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Getting It Right the First Time – Our Approach to Product Development

History is filled with failed products. New Coke, the Edsel, smokeless cigarettes, and WebVan are a few of the more famous flops. There are thousands of others that you have never heard about, but they all have one thing in common: Customers weren’t willing to buy them because they simply didn’t solve the right problem.

At AppFolio, we expend a great deal of effort making sure that we get it right the first time. Whether it’s a feature like integrated online rent payments or our pricing, we work hard to understand our customers’ real needs before we build our products.

Validating Customer Needs: Market Validation
We call this process “market validation,” which is a way of saying that we listen closely to discover customer problems and then validate that customers are willing to use our proposed solution before we code any software. In other words, we adhere to the principle of “Ready, Aim, Fire,” rather than “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

If you are an AppFolio customer, you may have participated in this process at some point – it might have been a phone call from us to get your opinion about a proposed idea. We may have asked you to look over preliminary mockups for a future feature. Or perhaps you responded to a few questions through our user forums.

In today’s economy, companies rarely get a second chance. Which is why many of the newer, smarter companies are using similar ways of validating customer needs such as Customer Development (www.steveblank.com) or Lean Startup, (www.startuplessonslearned.com). Whatever the name, all of these methods recognize that your insights as a customer are a lot better than our assumptions about what you need.

Solving Property Management Pains
In fact, we used our market validation process before we wrote a single line of computer code for the AppFolio Property Manager product. After talking with hundreds of property managers we were confident that if we built the right product to solve their problems they would readily switch to our Web-based solution.

Some examples of the pain we heard loud and clear from property managers (and subsequently solved): Stuffing and mailing hundreds of envelopes every month; Managing overflowing stacks of paper; Spending hours installing and managing software; Entering the same information twice into different systems; Handling hundreds or thousands of rent checks each month.

For each of these problems we also discovered the minimum feature set that gets the job done. This allows us to deliver the feature quickly, cost effectively, and in an easy to use way. It also avoids the feature bloat common in other software.

By engaging our current and future customers early in the process they help us create great software that works well the first time. The result is enthusiastic customers and a team at AppFolio is that is proud of the product they create. And to boot, there’s little chance you’ll hear about AppFolio hitting the bad product dustbin of history.

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