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An App To Find A Parking Spot – The Story Of ParkWhiz

Welcome to our #AFtalks Special Edition recap – App Success Stories!

App Success Stories is a new series where we talk to developers about their journeys, motivation, and how they got where they are today so others can learn from their experiences.

Our guests this week were Patrick McCarron and Brett Ransby, Lead Android and iOS developers of ParkWhiz, a parking spot locator and reservation app. We sat down with them to learn more about the successes and obstacles over the life of their app. Below you’ll find their collaborative answers between the product, marketing, engineering teams and their co-founder Aashish Dalal, as well as some relevant resources:

Q1: How did you come up with the idea for your app?

A: ParkWhiz got its start as the brainchild of co-founder and CEO Aashish Dalal, whose fiancee — now wife, Reepal — was studying law at Boston University. In order to get to class, she would drive and park near campus. However, as BU is situated near Fenway Park, she got frustrated when her monthly parking spot was taken without notice by Boston Red Sox fans and had to find another space, in some cases driving around in circles, having to maneuver around the T and the traffic, inevitably late to class. She came home one day and told him, “there’s got to be a better way.” So he created one.

Q2: Did you build/design it yourself or outsource? Why?

A: In the early days of the company, the product was only web-based. We launched our first app in 2012 using PhoneGap. We replaced it with native implementations in 2013, using contractors to build them out. This was a great way for us to get started and test things. Once the apps started to see real traction, we brought them in-house and began building out our mobile team. Today, that team consists of three Android developers, three iOS developers, two UX designers, a visual designer and a product manager.

Q3: What sort of challenges did you face when building the app?

A: Our biggest challenge is always balancing improving the user experience without scaring away users who may have become comfortable with the way the app has worked in the past. We address this challenge by making sure we’re focusing on the customer benefit in everything we do, and carefully communicating that when we make updates. This is definitely a muscle we’ve built over time.

Q4: Marketing is a crucial element of an app’s success. What does your current marketing plan look like, and how has it evolved since launch?

A: Like most businesses, we’ve added new channels to our marketing mix over time. Our early investments were heavily focused on organic and paid search, thus the channels with the most mature unit economics. More recently we’ve started to prioritize social, display, as well as offline and local activations. Our challenge is always threefold – continuing to expand our user base, build the ParkWhiz brand, and build the category itself so that more drivers are aware of our services.

Q5: Which marketing channels do you rely on for promotion?

A: Digital channels are the core of our marketing efforts as we can effectively reach customers who have a need for our services. This includes driving users to install from search, social, video, display as well as affiliate and partnerships.

Q6: What kind of challenges did you encounter marketing the app after launch?

A: When we launched, consumer internet marketing was very straightforward — there were proven acquisition method that we knew worked, primarily SEO and SEM. Launching the app was a new experience as there weren’t obvious ways to reach consumers, thus we initially struggled. We’ve built our CRM muscle over the years and it has become a vital way to get existing customers to migrate to the app. We also used our website, blog, and PR to drive general awareness of the app.

Q7: If you knew back then what you know now, how would you have approach marketing?

A: Since both tech and user behavior have changed so much since the launch of our business, we would have focused much more on the app versus just the web products. Giving users the ability to book on the go is one of the biggest benefits of the product, and a behavior we would have focused on more aggressively if we knew then what we know now.

Q8: What is your monetization strategy, and how has it changed over time?

A: The app is free to download. We earn a percentage of each booking made.

Q9: Have you tried experimenting with different strategies and price points?

A: The app itself will always be free to download. We do run a lot of experiments with regard to customers acquisition and retention as these are the two most important levers of our business.

Q10: When it comes to apps, users play a major role in providing feedback through reviews. Do you incorporate user feedback into planning new features for the app? If so, how do evaluate suggestions?

A: We collect feedback from a ton of places including user research and testing, post-purchase surveys, app reviews, and requests for customer support via email, text message, phone call, and social media. We review this feedback on a weekly basis to spot trends. We want to move quickly and fix nagging user experience issues or any blocker bugs right away. Everything else we run through our product roadmap prioritization process, which factors in both short-term operational needs and longer-term strategic priorities. We review this roadmap with the company (for anyone that wants to join) in a weekly meeting.

Q11: Starting something new requires making hard decisions. Were there any decisions that were particularly hard?

A: That’s a great question. We recently launched the first skill for Amazon Alexa that enables you to find and book parking using your voice. We know this is a nascent channel but believe it’s going to be a big one, with Google predicting over 50% of searches will be done via voice by 2020. Given that we’ve got a relatively small engineering team for the size of our business (18 folks total), this means that we have to make a decision to prioritize these efforts. We know this will pay off as voice starts to come online (for example, Ford launched in-vehicle Alexa support earlier this year and BMW plans to support it in 2018).

Q12: How do you measure success? Are there any particular metrics you focus on?

A: Getting users to make their first booking in-app is a primary focus, but getting them to repeat on a regular basis is what real success looks like long term. Retention is critical.

Q13: What was the first success you remember for the app?

A: The first success we saw with the app was in launching it back in 2012. At the time 2.5% of our customers were transacting via mobile. We knew this number was going to continue to rise but didn’t have the resources or capital to invest in building a native app thus we launched using PhoneGap. In hindsight, the user experience was pretty bad, but it felt good to offer customers a mobile experience. We’ve certainly come a long way since, now with native apps for both platforms. They give customers the proper experience they are used to on their respective mobile platform and we feel that’s important. Part of making the customer more comfortable and stress-free involves putting them in an environment they’re familiar with and the reality is that apps built in their native environments typically achieve that goal more often. As well, it gives us the flexibility to use the tools Google and Apple create immediately and give our users the most up to date, fluid experience possible.

Q14: How do you plan on evolving the app and growing its user base?

A: Our key operating tenant is that it’s all about the customer – our mission is to make their lives easier in everything we do. We’ll continue to prioritize initiatives that make finding parking faster and parking itself easier. This is especially exciting as you think about autonomous vehicles coming online.

Final Thoughts:

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Huge thanks to Patrick & Brett, and to all those that were part of today’s discussion! Join us for our weekly Twitter chat every Tuesday at 2pm ET (bring your friends!). See you all next week!