Interview with Jon Walker, AppFolio's CTO and FounderTell us about your background and how you co-founded AppFolio? Why did you choose to build software for Property Managers?
This is the 3rd company where I have been the CTO and the first two were successfully acquired — I just love the process of building a company, this is the fun part! As my last company was winding down, I had lunch with Klaus and we both saw that there was real opportunity to build web-based software for specific industries be because they need good and easy to use software and they didn’t have it at the time. We wanted to change that.

I was attracted to property management partly because I had a bit of experience dealing with rental homes in the past. I have to admit that back then, I would consider myself at the “elementary school” level of education in property management, and today I am well on my way to a graduate degree. Early on we also started talking to many property managers and realized that there was a need for a new web-based property management software. None of the property managers we spoke with said they loved their software! Our customers work really hard to provide a great service to their owners and that’s something that we can relate to.

How do you, as the leader of the engineering team, work with UCSB?
We have a really great internship program so every summer we bring in a new class of interns and they work on relevant projects – exciting stuff that our customers end up seeing! Last summer we focused on our search functionality and a prototype of the AppFolio iPhone application. We also sponsor some events on campus, especially related to the engineering department. There is a grad student coffee hour and we sponsor some of the research events as well.

Our team will also collaborate with students when they are working on research where we have some expertise. Klaus and I are sometimes guest speakers and we tell the students about what we are doing and what is going on in the industry. We give them some real-world information that relates to what they are studying academically.

Our engineering team works really fast – we have a new product release/ update every 28 days. How does the team do it?
It really takes a lot of work to make it happen, but it is definitely worth it! We hear so much positive feedback from our customers that they really appreciate how fast we develop, and this makes it very rewarding for all of us.

First of all, we can do this because we have a brilliant engineering team and they make a commitment to what they can accomplish in 4 weeks and they work hard to meet these commitments. We also have invested in technology to automate everything that we can. We have a huge suite of automated tests that ensures that when we do a release everything still works as well as it did before. We also have a large number of customers and when you are making releases every month, the actual process of the release is a very big task. We’ve automated quite a bit of this process as well. The third thing that really makes this work (and it is potentially the most important!) is that we rely on customer feedback. We release a version of a feature that might not have every bell and whistle and then we rely on our customers to tell us what to prioritize next.

Every AppFolian sees every customer request email and I think this is really important. It is amazing how willing our customers are to spend time with us on the phone and help tell us what they need.

What do you think is the future of SaaS – has it peaked or is there still a ways to go?
I think that this is really interesting because on the consumer side, it seems mainstream and you can see the most acceptance. There are a lot of people using Facebook, Hotmail, and Gmail and things like that. I just read the other day that there are a 100 million people in the U.S. using social networks.

From my perspective, there is still a lot of opportunity for businesses to develop and use web-based software. It is still early but people are starting to really see the benefits of it. To me, use of web-based software in business will come in like a tidal wave – it’s on the way.

You were a basketball player at Westmont (I can tell because you’re tall!) how did playing college basketball impact your approach to founding companies and managing engineers?
It’s funny because my coach from college is the VP of Player Personnel for the Miami Heat (Chet Kammerer). I was just out visiting him in Florida and I was telling him that most of what I learned about managing people and running a business is from him.

One of the things I learned from him was that every person is unique. I would see how he would treat each person on the team differently. Some people needed praise and some people needed him to be tough on them. This was interesting because I was used to the idea that you should treat everyone on a team the same. Now I try and recognize that certain people need different things. Another thing I learned from him was that people really want to be challenged to reach their full potential. Lastly, an important thing I learned from him was part of a story he shared with me. A friend of his was getting involved with coaching and went to talk to him for advice. His friend was expecting to hear all about the strategy and important coaching techniques he should learn first. But Chet told him to forget about all of that and that the most important thing to remember is to recruit great players. We try to do this 100% of the time at AppFolio and I’m really proud of all of the great people at AppFolio. I think we feel like a team here and I like the idea of succeeding as a team opposed to succeeding as an individual.