08 February, 2018

11 mins

Building a Commerce Platform with Carl Perry of Square

Getting a diversity of use and feedback from your developer base is one of the most valuable things and you want it as raw and honest as possible.

For our latest ‘What I’ve Learned…” interview at OpenChannel, we sat down with Carl Perry of Square. Carl leads the Developer Team at Square including engineering, product, design, marketing, and evangelism for Square’s developer facing services and Build with Square APIs. Processing billions of dollars each year, Square is a leading commerce platform for sellers of all sizes to start, run and grow their business. Previously Carl served as a Group Product Manager at Microsoft responsible for Powerbi.com and as the Development Manager for the Amazon S3 API and front end services. With a deep career in developer facing products, Carl spent some time with us to share what he’s learned along the way…

Most people know Square for their hardware but you seem to have a more commerce platform focus. Is that the case and why?

Carl Perry: We had an idea nine years ago that at the time sounded insane, which was that no seller should miss a sale and anybody should be able to accept credit cards and to take a payment. That idea has become commonplace but it wasn’t at the time.

Sellers have historically chosen our ecosystem to run their business because of the simplicity. But we also know that many sellers need different options and need to integrate new and existing solutions. Our goal is to enable every developer to build on the same services and primitives that our 1st party products run on top of.

As a company our purpose is economic empowerment. We want to enable anybody to participate easily, fairly and transparently in commerce. We’re not going to be able to build a solution for every single seller, so we decided to build an open commerce platform, which enables us to help a much larger audience to participate in commerce.

We’re building a commerce platform to enable any developer to build solutions for those sellers. We can be a system of integration for some customers and for many others we can be a system of record. That’s why we’re evolving the company towards a platform approach.

OC: What are the most important developer actions or metrics you track and why?

Carl: We focus on what we call a “Five Minutes to Wow” experience. When a developer discovers Square APIs, within five minutes they should be able to learn a couple of things:

  1. Do we actually have the solution, APIs, and services that will help them solve the job they’re trying to fill?
  2. If so, are they able to get something very simple up and running? Then they’re able to take that and run with it.

As developers explore our documentation and SDKs, we want to know how effective they are in creating an application and making their first successful API call.

Our focus is understanding what a developer is actually trying to accomplish. When you go to our docs site,  you’ll see we talk about four different groupings. This is the first pass on this and we’ll be improving it even more.

As we talk to developers, taking a payment, managing products, running their business, and engaging customers, are the four common things that we see developers needing to do. So, we started to channel and focus developers into these paths with tutorials, getting-started guides, SDKs and samples that help them succeed.

We believed that by focusing on the jobs Developers were hiring our platform for, we can help them be more successful. To date this has proven to be true as we’ve seen significant improvements in the percentage and time to first successful API call so we’re doubling down on this more focused approach.

The most important metrics are conversion, median time to first successful API call and then active developer count.

OC: With a great experience for developers to build apps using Square, what have you done to increase adoption of those apps?

Carl: I’m amazed by developers but I’m absolutely amazed by our sellers. What we found early on was that sellers with no formal development experience are trying to use our APIs to build solutions for themselves.

I remember a seller that was using our APIs to update product information and he kept getting errors. I called him up and asked how I could help. His response was “I don’t even know what I’m doing except trying to solve this problem”. Within a couple of minutes we got him fixed but this became a recurring theme.

We started sending our sellers to the Square App Marketplace and started connecting them with developers. That was one of the big wins for our existing customer base and for our developers and their apps.

OC: How important has the Square App Marketplace been for the adoption of apps and in making that transition to a commerce platform you talked about?

Carl: It’s been incredibly important.  A lot of people ask how we compare with other companies, and Square is doing something totally different. We’re building a commerce platform and commerce is larger than payments.

The App Marketplace is a representation of that commerce platfrom and you’ll see a variety of experiences and verticals that we’re solving for within it. We’ve doubled the number of partners in the Marketplace over the last year and we’ve been focused on helping sellers accomplish the things they need to do.

We’ve added reporting, order management, invoicing and project management partners. We’ve been expanding the footprint of our marketplace to represent what our platform is intended to be, which is the world’s most complete and best commerce platform.

OC: What’s caused that increase in the number of apps in the marketplace?

Carl: It comes down to the focus on becoming a commerce platform and as we’ve expanded more people have become aware.

We’re partnering with more companies, some of which are in a space where we already have a solution.  For example, some Partners are focused on building retail point of sale solutions (such as Vend and SuitePOS) even though early in 2017 we also released Square for Retail.

We have partners that compete on some level but we believe that’s perfectly fine. There are so many sellers that need solutions, certain ones will be better for different sellers.

There are other areas where we don’t have any products and our partners have found the Square platform and App Marketplace is an effective way to build solutions and get them in front of sellers.

