However one feels about sites like Freelancer, Upwork and People Per Hour, it’s difficult to deny that two-sided marketplaces have changed the face of on-demand work. Previously, freelancers have had to work (sometimes very hard) to ensure a constant flow of projects, and employers wasted resources finding expert talent.
But the work doesn’t always pay top dollar: in 2013 Elance-oDesk had over 8 million freelancers who did $750 million worth of work, which came out to a rather depressing $100 per freelancer. Of course, a high number of inactive accounts and other factors – like the fact that all of their projects are not equally divided between every freelancer – certainly skew this figure.
Still, the success of such sites proves the viability of what Steffen Breinholt refers to as a two-sided market model in a recent keynote in this space. When Breinholt calls Upwork a two-sided market model, he refers to the fact that the site acts as a platform that connects those who need tasks completed with those who are willing and able to complete those tasks. Many other digital startups like Thumbtack, TaskRabbit, and Uber embrace two-sided market models.
In this respect, these startups don’t function as a business in the traditional sense but instead act as platforms, a bridge that connects two distinct groups.
Steffen Breinholt presents at a Nordic APIs event
Here’s a little more on what Hedebrandt means when he talks about the idea of a business as a platform:
“Apple and Google have created these app stores where you can share whatever you build with people, rather than having this example of where you buy raw materials, create something, put it in a shop and hope that it sells.”
A huge number of businesses now focus on creating something ‘aaS’ (as a service), rather than a physical product. Even software giants like Microsoft and Adobe are getting in on this, offering their products through monthly subscription services like Office 365 and Creative Cloud.
So what does all of this have to do with APIs? On the face of it, perhaps not a whole lot. But below the surface there is a number of different ways in which APIs can be seen to shape the future of work.
APIs and “Experts”
One key use of many APIs is to save time by eliminating data entry and/or transferring data to the correct place automatically. A frequent outcome of this is that less manpower is needed but hiring someone capable of overseeing the process is still, if not a necessity, a good idea at the very least.
This is a situation that’s already here, or at least rapidly approaching: Slack already has a job board called Slack At Work, featuring jobs from companies that use their product. It’s worth noting that while Slack facilitates effective work processes — its use is not necessarily directly related to an outcome.
An example that rings even more true is the LeadPages a job board, which connects individuals who have LeadPages experience with website owners looking for landing page creators.
Speaking as someone who’s been contacted with one too many $5 per 1,000 word job offers, it’s exciting to think of a two-sided market in which freelancers are seen as expert consultants who can really add value. APIs by their nature increase the specialization in the market, and enable entirely new jobs to flourish — API consultants, brokers, evangelists, and more.
Minimum Viable Platform
Hedebrandt also talks about the idea of the Minimum Viable Platform. He defines this, in its most basic terms, as something that connects producers with consumers through value/interaction.
His use of the term interaction is an interesting one because it implies that a platform can be as simple as something that connects two existing entities. In these terms, that starts to sound a lot like an API.
The fitness space, in which many apps are built almost entirely on APIs, is an interesting place to look at some real-world examples of this. Although RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal and MapMyFitness are powerful products in their own right, they also offer powerful APIs. It’s not difficult to imagine a platform that connects to many different APIs to provide a holistic picture of a user’s health. In fact, API platform aggregation is common practice, especially within travel booking sites like Kayak.
The creation of so-called Minimum Viable Platforms is interesting because it has two consequences:
- The APIs being used must be reliable and scalable
- It fits with the idea of API experts, with knowledge of multiple different programs, using a Minimum Viable Platform to streamline an element or elements of work
But is anyone actually doing this in practice? Actually, yes. Chatlio is a live chat product whose primarily selling point is a deep bi-directional integration with Slack. It’s fair to say that Chatlio or competitor Slaask could not exist in their current forms without Slack’s API.
APIs and Working Smarter
With distributed teams becoming common, we don’t how much longer the traditional office setup will be relevant. A boss being able to use his smartphone to unlock the front door and turn the lights on as he arrives at work is cool, but it’s a hardly useful example of the Internet of Things at work.
Now, let’s think about freelancers might use APIs to improve their work processes. Beyond the obvious examples like importing invoice data into financial management or tax programs, there are other more innovative applications.
For example, an employee could use data from a word processing or design application to track personal productivity, or to determine when the best time for them to take a break is. This isn’t a standard feature in Creative Cloud in 2016, but it’s an exciting possibility that could be just around the corner.
In the workplace of the future, APIs could be used to import health data from employee wearables or output rates from their workstations. Data could be used in conjunction with heating/cooling systems to calculate temperatures for maximum efficiency or even suggest when employees might be due to take a break.
Without well-designed IoT APIs that enable all of this data to play together nicely, it isn’t possible to create a hyperconnected workplace that serves an actual purpose.
APIs and Audiences
When discussing how to effectively create a platform framework, Hedebrandt mentions the importance of getting both sides of a two-sided market on board. This is another situation in which APIs can be useful, especially for freelancers who may have little to no knowledge of the best way(s) to build an audience from scratch.
In one slide, he outlines the way in which Value is the bridge between Producers (Supply) and Consumers (Demand). If we continue to think in terms of APIs, the Producer is the API provider and the Consumer is their customer base. One way to offer Value is to tap into the needs of the Consumer, solving a problem that the API provider doesn’t.
Yodlee is one example of a company that did something similar to this by providing automated bank feeds for financial software companies where there was no system in place to import this data automatically. OneSaaS is another organization that uses multiple APIs to champion business automation.
The point is that, piggybacking on one or more API platforms can immediately grant access to their audience. From there, it’s just a matter of finding the best way to tap into that audience. It’s not uncommon for API providers to promote particularly popular or robust offerings in email newsletters, on social media or even on their main site:
There’s no shortage of buzz around how technological advancements like automation and artificial intelligence will shake up the concept of work, with most concluding that it threatens to put much of the world’s workforce out of a job.
Over the next few years the world of work is set to change in all sorts of interesting – and sometimes a little scary – ways and, although APIs may not necessarily be the main driver behind that change, they are useful when thinking about this situation for two reasons.
Firstly, what some fail to see is that APIs are, in some respects, an early form of automation replacing human workers. Although they can do plenty of others things as well, two common uses of APIs are to eliminate or reduce data (re-)entry and automate processes that would otherwise have to be done manually.
The second reason is that once this technology is out there, there’s no going back. With that in mind, it seems that the best thing for us to do is look for opportunities that stem from this change. Namely:
- Connectivity consultants, brokers who specialize in multiple platforms may come to be seen as true experts, rather than just hired guns
- More efficient work processes by leveraging APIs in the Internet of Things
- Gaining access to existing audiences through the use of a product’s API(s), with the possible endgame of…
- Creating new Software-as-a-Service products that function solely as a bridge between one or more existing APIs and end users
This should be encouraging not just to those who understand and work with APIs, but to the general public, as they are inevitably affected by this industry disruption. It’s exciting to think about, for example, a service that can use data from a medical API in conjunction with something like MyFitnessPal to identify predispositions to certain problems and suggest dietary changes.
APIs are already changing the game for freelancers and it seems there’s little doubt that the future is bright for API providers and consumers.