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Lessons: PayPal Dev Conference

PayPal’s developer conference in early November, the company’s first such event, gave some good lessons for tech companies that want to create their own developer communities. Since that seems to include most tech firms these days, we thought it might be helpful to point out some of the lessons, both positive and negative…

The backstory. About a year ago, eBay (PayPal’s owner) changed CEOs. According to the new management team, they decided to put more focus on growing PayPal, and specifically on embracing developers to do it. You can debate whether this was a visionary decision or a reaction to competition from Amazon Flexible Payments Service, but at any rate PayPal has spent much of the last year creating new offerings for developers, a process that culminated in the developer conference.

What worked well
Solve real developer problems. Companies recruiting third party developers typically create a set of APIs, toss them on the market, and then tell developers to “go be creative.” That sometimes works, but there is a lot of demand on the time of software developers, and if you can’t imagine how they will use your technology, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to do so either. Yes, you do want to enable innovation that you didn’t anticipate, but if you want to get developer adoption quickly, it’s important to also do your best to solve particular developer problems.

PayPal went out of its way to make its APIs easy to use, and to tailor them for the needs of developers. For example, we were shown a live demo of how you add PayPal payments to an iPhone app. The process was slick. You open the iPhone development environment, link to a code library written by PayPal (that’s a one-click operation), and then paste into your app a section of code provided by PayPal. You change one line in that code to insert your PayPal vendor ID. Compile your app, and a PayPal payments button appears in your application.
That’s how it should be. Especially for an ingredient technology like payments, it’s important to make adoption brain-dead simple for developers. That means you need to take responsibility for creating things like code samples and link libraries.

Hang out with friends. PayPal has engaged with some large computing companies to support its new APIs. SAP was on stage with them, and used PayPal to pay an $18,000 corporate invoice online, not the sort of transaction you usually expect to do with PayPal. IBM did an hour-long session on its cloud computing platform, and how it integrates with the PayPal APIs. The endorsements were impressive, and should have given developers a sense of safety about working with PayPal.

Get endorsed. PayPal had Tim O’Reilly deliver its keynote at the end of the first day. O’Reilly talked about the web as a giant distributed operating system, with PayPal providing a set of APIs in that OS. O’Reilly is a celebrity influencer among web app companies, and having him at their conference was an important endorsement.

Areas for improvement
It’s not about you. It was clear that PayPal’s executives were pumped about the conference, because they told us so over and over again. Several times they did the “Are you excited????” call and response routine that you normally use at employee communication meetings. They seemed to be disappointed at the half-hearted response from the audience.

They also spent a lot of time telling us how great PayPal is — how it’s going to double in size in the next three years, how it’s driving “the new wave of payments innovation,” and how developers are going to help PayPal achieve all of that.

It’s a great message to PayPal employees and investors, but the wrong message to send to developers. App developers do not get excited about making someone else rich; they get excited about someone else making them rich. And they’re not pumped up to be at the start of a developer conference; they are excited at the end, after you’ve shown them how much they can do with your technology.

This is especially true for an ingredient technology like PayPal. If you’re creating a new smartphone OS, your installed base is directly relevant to developers because the more users you have, the more units they can sell. But PayPal’s installed base of stores is much less directly tied to the success of developers who use it.

If you’re ever asked to make the opening remarks at your company’s developer conference, say something like this:

“Thanks very much for coming. We’re grateful that you’ve chosen to work with us, and we’re very excited by the things we’ll be telling you about today. You are the foundation of our success. We’re dedicated to helping you create awesome products that no one else on Earth could build, and we want to help you grow your company like a weed and become wildly profitable. To help with that process, our engineers will be holding hands-on code camps until 3 am tomorrow morning, and we’ll have an endless supply of Dove bars in the lobby. Now let’s demo those new APIs…”

(Note: This post was co-authored while at Rubicon. We didn’t have a current or past business relationship with PayPal or eBay. We did receive a free pass to their conference, which was nice of them.)

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