OC: How do you communicate with your developers and partners?

Carl: There are ways we do this explicitly but I believe we can get better. We have a direct relationship with almost everyone in our App Marketplace. We have an amazing partnerships team that manages those relationships.

We held a partner summit last year and focused on transparent one-on-one conversations about what areas we’re likely to focus on over the next couple of years. We’re very upfront.

We try to be as open and transparent as early as possible. That’s the thing you have to balance and sometimes it can be a tightrope. I’ve found the more open you are with developers, over the long term they’re going to trust you more.

With our developer community we have a private Slack community. They have direct access to our developer evangelists, product managers and engineering team. We’re pretty transparent in that channel about what we’re building over the next three to six months.

We also put together our first Developer Advisory Board last year. We invited some of our largest developers here to San Francisco, about 20 to 30 of them.

We asked each one of the developers to walk through what they’re building, talk about what has gone well and what they would like to see improved. Then we invited all the product managers here at Square and we talked about what the next year looks like and collected feedback.

OC: We love the idea of a “Developer Advisory Board”!

Carl: I picked that up at Microsoft, where we would have people come on site and do deep dives mostly around early beta programs. When I was at Amazon, we did this for AWS and It was super valuable. We brought in a diversity of developers and companies that would give us feedback.

We had people that were operating at very large scale and others who were innovating in specific niches. They would all have really different perspectives. Getting a diversity of use-cases and feedback from your developer base is probably one of the most valuable things and you want it as raw and honest as possible.

We took a picture of everyone that attended the Square Developer Advisory Board. We’re going to blow it up and put it on the wall where my team sits. Every year we’ll add a new picture and I think what we’ll see is that first year was the introduction of something really big in our commerce platform journey.

OC: How do you think about managing a Developer Relations and Evangelism team?

Carl: Evangelism is a role that’s hard to measure in a direct fashion. They go to meetups, attend conferences, talk to developers on a regular basis and do all these are all things that we know are impactful but are hard to measure.

In the end, there are two important things for an evangelism team:

  1. Talk to developers every single day. It can be through Slack, online forums, face to face,  google hangout, at a conference. It doesn’t matter.
  2. Take that feedback to your product, engineering, design and marketing teams and make sure it’s represented in your roadmap.

We would go to conferences early on and it was about driving awareness and a change in perception for developers. As it starts to grow, you want to focus on areas where you can show that there’s innovation and opportunity and drive visibility of the developers that are using the platform.

OC: What platforms do you admire?

Carl: What Google is doing with AI on GCP is incredible. Any developer can now get access to all of the AI Google has been building over the last 10+ years. The job of a platform is to deal with the “undifferentiated muck”, meaning that we want to make sure developers never have to focus on the really hard things that we’re already good at. We talked about this at Amazon.  AI is hard and Google has really unlocked that for any developer.

What Microsoft is doing with their documentation is incredible. The fact that it’s on GitHub and that anybody can submit a pull request and that can get changed and available in production is a 180-degree turn.

I look at Scott Guthrie from Microsoft as an incredible person. He started as a product manager, he’s now Executive VP and focused on developer experience. They’re really focusing on what developers need.

AWS Lambda has done an amazing job. The entire thing was solely founded around talking to customers, looking at their workloads, and understanding that there was a real problem when pushing data to AWS. It sounded crazy at the time, but Lambda has really revolutionized things and you’re seeing other people start to do this. They really removed the undifferentiated muck.

OC: We also love the term “undifferentiated muck”. What platform ideas do you think are crazy today that could become commonplace in five or ten years?

Carl: I think you’re seeing an increased focus on codeless application development for less experienced developers. No one has hit it out of the park yet and people have been trying for years, think of Yahoo! Pipes.

Enabling any business person to build an app through simple point and click could have massive impact. It isn’t about a specific technology but more about unlocking the potential of all of the amazing technologies like AI, payments and whatever else.

OC: What something you love to do or are really good at that most people don’t know.

Carl: I have two answers. I don’t know that I’m good at it but I love being a husband and a father.

I’ve been married for 20 years this year. I have two amazing kids. The fact that my wife has put up with me for so long amazes me, and that she stuck with me through all the crazy stuff I wanted to do. I think I’m a pretty good dad and my children continue to amaze me. The journey with my wife and kids is the most important thing, that’s #1

Then #2, I injured my knee earlier this year, so have been out for 4 months, but I love CrossFit.  I’ve been doing it for 4 1/2 years and it’s a big passion of mine. Hopefully next year I’ll be back in the saddle and doing it.

Great Lessons from Building a Commerce Platform!

A huge thanks to Carl for his time and insights. If you want to learn more you can follow him on Twitter and connect with him on Linkedin and check out the Square App Marketplace.

Want more from platform leaders at Shopify, Intuit and Box? Check out the “What I’ve Learned…” series.

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