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  • Manfredi Sassoli

Platforms for Good

It has been 8 months since my last post and after an extremely interesting week I would like to share some of my views on things, particularly in regards to platform businesses, their evolution and how strategy and marketing, (top-down and bottom-up), can be joined to maximise the chances of success for a start-up.

The landscape

 Clearly platforms are increasingly running the world we live in, from Google to Facebook, from Alibaba to Tencent, from Spotify to Youtube, from LinkedIn to Coursera, to name just a few. These are companies that have raised massive funds, reached huge scale and often delivered great returns for investors.

Over the past couple of years these platforms have come under increasing scrutiny. Sure it may be fascinating how a company with no cars is the biggest mobility player, but the fact that a company owned by a handful of individuals has such influence doesn't help in terms of wealth distribution and overall economic stability. Cooper Ramos explores the concept well in his book The Seventh Sense (2016). Similarly, over the past 12 months NYU professor Scott Galloway has been criticising how the GAFA's (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) have too much power in our society, own all of our data and it's absurd they pay almost no tax. He rightly talks about how there needs to be more regulation around these firms. (Full disclosure I have managed large scale marketing campaigns for two of the GAFAs).

Those who know me are aware that I have spent a good amount on time over the past two years studying platform design and strategy. I do this through reading, following specific courses and through my work, (working on platform businesses).

On one hand I am absolutely convinced that a platform strategy delivers a competitive advantage at the business model level, so if execution is kept consistent it's a winning formula all the time. On the other I am concerned by the societal impact of the mega platforms and any other platform that is to come, as inevitably the model will increase in adoption as every sector gets disrupted.

Do we want our education, our healthcare and our money to be managed all by the same people, when these organisations are working exclusively to maximise shareholder value?

Clearly not, but what is the answer?

The positive angle

This week I was invited to join the Boundaryless Community Summit, a two days brainstorming session attended by about 20 platform strategy practitioners from different backgrounds: engineers, strategy consultants, marketers, philosophers, economists, service designers, product managers and entrepeneurs. All participants were familiar with the PDT (platform design toolkit), created by Simone Cicero, who was chairing the event.

I came across Cicero's PDT as I started to research content on platform strategy. Beyond certain books, a few in depth articles and a couple of specialist courses, there is very little quality content to be found on the matter: the PDT blog is in my view among the best source of information and insight out there. The toolkit is also quite unique in that it gives us a structure for designing platforms.

Planning for success in this day and age should not be about creating a disruptive platform, but designing a solution that enhances an ecosystem. Secondly I am glad to share the fact that over the past few days It has become clearer to me how platforms can become a force for good and how this can help them succeed, (but in a good way).

On the macro level, all platforms have governments as stake holders. Including them from day one and bringing them on board can give any business a huge benefit, after all favourable regulations, access to large reach and potentially funding, is likely to help any business. To achieve this, (and I am no expert here), my view is that firms should have a positive return that goes beyond share holder value but crosses into social and environmental impact. This should not be exclusively a PR move to "appear green", but something that is intrinsically a result of the business model.

In a pure capitalistic economy this can't work. Or maybe it can.

Surely on a macro top-down level collaborating with the public sector rather than competing with it is always a better option.

There are also benefits on the micro, bottom-up level. The conversation might get a bit philosophical now, but bare with me.

As humans we are drawn to a number of vices. Linkedin arguably capitalises on our greed, as we want to leverage the tool for our career, Instagram most likely capitalises on our vanity, Deliveroo capitalises on our laziness, etc.

Having said that, as humans we are also better than that. When we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at the top we find self actualisation, and this often is linked to altruistic goals. As humans a part of us wants to contribute to something that is greater than just ourselves....and this is the stuff of communities!

Digital technologies have given us the ability to create huge online communities that mobilise ecosystems. Such communities could evolve around negative values, but also around positive ones.

This insight can prove very valuable in platform design. We know that platforms need to be designed for the growth and development of its participants, but a growth that is based purely on monetary values is finite and can generate negative network effects. If on the other hand growth is designed on positive intangible assets, it is potentially infinite and self fulfilling. If a platform can truly tap into the self-actualisation of individuals, when aimed at altruistic goals, then it will create a very strong community and advocacy. Mumsnet is a great example of a platform like this, where there is a real community, one where gratification comes from giving valuable advice to others.

So on a micro level, a healthy positive reinforcement mechanism, leads to true advocacy, which is an extremely powerful lever for the growth of a company; such advocacy can build a true community which is a strong asset in terms of defensibility.

Some of these concepts are certainly not new, social engineering as a concept has been around for a while. What is new for me is the clear vision of how a commercial platform organisations can beat the GAFAs and have a positive impact.

This does not mean one could beat Google at Search, but it opens up the possibility for competition in new verticals, (healthcare, education, legal, property etc.), which to me it's great news.

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