Striking The Right Balance With API Evangelist Partners

I get a lot of requests from individuals and companies who want to "partner" with me, with many meanings to what this actually means. As a one person operation I have to be very careful who I engage with, because it is very easy for large organizations, with more resources to drown me in talk, meetings, emails, and other alternatives to actually doing what it is that I do.

Another big challenge in partnering with new startups is that they often do not have a lot of money, lots of potential value, yet an unproven track record. I love believing in new startups, but in a world where they need me in the beginning, and not so much once they've made, I have to be wary any company that walks in the door. You may be a great bunch of folks, but once you pile on enough investors, and changes in executive management along the way--things change. 

I have a lot of startups, VCs, and other companies who love to engage with me, "pick my brain", "understand my expertise", "get my take on where things are going", "craft their strategy", and many other informal ways to tap the experience and perspective I bring to the table. Honestly I thrive on doing this, but after 5 years, and being screwed by numerous startups and open source projects, I am starting to get very weary about who I help.

I understand you are super excited about your new API idea, or service. I can easily get that way too! You see that excitement will fade once you get traction, become attractive to investors, and your willingness to work with me, share your ideas, tools, and resources with the community will fade. Twitter is the best example of this in the wild. No I didn't help Twitter get going, but I've seen the same syndrome play out with 50+ APIs and service provider startups in the last five years of operating.

Startups offer me equity to alleviate my concerns. Yawwwwn! Means nothing. I have a file in the filing cabinet of worthless options. Others offer me some sort of return on traffic I send to them, and conversions I generate. I guess this is a start, but it doesn't touch on the big partner deals I can often help in bringing to the table and educating, and general awareness I work to build in API sector. Traditional tracking mechanisms will only capture a small portion of the value I can potentially generate for an API startup, and honestly is a waste of our time.

This leaves me with just getting to know startups, and dating, as I like to say, for quite a while, before I engage too heavily. My only defense is to be really public with all my partnerships from day one. State publicly, that I am partnering with company X. Then tag each post, white paper, or research project that I do on behalf of a relationship. Don't get me wrong, I get a lot of value of this work I do, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it. However the line I want to draw in the sand, is just a public acknowledgement that I am helping this company figure out their strategy, tell stories, and help shape their layer of the API space.

This post is just me brainstorming a new tier of my partner program, which I'm thinking I will call "strategy and storytelling partners". When I am approached by, or discover a new API company that I find interesting, and I begin investing time and resources into this relationship, I will publish this company on my list of partners. These relationships almost always do not involve money, and usually involve a heavy investment on my part when it comes to helping them walk through strategy, and storytelling around their products, services, and potentially helping define and evolve the sector they are looking to operate within.

In the end, after several weeks of mulling over this subject I do not see any contractual, or technological solution to tracking how I help API startups in the space--it has to be a human solution. I will almost always share the existence of a partnership with a company from day one, and it is up to me to modulate how much "investment" I give, and as this benefits (or not) the startup, it will be up to the company itself to kick-back to me (and the community) as a payback. If you don't, and you end up taking or keeping the lion share of value generate by my work, and the community I bring to the table, it is on you. The timeline will be there for everyone else to judge. #karma