avenue to open up a market?' My attitude is yes to all of them," - T Antonio. 

In T's opinion, it's never too early to partner up with other relevant technologies in the space. A partnership approach to your budding API company can take on a form called integration marketing; if your API can be listed in different marketplaces and connected to a variety of other software platforms, then your partner's customer subset can easily find out about your API. Primarily if your API company is operating on a freemium model, then partnerships are the way to go to build that awareness and credibility in the API space. 

Now, that doesn't mean you have to do it all. Usually, smaller API companies consist of a few developers and maybe a de facto architect or two, so trying to be all things to all people is out of the question. But picking a few key partners can go a long way in advancing not only your customer base and brand awareness but also the innovation of your product. Often, partnerships require new integrations and features to be built into an existing product, which keeps your developer team nimble and your product desirable. 

Platform Partnerships for Young API Companies

"Partnerships often are either more mutual, or you're the one chasing other folks down, which is what I see mostly now with young API companies. They're really looking at platform partnerships, such as companies that have app stores. For example, they want to partner with them to become an app in their app store and open up a new market, essentially for their customers or to gain additional customers," - T Antonio.

T emphasizes that best partnership stems from a relationship where there is already overlap between users. When your end users are already using your API and a prospective partner's software, it makes sense to partner up to offer the best of both worlds. Getting two teams together to innovate with one another, make the integration stronger, and provide new opportunities for your customer base ends up being a "win-win" for all involved. 

"I work for a mapping API company. I may have an alignment with a cellular wireless company where we share just a ton of customers. And there's just a ton of overlap that keeps coming up over and over. So we just decided to build something together and craft a plan that makes sense for those mutual customers," shares T. 

Platform partnerships also can help increase your developer affinity by being associated with an already established software company. That partnered association gives you the "developer stamp" of approval if developers are already utilizing and enjoying your partner company. 

Operating on a Freemium Model

In addition to building out a couple of key partnerships that we mentioned earlier, correctly implementing your freemium model is one of the best things you can do to scale your fledgling API program. Many small API companies tend to operate on a freemium model, but it needs to be done correctly to reap the benefits. 

Freemium as a model means allowing sign-up and usage of your product for free, with the intent that a purchase will come at some point down the road. Usually, that point comes when users reach the need to add a credit card or level up to access additional valuable features. 

"All the API companies I think I've worked for at least in the past ten recent years have all had freemium models, and in my opinion, it works. I love it," shares T. 

Benefits of Freemium

"Freemium models open up the door for so much more conversation and value-add that you can provide a developer. It creates a two-way relationship between you and the developer that you can build up over time and create a much stronger, more reliable, and loyal connection," - T Antonio.

In addition to creating that communication foundation, freemium models also tend to allow for more collaboration and additional users in the platform. This model ensures you're continually growing your base of future customers. 

Finally, there is often a support cost savings associated with freemium models as well. Users on a paid plan often expect a certain level of service and commitment from the developers, but that same level doesn't always need to be applied to your freemium base. Creating a robust knowledge base, a thriving user community channel (like the Stoplight Community on Discord), or other avenues in place of direct support give your freemium users access to scalable support resources. 

My personal tagline for being a pro-freemium model is this: developers try, business buys. And if you don't have a way for developers to try something, then you have very little chance of convincing the business stakeholders. 

 A freemium model gives developers that space to try out your software and truly feel comfortable making a conversion to paid later. T pointed out that looking at the engagement rates and activity type of your freemium users in your software will tell you when they may be ready for communication about upgrading to a paid version. 

Advice for Developers Hoping to Productize their API(s)

"Ask a lot of questions. Ask if you have investors. If you have employees, ask your employees, ask your customers, how did you literally get your customers and your potential customers today? How do you want to be charged for this? Do your research," - T Antonio. 

T stressed that asking the right questions and taking time to reflect is crucial to building out a productized API strategy. Study the community closely and the developers already using your API to keep a close eye on trends, gaps, and what's working best within your program. T also recommends that in addition to partnerships, seek out a few micro-developer influencers in the space to test out your API and provide quality feedback or suggestions on cost evaluation. Find these types of folks by joining relevant developer communities on Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and Github. 

In addition to seeking advice from your already-established community, consider bringing in a product marketing manager if your program can support one. Often, product marketing managers are at the center of understanding the technology and goals of the program while also being catalysts for communicating the business value to the outside world. 

In the end, this whole podcast is about helping API leaders to scale their programs, and this was a refreshing new perspective to add to that conversation.

For more tips and tricks, head over to API Intersection. 

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