Starting an app business is a long bet with high risk and high payouts. You put at stake the time and money it will take to launch, promote and sell your product, expecting it to deliver outstanding value to the app’s users. If you succeed, having an application with satisfied and dedicated users can turn into a self-perpetuating machine and a great opportunity to make a profit or influence the world. It's difficult to say whether an app will be a game changer or not. However, many projects fail because they repeat some fundamental mistakes. Read the list below and try to avoid them.
Up until recently the cost of developing a web or mobile app was quite high. The situation has changed a lot with the standardisation of programming technology, the evolution of programming languages and frameworks. Now you can launch a quality app in 12 weeks, without an in-house development team, with a capped cost that an experienced development team can estimate quite precisely.
If you want to win your bet you need to:
The most successful applications are household names for all of us. We use them every day. Having used them a lot, we can all imagine what a great product should look like, how it should be designed and how efficiently it should help the user with solving a problem. The stories of projects that never made it for some reason are more obscure.
I think that making a list of things not to do – a roundup of negative guidelines – is very useful. Here’s one inspired by Paul Graham’s kill startup list published a decade ago. I did not include all the risks related to financing and decided to focus on the project instead. Let’s assume you will fund it with your own money and you want to keep the costs under control.
Here's my list. Just take a look at it from time to time and check if you are making any of these mistakes. If you think any of the paragraphs below are true about your project, you should probably change something in it.
“Not making something users want” is the cardinal sin you can commit. At every stage of your project, you have to be sure the product you are building, promoting and selling will be useful. It has to make people’s professional or private life easier or more fun. This must be the main drive and motivation for you and your team. If you are not excited about what your app does, you need to take a step back and rethink your project.
You’ve identified the problem and came up with a new, better or easier solution. Yet, if you aren’t able to get your message across and communicate it, your solution might not be enough for the product to succeed. Communicating a product’s value will be especially difficult if your idea is truly innovative or your product is exceptionally complex.
Write down all the things your app is going to do and strike away from the least important features one by one until you are left with a single key feature. Try to describe this core value in one sentence. Then make sure everyone in your social circles – family, friends, colleagues – is able to understand it and (!) can communicate it on to others.
If you struggle with this, try asking for help someone with better communication skills or simplify the product even further. If it doesn’t work, there may be no clear value in your app. The sooner you realise it, the more time and resources you will have to make necessary adjustments.
Many startups have failed because they had just one founder. You need someone to complete your skillset. If you are a great engineer, you’ll need a great designer. If you can build an app, you will need a marketing and sales specialist with great communication and persuasion skills. The perfect combination of a good product and efficient promotion is what made the best startups succeed.
On the other hand, in the unlikely event that you are an extraordinary hybrid able to do it all yourself, you will still need partners or colleagues to discuss your decisions. People tend to get lost when they are left alone with an idea they are passionate about. Founding a company is a mixture of creative thinking, fast decision making, stress, despair and euphoria. You will need someone to support you through the process.
Usually, if you go for a derivative idea, you focus on the hottest app. Its financial growth might inspire you, but most likely you are simply one of its many satisfied users. You’d like to invent a better Facebook, Hubspot, Airbnb, Snapchat, Slack or Intercom because you believe in the idea behind these ventures.
You realise you are able to make a similar product with a competitive advantage of some sort: an additional feature, a slightly different target group, quick localisation to reach a specialist market. As a result, you get a product that is slightly better than the big competitor – it might be cheaper or have some nice new features.
Bad news: the supposed advantage might be just in your head. A successful tech business is a complex system similar to an iceberg – you can only see the tip if you’re outside but there is much more hidden under water. If the market leader put a high price on their product or it lacks some features that would seem useful, chances are they know more than you do. You may have come up with a brilliant idea, but they have lots of experience and feedback from many users.
Challenging the biggest players might be risky in one more respect. Even if you find the right spot to attack, the market leader has all the resources to fend off your attempts. In global tech economy, the rule “winner takes all” applies to many markets. Just improving the leader’s ideas riskier than it seems.
Launching an app based on a proven model but aimed at a narrower group is often a good idea. You can find dozens of Airbnbs for X or Ubers for X. It’s also safer to use someone else’s business model that has been tested and proven right. First, you know that it works and how it should be done. Second, it’s much easier to communicate, since you can refer to the original app that people already know.
