I learned about the intricacies of building platform leadership from a book by the same name, “Platform Leadership” which I read during my MBA. The book by Gawer and Cusumano detailed how Cisco, Intel and Microsoft drove industry innovation by building a robust, standardized technology platform other leading-edge products could plug into.
The premise of the book was powerful: companies that could create products/services that served the center of a powerful ecosystem of ancillary items built on top of these products become extremely valuable. Think Intel Inside and Microsoft’s dominance of the OS. Presently, think of what Salesforce.com is doing with its platform as well as Apple’s iPhone App Store. By creating a platform around which 3rd party developers are incentivized to design and build products, these companies have created something much more valuable and harder to displace than a mere product. They’ve created a platform.
Investment field riddled with platforms
The investment field is riddled with platforms, too. Bloomberg runs an empire based on an install-base of thousands of terminals in most of the leading investment institutions around the world. You want to reach institutional investors with financial content? Gotta work through Bloomberg. Yahoo Finance is the granddaddy of financial websites, far and away seeing more pageviews than any of its competitors. You want to reach the retail investor, gotta get on Yahoo Finance.
Platforms provide necessary structure to certain markets. In the investment field, platforms like Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance serve to
- Aggregate content: investors don’t have to hunt down information by doing hundreds of Boolean searches on the Internet. By serving as content aggregators, the platforms serve as a clearing house and central node to consumer info.
- Establish an orderly market: Platforms create order by creating certain standards for their products and partners. Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance established syndication guidelines via which partners must comply to be on the platform.
- Create viable business models: It’s not clear to me that many investment research products could survive on a standalone basis. Investors don’t like to pay for content and by aggregating pageviews on a single site, Yahoo Finance actually creates a viable business model for their partners and shares it out with them.
- Consolidates usage to make single a jumpoff point to reach users: By consolidating the market, making it orderly and putting viable financial metrics behind it, finance platforms are the gateway to the users. It’s too hard, complicated and expensive to reach investors directly. These platforms act as market makers for the investment content bringing suppliers and customers together.
Online Brokerages as Investment Platform
While reviewing a recent product/service that E*Trade launched last week, I stumbled upon the realization that online brokerages are doing the exact same thing that Apple is doing around the iPhone.
In fact, it’s a HUGE misnomer to call these firms “online brokers”. What were once merely online trading systems, companies like Ameritrade and E*Trade are actually now in the platform business. As this evolution develops away from just trading toward the development of a true investment platform, these firms are creating something so much larger than just online trading or banking services. I like the term “investment platform”.
Ameritrade’s Premier Partners
Check out what Ameritrade is doing with its partner platform. This page lists a handful of 3rd party applications that run on top of Ameritrade for clients to receive trading alerts, Jim Cramer’s wisdom, ongoing advice about when to sell and some nifty charting.
None of these services are completely groundbreaking in and of themselves, but Ameritrade is establishing itself as the nucleus of the investment ecosystem. By allowing developers to build tools and hook them up to Ameritrade’s API, the firm is concretizing its position as the investment platform of choice.
You want to reach investors? Gotta get on the platform.
While the platform provider has an unbelievable amount of power, on the other hand, having a platform enables software/services developers to effectively reach the investor smack dab in the middle of the investment process — something heretofore impossible to do. Look to see a lot of services develop around this ecosystem.
It’s like milk — for everyone
It’s a boon for Ameritrade — they can provide more services for their client base without developing them in-house. It’s a boon for consumers because they no longer have to wait on their broker to provide new services. It’s a boon for software developers because a move toward a platform puts them in business.
Maybe this was self-evident. Maybe others understood that this evolution was unfolding right in front of us. In fact, both Ameritrade and E*Trade have allowed 3rd party financial advisors access to their platform, technology, services and clients for years. Yet, I think this is a huge breakthrough in the understanding of what the future holds for these particular firms, their clients and technology development. It’s the financial industry’s equivalent of a mash-up.