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A Platform Is Meaningless Unless It's A Platform For Making People's Lives Better

Images: Eugene Sergeev via Shutterstock

What is a platform? It’s a slippery concept to pin down. And perhaps that’s why we struggle to build great ones. Not just those people grudgingly use — but those people love, adore, admire, respect, flock to, that, because they become an indispensible part of the fabric of people’s lives, endure, grow, and resonate, not stagnate, wither, and languish.

Here’s how you probably think of a platform, if you paid attention in B-school: An asset that other people can use to build their own products and services atop.

Here’s how we should think of platforms. Things which elevate people’s lives. That’s what "platforms" really are, right? Things which raise us up higher than we could stand on our own. Our challenge is building more of those. The real thing.


When we think of platforms the old way, we begin without a point. We might even be successful at making assets that other people use to build products and services atop. But it’s not often that people use those products and services. Even the most successful companies in the world struggle.

Remember Google Plus? What was the point? Not much. Platforms fail when most of the products and service on those platforms fail to benefit people in real, enduring, and meaningful ways. When they offer little to no real human impact — because they had little purpose to deliver it in the first place. And so such platforms end up cluttered with the tedious, mediocre, humdrum — and drowned by them. They're prone to what economists call adverse selection, where they offer up more bitter lemons than succulent oranges. Who wants to wade through an endless sea of that? If you see being a platform as simply a game of making an asset that delivers products and services, not impact, then the truth is that even if you succeed, you’ll probably fail.

When you look at truly successful platforms, it’s impact, often dramatic, radical, life-changing, that they all share in common. NikePlus makes people better runners and athletes. Apple’s App Store can increase your productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, relaxation, and so on, with a few taps. Netflix helps us enjoy things a little more efficiently and effectively. In other words, they offer us not just more stuff — but impact. And that’s why they are an indispensable part of the fabric of people’s lives.

So what really distinguishes successful platforms from others? The point. Hence, it’s time that we redefined the concept, so that it has a human meaning again — not just a sterile, pointless managerial one, which is the best guarantor of our own demise. The truth is that the things we call platforms often aren’t. A platform, if we think about what the word means, is really something that elevates. That we can stand atop, and be lifted a little higher. But most platforms don’t do that very much, if at all. They don’t elevate us. They don’t raise us up to our full potential. But that’s exactly what NikePlus and the App Store help do, and why they have a magical effect on people.

Here’s what I mean by elevation. For every dollar invested in a platform, it delivers not just stuff, but impact. That it should change and transform people’s lives for the better, the more radically, the better.

That’s what we’re all really after, right? The elevation of our potential. Not just more stuff, bits, digits cluttering up our busy, weary lives — but the capacity, and then the ability, to create, imagine, build, relate, connect, rebel, love, better. That is the one thing that the stagnant economy can’t seem to deliver to us — and so when someone does, we’re not just grateful, we’re a surprised, amazed, and stick to it like glue.

So what is a platform? You can think of it in the old way. As an asset others build products and services upon. But it’s probably wiser to put a little bit of human meaning in that stale and often pointless definition, which has led too many nowhere.

Platforms are things we stand atop. The key word is atop. What is really elevated by a platform? Human lives .A platform something that elevates people’s lives. It’s something that raises people up. Into the heights of their potential. That’s not a vague nostrum, but a razor-sharp reality. Think of Michael Porter’s Social Progress Index. It tracks people’s quality of life: how healthy, happy, connected, and so truly prosperous they are — whether they have grown as people. Does your platform increase social progress? Does it truly elevate people’s potential for better lives?

The truth is that you’ll likely have to create, innovate, invent the "metrics", the measures, the statistics, so you can begin to measure how much your platform elevates people. You’re probably going to have to create new roles for people to create them. Now you’re understanding the power of reimagining what a platform is. It changes everything, from structure to strategy, because it changes a purpose. From something’s that’s meaningless, to something that brims over with meaning.

If you can build a real platform, which elevates people’s lives, you’ve got a shot — nothing more, that’s the hard truth — at earning people’s love, devotion, admiration, respect. Your platform might just become an indispensable part of people’s lives. Because it’s done what a real platform should. Raised them up into who they can be.