There has been a lot of talk about “platforms” lately — conversations about how they are the future of business, and we all need to create them. For some, this might be an option, but for the vast majority of businesses, this is just plain dumb. It is true that the new wave of technology-based platforms are changing the rules, but not in the ways most people think. Platforms have always been around in one way or another, and they will continue to evolve, shift and reemerge in different ways in the future. So how can businesses today embrace this new version of platforms?

First, let’s take a stab at explaining just what the new platform is. I’ve read a number of different attempts to define it, but it seems like there is debate as to what really constitutes a “platform.” Let’s try and clear that up. A platform is simply a vehicle to connect multiple “things.” In most cases, as we are a financially-driven society, that translates into connecting a party with a need to a party with the capability in satisfying that need. WSJ does a good job at further refining platforms into a few subcategories. Let’s look at the most common three.

Innovation Platforms

Just take a look at your iPhone or Android phone. They are both platforms for delivering applications. Google Play and iTunes help build the ecosystem that supports the platform, and both have a huge community of developers creating new applications. The platform itself serves as the enabler between the consumer (need) and the developer (capability to satisfy the need).

Transaction Platforms

Now look at Uber, Lyft, AirBNB, LendingTree, etc. These platforms, again, connect the need of the individuals with the providers capable of satisfying the need, but these platforms are in place to provide a service for a fee. The platforms take a percentage of the transactions, and for that fee they maintain the ecosystem and continue to enhance the capabilities of their services.

Integration Platforms

Integration platforms are basically a combination of innovation and transaction platforms. In the example of APPLE and GOOGLE, they allow app developers to sell their mobile applications through their platform, and take a percentage as payment for the service.

So basically, in a very simple explanation, a platform connects a need to a capability. So how is this important for business? I mean, not everyone has the ability to go out and create a new platform, and build a large ecosystem to support it. And if you do, you are probably already doing so. So, for the rest of us, platforms will play a much different role. So where should a business focus their efforts? How do you start to put together a platform strategy? Let’s dive into some major areas that will help you plan your attack.

Employees vs. Freelancers

A new way that businesses are taking advantage of platforms is in their approach to personnel. Traditionally, businesses would hire either part-time or full-time employees to help create and deliver the products and services of the business.  Today, with the help of platforms like Upwork, Freelancer, Guru, 99designs, and PeoplePerHour, companies are reducing the number of employees on their bench and utilizing freelance resources only when needed. Not only is this saving companies money, but it is also helping to create innovation by injecting new ideas and processes into the business by using the services. This is an area enterprise organizations are already capitalizing on, and unfortunately, small businesses are falling behind.

Next time you are looking to add resources for process or service based tasks, consider instead getting a project manager that specializes in coordinating efforts of different freelance employees. One strong project management resource can coordinate a large team of individuals working on a number of different initiatives. The dollar amount you’ll spend on a PM will have a quick ROI as you build out your processes to capitalize on the resources available via these types of platforms.

Creating Differentiation

Another area businesses capitalize on platforms is in service offering augmentation and development. Today it is much easier to bundle related services into your solution with a few good outsourced relationships. If there are areas where you can add additional value for your customers by adding a new offering, you should be considering it. Working through freelance platforms gives you exposure into new products and services, new processes, new talent, and new business models. All can be adopted internally to make you more agile and more competitive. Use the platform as a source of ideation to keep you ahead of your competition.

Market Surveys and Product Testing

Ever wonder if the new product or service you are working on will be a hit? Taking advantage of platforms that gives you the ability to do trial runs, and test concepts and ideas before too much money is invested. Soliciting feedback can be as easy as running a new survey on a crowd survey platform like  Google Consumer Surveys or PickFu. Testing out a new offering, to gather data and solidify process, can be done easily by creating an agency account on freelancer sites like Upwork. If you treat the experience as an opportunity to do R&D, you can be quite aggressive with your pricing. This should help you get enough jobs to thoroughly test your new offerings before you roll them out to your existing customer base. A word of warning though, these sites rely heavily on customer feedback. Make sure you deliver what you say you are going to deliver, over communicate with your customers, and build a solid base of positive reviews. Once feedback is submitted on a platform, it will be publicly available. The last thing you want to do is tarnish your reputation.

Plugging into an Existing Platform

If you have a product or service that can potentially be “plugged-in” to an existing platform, it might be worth building out the IT capabilities to do so. Platforms like Zapier, IFTTT, itDuzzit, and these do a great job of connecting different online services together. If you provide a service that would complement another one available through one of these platforms, it is worth exploring what it would take to get connected. For example, if you provide employee background screening services, it might be worth creating a system to automate the request and delivery components of the screening process.  You can then build out an API to connect to one of the platforms above. This would require a developer to help you, but that is very common in business today.

Getting Started

The first step is to familiarize yourself with the different platforms available. I’ve highlighted a few general ones above, but there are many more spread across almost every industry. Once you are familiar with the advantages and capabilities of the platforms, start evaluating your business’ challenges as potential opportunities to test the usage of one or more of these platforms. You may not be successful initially, but the lessons you learn will pave the way to future successes. These new types of technology-based platforms are not going away anytime soon, and the number of businesses that are using them to create a competitive advantage is increasing. Make sure you are not left behind.