Still, your niche can’t be too exotic. It might be tempting to aim at very specialised markets, since a smaller group will have more specific needs, and will be easier to come up with dedicated features. Try to estimate the potential number of users and check if it’s enough for you.
When you are developing a niche product, think whether it would be possible to adapt it to a different group of users and how much it would cost. If it’s flexible enough, you will have more opportunities for expansion in the future.
Creating a new app is not about getting from A to B. You simply can’t know where you will get to in the end. You might have a vision, but most likely at least some part of it will prove to be wrong.
App economy consists of millions of picky users that follow unpredictable fads, thousands of clever developers trying to satisfy them, viral marketing opportunities that make everything even more random… It is an extremely complex system making it very difficult to plan ahead. That is why you need to be flexible, both in terms of technologies you decide to use and the mental attitude you adopt. You always need to be ready for a pivot – an unexpected change of strategy.
Great entrepreneurs come up with a brilliant idea and are persistent enough to implement it. The more revolutionary the concept, the more stubborn you need to turn it into a great app. If you know what problem your app should solve and you are confident that it is an important problem for a substantial group of potential users – go for it.
However, you have to be mentally ready for a pivot. Don’t get too attached to your ideas, especially to all the precise details you came up with during the planning phase. The functionalities, the name, the colours and the design you invented can always be changed. It’s the added value and users’ opinion that matter most in the end.
You need to know what you want to do. Even when you decide to pivot, your team should keep in mind what is so special about your app that makes it possible for it to succeed. A smart change may save your project. Bear in mind that change always incurs additional costs. The later you decide to make the change, the higher the price you will pay for implementing it.
Be aware that if you implement too many changes, you can lose track of the bigger picture of what you are creating. While you can change the design, the core value should always be there. And it needs continuity. If you are developing a matchmaking app with a complex machine learning algorithm behind it, and you build your value around the algorithm, you can pivot towards a product suggestion solution for e-commerce. It will work if your team realise that your app is about a great algorithm that can match anything efficiently.
The most successful applications in recent years are not technological innovations. The founders of Uber, Airbnb or Intercom used available technology to create a new business model or a process, or discovering a new need, i.e. creating a new market.
The technology becomes transparent. The programmers themselves won’t make your app popular or profitable. What engineers can do for you is give life to your idea. It's not an easy task.
The problem is that there is just too much software in the market. Too many web and mobile apps fighting to win users’ attention. You will need to provide the highest quality in order to satisfy their needs. The expectations are high because you are competing with the user experience of the greatest products: Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Instagram, Spotify.
The bottom line is: even the best software engineers won't win it for you. You will still have to provide a great idea, business execution, marketing and sales and do it at the right time. The one thing you must know is that if your development team doesn't meet the world-class standards, it will be virtually impossible for your app to gain traction.
The choice of technology can be tricky. You would like to go for the most suitable long-range platforms that will be at the cutting edge of app development for years to come. The software boom – especially in the most active startup hubs – has led to a drain of engineer talent.
The shortage of specialists is even more pronounced for the most popular platforms. In areas like London or Northern California, it's virtually impossible to find quality programmers skilled in the technology of your choice. The programming standards change, and it’s difficult for a developer to switch from one language to another. Especially later in their careers. Only the best have the motivation to do it. If you operate in a city, where the talent pool is drained by big corporations, working with a remote engineering team might be a good idea.
As for the platform, your product is built on, there is no room for compromise. You should go for what is most popular and will be used, supported and developed in the future. Wrong technologies don’t really have to be outdated at the moment of choosing them, but they will lose their momentum soon.
Timing is the most important factor in an app’s success – most venture capital investors will agree, e.g. Bill Gross in his speech. It makes it even more tricky. Not only you need to have the knowledge, wit and imagination to come up with a great idea. You also need to be lucky enough to come up with the idea at the right time.
Our experience in Netguru tells us that you can build a world-class app in no more than 12 weeks. This is the time you should be able to release your minimum viable product (here's our special take on MVP) and get some feedback from the users. The app is never 100 percent ready – it's an ongoing process. Open your idea to tests and crowdsource the feedback.