What is a universal API, anyway?

You know Codat as the universal API for small business data. Here’s what that means—and why it matters.

At the most basic level, a universal API is exactly what it sounds like: one API that connects to many different data sources and (unlike generic workflow automation tools) structures their output into a single, standardized format.

In other words, software providers can build just once to a universal API and instantly stream normalized data from multiple systems—rather than having to build integrations to each of those systems in-house.

A definitive example is Plaid, the API platform that enabled fintechs like Chime and Venmo to connect their apps to customers’ bank accounts and access critical financial data.

In this post, we break down why universal APIs have become a go-to solution for forward-thinking providers—and how you can assess if an API that claims to be universal is really up to scratch.

Why you need a universal API

You use APIs to sync data from external systems to your product. But unless the data you need is housed in one global system and can be sourced from a single provider, you’re going to need multiple integrations to cover a significant portion of the market.

This is a particular problem for financial service providers, since the software market in key areas like accounting, eCommerce, and payments is heavily fragmented.

That means, without a universal API, a lot of your team’s time and resources will be diverted to building and maintaining isolated integrations. And of course, as your business grows, the more connections you’ll need.

Take it from our client, Calqulate:

“While scaling to match customer demand, we quickly realized that each data source we worked on connecting came at the cost of a new feature in our sprint cycle.”

Cameron Murphy, Head of Growth at Calqulate

How a universal API can boost your business

With a universal API, the work of building and maintaining integrations is handled by an expert third-party platform. Among other benefits, universal APIs help you:

⬆️ Increase efficiency by eliminating the need for incremental builds and endless upkeep, freeing up your developers’ time to work on core products and exciting new features

🏎️ Accelerate product roadmaps by reducing the time and cost to build

🔓 Boost UX by covering more of the systems your customers use faster, instantly unlocking value and reducing the likelihood of churn

🏆 Improve data quality by structuring inconsistent data attributes into a simple, standardized format—especially important for accounting data

💸 Generate new revenue streams by making it easy to tap into new data sources, expand into adjacent markets, and build broader, stickier customers relationships

🤝 Open new distribution channels by leveraging partnership opportunities with a greater number of data sources and other software providers

🧙‍♂️ Lean on expertise by teaming up with an API that knows their industry inside and out and keeps up with emerging trends and edge cases (so you don’t have to)

How a universal API differs from a workflow automation tool

Workflow automation tools like Zapier connect you to hundreds of data systems and help you instantly stream their data into your platform. However, it’s on your development team to sort through the wildly diverse data models, identify the data you need, and restructure it into a consistent, viable format.

The right universal API, on the other hand, goes deep into the specific categories of each integration and standardizes the data for you—so you get a clean, usable output every time.

How to evaluate a universal API

Many platforms call themselves a universal API, but are limited to specific data types, regions, or use cases—which may not be the ones you need—or stop short of normalizing divergent data models for their clients.

By asking the right questions and keeping a few key criteria in mind, it’s easy to evaluate how universal they actually are—and exactly how far their coverage extends. For instance, you can:

🔢 Crunch their numbers: Be aware that some APIs may use logos in their marketing for platforms they don’t fully support. Make sure to check not only the full list of integrations available but whether the specific data types are supported that you need for your use case.

🌱 Check if (and how) they’re growing: Consider whether an API is keeping up with the market and scaling its coverage with a speed and strategy that matches your own.

💻 Dive into their docs: The docs are the instruction manual to an API. If they are clear and comprehensive it dramatically reduces development time. As well as general breadth, check for things like quick-start guides and other content to help you get up and running quickly.

🚩 Understand what support is available: Check the standard service level agreements and who will be on hand to help you resolve inevitable bugs and issues that will arise in any development. The best providers will have robust processes in place for monitoring underlying APIs for deprecations and updates to avoid disruption to clients.

🏎️ Test-drive their flow: Try an API out for yourself to see how much friction users will encounter on your platform and whether their UX will help or hurt conversion rates.

Assessing these factors upfront will ensure you partner with an API that’s truly universal and that will transform your platform for the better—not just generate more work for your team.

How Codat does it

Codat is the only universal API that offers industry-leading coverage and developer-first integrations for a comprehensive range of small business data.

We connect software providers to the accounting, banking, and commerce systems most used by SMBs—and make their data quick and easy to access with standardized, two-way connectivity. 

Looking for universal access to SMB data?

Register for a free account to check out Codat’s universal API keys and test out our platform—or reach out to our team to learn more about our accounting, banking, and commerce integrations.