Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
For Tom Luker, the old saying “there’s an app for that” meshes well with the even older saying “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Back when the housing market was emerging from recession, Luker and his partners at Luker Properties Group LLC in Oviedo, Fla., were in the process of shifting their business model from residential and vacation home sales to property management and a turnkey solution for investors. As co-owner and vice president of sales for the company, Luker was scoping out listings in Central Florida and trying to get information to his investor clients as quickly as possible. But he was having trouble keeping the “spider web of information” straight and quickly compiling and presenting the facts in a way that his clients could easily digest.
“I was going out and looking at so many properties,” he remembers. “I had to transmit [to clients] what I had seen and what my thoughts were and collate the two. But I was just losing track.”
When he wasn’t searching for investment properties, Luker was scouring app stores for a solution to this business problem. He and his father and brother, both partners at Luker Properties, downloaded a few that seemed to offer what they were looking for. But in the end, nothing on the market had all the pieces they needed in one product.
At this point, Luker wondered if he could invent the solution himself. He called Stanley Choung, one of his investor clients based in New York. Luker just wanted to get Choung’s take on the idea, since he had a technological background outside of real estate. Choung ended up partnering with Luker to create 37 Cents LLC, the company behind the HomeNotes app they created together (now available in iTunes). Choung’s old college roommate, Daniel Pilch, happened to be a partner at Freeport Metrics, a software development company in Portland, Maine, that they hired to do the development work.
Luker is pleased with how the app turned out. Not only is it growing in popularity, it also helps him operate in a more nimble way as multiple-offer situations become more common in his market. “When the property comes up, you have to be ready to move,” he says. “By the time I get back to the office, I’m writing offers instead of e-mails describing the property.”
But even though they hired a software company to create the app, the development process wasn’t easy. Here, he offers some lessons for brokers and salespeople who might want to follow in his footsteps.
Luker recommends using a wireframe sketching program such as Balsamiq (the one he and his partner chose) to visually communicate how you imagine the app working within the device interface. They used the free version of the software, which allowed them to show engineers at Freeport what they were looking for without having to invest money and time in professional development tools. “It helped me just to start putting my ideas into motion,” Luker says.
Once they hired Freeport, Luker and Choung didn’t just hand over their ideas and hope for the best. They had weekly meetings to stay on top of the process and spent several hours each day testing and working with the developers. Luker didn’t want the app development work to cut into the time he spent on his real estate business, so he worked on the app in the evenings.
“You want to find as many bugs as possible before it hits the market,” he says, noting that one of his main tasks was to tax the software as much as possible to try to find the app’s weak spots. “Once we found we couldn’t make it crash, we knew it was ready to release.”
Even after the initial release on August 31, 2015, Luker says they’re still continually working on new versions and bug fixes. They’re also constantly looking at ways to make the app more universally useful. They’ve gotten interest from users as far away as New Zealand and Dubai, and they want to add more measurement and currency options to better cater to their growing international user base.
“Each time you do even a minor change, you have to label it as a new version,” he says, noting they have plans for integrations with other information services, such as Google Maps. “We’re constantly throwing ideas at each other.”
Just like a listing, you should do market analysis to see other comparable products that are on the market. Is there already an app that serves your target audience? “This is a tool that I personally need,” Luker remembers thinking to himself when the initial idea came to him. “Is this something I need, or is this something that people need in general? Do we actually create this or not?”
But your marketing skills will really shine after the app is live. Luker says the development company offers advertising services, but due to their target audience, he felt he and his partners would be better positioned to get the word out. “We’re joining local investor clubs to really do some direct marketing,” he says. “This is a pretty specific and targeted audience that we’re looking at, and we were positioned pretty well. We’ll use our connections within the market.”
The team decided on a three-tiered pricing option for HomeNotes, though the app doesn’t have any paid users yet. Luker says most of the approximately 200 users they have right now are still in their free-trial period. “For us, that’s OK. We are now starting to put a marketing plan together and really give it a push, so this is the next step on our journey,” Luker says.
Not only do they hope to eventually reimburse themselves for the initial development funds they invested, but Luker notes that ongoing fixes and additions means they’re often in contact with Freeport Metrics. Also, because they didn’t want users to weigh down the memory on their devices with the pictures and data being saved on the app, 37 Cents LLC pays for the servers that allow users to save media to the cloud. “All of that costs money to do,” he says, advising that real estate pros who are interested in deploying their own apps “definitely need to budget for ongoing costs.”
More than anything else, Luker counsels would-be app inventors to cultivate endurance. He says the rush of the “eureka” moment can push some to move too quickly and advises anyone looking to embark on such a project to hunker down for the long haul. “I was itching to get this thing out,” he says, noting that the longer timeline was one of the more surprising revelations for him in this process. “You get excited and you have an idea and you want to bring it to market as soon as possible.”