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Building the G.O.A.T: Industry Platforms
Founder and Partner, Tidemark
This is the capstone, the pinnacle for the Vertical SaaS Knowledge Project. This essay describes the highest possible state of what a VSV can be. Admittedly, it’s aspirational, and more theory than facts and figures. But hey, you didn’t come to play the game; you came to win it all.
Let’s suspend disbelief and take the plunge. If, at the end of this essay, you are a believer, come talk to us. We’d love to go on the journey with you to build the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) Vertical SaaS platform together.
The Point of Arrival: Multi-Stakeholder Platforms
In previous essays, we’ve argued that a VSV’s progression should be Win the Control Point→Expand Offerings→Extend through Value Chain. The goal should be to win the control point of a single company by becoming the steward of the most important data or process of a business. Next, expand offerings such as payments, payroll, and insurance to increase LTV. From there, you extend through the value chain to other stakeholders: suppliers, employees, and consumers to increase TAM.
A multi-stakeholder workflow is valuable for all of the typical fiscal reasons (going multi-product, increasing TAM), but more important is the strategic value it offers. Engaging with multi-party stakeholders cements you as the crucial connector of an industry.
If a VSV has progressed to this point, they have a shot at becoming the control point for the entire industry.
In doing so, you will not only reap economic rewards. You will also massively reduce risk, remove coordination costs, and wholly transform the consumer experience for the entire industry. Everyone’s lives become easier, and you glean significantly more profit. When you have reached this point—when you serve multiple stakeholders simultaneously—you have reached the status of an industry platform, the GOAT, the highest level of the VSV pantheon.
Two Types of Multi-Stakeholder Platforms
There are a few ways a company can become a multi-stakeholder platform. Today, I’ve put the two that I think are most promising:
Follow the Workflow
When you have multiple stakeholders on your software, the most natural extension is to coordinate work between these parties. Sequencing and orchestrating these multi-stakeholder activities is an easy win, since manual workflows across multiple parties default to being slow, ineffective, and expensive.
A great example of this is car insurance software provider CCC. CCC has all the stakeholders—the estimator, the towing company, the insurance provider, the autobody shop, the parts supplier, and the consumer—mingling on its software, so it can automate the entire process of assessing a car accident and repair. You can go from car totaled to car repaired as quickly as possible, and all managed on your iPhone. It’s as close to delightful as a car accident can be!
Workflows that have any or all of these characteristics between stakeholders are good candidates for extension:
- Compounding delays that cascade to slow down everyone involved: “I missed your email,” “I forgot to send the check,” etc.
- Complex conditionality and decision making are a pain to manage. Think of something as simple as an if/then statement. If an invoice is > $1,000, then send it to Jill. If it’s less than $1,000, send it to Joe, etc. All of that workflow being manual, or custom-coded, is an awful experience.
- Bad handoffs are abundant, with parties not knowing when it is their turn in the process.
- Manual paperwork is prone to being rife with human input errors, time waste, and overall hassle.
What you want is something akin to what we in the finance world would call “straight-through processing.” This is where the sequence of steps is set out ahead of time, handoffs are digital and instantaneous, and everything just works.
There are relatively few Follow the Workflow industry platforms so far. I think it is probably harder to get to FTW because everyone’s workflow is a bit unique—it drives competitive advantage, and people just like to do things differently. But that's not to say that there can't be FTW industry platforms: Built Technologies is an example in construction payments. Before each participant in construction is paid, they need to waive their liens. This standard is mandated by the lenders who are providing capital.
Our research indicates that the best bets for FTW industry platforms are industries that are standardized across stakeholders via regulation (food or healthcare) or supply chains where tight coordination drives economics (real estate). Again, this is the frontier. Great founders are building these as we speak!
Single Source of Truth
If you’ve ever traded files, you’ll know about the dreaded Presentation_Final_Version_V7. Drafts are flying back and forth, edits are happening all over the place, and the data is a mess. If you apply this to the scale of an industry, you can see how powerful it is to be the single source of truth for coordinating industry activity. Data standardization offers many more ways to become an industry platform relative to FTW. I’ve seen 10 ways to act as a central source of truth:
1) Identity: There is no more powerful data asset to own than identity. Software companies that make identity the foundation of their product can rapidly move from infrastructure to a true platform spanning multiple connected companies. At the extreme, a software company can build a network that empowers identity that is portable from enterprise to enterprise. If you own identity, you have a unique right to expand into adjacent software suites.
