Brad Keywell


What I’ve learned about scaling a Platform company

This month, Uptake signed the 20th partner in our Platform ecosystem. These collaborators range from companies that maintain some of our country’s largest manufacturing plants to providers of edge devices for our leading utilities.

The diverse group of partners that’s come together to augment the efficacy of Uptake’s insight is a testament to what our team has built, and to the power of a shared vision that insight is the foundational future of global industry.

While I’ve built and invested in many successful start-ups over the past 25 years, each venture still brings a new set of learnings. At Uptake, many of the lessons have arisen around the unique scaling path to greatness that must be navigated for Platform companies. This milestone prompted me to pause and take note – and share some learnings along the journey.

1. Bigger is better -- until it isn’t. A typical software start-up introduces an MVP (minimum viable product) to the market, attempts to quickly iterate in pursuit of product-market fit, and then rapidly scales to ensure leadership. That means linear and then exponential growth in headcount and marketing spend, and the number of employees becomes a relevant metric to gauge excellence.

Platform companies are different, particularly when they serve complex needs across global industries. Building Platform technology is expensive and time consuming, requiring tens and hundreds of thousands of hours of work before valuable functionality is manifested for customers. Referred to as NRE (non-recurring engineering), this major investment in talent and time must come very early in the life cycle. In other words, in order to create a true Platform with scalable value, you must expedite the exponential growth of the team.

Bigger is better, until it isn’t.

Once a Platform is mature, a different pattern emerges -- a team too large can hinder the agile extension of the Platform. With functional and extendable Platform-oriented tools, less time is required to get data into the Platform, configure applications on the Platform, connect the Platform to other systems, and more. Instead, the focus is on improving instructional documentation, broadening the developer community, and empowering channel partners to sell alongside (or on top of) the Platform.

Jeff Bezos’ two-pizza rule (of lean and accountable teams) has a correlation in Platform development, but I’m still considering what food metaphor is most appropriate (stay tuned!).  While Platform growth begins with a big bang, ultimately fewer people are required to refine and optimize each enabling function of a Platform company that’s reaching scale. Functions that may have been mission-critical during the early years must be refined and their staffing reduced. It’s akin to the Moon Shot: In 1966, nearly 420,000 people were working directly or indirectly for NASA, but by the time of the 1969 moon landing, that number had shrunk to 218,000 (i.e. nearly half the headcount over three years).

Right-sizing can be painful for both those leaving the company and those that commit to staying for the long haul. Yet it’s the only way to set up a Platform business for long-term, sustainable growth.

2. Figure out what you do well -- and just do it!  Breakthrough companies quickly home in on a product that customers crave, focusing on what matters most (to the exclusion of what ranks lower on the list of priorities). Oddly, I notice Platform company leaders talk about their technology as if it offers all things to all people, all customers, and all sectors.

This doesn’t make sense. At Uptake, we’ve taken the opposite approach – we do what we do best, which means we don’t do everything.

Uptake is a system of intelligence. As such, we partner with system-of-record companies that we augment with actionable insight. We also partner with innovative data-deriving companies whose data augments our actionable insight. Examples of our partners include the fleet management provider GeoTab, whose vehicle data we enhance with targeted actions to improve fleet reliability and productivity, and cloud computing platforms like AWS, allowing us to create profit-enhancing and efficiency-improving outcomes for our customers without any cloud transition.

Our emerging ecosystem builds upon our foundation of industrial intelligence expertise. Our continued growth will be manifested in growth in our application deployment, vertical industry specialists, and customer success teams, and this growth will be augmented by a growing set of partners. I’ve always liked the 1+1=3 equation, which refers to our company plus our customer equals exponential value.  But with the Uptake Platform, I’m seeing a new (and even better!) equation – 1+1+1=5 … Uptake plus our partner plus our customer equals a newfound magnitude of impact. This is what entrepreneurial excitement looks like!

3. Be your own customer first. Early on at Uptake, our leadership team debated a key strategic question: Are we a Platform company, an Apps company, or a Services company? One of our extraordinary Board members, former Oracle President and COO Ray Lane, helped settle this quickly by saying:

  • We win this space by becoming a Platform company with the most assets under management, highest data integrity, best insights, and biggest ecosystem
  • Platform companies win if they first launch a killer App that proves the value of the Platform
  • Our Apps and Platform will be optimized in success if we’re willing to be a Services provider some of the time

As we’ve executed on Ray’s framework, we’ve learned about the delicate interplay between Platform, Apps, and Services. There are two extremes of how not to do this, and to some extent (at times) we’ve fallen into both traps.

One is a mosh pit of tech teams building, iterating, and delivering to customers all at once. At its extreme, this results in custom solutions that don’t scale and a resulting lack of product vision. The other extreme is a trio of silos, where Services teams remain desperate for an App that serves their customer, and App teams are flummoxed by a Platform that doesn’t meet their needs. Neither extreme leads to a Platform ripe for ecosystem innovation and value creation.

Thankfully, we have created an environment at Uptake of high-velocity learning, powered by high-caliber expertise in so many directions. 

In pursuit of greatness, we’ve organized Uptake with one foundational principle: Be as maniacal about serving our ‘internal customers’ as we are about the success of our actual clients. In other words, in the food metaphor, we must love our cooking before serving it to our guests!  Our Platform Engineering teams serve the needs of our Product teams. The Apps our Product teams build serve the needs of our customer delivery teams in sectors like Energy, Mining, and Manufacturing. The virtuous cycle creates its own flywheel of exponential improvement – the type of flywheel from which everyone benefits.
At its best, this culture manifests itself in everything from pristine API documentation to a roadmap process that expertly synthesizes both market needs and the best ideas from within our team. We believe it’s crucial to create solutions that delight customers, applications that deliver value, and -- critically -- a Platform that’s turnkey-ready for companies who want us to hand over the keys.

We recently celebrated Uptake’s fifth anniversary, and everything still feels fresh. Our team is continuing to refine organizational structures and build ‘golden processes’, sharpen our strategic focus, and serve internal and external customers as optimally as possible. My gratitude is deep for the lessons learned thus far, my eyes are wide open to the new patterns that are emerging, and my sights are set on the 10x milestone of our 200th ecosystem partner! 


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© Brad Keywell 2021