So you have an app idea…

Android MarketEver since I started working on GooseChase, I’ve had everyone and their uncle tell me about the great app idea they have. “If I can just get it built, people will love it”. The people and the idea changes, but the script remains the same.

Now I’m sure some of these people have good ideas. Executed correctly, they could even do very well. But with just about every person I’ve talked to, they’ve severely overestimated the power of their idea and underestimated the amount of work required. Not to be a pessimist, but at least 9/10 of these people are doomed to fail.

The thing is, most people think they are different. That their app is the exception to the rule. Ironically, I’m the same way. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be starting my own business. But what people don’t get is the amount of work they’ll need to put in just to get their app built, least of all be successful. And there’s no guarantee of success at all, even if you have all the resources in the world – just look at Color. In such a crowded industry, it’s brutally hard to get past 100 downloads, let alone one million.

Apps don’t just happen. Your idea doesn’t magically turn into something concrete in a few hours. People overlook most of the steps that are actually required to make a successful app, and I want to fix that. I’ve put together a list of 7 things to do before anyone writes a line of code. If you are still in love with the idea after completing these steps, then it might be worth getting it developed. But I bet that over half the people that start won’t finish these steps. While it sucks that they’ve given up, at least they didn’t spend any money before realizing it wasn’t as good as they initially thought.

Seriously, go through these steps. It won’t take you more than a few days, but I promise you’ll be much better off than if you didn’t.

  1. Sketch each screen. Go find a whiteboard or pull out a pencil and paper. Sketch out every screen a user could run into. Place the icons where they should go and indicate roughly what they should look like. What will your home screen look like? Will you have 4 main tabs plus settings in the options? Or 5 main tabs including settings? It’s not as simple as it seems. That idea that was so clear in your mind is probably a bit more fuzzy. But by taking the time to hash everything out now, you’ll be saving a lot of money and time down the road.
  2. Next, turn the sketches into complete mockups. You understand what your sketches mean, but others probably don’t. If you want the app to turn out exactly as you envision it, take the time and do it right. I use Keynotopia. The price isn’t unreasonable, but for your first mockup you can probably get away with using Keynote or PowerPoint’s standard shapes. Just turn the page size into the desired phone screen shape and make it work. Not ideal, but it’s a good way to test out the process without spending any money.
    Updates Mockup
  3. Figure out if you’ll need to hire a designer to turn your mockups into something more aesthetically appealing. If you’re graphically challenged like me, you probably will. There’s plenty of ways to outsource this cheaply (99designs is the most well-known, but I know people who have used Elance and been happy with it), just make sure you know roughly what you want so you don’t waste your time and money going back and forth.
  4. Think about server requirements. Does your app need to be updated with new content, like a news app or a messaging app, or have advertisements? If so, then you’ll most likely need to get a server – unless your developer provides one. If it’s just a standalone app like a to-do list, you can get away without one. Either way, think about how your app will be used and what is required from a hardware standpoint.
  5. Realize that you need to buy/sign-up for an app distribution account (App Store, Android Market, etc.). App Store registration is $99/year, and Android Market is a one time fee of $25. Also keep in mind that the standard cut of these stores is 30% of your app purchase revenue.
  6. Figure out how you are going get it developed. If you have everything fully specified in your mockups and are pretty competent technically, you might be able to get away with outsourcing it overseas through sites like Elance. If you want a bit more guidance in the short term, hire a local development firm that can work closely with you. This will be more expensive, but it’s going to be worth it in the long run. I should also point out that it’s not impossible to inspire a developer to split the app proceeds with you, but any developer worth their salt will be propositioned with these types of offers quite frequently. Unless you have a truly inspiring proposition, it will be pretty hard to pull off.
  7. Finally, set out a plan for how you are going to maintain the app going forward. It would be great if all apps were 100% completed when they are released, but it’s just not going to happen. Apps will be shipped with bugs that are both known and unknown. Add in new OS releases and you are definitely going to need some ongoing maintenance. If you’ve outsourced development, it’s going to be a lot harder unless you can get the same developer to do your maintenance. No one knows your app’s code like the person who wrote it, so try and set up a maintenance agreement with your developer(s).

This isn’t even close to a complete list of what you’ll need to do to get a successful app. However, if you complete these steps and still have the motivation to keep going, its a good step in the right direction.

For more info about how to get your app noticed in the App Store, one of the best posts I’ve read can be found here. It’s very well laid out and there are some steps, like building relationships with bloggers, that can and should be started now.

I’m debating about whether or not to write a post on managing the development of an app for a non-technical person. If that’s something you would find useful, let me know on Twitter (@cross_andrew).

  • Russ Abraham

    Well said

  • Andrew Cross

    What do you usually say to people who want you to make their app for free? Seeing as a lot of these people are friends or family of friends, you can’t just tell them to bug off.

  • Franz See

    I would suggest sprinkling it with a little bit of Lean Startup’ness as well.

  • Craig Saboe

    I would like to scream #6 from the rooftops. If I hear another proposal of “hey, have a great idea, just need it developed, and I can’t pay, but you’ll get 50% of the profit”, I’m going to shove their mobile phone so far up their nose they can dial with their cerebellum. You as the developer go and fully develop the app, with no guarantee they will be able to follow through on their sales responsibilities. They could ditch you the day after you complete the app, and decide they’re not interested – where does that leave you? There are 5,000 articles written by guys like Paul Graham ( that say over and over that ideas are cheap – it’s execution that matters, and a large part of that falls to the developer. If you have an idea, and you can’t find a sucker to develop it for free on hopes it will become the next Angry Birds, then INVEST YOUR OWN MONEY IN THE DEVELOPMENT AND PROVE YOU ARE REALLY COMMITTED. Some devs might give you a cut rate for a guaranteed share of the profits, but otherwise, you’re essentially offering spec work. And no, that’s not good. Good article, Andrew!

  • Andrew Cross

    @Franz, I agree the lean startup is key for turning your app into something successful long term. But for the regular person who has an app idea, I don’t think they would read/understand it quickly enough for it to be of use. I take the approach that 90% of these people will realize they don’t want it badly enough when they start sketching out each screen. At this point it’s best for them to fail quickly and move on with their lives.

    @Craig, thanks! My personal favorite is when people tell you they have this app idea and expect YOU to just all over it. Cracks me up.

  • Praveena Sarathchandra

    I’m about to get into Android App development. I found this helpful. Thanks.

  • Jjjlinc

    great article

  • j1eyed

    Hi Andrew. Did you ever write a post on managing the development of an app for a non-technical person?

    I’m loving the advice. Spot on questions to be asking oneself. 

  • joshua Shaven

    Have you checked out Rawlogix they develop apps for free and splits all profits 50/50