2) Product Record: A software provider can coordinate a piece of data about a customer to facilitate multiple use cases. Let’s take the dental technology company Dandy as an example. They will scan a patient's teeth to create an accurate 3D visualization. That visualization acts as a transactable record, as the dentist can use it to order a new mold, guard, etc. A third-party dental lab can then use the scan as a buildable record to help fabricate the dental mold. Finally, the visualization can be used to show the progress of the patient, opening up cross-sell opportunities for other treatments. In this case, the master record becomes a sellable record. And this progression of transactable→buildable→sellable applies to more than just teeth! The framework is broadly applicable across Vertical SaaS.
3) Financial Data: Financial performance needs to be understood not only at a single level but at multiple layers of a value chain. This need arises when there is either distributed ownership or distributed operations. For example, every real estate asset involves a painful amount of people. There’s an asset-level operator who will get economics or ownership in the performance of that asset. Surrounding them will be the people who financed the property—these financiers range from equity providers to debt providers like banks. Sometimes, you’ll have an additional complication where equity providers are an investor consortium, all of whom will demand performance data. It is financial chaos.
What is needed is a single source of truth on the asset financials. That source can be viewed with various lenses on economics based on which of the stakeholders is pulling the data. And all of this has to happen on a single software package! Again, chaos—but for the operators who can execute this play, it allows for a special version of data gravity.
Appfolio is the best real-world example. I chatted with Jason Randall, CEO of Appfolio, about how they got everyone on board:
Jason: We built out a system of engagement early on, so our property managers could easily engage with owners. Then we started to look at other opportunities there. A couple of years ago, we launched a new product, AppFolio Investment Management, for real estate investment managers. That product is for investors who are raising money and distributing funds out to a pool of investors all based in real estate. The product talks to AppFolio Property Manager, but you buy this independently to do your CRM, your distributions, and everything else. It’s a great example of us ticking up the ladder to find a new constituent to sell to.
Dave: Is it a workflow that links these different entities? Or is it different panes of glass on the same financials? Or both?
Jason: It’s mostly a data share. You’re operating the units over here and over there, and you’re facilitating the tracking and moving of the money based on the fund that you raised. There is key data being exchanged there, but they’re two separate workflows. The important part is, yes, we have overlap, and we have customers who are using both, but we’re also able to sell to non-AppFolio customers who are just raising money and then outsourcing the running of the units. It lets us move into a bigger pool.
4) Central Design: This source of truth occurs when everybody's using the same master plan to coordinate interdependent work. Imagine a tool like Figma that works across company boundaries and isn’t exclusively for digital goods. When implemented properly, a central design eliminates the need for version control. Changes, down to the minute details, all flow through this document. I wrote a more detailed guide on this use case in Design to Build. Companies like Xometry are placing CAD designs at the center of manufacturing customer products, while companies like Procore are fulfilling similar roles in construction.
5) Bill of Materials/Components: The bill of materials (BoM) will already incorporate component information, performance data, and maintenance routines, and have all those facts centralized. Even more powerfully, all of this data will be within the design context and universally accessible. By using the BoM as the single source of truth, you can more easily get all stakeholders to agree—it’s a rare document format that both the design and finance departments can understand. If it’s a common payer across multiple constituents, the BoM becomes even more powerful.
Returning to one of my favorite examples, CCC shows how powerful this document can be. They use the BoM to describe how components are to be repaired, what replacement parts are acceptable, how much those parts should cost, and how to verify the quality of the repair and the roadworthiness of the fixed vehicle. Utilizing the BoM as the source of truth is sometimes frustrating for founders who want to radically change an industry (Viva la software revolution!). However, leaning into the BoM is a smart play. There is a reason every business since 1950 has been using these forms: they work.
6) Joint or Group Quotes: By coordinating the bid of multiple parties interested in a project, you can act as the source of truth through the bidding process. Procore is a great example of this capability. They help owners (consumers), general contractors (core merchant customers), and specialist general contractors (suppliers) communicate and contract all on the same software platform. For larger bids, multiple contractors can band together, or a general contractor can coordinate their activity. This use case is particularly powerful in industries that compete on their ability to efficiently manage requests-for-quote processes like defense contracting, government services, or public works.
7) Product authenticity and information: Regulatory or industry reporting needs to be sourced from multiple parties throughout a supply chain. Once again, software solves this. For medical or defense goods, for example, there are stringent requirements for how goods are handled, and who handles them. In practice, this looks like Tracelink: they perform this service for 1300+ companies in 50 countries, ensuring that everyone in the supply chain is following US law around pharmaceutical handling. Telling executives, “We will make sure the U.S. government doesn’t throw you in jail,” is a very good pitch.
