SaaS businesses (particularly ones for technical users) sometimes have to deal with a vocal outcry that their product “is just a wrapper around” something. The implication is that ‘a wrapper’ is inherently not valuable, and it’s impossible to build a great business around such a product. This logic is a product of lazy thinking and myopia; ‘wrappers’ can be insanely valuable.

Here are a few examples that come to mind:

  • Dropbox is “just rsync”
  • Heroku is “just Linux containers on AWS”
  • Netlify is “just static hosting and a CDN”
  • Retool is “just MS Access reinvented for the web”
  • IFTTT is “just cron + APIs”

These statements are lazy thinking–they have elements of truth in them, but they aren’t complete. People are willing to pay for magic. This magic sometimes goes by names like “it just works” or “consumerized experience.” The thread that runs through the different monikers is that it accomplishes an otherwise painful1 task quickly and delights the user.

Technical users want to be delighted, too, even if the interaction layer may not be a GUI. It might be a CLI, fantastic docs, or a clean API (or likely all of the above). So, if you can take something painful and move the interaction layer, the value proposition of the underlying tools grows.

Big cloud providers will likely offer a comparable service, but these aren’t often existential threats to the best-in-class original. Why? Because the interaction layer matters and a meaningful subset of users are willing to pay for the premium experience.

A few condensed observations about this ‘interaction layer’:

  • people want a ‘sensible defaults’ way of doing things … an opinionated way of starting out
  • UI/UX matters a lot (this includes docs and CLI)
  • rarely, the core value prop isn’t already being accomplished crudely by huge companies
  • modern open-source companies that are successful have to nail this in ways their predecessors didn’t2
  • consumerization of everything — i.e., how little of $PLUMBING can I get away with knowing?
  • there are a meaningful number of technical users who can do something, but don’t want to waste otherwise valuable time doing so

One could argue that the term for this is just ‘user experience,’ but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. Because it’s not about an experience of the underlying tool or process, it’s about creating an entirely new tool by ‘wrapping’ some of the original components.

  1. pain usually equates to a measure of complexity, monotony, or slowness 

  2. I suspect this is because we now have such a good base of open-source software that much of the opportunity is with higher-level products. Decades ago, the popular OSS products were things like operating systems, programming languages, and language-adjacent tools like compilers. Then, higher-level abstractions started moving open-source: webservers, web frameworks, e-commerce platforms, content management systems. The trendline is higher, and the interaction layer matters more the higher you go