There are millions of apps out there. Many are very successful, but most are not. What are the steps taken by successful app makers that distinguish them from unsuccessful ones? In addition, many people have ideas for an app but don't know where to begin. What are the steps you need to take to create a successful app? As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt DiBari.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I come from a very blue-collar family where I was the only person interested in technology. I was always the person helping everyone set up and learn how to use technology. After getting a Computer Science degree, I jumped into consulting where my main focus was bringing technology to auto dealerships. From there, a mentor told me all about Product Management. I was excited to find a place where I could marry my knowledge of technology, love of problem-solving, and creative approach to troubleshooting. I jumped the consulting ship to begin building the products I was consulting on. After that, I just kept trying to find and solve problems in industries that had not historically been technology-forward.
Most of us have been around a lot longer than apps have. What were your hobbies and interests in your youth before anyone knew what an 'app' was?
I played every type of organized and unorganized sport growing up. Once I’d burned off enough energy and settled in at home, it was straight onto the computer to build or play with lightweight web applications or games. Learning how these things worked and how to break them was how I subconsciously taught myself how to build things. This also sparked my love of problem-solving, which ultimately led to my passion for product development and figuring out how to help make things easier for consumers. This is an approach that would follow me throughout my career. When starting every project, the core principle I want to follow is how can I not only solve this issue for my consumer but also provide the most value to them?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or 'takeaways' you learned from that?
I think I made the same mistake all new product managers make when they are starting out. We try to make an impact right away with some big changes to the product that bothered us as a user. For me, it was adding a button to automate report generation. Ultimately no one used this feature and luckily the engineering time investment was not huge, but the new feature had no impact on the metrics/KPIs. I learned to never trust an audience of one. Engineering time is sacred, and you must understand the opportunity cost of everything you do. Before moving forward with making a change, be sure to fully understand what impact it will have on your metrics. Don’t get hung up on one person’s feedback—even if it is your own. Be sure to bring in different perspectives to pressure test your thinking and strategy. Once that’s been done and you feel confident you’ve looked at it from multiple angles, then you’re ready to move forward.
What drew you to a career in product, and what qualities do you believe have contributed to your success in the field?
As a product leader and product-minded person, I see the world through problems (and ways to solve them). This is always something I warn people about when considering shifting careers into product management. Everyone notices all the big things—but in this field, you start getting attuned to all the little things that cause friction in your day-to-day life. No matter what app, device, or tool you are using, you find and remember the things that could’ve made it easier or better to use.
I see this mindset as a combination of who you are and what you learn. Many product managers are born with a deep curiosity about the world and empathy for people that puts them on the “problems first course.” For me personally, it all goes back to my curiosity about computers and web applications, figuring out how to make my experience better, and then learning how to implement this learning into a plan of action. Once you find this career, the learning part comes into play as you hone and tune your product management craft.
What kept you motivated to develop your first minimum viable product, and how have you kept your momentum since then?
I’ll talk about a recent couple of launches first, but the principles underlying it are the same. At SpotHero, we recently built and launched two big distribution partnerships with Apple Maps and Lyft. Working with other companies and meeting customer needs in new ways can be super exciting. But in both cases, some of the consumer experience was going to be out of our control. As we neared release, fear, uncertainty, and doubt crept in. Luckily, our Apple Maps and Lyft launches were spaced out and different enough from one another that we were able to take time in between them to talk directly with users and learn what changes needed to be made to improve their experience.
The excitement about starting something new is infectious—keeping momentum is harder. It is easy to get a group excited to build something from scratch, especially if you create empathy about the pain the problem is causing and help people understand the impact (and revenue from a business perspective) that comes with solving that problem. The challenging part is keeping that momentum when you are 85% of the way there. Toward the end of any build-out, people naturally get fatigued and begin to doubt, whether that’s the project itself or the work they’ve done for it. Plus, if you are looking ahead, you are starting to get the team excited about the next thing, so they start to get a “the grass is greener” feeling about the next project. I try to go back and forth with my team—release something big, go back and optimize something else, release something big, go back and optimize something else. Not only does this help teams stay engaged with what they’re currently working on, but it also gives the bigger releases time to normalize their performance and data, which greatly helps with the optimization phase that will take place later on.
Can you tell us a bit about your app? How does it help people? What do you think makes it stand out? What are you most proud of?
SpotHero is a parking marketplace app that connects drivers to convenient, affordable parking spots and allows them to book stress-free parking in advance—whether it’s for work, play, or travel. Drivers can search for parking on our app (or website) using a variety of filters such as EV charging, wheelchair accessibility, covered spaces, etc. Then, once they’ve found their perfect spot, they can book and pay for it directly within the app and have their parking pass ready to go before they even leave their home.
The average driver roams 1.22 miles before they find their parking space, and according to our 2022 State of Parking Report, nearly half of all Americans (48.5%) find parking to be stressful. Our app eliminates that stress by helping people know exactly where they’re going to park, which allows people to focus on what really matters—which is the dinner, sporting event, or concert they’re driving to. We take the thought out of parking by connecting drivers to the parking spaces that best suit their needs, and we’re very proud of that.
Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
Last year, we hit an exciting milestone—we surpassed $1 billion in parking sold! To put that into perspective, that’s more than 50 million cars parked in over 300 cities across the U.S. and Canada. Our recent partnerships with Lyft and Apple Maps have also further expanded our reach to millions of additional users.
We built our community city by city. As we expanded over the years, we purposefully took a unique approach to each market. Parking in any given city is different, so we took a great deal of care to understand how people move around in specific places. We asked ourselves, “Is this city more of a public transit or driving-friendly city? Is it full of commuters only, or does it have a lively nightlife, weekend, and/or event (sporting events, concerts, etc.) consumer base?” When people move around, we must understand where and when. Once we have those questions answered we implement marketing efforts that discuss the product features of the SpotHero app specifically for that city/area. This focus on providing the best product for that specific city, along with helping people easily find, book, and pay for the best parking locations, has helped us provide immense value to our users and simplified their lives by eliminating the thought behind parking.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
We take a small percentage of every park via service fees. These fees help us cover the costs of running our platform, investing in new features, marketing our digital marketplace, and adding more locations. Like every consumer-facing business in 2023, we have looked at subscription models or other recurring revenue models, but we find they do not match our user base. People are either parking very frequently or very infrequently—neither of which fits a subscription model well.
Can you tell our readers about the most unconventional tactic you've used to test, market, or gain feedback on a product? What did you try, what was unique about it, and what was the outcome?
When we were first growing at SpotHero, we didn’t have a big market research budget. We found that the best and easiest way to get feedback was to literally do the legwork and go stand in the driveways of parking garages and watch people try to use our product. Luckily, we have a fearless product design team and a great group of garage operators that allowed us to talk to customers in their moment of need. While we don’t do as much of that today, we’ll still try to get out occasionally and stand in the lane or next to a valet and watch SpotHero in action so we can continue to innovate our product and learn directly from our customers how we can make their SpotHero experience better.
What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?
We deliberately plan for optimization, innovation, and obsolescence. We constantly measure how existing solutions are working and decide if they are working fine (leave them alone), have room for improvement (optimization), or have run their course (obsolete), along with looking for new ways to help people find and pay for parking (innovation).
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1. Make Your Value Clear - Whether you’re building a new app or working on a longstanding one, making sure your value is clear to consumers is vital. Part of this is understanding what your consumers need and how to unlock it—do they want to purchase, browse, research, learn more, etc.? As I mentioned earlier, we know that nearly half of all American drivers find parking to be stressful and, depending on where they live, expensive. There are tons of options to choose from, but often they can be difficult to find, reserve, or pay for. With SpotHero, we set out to make it clear that the value we provide to our users is by taking the thought out of parking by connecting drivers to convenient, affordable parking options. Whatever your product offering is, help consumers discover it immediately within your app. Removing friction from the most important workflows is a must.
2. Continuous Development - The app you build today likely won’t be the (exact) app your target audience needs in 3-5 years. Mobile trends will change, something we saw with the rise of connected cars through tools like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. With these changes, consumer expectations shift, so be fluid. You can stay on top of these everchanging needs by doing frequent app releases and consistently conducting user feedback via surveys and interviews.
3. Make It Worthwhile to Come Back - Retention is just as important as bringing in new users to your app. Build an app that incentivizes returning through its features. For example, SpotHero saves recently visited destinations to allow our drivers to quickly rebook without much effort. Small, personalized features like this will get your app moved to the first page of their home screen.
4. Keep Your Promises - It may sound simple, but sticking to your word is key to retaining loyal users. There are tons of apps out there that offer consumers similar experiences. Your app must be seamless and issue-free in order for yours to stand out from the crowd and not be deleted. Reviews (especially bad ones) also impact your ability to recruit and retain. Successful apps stay on top of that feedback and make things right when things don’t go as promised. SpotHero uses Slack integrations that alert us about every review and piece of feedback, along with incidents reported to ensure that we’re constantly aware of consumer sentiment. This also helps us react quickly in the event that our product needs to be optimized to improve our user experience.
5. Don’t Underestimate Getting Noticed - Step one is building an app people will love. Equally important is step two, which is making sure people know about the app you built. There are over 2 million apps in the Apple App Store and over 2.5 million in the Google Play Store. You need to differentiate yourself in the crowded space, which includes having distinct branding and descriptions to make your app easier to discover. Don’t underestimate investing in marketing resources to help promote your app, including search engine optimization, customer retention marketing, and brand marketing.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I recently attended a conference where I listened to a professor from DePaul University talk about continuing education. What stuck with me the most was when he said our kids will live productive lives into their 100s thanks to modern medicine. As someone with two little kids, this shocked me and made me wonder what this could mean for their careers and education. Will they have two different 30-year careers? One from 23 to 55 and another with a total restart from 55 to 85? Will people be more willing to do charitable work in their second career? How do companies and the education system accommodate a second (or third?) career phase? It’s not a movement yet, but it’s something I want to get as many people thinking about and planning for as possible.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can book parking on our website and check out our parking pointers/tips/tricks on our blog. We also have helpful parking content on our SpotHero Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I also post updates highlighting exciting work on LinkedIn!
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