8) Multi-party compliance: An increasing number of goods and services are provided collaboratively by multiple parties. This typically looks like a partnership between a customer-facing company and its supply chain. To attest to local and national regulations or manage liability and risk, a company needs to be able to have a collective view across its supply chain. Even for non-mandatory compliance use cases (e.g., environmental and social good guidelines), the emphasis is shifting from corporate to entire supply chain emissions.
9) Liability: In many industries, liability is structured as a waterfall—meaning that one company’s liability and insurance coverage is supported by the coverage of its suppliers. For instance, if the windows of a house collapse, a general contractor may be liable but can access the insurance coverage of the window installer. For everyone in the value chain, it is key to know the insurance coverage, and qualifications to be covered, of your supplier. For more on this strategy, check out our Avetta case study.
10) Embedded Financial Services: Finally, you can consider software-enabled financial services across these multiple stakeholders. Being the payment layer allows you to function as a system of record for all the transactions in an industry. Because you have everyone on the same platform, you will naturally have opportunities to pool risk. In doing so, you can either provide insurance products directly or facilitate third-party insurance or lending products. I have yet to see this practice fully implemented by a VSV, but it is just a matter of time.
[In Bill We] Trust
If all this coordination strategy stuff sounds similar to web3/ ledgers/ smart contracts, that’s because, conceptually, it is! The big difference is that a VSV actually works. In comparison with companies in the digital monkey-flipping business, VSVs pursuing this strategy have many years of consistent profits and cash flows.
These vendors have built trust with stakeholders who are on the opposite sides of zero-sum transactions by being fair, transparent, and oriented towards the long-term. This stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical crypto playbook of automated trust via whitepaper, computational greatness, or auction/ game theory.
I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon on crypto! But it’s important to highlight the incredible industry commitment, the multi-year (sometimes multi-decade) marathon of innovation and stewardship, that is required to be an industry platform. Perhaps industry platforms can be accelerated by the introduction of a token and community ownership, but as of right now, that’s currently a sideshow to the main event. There isn’t a way to speed-run trust—it has to be earned, and VSVs have the multi-year brands and working relationships to make this happen.
To bring this to life, Githesh, CEO of CCC, describes decades of building trust in our interview:
“You have multiple participants in a transaction, so sometimes the incentives are misaligned, or there are inherent conflicts because each side is trying to optimize something slightly different…We have to be understood as the neutral, objective third-party arbiter of information…
… Integrity wasn't free. It bounded what we would even consider, but it’s the basis of our reputation. We’ve seen the power of that integrity, especially as we branched into adjacent areas. We have gone from working with insurers to repair facilities, repair facilities to parts providers, and parts providers to OEMs. We've made these transitions to adjacent verticals and adjacent industries; they all check back with others, and because of the longevity (people usually stay in this industry for a very long time), we've been enormous beneficiaries of word-of-mouth. As people move from company to company or industry to industry, that integrity is paid off massively.
Once you build this trust, you have the potential to transform the industry you serve with whatever system-of-record strategy you choose to pursue. You’ll encourage efficiency via straight-through processing and providing a single source of truth across all stakeholders. This increase in efficiency will enable you to take massive costs out of the system (and hopefully capture some of that value). By pooling risk, you have an opportunity to provide insurance products to manage down the risk for industry stakeholders. And because you took time, cost, and friction out of the system, you can change the experience for consumers.
This is the point of arrival for a vertical SaaS company. If you have reached this destination, congratulations, you’ve won! The market is now yours to lose, and profits await.
What we’re describing is not just a vertical SaaS phenomenon—you transform into a platform. We’re seeing software platforms emerge everywhere we look. We were so excited by this trend that we launched a podcast called The Platform Journey with Avanish Sahai (exec at Salesforce, Servicenow, and Google, and on the board of Hubspot). We’ve also published other series on where we are seeing this transition to “industry platforms”—our first essay is on Supplier Networks.
Share your thoughts
We love the idea of bringing together a community to explore the boundaries of Vertical SaaS and are excited by what we can learn from each other. If you have thoughts or comments or want to get involved, reach out to us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.
CASE STUDIES RELATED TO THIS CHAPTER:
This chapter is part of:
Extend through the Value Chain
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