Lontra: The Art of Platform Thinking

Boris Pevzner, CEO In the dizzying and ever-changing world of IT, Boris Pevzner has it figured out. “The key to a lasting business success is Platform Thinking,” he says. Whether in the Fortune 500 enterprise world or in the many technology startups that he has built from scratch over the years; whether the focus is a specific product or an entire industry segment, Boris has put his pioneering platform thinking to a career-long test.

“We typically think of companies competing over products— the proverbial ‘build a better mousetrap.’ But in today’s networked age, competition is increasingly over platforms. Build a better platform, and you will have a sustained advantage over the competition,” says Boris.

In construction, a platform is something that lifts you up and on which others can stand. The same is true in business. By building a digital platform, other businesses can easily connect their business with yours, build products and services on top of it, and co-create value. This ability to “plug-and-play” is a defining characteristic of Platform Thinking.

Physics Meets Computer Science

A physicist by training, Boris has always been drawn to complex problems. “My mind is wired to enjoy figuring out how complex systems work,” he says. He started his career at Bell Labs, the storied cradle of technology innovations that gave birth to the transistor, cell phone, solar cells, UNIX, communication satellites, and many other foundational technologies. It was at Bell Labs in the 1990s that Boris got a master class in platform thinking. “I watched in amazement how the global telecommunication network we were engineering grew into a powerful platform that gave birth to the enormous business ecosystem, which became the Internet.”

"The key to a lasting business success is platform thinking"

Boris got the first chance to apply his platform thinking philosophy in the late 1990s as the head of global product strategy of Mathcad, an EdTech pioneer. He set out to turn Mathcad from a boutique tool for mathematical calculations into a global platform for engineers and scientists to manage their technical design workflow. “We took this beautiful but limited mathematical tool and made it pervasive in the engineering community by connecting it to CAD, spreadsheets, databases, reference libraries, data acquisition frameworks, and collaboration tools,” Boris recalls.

Thanks to this platform vision, Mathcad became a global standard for managing engineering designs and was acquired by PTC for $63M.

We help IT to transform itself from a ‘job shop’ to the‘product house’

The Henry Ford of IT

In the year 2000, Venture Capitalists were lining up to find the next best thing in enterprise computing. A bountiful target was in Cambridge, MA, on the campus of MIT, where Boris had earned a Master’s in Computer Engineering and was now working on a Ph.D. in physics. This is where the legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla discovered Boris and an elite group of undergrads to automate IT organizations. This group made the trek from Cambridge to Silicon Valley and became known as Centrata.

After making its mark automating crucial enterprise IT functions like employee onboarding and server provisioning, Centrata needed to transition from a point solution into a platform. Under Boris’s leadership, Centrata pioneered the concept of the IT Service Catalog as the foundation of transforming enterprise IT from a reactive “job shop” into a strategic “product house.” The potent combination of service-centric IT management and automation turned the market on its ear and even led one prominent Fortune 100 client likening Boris to the “Henry Ford of IT.” Centrata’s platform transformation was complete.

Who’s The Fairest Platform of Them All?

In 2003, Boris linked up with a group of brilliant computer game players and they founded xfire. Once again, Boris and his co-founders took a platform spin on the emerging opportunities in the rapidly growing world of computer gaming. “We created xfire as a way for players to connect with like-minded players,” he explains. “Although there was real money at stake initially, playing for money was just a sideshow.” By incorporating social gaming services for core gamers, xfire evolved into a fair and trusted platform that eventually grew to over 22 million registered users and became ubiquitous in the gaming world. It was acquired by Viacom in 2008 for $102 million.

Beautiful Technology for the Art World

Having hit upon a formula for fair and interconnected platforms, Boris moved from the world of gaming to the art world. In 2009, he founded Collectrium and built the global digital platform to integrate all collection care and management tools in a single experience that is comprehensive, engaging, mobile and secure. With Collectrium, global collectors with paintings, antiques and other valuables in several locations at once, or in transit, can effectively manage their collections from anywhere in the world.

“It’s a sensitive shift for the highly secretive, highly confidential, high stakes art world, which has eschewed technology until very recently,” says Boris.

“It was, therefore, essential to design the Collectrium platform to be trusted and secure, but also beautiful.”The final step was to connect collectors to partners who can help to catalogue, insure, value, ship and store their collectibles, turning Collectrium into the global hub for care and related services for art and collectibles.

In 2015, Christie’s, the largest art company in the world purchased Boris’s startup and integrated it into its enterprise platform.

Platform Thinking: Enabling Others to Create Value

Every business today is faced with the fundamental question that underlies Platform Thinking: How do I enable others to create value? Over the years of creating multiple platform companies, Boris has it figured out. “It isn’t a simple formula,” he warns. “Value creation happens in the ecosystem. So the platform must be open, and yet trusted and secure. It must provide the right incentives to the participants in every interaction. It must be data-driven to maximize personalization. And it should be built incrementally, in a way that is sensitive and responsive to its evolution. It’s a living thing.”

I like to build platforms,not features

Having validated and refined this pioneering approach while building his own companies, Boris founded Lontra, a boutique IT strategy consulting firm, to put Platform Thinking into practice for the benefit of the Global 2000 IT organizations. “It applies to digital transformation of existing businesses as well as it does to creating new businesses and business models,” he says.

Over the last fifteen years, Lontra has developed a proven track record of its platform-centric management methodology through impactful engagements with global companies including BP, Union Pacific Railroad, McGraw-Hill Companies, and many others. “Many people still think of a company like Union Pacific as just a transportation business,” Boris remarks. “Yet at its core, it is a platform that is deeply integrated into its customers’ and partners’ supply chains, creating the value ecosystem around its transportation network. It is also incredibly technology-rich, using big data, machine learning, and other cutting-edge tech to improve service, safety, and business. At any enterprise of this scale and complexity, Platform Thinking is the best way to align IT strategy with the business.”

Boris sees this success as just the beginning of Lontra’s journey. “We have a very strong vision of how IT organizations ought to be run,” he says. “As the industry transformation toward more business-aligned IT keeps accelerating, our platform-centric approach will continue to fuel our growth and expansion.”

And are there any more platform startups on his radar? “I think education is ripe for disruption through platform thinking, and I am incubating some concepts in that space. I also like some areas of transportation logistics.” So it’s not the question of whether but when Boris’s next platform company will hatch. When pressed to answer, Boris turns from serious to smile and quotes one of his favorite scientists, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”


San Francisco, CA

Boris Pevzner, CEO

Provides service-Centric IT Financial Management solutions that has developed a series of five workshops for IT Financial Management professionals