This is a short story about the text-processing.com API, and how it became a profitable side-project, thanks to Mashape.
When I first created text-processing.com, in the summer of 2010, my initial intention was to provide an online demo of NLTK’s capabilities. I trained a bunch of models on various NLTK corpora using nltk-trainer, then started making some simple Django forms to display the results. But as I was doing this, I realized I could fairly easily create an API based on these models. Instead of rendering HTML, I could just return the results as JSON.
I wasn’t sure if anyone would actually use the API, but I knew the best way to find out was to just put it out there. So I did, initially making it completely open, with a rate limit of 1000 calls per day per IP address. I figured at the very least, I might get some PHP or Ruby users that wanted the power of NLTK without having to interface with Python. Within a month, people were regularly exceeding that limit, and I quietly increased it to 5000 calls/day, while I started searching for the simplest way to monetize the API. I didn’t like what I found.
Before Mashape, your options for monetizing APIs were either building a custom solution for authentication, billing, and tracking, or pay thousands of dollars a month for an “enterprise” solution from Mashery or Apigee. While I have no doubt Mashery & Apigee provide quality services, they are not in the price range for most developers. And building a custom solution is far more work than I wanted to put into it. Even now, when companies like Stripe exist to make billing easier, you’d still have to do authentication & call tracking. But Stripe didn’t exist 2 years ago, and the best billing option I could find was Paypal, whose API documentation is great at inducing headaches. Lucky for me, Mashape was just opening up for beta testing, and appeared to be in the process of solving all of my problems 🙂
Mashape was just what I needed to monetize the text-processing API, and it’s improved tremendously since I started using it. They handle all the necessary details, like integrated billing, plus a lot more, such as usage charts, latency & uptime measurements, and automatic client library generation. This last is one of my favorite features, because the client libraries are generated using your API documentation, which provides a great incentive to accurately document the ins & outs of your API. Once you’ve documented your API, downloadable libraries in 5 different programming languages are immediately available, making it that much easier for new users to consume your API. As of this writing, those languages are Java, PHP, Python, Ruby, and Objective C.
Here’s a little history for the curious: Mashape originally did authentication and tracking by exchanging tokens thru an API call. So you had to write some code to call their token API on every one of your API calls, then check the results to see if the call was valid, or if the caller had reached their limit. They didn’t have all of the nice charts they have now, and their billing solution was the CEO manually handling Paypal payments. But none of that mattered, because it worked, and from conversations with them, I knew they were focused on more important things: building up their infrastructure and positioning themselves as a kind of app-store for APIs.
Mashape has been out of beta for a while now, with automated billing, and a custom proxy server for authenticating, routing, and tracking all API calls. They’re releasing new features on a regular basis, and sponsoring events like MusicHackDay. I’m very impressed with everything they’re doing, and on top of that, they’re good hard-working people. I’ve been over to their “hacker house” in San Francisco a few times, and they’re very friendly and accomodating. And if you’re ever in the neighborhood, I’m sure they’d be open to a visit.
Once I had integrated Mashape, which was maybe 20 lines of code, the money started rolling in :). Just kidding, but using the typical definition of profit, when income exceeds costs, the text-processing API was profitable within a few months, and has remained so ever since. My only monetary cost is a single Linode server, so as long as people keep paying for the API, text-processing.com will remain online. And while it has a very nice profit margin, total monthly income barely approaches the cost of living in San Francisco. But what really matters to me is that text-processing.com has become a self-sustaining excuse for me to experiment with natural language processing techniques & data sets, test my models against the market, and provide developers with a simple way to integrate NLP into their own projects.
So if you’ve got an idea for an API, especially if it’s something you could charge money for, I encourage you to build it and put it up on Mashape. All you need is a working API, a unique image & name, and a Paypal account for receiving payments. Like other app stores, Mashape takes a 20% cut of all revenue, but I think it’s well worth it compared to the cost of replicating everything they provide. And unlike some app stores, you’re not locked in. Many of the APIs on Mashape also provide alternative usage options (including text-processing), but they’re on Mashape because of the increased exposure, distribution, and additional features, like client library generation. SaaS APIs are becoming a significant part of modern computing infrastructure, and Mashape provides a great platform for getting started.