Building On Someone Else’s Platform

Ryan Frederick
3 min readNov 21, 2023

OpenAI’s ChatGPT is the latest platform for startups to build products on top of, but certainly not the first. Salesforce, NetSuite, and others get built upon and extended by others. The case can be made that Apple and Google stores are the preeminent platforms facilitating people to build products and companies by leveraging their platforms. But, as the startup founder referenced above reinforces, building on top of someone else’s platform can be a risk not worth taking.

Building on top of someone else’s platform successfully means you have to solve a problem for users the platform brushes up against but isn’t going to solve because of the time, energy, and focus needed to solve the problem would be too much of a distraction for the platform company. The riskiest way to build on top of a platform is to fill a small functional gap or to build a module (set of features) that the platform would obviously want to be part of their platform at some point. Both of these approaches are high risk because the platform provider could easily add them without having to know much more than they do about the underlying problem, user value, and desired user experience. Creating a product on top of someone else’s requires the same strategy, approach, and understanding as creating an independent product.

Too many companies approach building on top of a platform as a shortcut…it isn’t. Treating it like a shortcut will have you writing a post lamenting the platform’s erosion of your product and business. The proper way to build on top of a platform is to think and act like you aren’t building on top of a platform. This focuses on how well you understand the problem, how closely you are iterating with customers on the problem and a solution, and the appropriate experience for them to value your solution. Yeah, the fundamentals of building any successful product.

Digging in and treating the product as if it didn’t have a platform dependency is often referred to as a thick wrapper extension of a platform rather than a thin wrapper, which provides little value and protection from the platform doing it, too. Thick wrapper products bring problems and customer centricity that extend and make the platform more valuable to customers who otherwise would not be using it or using it in a low-value, superficial way. Products extending platforms to specifically address deep and meaningful problems to customers that otherwise would be underserved by the platform are the path to add-on product success.

So why doesn’t everyone building a product on a platform do a thick versus thin wrapper? The short answer is that it’s harder. Building a think wrapper product is akin to building an independent, standalone product and all the associated understanding, work, time, and investment. In some cases, a thin wrapper product can be created in days, if not hours. Thin wrapper products are pressing the proverbial easy button and hoping you struck the time to capture lightning in a bottle. Thick wrapper products are long-term plays, while thin wrapper products are scratch-off lotto tickets. No one should be surprised when their scratching doesn’t produce a winner.

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