Build it wrong to get it right

If you want to create something that lasts, you must embrace your errors

It was October 2010, and the online marketing industry was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Tasks once performed with phone, fax and spreadsheet were beginning to incorporate automated trading platforms, algorithms and computerized exchanges that handled the buying and selling of ad space on websites.

And there I was, having changed course and pivoted our niche RSS feed-creation software company a year prior into one of the first programs to feed live products and pricing into graphical display ads on the Web. (Yeah, that pair of shoes that keeps following you around the Internet is our fault; my apologies.) But more on that later.

Now, in 2014, the real estate industry is on the eve of its own renaissance. We, too, are seeing the end of the fax machine and the start of a customer experience that helps agents usher clients through the process of buying and selling a home with online tools, including Amitree, my own online tool.

And just like before, I’m getting it all wrong.

Let me explain: I don’t mean we’re making a mistake here and there. I mean we’re getting most of it wrong, nearly every day, every time we push code to the site.

And I couldn’t be more excited, because it’s exactly what we have to do in order to get it right.

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How to build something that lasts is a matter of increasing importance to real estate; Real Estate Connect New York City 2015 is all about “building.” So I’m inspired to share the biggest lesson I’ve learned about building a product, a company and a business: Your first set of assumptions is almost never right, and success is defined by your ability to quickly process and respond to what goes wrong each time.

This sounds obvious, but it isn’t. It’s really uncomfortable to confront the reality that the work poured into a project or a feature doesn’t amount to anything if it doesn’t delight the user in the end. Your customer never cares how hard something was to build. They just know when it doesn’t work for them. The customer is, in fact, always right.

If you’re lucky, your customers tell you when something doesn’t work. Even when they don’t tell you, if you know how to listen and measure their behavior, you’ll hear their voice telling you there’s a problem. Again: Success is defined by your ability to quickly process and respond to what you’re hearing.

Sometimes your customers will even tell you how to fix the problem. And hopefully you’ll know when to stop listening to what they’re saying. This is the second-biggest lesson I’ve learned about building: It’s not the customer’s job to articulate the solution to their problems. That’s your job. Some of the worst products ever made are the result of building features that users say they want without considering what they actually will use.

But didn’t I say the customer is always right? Yes … but listening to them effectively means understanding what they’re saying well beyond their words. It means building and testing and measuring how they use your product (or how they don’t). And with each change you make, you see how wrong you were that time, and you adjust for the next change. Then, over time, you start to get less wrong and begin to approach the right product or service for your customers.

Which brings me back to 2010, having spent four years building the wrong products and features for the wrong audiences, all the while learning and listening and iterating to finally arrive at a product that was connecting with its audience in a big way — one that started to become “right.” In October of 2010, we sold that company to Yahoo. Today, when I reflect on the journey that got us there, the most valuable reward was that I learned how to build. I learned how to be wrong and how that leads you to getting it right.

Jonathan Aizen is the founder and CEO of Amitree Inc.