Before industry giant Intuit bought Mint in 2009, the personal finance tool was, frankly, pretty basic. Despite syncing with a user’s bank accounts, it couldn’t send or receive money; it couldn’t extend credit. Heck, it couldn’t even deposit a check.

How, then, did Mint grow to 1.5 million users and sell for $170 million after just two years of operation? Because, while Mint wasn’t the first online money management software, it was the first to do most of the work for its users. Compared to Microsoft Money and Quicken, its major competitors at the time, Mint had two advantages: First, it interfaced with a wider range of financial institutions; second, it could automatically categorize expenses that users of the two other tools had to label manually.

Mint’s triumph over its enterprise peers was the shot heard ‘round the software world: Not all integrations are created equal, and the company whose product has the best integrations is all but certain to win.

Running the Integration Race

Of course, the bar for integrations is now much higher: All or most national banks offer their own budgeting tools, FICO scorecard, and person-to-person payments — functions that required separate apps just a few years ago.

The integration trend isn’t just limited to financial services, though. Industries from healthcare to communications to marketing are increasingly dominated by the most effective integrators.

To win the integration race in your industry:

1. Formalize popular ad hoc integrations.
Believe it or not, your users’ most wanted integrations are hiding in plain sight. Web-based tools like If This Then That and Zapier let users chain together apps without direct integrations. Look first to featured integrations: Zapier users regularly hook Gmail, for example, to Slack, Google Calendar, Dropbox, and Facebook Ads. One of Zapier’s most popular Gmail-Google Calendar integrations is to set Calendar to create an event invite whenever an email with a certain phrase or subject is received.

Doesn’t that sound like an integration Google should already have? Mixmax evidently thought so. The email improvement firm has raised seven figures for trying to bring email into the 21st century. Although Mixmax’s best-known integration involves letting email recipients schedule calendar events from the body of an email, it’s also formalized other obviously helpful email integrations, such as those with SMS, Twitter, Salesforce, and Box.

2. Team up with integration partners.
The best integrations, just like the best business relationships, involve partnerships. Because many brands are understandably skittish about opening their software up to the wider world, gaining API access often requires a formal agreement.

To establish those partnerships, firms have essentially two choices: one-to-one negotiations or network membership. One of the most well-known integration networks in the computing space, for example, is the Technology Alliance Partnership, whose members include Intel, Microsoft, Dell, SAP, Oracle, and more. The partnership’s goal, according to the prior link, is to create “end-to-end solutions that work.”

Because larger firms tend to see integrations with less popular products as one-sided, smaller companies often have to offer other services in return. Time-tracking tool Hubstaff, which claims integrations are the secret to its growth, closed integration relationships with Basecamp and Trello through co-marketing proposals, social media shout-outs, and blog guest posts.

3. Tap into open APIs.
An open API, or public API, provides universal access to a program’s integration point to consumers of the given software. Why would companies want to provide open access? Because it benefits both parties: The API owner gains greater traffic and brand recognition, while the API user adds functionality to its own product.

Not sure where to start? A GitHub user has put together quite the list of public APIs, with a table of contents that sorts them by industry. Don’t be afraid to look beyond your own industry, though. If your brand has a YouTube channel, for example, you might be interested in YouTube’s open API that millions of sites use to embed videos, display metrics, schedule live streams, and facilitate channel subscriptions.

Should you open-source your own API? Doing so is a good way to expand your user base, but be careful: Insecure APIs can give hackers access to user data or act as a foothold for further attacks. In 2018 alone, Venmo, Panera, USPS, and more were all breached via poorly secured APIs.

Mint may no longer be the golden child of the finance industry, but its tenure taught the software industry that integrations alone can be a brand differentiator. The stakes may be higher, but Mint’s strategy still stands: In an age when companies spend millions developing and marketing new products, integrations might be the easiest way for software firms to get ahead.

Brad Anderson

Brad Anderson

Editor In Chief at ReadWrite

Brad is the editor overseeing contributed content at ReadWrite.com. He previously worked as an editor at PayPal and Crunchbase. You can reach him at brad at readwrite.com.