It’s hard not to get sucked into the app economy. Apple’s paid out a total of $6.5 billion to developers, and successes like Angry Birds or Instragram seem so simple. If you designed the right app, you could do it too.
That’s kind of how we started. We saw Steve Jobs announce the iPad in 2010, and we envisioned a new type of children’s books for the iPad. We would rewrite Hansel and Gretel and pack it with interactivity to create a new experience. Of course, we still worked full-time jobs and neither of us had created an app before. It would only take a few months, right?
It took three years.
During that time, our illustrator got hit by a car—luckily he was okay—and our first software developers walked away a year into the project, forcing us to start over. The number of competitor Hansel and Gretel apps jumped too, from three when we started to over 60 now.
We finished the app—but we learned some hard lessons along the way that we either didn’t know about when we started or that we chose to ignore because we didn’t fully appreciate what they meant. Most of all, we learned that just because you choose to ignore something, doesn’t mean it goes away.
So here is a list of lessons learned from our mistakes. It’s not comprehensive, but each lesson was critical to our app’s success. They’re the same lessons we share with friends who ask us, "What would you do differently?"
If you’re like us, you’re doing it backward. You have a genius vision for an app, and you know that when you build it, they will come.
Save your money.
Building an app costs gobs of money and long gone are the days where it’s easy to get featured on app stores. Apple adds over 17,000 apps to their App Store each month. You’re not getting featured. What’s your next plan?
If you’re smart, you’ll guarantee yourself distribution even before you start building your product. Your goal is to get people to commit to the vision of the app up front.
For instance, let’s say you want to make an app for restaurants that helps people pay for their meals. Imagine the difference it would make if you got 10 restaurant owners to agree to buy your app if you built it. It’d be a great start. It would change how investors, the media, and potential partners see you.
Here are a few ideas that will cost you little to no money and will build demand:
- Create a PDF of what your app might look like before you do any programming. It doesn’t have to be exactly right—it only needs to show the main functionality. You’ll get genuine feedback, and if potential customers like it, maybe even an investor or partner.
- Team up with a nonprofit and give away a portion of your proceeds. Not only will that nonprofit market your app to its people, but you’ll also get access to its board of directors, which often includes well-established business people. The media loves a business that does good while it does well—but only if it’s core to who that business is. You can’t fake this one.
- Give a cut to influential people who relate to your product or target audience. Maybe for you that’s a celebrity or a blogger. Or maybe it’s a well-known person in your industry. By getting this person on board, it means your launch will be more newsworthy—and key people will pick up the phone when you call.
You hear all these great things about outsourcing. You can hire a programmer in Asia to do anything, right?
Outsourced talent will only work to the specifications of your scope of work—nothing more. As you discover new features that your customers need, you’ll have to pay extra for every change.
You’ll also have no way to know whether outsourced vendors are telling the truth. They can tell you halfway into a project that the features they promised in the scope of work are actually impossible. Without a technical cofounder, you won’t know where you can push back. It’s like when your auto mechanic tells you the flux capacitor’s broken. Is that even a real thing? The best way to use outsourced talent is if you have a technical cofounder who can architect the app and then parcel out defined pieces of the work to outsourced talent.
We got lucky in creating our app. We had contracted our first programmers on a cash basis and they never finished. Our new developers actually partnered with us on the app, so they had skin in the game to get the app right, too.
Apps are a low-margin, high-volume business. If you’re only making a dollar per customer who downloads your app, it means that any customer acquisition marketing that costs more than a dollar won’t be worth it.
A big part of marketing is making an app remarkable enough for people to talk about. That includes customers, journalists, and even Apple and Google.
But you don’t decide what’s remarkable—everyone else does. Think long and hard about what it takes for an app to be remarkable. Research it. Is it because the app’s addictive? Does it offer information people can’t find anywhere else? What headline would a journalist write about it? Once you know what you need to be remarkable, you can shape the app to elicit that response. And if it doesn’t gain traction, either make it better or move on.
Scalability is the idea that you can build an asset once and can cheaply and easily sell it to more people without big expense.
Angry Birds, for instance, was an app that scaled easily. They could make sequels to Angry Birds easily, using the same technology platform and concept.
Our Hansel & Gretel: Lost app will be more difficult to scale. We custom-made everything—from the artwork to the coding—and so to create a new app, we essentially need to start over. That’s a rough way to build a business.
Think about ways to make your idea more scalable. For instance, if you’re making a restaurant app for mobile payments, maybe your customers are companies who make cash registers, instead of individual restaurants. You’ll get more scale much more quickly.
Writing can be a part-time job. Painting can be a part-time job. Apps are not a part-time job (unless you’re already an app developer in your day job).
It took us two and a half years outside of our full-time jobs to make our app. That meant sacrificing time with friends and family and (at times) our general well being. That meant getting really lucky with partners who would work with us outside of normal business hours. It also meant we got to market way too slowly and missed a critical window to get attention. Part-time apps may be less risky for your income, but you pay for it in other ways.
If you’re going to build an app, either go all in and build the team to do it full time—or don’t do it. Etsy is a part-time job. Ebay is a part-time job. Apps are a full-time job.
Stu Stein is Business Co-Founder of app publishing house PB&J Publishing., which he started with his cousin, Creative Co-Founder Jessica Bogart.
See the infographic below and take a closer look in the slide show above.