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Startups: Do not build your company on free APIs

I've always been skeptical about free APIs.  Even 6 years ago, when Web Services were something quite new, I would choose paying APIs over free ones.  In my case, I have been using some paying services for all these years, without changing one line of code.

There are many reasons why you should stay away from free APIs, but I'll try to emphases on a few ones that matters most to startups.

1) You have no control over a free API

A free API can seem great at first.  You think that by using it, sending comments to the developer, you have some sort of control over the API.  You're plain wrong.  Free API works the way you want until day X, when two things happen: the API dramatically changes and all your work is no longer valid – or the developer just plain closes the API.

Example: think of all those developers building over the Twitter API.  When I was in San Francisco one year ago, a startup needed to use the Twitter API to be cool.  That was the future.  Today, Twitter blocks new developers from using their API and strongly suggest you to move on.

2) You don't save money with free APIs

You don't have to pay, so you think you are saving money.  So you build over it, spend tens of hours to use the great features and create something cool.  Then the API changes and all your code doesn't work anymore.  Not only you're stuck to start over, but your startup is probably in jeopardy at that point.  And don't think that if the company offering the API is big, you are safe.  You are not.

Example: I've worked with major API like Google Wave.  I would not think that I could be wrong building something over such a major service.  A few months later, Google announced it was shutting down the service, letting me in the black with at least two weeks of work lost.

3) You don't have good support with free APIs

Many developers see APIs too lightly.  I see an API as an important part of my projects.  In fact, an API needs to be as important as the code I'm actually writing.  If I have an issue with an API, I want to find the solution quickly.  If there's a major issue, I want to pick up the phone and talk to the company.  Free APIs don't offer that.

4) Your existence depends on someone else

This is the most important lesson.  Don't ever build something that depends on someone else.  Technology changes over time.  Free APIs open and shut down.  Paying APIs are there to stay as they have a moral obligation with you.

In conclusion, be very careful with free APIs.  I've seen too many startups pivot or close with wrong decision when using free APIs.  There's always a reason why you pay for a service.  Personally, I'm done working on plugins based on free APIs.  I don't want my work to be a total waste a few months or even a year from now.  If you are serious about your startup, so should you.

Side note

When creating Nimbb, I decided that it would be a paying API.  Why?  Because this guarantees to our customers that we will offer the service as long as they pay.  No radical changes, no unexpected shut down.  Something that is built with Nimbb today, will still work in 3 years from now.  This logic should also apply to your own startup before you decide to offer your API for free.