PadMapper has long been one of our favourite apartment-hunting tools. Its incredibly useful Google Maps interface, multiple search filters and parking overlays make it one of the best places to start your rental search. When Craigslist revoked PadMapper’s access to its listings last year, creator Eric DeMenthon (in a totally badass move) brought it back using a backdoor API. We caught up with Eric to chat about his greatest challenges, biggest inspirations and more.
Where did the idea for the app come from? Were you trying to solve a problem you’d experienced, or did the inspiration come from somewhere else?
My friends and I were trying to find a place in NYC, actually, and we were specifically trying to find a place without a broker fee. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked for a place in NYC, but brokers there play a lot of games, describing places as being where they’re not, being intentionally vague about the location, promising a no-fee place but then not having it when you get there, and so on. We’d click on a listing, fall in love with the place, and then realise that it wasn’t where we thought it was. That wasted a lot of our time.
Late one night, my friend Rob and I were discussing what we wish Craigslist was like — we wanted to search by location first on a big map that took up the whole screen, we wanted powerful filters, and we wanted it to email us when something new matching what we wanted came up, so we wouldn’t have to keep checking back every half hour. That’s basically what became PadMapper.
After you came up with the idea, what was the next step?
I was working as a programmer at a pretty demanding startup in NYC, so I started experimenting with crawling and Google Maps on nights and weekends. A few months later, I quit my job without much of a plan about what I would do, but I had this code that I had been playing with, so I decided I might as well work on that. It had been useful for me, so I figured that if I made it less janky, other people would find it useful too. I worked on a couple of other projects as well, but PadMapper was the one that caught on.
Pictured above: Eric at work.
How did you choose which platforms to target and which to ignore or wait on?
When I started working on this, the iOS app store was just coming out, so I pretty quickly made a companion iOS app. Android was still in its infancy, though, and tablets didn’t exist. I got some complaints from people with netbooks, but I generally ignored those because I thought that netbooks were more pain than they were worth.
What was your biggest roadblock and how did you overcome it?
Hm, tough question. There have been a lot of little roadblocks — servers falling over, random API limits, and deals that needed to get made in order for me to be able to keep going. The two biggest ones:
1. When Google decided to start charging for Maps, and they announced their initial pricing, I thought I was dead meat — I think it was something like $US4-10 per thousand map loads. At that point the site was doing something like 10 million map loads per month, so that would have bankrupted me really quickly unless I could find another way. Fortunately, the guys at Google were really reasonable, and I think there were some PadMapper fans on the team, which didn’t hurt. They ended up reducing their public pricing a lot before they actually started charging, too, so it became a moot point, but until I finally worked that out with them, I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep going.
2. Getting sued by Craigslist over including their listings in the search results. Most people don’t realise this, but Craigslist makes hundreds of millions of dollars every year, which means they can afford a lot of very expensive lawyers. Fortunately I found a great lawyer (Venkat Balasubramani) who specialises in IP law and who was willing to help me out for a manageable rate, so that’s worked out somewhat as well. Lawsuits take forever, though, and mine is still going on more than a year later.
What was launch like for you?
Lifehacker surprised me by launching it for me! I was coding one day and took a look at my server activity, and noticed that it was getting completely destroyed. I fired up analytics and saw that Lifehacker was dumping thousands of people onto the site. Honestly, seeing tens of thousands of people using my creation that day was the biggest rush I’ve ever had. Before that I think the biggest day saw maybe 200 people using it, and suddenly there were 10,000. I don’t think it dipped below 1500 after that day.
So thank you very much, Lifehacker (and thanks Adam Pash specifically for writing about it). Until that point, I had a strong suspicion that I was being stupid for trying to do my own thing and not just going to get another job. It was really the shot in the arm from Lifehacker that made me realise that I had made something useful to a lot of people.
How do you handle user requests and criticisms effectively?
I’m not very good at tracking requests, unfortunately. My system is basically that if I hear the same complaint enough times, I add it to my to do list to look into it more. That said, I’m always happy to hear from people — I’m happy they care enough to complain and want improvements.
Pictured above: Eric at play.
Now, how do you split time between developing new features and managing existing ones?
As much as possible, I try to automate things so that I don’t have to spend time maintaining them. That’s helped a lot, and made it so I haven’t had to hire, except for some part time help. Things are complex enough, though, that I still spend a decent amount of time maintaining things. When I’m trying to develop something new, I try to get rid of all the distractions I can — IM, email, phone, twitter, it all goes off, oftentimes for days at a time. It’s hard to really be productive if you’re constantly getting interrupted, and I really start hitting my stride after a day or two of intense focus. Three or four hours is the minimum block of time for tackling anything new and hard — if I don’t have that, I usually don’t bother and just do maintenance stuff.
What advice would you give to others that want to take on a similar project?
Get started, and play around. Twiddle things around. Don’t be afraid to break things.
Lifehacker’s new Behind the App series gives an inside look at how some of our favourite apps came to be — from idea to launch (and beyond).