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Using APIs to Kick Your Company’s Productivity into Overdrive

By Jason Ganz on November 21, 2014
Tags: Productivity

“While advanced software provided a competitive advantage in the previous decade, it has become table stakes to succeeding in the new decade, and almost every business is assessing how to improve its systems in order to compete in the new reality.”
-Excerpt from the ebook Winning in the API Economy

Why integration is crucial for business

In a few short years, cloud service companies have reshaped the way we do business. In fact, these services are so powerful that for a time, a company which simply used the right business software found itself able to outperform its competition.

But alas, all good things come to an end. Nowadays just using the right software isn’t enough – you must ensure that all of your different systems can seamlessly integrate with each other to achieve optimal results.

Most businesses know that in order to compete they need to find the best software for their organization. They spend time actively looking for new solutions that can improve their processes.

So where can businesses today gain an edge? If just having the right software isn’t enough to provide competitive differentiation anymore, what can?

The answer is the API (or application programming interface). APIs are an astonishingly powerful tool: They let you connect your software systems to each other. APIs allow you to connect different software solutions you use, unifying your various information contained in each into a single meta-system.

But that’s just the beginning. Once you understand the depth of control which APIs give you over your business, you’ll be able to become a master of the new API economy. You’ll be able to create a dynamic ecosystem of services which each complement each other, rather than having your data siloed across any number of different software solutions.

The best part? No wires required  Photo credit: Wikinaut, CC 3.0

API: The great connector

So what exactly does an API do? An API is a set of rules which communicates the ways in which different computer programs interact with each other. You can use an API internally, on your computer for instance. However, when you hear about APIs today, chances are that you are hearing about web APIs.

Web APIs are a system of protocols that determine how services interact over the internet. They allow you to share information between different programs, as well as setting up rules for the ways in which the programs interact.

“APIs do all this by ‘exposing’ some of a program's internal functions to the outside world in a limited fashion. That makes it possible for applications to share data and take actions on one another's behalf without requiring developers to share all of their software's code” explains Read/Write author Brian Proffitt. This allows you to create what’s known as a “mashup”, or a software program that combines elements of several different services.

Making your data more flexible

At GoCanvas, we’re all about unleashing the power of your data by automating your manual processes. The shift towards the API economy, enabling the natural flow of information, is the natural continuation of the ongoing trend of increasing the usability of information.

Think about it. In their earliest days, paper forms were actually an incredible innovation. They allowed businesses and governments to store records about the world around them. How many candles did we produce last year? How much money am I owed by one person?

Paper forms allowed us to store and retrieve information that would otherwise have been lost. But paper came with a whole host of drawbacks, and now it’s time as the dominant method for storing information is over.

Yeah, this was innovative once. Crazy, right? Photo credit: isaacbowen via photopin cc

Similarly, storing information in siloed data sources or databases through business software, for a time, enabled massive productivity gains. With these databases, you never had to go dig through a file cabinet to retrieve your information – a simple query can do it. But just like with paper, the time when collecting and storing all of your information can be done through a single system is at an end.

Today, software is eating the world. Every day, new solutions are coming out that replace or improve portions of a company’s standard business flow.

There are so many valuable, interrelated solutions that picking just one will almost never be the most effective move for a company. The true value, lies in connecting the different elements of the software ecosystem in such a way that you can seamlessly use the best features of each different service. And the absolute best way to do this? Harness the tremendous power of APIs.

As the Winning In the API Economy book states, “The API Economy represents a new—but already proven—way of doing business: flexible, powerful, on demand integration with almost any external system.”

How you can connect your systems

All business software solutions involve importing, storing, transforming and distributing information in some way. You might be storing customer records or payment information or company marketing materials. It varies by company to company, but in the end it all comes back to the data.

API's help you bring various information together for a bigger, better picture. Photo credit: ePublicist via photopin cc

So what happens when you want to connect all of your data together? For example, let’s pretend you’re an HVAC company that uses GoCanvas for your invoices. Maybe you want to send a thank you email to every customer a week after the invoice is submitted and then a follow up email two months later.

You could manually build the mailing list. Simply go through all of your records and find everyone who paid you. This is simple to do, but not an efficient use of your time. Manual data management works fine if you have 20 customers a month.

What if you have 200 or 2000? Spending 20 hours a month sifting through records and pulling out email addresses probably isn’t your idea of a fun time.

Automation: A better way

We’d much prefer our systems to automatically send out the emails, right? In our dream world, we would just click a few buttons, type up the email and then poof, out it goes. And that follow up email you wanted to send out next month? Automatically scheduled and ready to go.

Luckily, out dreams can be made a reality by integrating your data into an order for this to work, you’re going to want to get your customer email data into an email service like Mailchimp.

So you could recompile your customer list into an Excel file and upload it to Mailchimp. But then we’re back into manual processes – not good! Not only is it a hassle to always have to move your data from one service to another, but there’s a chance for accidentally missing or losing some of this data.

Now imagine you aren’t connecting two systems but five. Or seven. As the number of software solutions out there increases, you’re going to find more and more of your business hinges on information moving between different systems.

APIs – your best option

There’s only one way to truly manage the interactions between multiple systems in a timely and efficient manner – APIs. Remember that APIs exist to solve just this problem. They allow you to set up rule based systems so that you can build your own extremely powerful integrations between the solutions that you use.

Let’s return to the example of tying together your systems for invoicing and mailing your customers for a second. Luckily, both Canvas and Mailchimp have easy to use, open APIs. So that means even though there is no official, prebuilt integration between the two companies, you can build your own with some development resources.

A custom integration allows you the freedom to build exactly what you want. So in this case we would build a program that does several things.

  1. Connects to your GoCanvas account through the GoCanvas API and automatically builds the list of customer email addresses which have been connected.
  2. Connects to your Mailchimp account through the Mailchimp API and finds the email list that you want to add to.
  3. The new email addresses will be automatically added to your Mailchimp list.

That’s it! Then you just set your server to run the program every night and your email addresses from GoCanvas will magically be transported into Mailchimp. You never have to worry about compiling your mailing list again.

Writing your own custom integrations does take an upfront investment in either time or external resources. But at the end of the day, the benefits are huge. You get an automated system which allows you to harness the best tools for each individual component of your business while not having to individually micromanage the data exchange between each of them.

Conclusion

That’s just one of the dozens of ways that you could potentially use APIs to change the way that you collect and use your business information. Want your data to automatically get pushed to Quickbooks or your CRM (actually, if you are looking into Quickbooks integration, definitely check out our new prebuilt integrations with Quickbooks)? Or maybe you want to integrate business intelligence tools with your current system? The options are endless.

So how do you get started? Right now, API integrations do require some fairly intense technical knowledge, so you are going to either need internal or external development resources.

There’s two ways you could look at this fact. You could just see the expense, and decide not to integrate. Or you could see their massive, transformative potential and decide to take the dive. If you do, you’ll be making an excellent investment for your business.

What integrations would be useful to your business?

Do you want faster and more accurate work?

Businesses of all kinds are collecting and using information in real time. Learn more in our free ebook:

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