Developer Portal
16 March, 2016

8 mins

Attracting Developers to your App Marketplace

Developers are the most valuable prize for tech companies. In 2011, Shopify announced a $1 million dollar developer fund to help developers build apps for their platform – ok, that’s cute. In 2015, Slack announced an $80 million dollar fund to help developers build apps for their platform – oh snap, that’s a good chunk of change. But it all pales in comparison to the company that Forbes magazine named “Most Innovative Company in the World” four years in a row. Salesforce spends nearly one hundred million of dollars every year to attract developers and Dreamforce has become one of the largest and influential conferences in history.

There’s a special reason why I’m bringing all this up. It’s because, when you finally do start reaching out to developers, I want you to understand that 1 developer is worth 1,000 customers. I know that I’m making a broad generalization about your industry but you get what I mean. They’re valuable!

Partners vs Developers

This article talks only about attracting developers, not partners. There’s a huge difference. Their motivations, goals, interests, walk, talk – everything is different. Let me paint a picture for you.

A developer is an individual (can also be company), probably male, between the ages of 18 and 32 years old. He’s got a full time job as a programmer, enjoys heavy metal music and has a deep interest in cool gadgets. Developers build apps because they:

1) Love your product and want to use it to make something cool – “The Hacker”

2) Have a great idea and think that they can make some cash – “The Assassin”

A partner is a company with a product, genderless (as corporations are), between the ages of 2 and 150 years old. It’s got a full time job promoting it’s own product, enjoys making money and has a deep interest in increasing sales. Partners build apps to create a bridge that’s aimed at getting more sales for their product.

Know Your Developers

The first step in attracting developers is to create a developer persona. A developer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal developer (like that picture I painted for you). Below are a few questions that would be helpful to answer:

Is my developer likely to be an individual or a company?

What is the single, most important motivation for my developer? 

  • Fun, creativity, self achievement
  • Money
  • Sales
  • To solve their own technical problems

How skillful is my developer

  • n00b (beginner)
  • 133t (professional)

Where does my developer live?

  • U.S.
  • China
  • Europe

What language does my developer speak?

What are my developer hobbies or interests?

Developer Portal

The next step to creating a developer program is to create a developer portal. A developer portal is the home base for all of your developers. It’s where they go to read articles, check out documentation, ask questions and sign up for a developer account. Getting developers to sign up for an account is important! If you don’t know the names and email addresses of your developers then you don’t have a developer community.

Attracting Developers

Now that you have a clean, easy to use developer portal, let’s attract some developers. There are three sources of developers and you’re going to want to start building your community by focusing on each source in order:

1. Intrapreneurs

Intrapreneurs are employees within your own organization and they are the first people that you need to attract. Try and get a company wide commitment to have your developers, product managers, testers, CEO or whomever build the first few apps. Turn it into a challenge and make it a matter of honour, pride and conflict between teams. Don’t forget to have them use the developer portal to communicate their ideas, questions, answers and insights – their PUBLIC enthusiasm will become contagious (and important) for the next source of developers.

Every year Yammer throws a themed, week long, hackathon and team building event. This year it was a Jurassic Park themed competition called Jurassic Hacks. I was there and let me tell you – that isht was banannas!

2. Customers

Customers are a great (and maybe your biggest) source of developers. You’ve already got their name and email address but now you’ll have to identify the customers that are motivated to build apps. It’s estimated that 90% of an early app ecosystems are comprised of customers that are looking to build apps to solve their own problems.

As a first step, talk with your tech support team and find any customers that have been requesting features that you don’t support. Let them know that you’re opening up your platform to app development and see if they would be interested in building an app to satisfy their needs.

Also, it’s generally a good idea to add a page to your support site that allows customers to submit and vote on feature requests. This will become an idea goldmine later on for developers looking to make money from app development.

In order to convert a consistent stream of customers into developers, advertise your developer program on your website, blog and support pages.

3. External Sources

Attracting developers from external sources is tough but highly rewarding since that in most cases, attracting a new developer will mean that you have also won a new customer. To attract developers from external sources, it will be important to begin creating a funnel (similar to a marketing funnel) to help drive traffic to your developer portal.

Developer Blog

Write about your product, industry, common technical problems and how your product can be used to solves them. Inbound marketing is not just for attracting customers, it’s also fully applicable to attracting developers. Try and answer all the common questions that you get from your customers and publish articles describing the right solution. Developers are always trying to solve problems, increase efficiency, reduce costs and improve their understanding – feed them.

Also, encourage your developers to guest post on your developer blog. Let them talk openly about the problems they had and how they used your product to overcome them. Make sure to credit the developer and post their picture up on the article. Let them take pride in their work.

Seminars, Training and Workshops

Vision Mobile published the results of a developer survey showing that IoT Developers value the structured learning of workshops over other events such as meetups and hackathons.

I recommend avoiding live, one-time events like meetups and hackathons because they are much too local and lack scalability which results in a lot of work for a limited amount of gain. The benefit of online (recorded) seminars, training and workshops is that it can be posted on developer forums, youtube and other sources to help attract developers over a long period of time.

Quora and Stack Overflow

Developers everywhere use Quora and Stack Overflow to find answers to their problems. Sign up and contribute to all the questions that involve your industry or expertise. Become a thought leader and show all the developers out there that you have awesome technology that can be used to solve their problems.

For example, let’s say that you are in the business of generating QR codes. Lets also say that the following question is posted on Stack Overflow: “What are the best Java libraries for generating QR Codes?”. It’s a dream come true! Post an answer and don’t forget to add a link to your developer portal. Now every developer with the same question is going to see your post and follow your link.


Github is another amazing marketing tool for reaching developers but it only works if you have some open source code. Ideally, you’ll want to be able to post some small, simple project that is relevant to your product and solves a need for a large number of your target customers.

For example, if we are in the business of online marketing then you could open source a project that scans a user’s website and returns a score indicating the search engine friendliness of the site.

More Valuable than Developers

There is one type of user that outranks even a developer. One type of user that has the power to turn your sleepy, little, village of a developer community into a bustling metropolis. One type of user that is worth 1000 developers and that’s the developer evangelist. The developer evangelist not only builds apps but shouts about how great it was to build apps with you. Developer evangelists write blog articles about you, they suggest your product on Stack Overflow and they share what they’ve built with the world.

If you happen to come across a developer evangelist within your community then take a deep breath and pause. Your next actions will be very important to the fate of your developer community. The first thing that you’re going to want to do is pick up the phone, order a hoodie or t-shirt with your company brand on it, have it embroidered with the developer’s name or handle and mail it to her. Then give her your product, whatever it is, for free. Then check out her Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In and find out what she’s interested in, buy it, brand it then mail it to her – for free. You get the point.

In fact, it’s important to regularly give away free and meaningful swag to all your top developers to make them feel loved and appreciated. Thoughtful rewards turn developers into evangelists and evangelists into, well… continued evangelists.

In Short…

Developers are worth their weight in gold and are deserving of special treatment. It can be hard to start a developer community but if your developer’s needs and motivations are understood then you’re on your way to success.

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