Six Things To Learn From the Big Guys: Opinion

The Age of the Platform, by Phil Simon
The Age of the Platform, by Phil Simon

In case you haven't noticed, four platform-based companies have fundamentally altered the business landscape, and the rest of us would be wise to adapt.

Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, aka the Gang of Four, thrive in a state of constant motion. They invite third parties to participate in their business in unconventional and collaborative ways. They harness the potential of emerging technologies. They change the way people behave and think. They welcome risk, experimentation and change.

No matter what your business does and how big it is, you can learn to be more like these four companies. Based on their business models, here are six lessons you can learn and apply.

Keep reinventing yourself.

In the Age of the Platform, companies that constantly reinvent themselves lead the pack. Keep adding planks to your platform. Start a newsletter. Become an expert at an online industry forum. Add new services or features to your suite of offerings. Find an underserved market niche and modify your product/services to fill their need. Write a white paper. Team up with a complementary business and share customers. Revamp your website. Whatever you do, don't stand still. The moving target survives.

Curate your customers.

Applecurates many passionate users and turns them into partners (app developers for their iPhone and iPad) who pay back profits. This is a win-win. How might your customers generate profit for you? Maybe you offer a reward for referring a new customer. Or create a wiki that enables customers to suggest new product lines. Think of new ways to get your customers expanding your brand for you. In the Age of the Platform, the fundamental relationship between a business and its customers is changing.

Let others' platforms do the work.

The Gang of Four shares each other's platforms; iTunes has its own Facebook page, for example. There are so many free and low-cost tech tools designed to build or expand your platform that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and others enable you to add planks such as blogs, plugins, widgets, integrated social networks, podcasts, videos, and the like. Groupon can bring customers to your business. enables a small company to act and operate like a big one. Sites like eLance allow you to connect with low-cost specialists of almost any vocation. All of the popular social media sites offer great free branding tools. Sites like Kickstarter enable entrepreneurs to test new product ideas in advance.

Expand in all directions.

What if Google had been satisfied with just being a search engine, or Apple had only made computers? Great platform companies understand that the more high-quality services and products you offer, the more customers and growth opportunities you'll attract. Diversifying invites serendipity and makes your company more resilient to unexpected changes in a market. Find something your company does really well and then use that as a starting place for a brand new endeavor. Perhaps you translate all of your marketing materials into Russian to serve the local Ukrainian community. You never know which new path will lead to unforeseen success.

Be sticky.

Attracting customers with your great products and services is step one. But getting them to stay with you — and only you — is the ultimate goal. With the launch of its Kindle Fire, Amazon just got stickier by making it easier for users to shop at Amazon and consume media and entertainment at Amazon than anywhere else. How can your business lure in customers and keep them there? With amazing customer service, follow-up, regular email specials, or contests? With interactive features at your website, birthday coupons, or preferred customer perks? Make it hard for your customers to want to go anywhere else.

Move quickly, and make small bets.

If you see an emerging need or trend in your industry, be the first one on your block to blog about it, ask your customers about it, and turn it into a new offering. You don't have to sink a lot of money into this new endeavor, but you do need to act decisively to beat your competitors. The worst that can happen is you'll fail. But you'll know how to improve it before any of your competitors do. Being first fearlessly is a characteristic of successful platform companies.

Phil Simon is the author of "The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business."