Real Estate Tech Company Uses Agile to Stay Ahead in Software's Feature Race

Frederick Townes, president and COO of Placester, shares best practices and advice for developing new features.

For today's technology companies, keeping a step ahead of competitors is all about responding quickly to customer needs. Speed wins, whether rolling out a new product or fixing buggy software. Frederick Townes calls it the software industry's “Great Feature Race," and he's helping Boston-based technology company Placester navigate it.

Townes is co-founder, President and COO of Placester, which develops marketing software for real estate agents. This year, Placester released a series of online and mobile updates to beef up its real estate marketing platform, each designed to help agents in the field generate leads and drive sales. In all, the company has nine different apps to meet the customer's varying needs: Some want an easy way to run an email-marketing campaign, others are interested in drumming up clients through digital advertising.

All of Placester's feature releases follow the same rules, Townes says. They have to be simple to use, address current challenges and remain widely applicable to the customer base.

“We're taking the same approach we've always taken—creating rapid functionality in different apps that culminate overall in what we think our customers are looking for." 
— Frederick Townes, President and COO, Placester

Releasing a New Feature

To identify new development opportunities, Townes and his team first look for common threads among different groups of customers. Finding common pain points is how Placester is able to roll out features — like slideshows for realtor's homepages or a dashboard for lead management — that both meet specific needs and are relevant to a larger user base.

Once the company decides on a feature, small teams called owning squads handle the next steps. There's rarely ever a big push by the full development team. These squads are product and engineering teams that specialize in code base and knowledge for Placester's various apps. To develop features or fix bugs on existing features, the squads follow Scrum agile development processes, using a suite of digital tools for their software development lifecycle workflow and team collaboration.

While timelines vary, the delivery for each new feature usually takes two to four weeks. The squads frequently test the features in-house before launch, but sometimes they are released as “dark features," meaning they're available to a limited subset of users before being generally available.

“Various new email marketing features were shipped as dark features so they could be tested in the wild, but they were not turned on formally for a few weeks," Townes says. During this limited release, Placester uses digital tools to track issues and takes the opportunity to work out any bugs that arise.

From there, they leverage a cloud-based continuous integration and delivery platform to ship new features. Once those features are generally available, it's up to Placester's customers to choose which upgrades they incorporate.

Identifying Opportunities to Grow

To continue finding areas to expand the platform, Placester actively solicits agents for advice. Through Placester Labs, an internal program, the company engages people from all walks of real estate. The realtors ask Placester questions about the platform and Placester, in turn, interviews them about what might make their jobs in real estate easier.

“We're asking agents how they nurture their contacts or what they struggle with in terms of closing deals faster," Townes says.

That's the sort of business intelligence companies interested in agile software development should try to get. Understanding what products or features already rolled out are being adopted will help a company tailor future offerings. It's something Placester is intently focused on, especially after raising $50 million in venture capital this past March. But don't think the cash will change the way Placester has always added on features.

“We're taking the same approach we've always taken—creating rapid functionality in different apps that culminate overall in what we think our customers are looking for," says Townes.


Andrew Zaleski
By Andrew Zaleski | August 30, 2017

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