By FRANK VINLUAN, WRALTechWire
July 22nd, 2014, CARY, North Carolina — Zach Schabot and Jim Garman readily admit that they’re not technology geeks. Before they founded their startup, they didn’t know the first thing about developing mobile software. Even now they will concede there’s a lot they don’t know.
But their company, GoConnect, has software that has quickly established itself in a niche but loyal customer base of real estate agents. In less than a year, the startup has rolled out a mobile app for both Apple and Android devices and new versions with added functionality are slated for release in coming months. How did two guys in Cary who had never developed software before accomplish so much so quickly?
“We were trying to solve a problem in our own office and it completely resonated with people around the country,” Schabot said.
Schabot and his partner Jim Garman are full-time realtors who have run Cary-based Go Realty since 2010. Schabot said that last year, he started looking for mobile software for Go Realty agents to use. Surprised that he couldn’t find any mobile real estate software he decided Go Realty would create it. Schabot and Garman co-founded a second company, the startup GoConnect.
Real estate agents do have customer relationship management software available to them but Schabot says much of it is antiquated and none of this desktop software translates to mobile devices. GoConnect’s CRM software helps agents view and manage each of the tasks necessary to handle a transaction from their mobile devices. For example, when a new property is listed the app lists all of the things the agent must do to get the house ready for the market. As a property moves toward closing, the app lists all the things needed to get to closing. While desktop software can track all of those tasks it’s not helpful because agents are constantly on the move. Spreadsheets and paper checklists are relics of the past that have led some real estate agents to improvise.
“One agent used a grocery list app to run her business – that’s not good enough anymore,” Schabot said.
Because Schabot and Garman have no software development experience, they turned to Raleigh-based Kadro Solutions, a custom software development shop. Kadro Chief Technology Officer Malcolm Allen describes Kadro’s role as taking other people’s business ideas and figuring out how to turn them into software. With GoConnect that process involved a back and forth dialogue where Allen questioned Schabot to find out the things Schabot might not have thought about – things that could cause the app to fail. If the software doesn’t handle those scenarios, users will be turned off to the app, Allen explained.
But Allen calls his experience with GoConnect completely different from any in his 20 years in software development. The development process was an open dialogue, not just between Kadro and GoConnect, but also between developers and test users. The team produced a functioning version of the app early on, which was then made available to beta users who tried it out over the course of six months. Those users became a passionate fan group that openly shared feedback via social media, mostly Facebook. Every quirk, peeve and mistake was out in the open for users to discuss and for developers to see.
“It’s very, very real when you see people with legitimate, honest feedback,” Allen said. “Sometimes in the software business, everything is abstract and you’re separate from end users. In this case, it’s all there and visible. That’s a very different experience for my team.”
Schabot reasoned that as a startup, GoConnect could not afford to spend the time or money developing features that agents did not want. So weekly, sometimes twice a week, GoConnect surveyed beta users on what they wanted from the app. The approach was inspired by Schabot’s reading of the book “The Lean Startup.” Author Eric Wies describes developing software with an iterative approach.
This approach prompted user suggestions including a way to track potential clients, a function that Schabot and Garman did not initially think of. Schabot and Garman initially envisioned an app that was unobtrusive with no notifications to bother users throughout the day. Beta testers felt differently. They let GoConnect know they wanted the opposite: an app that was involved in their life with notifications and connections to their e-mail.
With this evolving development process, Kadro tweaked the software and incorporated new user suggestions every two weeks. That process went on for nine months. By the end of the beta test, GoConnect had 4,000 testers.
GoConnect released the iOS version of its app in April. An Android version was released in June. Both versions are free; for $1.99 a month, the company will also back up user data each time the user logs on. The company now has users in every state with the highest concentration of U.S. users in California, Texas and North Carolina. While the majority of GoConnect’s user base is in the United States, GoConnect’s app has been welcomed abroad in Canada, Australia and Europe. That customer growth has come with little marketing other than trade show presentations. Real estate agents are learning about GoConnect from other agents or via social media, Schabot said.
GoConnect is self-funded by Schabot and Garman, who also runs Garman Homes, a homes builder. GoConnect remains a lean operation employing only Schabot and Garman full time, plus another worker who helps out on a project by project basis. Tech support is done through the company’s Facebook page the same way that the company solicited feedback on development of the app. Schabot and Garman answer user questions on the page and users also offer tips to each other.
GoConnect will soon release GoConnect Pro, which is a paid version of the software. This version will allow real estate agents to synchronize their devices and share data, functions that testers asked of GoConnect. The next project is GoConnect Broker, which will be a version available to real estate agent offices. The startup has already signed up six companies to start testing GoConnect Broker in August. Schabot does not yet have product pricing information, which will depend on the features. But that software will be developed just like the earlier versions: an iterative process shaped by crowdsourced user feedback.
“We’ve never done software before so I don’t think we know how software is supposed to go,” Schabot said. “We didn’t have preconceived notions of how it could be done. The more it worked, the more we kept doing it.”
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