Mobile apps are more popular today than ever before. With 5 million total apps currently available for download on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, apps are skyrocketing in number and show no signs of slowing.
It’s likely that you too have an idea for a potentially groundbreaking app. But how can you turn your idea into reality and move from concept to execution? How do you build a business around your app in today’s cluttered world?
In this article, I’ll discuss the fundamental strategies for turning your idea into an app and share some hands-on examples from appreneurs we’ve work with at Appster.
Let’s begin with the most obvious one.
1. Start with the problem
The essence of any successful product or service, including an app, resides in its ability to solve a problem. If your imagined app won’t make people’s lives better, then nobody will ever use it.
Whether you think of the matter in terms of adding something (e.g. increased pleasure, excitement, or fun) or taking something away (e.g. relief of boredom, sadness, or insecurity), your app must solve a specific problem that people want to get rid of.
Once you’ve identified the problem, you need to determine whether it’s significant enough for you to create a product to address it. How? By confirming that the problem is a “monetizable customer pain.”
Previously, I described the concept this way: “On a pain scale of one to five, a monetizable pain is a four or five (i.e. it needs to be addressed now).”
In order to test your pain hypothesis you must:
- Find a sample of customers
- Survey them in person or online
- Evaluate the results
- Do more testing to refine your understanding of your customers’ wants and needs
You’re looking to get brutally honest answers, so avoid priming your audience by not letting them know you’re working on a business idea.
Pose questions like:
- What is the most difficult aspect of X (i.e. the problem)?
- Tell me more about X. What happened the last time X occurred?
- Why was that experience so problematic or unenjoyable?
- What solutions, if any, are you currently using to address X? What do you find unsatisfactory about them? How do they need to be changed?
Use all the offline and online resources which you have access to—existing email lists, online message boards, social networking sites, Reddit, LinkedIn, Quora, etc.— to find potential future customers and gather the detailed feedback you need.
Once you’ve accumulated enough feedback to confidently assert that you’ve discovered a problem that needs solving, it’s time to validate your product idea.
My co-founder, Mark McDonald, recently reviewed a number of product idea validation strategies that you can use in your quest to build an app.
2. Research the market
The next step in transforming your app from an idea into a purchasable download is to thoroughly research your market.
Market characteristics like the size, presence/absence of demand, nature of financial opportunities, etc., ultimately determine the success (or failure) of an app.
Assessing whether a suitably large market demand exists for your app requires differentiating between total available market (TAM), serviceable available market (SAM), and target market (TM):
In order to answer the question “If I build it, will they come?” you need to collect data on:
- The size of the entire market in which your specific niche is based
- The number of people you expect to be able to reach through your marketing efforts
- The number of people most likely to purchase your product
These numbers will necessarily get smaller as you progress from your TAM to your TM.
In addition to determining the precise characteristics of your ideal customers (developing user profiles is one way to do this), you need to ensure that your TM is large enough to support the development, marketing, sales, and ongoing improvement of your app.
How do you begin conducting research on your market? Consider consulting the publications of authoritative market research agencies such as Forrester, Gartner, IBISWorld, Ovum, and filings by the SEC.
Finally, research your competition by creating what Earn.com CEO Balaji Srinivasan calls an “idea maze” (i.e. a bird’s eye view of the entire landscape where your product will be marketed and sold in).
Constructing an idea maze for your market is crucial:
- It helps you grasp the competitive landscape.
- It allows you to discover new possibilities by visualizing “openings” where other companies are not operating (or not operating well) in.
- Planning how to navigate your way through the maze is ultimately how you successfully monetize your idea and build your business.
Here’s an example of an idea maze:
3. Find a co-founder
We typically recommend that entrepreneurs try and build an app by partnering with at least one co-founder.
While successful solo founders do exist, many high-growth startups do comprise of two or three co-founders.
My co-founder Mark and I originally built Appster together when we were in our late teens, so I’m speaking from personal experience as well.
Among other reasons, you should seriously consider finding and working with at least one other co-founder because:
- Many VCs and incubators expect startups to have multiple founders these days.
- Launching an app on your own guarantees a more stressful and taxing experience.
Locating a talented, hardworking, and dedicated co-founder is difficult, but there are several online communities that are worth consulting:
Try and exploit your professional networks alongside exploring sites like LinkedIn and relevant Facebook groups as well.
I previously outlined five approaches to foster a robust professional relationship with your co-founder(s):
- Define roles and responsibilities early by collectively determining which tasks will belong to which co-founder.
- Create and sign a founders’ agreement to officially instantiate duties, equity ownership and vesting, and intellectual property assignments.
- Agree on time commitments. Develop clear expectations on how much each person will contribute, when, and where.
- Decide on an exit plan rather than leaving key questions on what each member ultimately wants to do with the app/company unanswered.
- Agree on a “we failed, now what?” plan. Decide early on what it would take for you and your co-founder(s) to conclude that the business has failed and what actions would need to be taken in response.
4. Build and test your MVP
Eric Ries, the one who helped popularize the MVP concept, defines it as the “version of a new product which allows you to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about your customers with the least amount of effort.”
Techopedia lists three key features of an MVP:
- It provides enough value that people are willing to use it and/or buy it after its launch.
- It demonstrates sufficient future benefit to retain early adopters.
- It provides a feedback loop that helps to guide ongoing development.
According to Jessi Salonen, our lead digital producer, building an MVP is “all about striking the right balance between giving your users what they need before you’re absolutely certain of every last feature they might eventually want.”
What does an MVP look like?
Salonen uses a music-streaming app as a hypothetical example here:
“What is the crux—the absolute essentials—of this app? It’s the ability for users to upload their personal music to a single platform from which other users can discover new tunes and artists. In order to make the app sufficiently attractive to your initial adopters, you’d probably want to give them the option to save some of their favorite songs/artists for later listening. But that’s it. That’s your MVP.”
Building your MVP and committing to getting it into the hands of your alpha and beta testersquickly forces you to ask and answer important questions like:
- What is the essence of my app? What makes people want to use it?
- What are the must-have features vs the nice-to-haves?
- Which features must I include in version 1.0? Which can I leave to a later date?
It’s crucial to stay focused on developing and releasing your MVP so that you can start gathering unmediated feedback from actual users as soon as possible. Adding any bells and whistles during your original development will extend the time it takes for your app to get in the real users’ hands.
The only way you can determine exactly how your app will perform once it’s outside of the lab is to give end users the opportunity to use it however they see fit. Your in-house (alpha) testers will not discover every last bug in the code, so it’s vital that you permit outside (beta) testers a chance to work with your app sooner rather than later.
Salonen warns founders to be on high alert if their teams start raising questions like:
- “What if we made it possible for users to…?”
- “Why don’t we add…?”
- “How long would it take to change…?”
These needlessly distract entrepreneurs and delay them from pushing their MVP to the market.
5. Marketing, metrics, and financials
Author and management consultant Geoffrey Moore argues in his book, Crossing the Chasm, that startups must concentrate on dominating the early adopter market first before they can possibly hope to “cross the chasm” and seek out success in the mainstream markets. This means fixing bugs, responding to customer concerns, winning the hearts of users, and steadily building a brand reputation.
Whereas mainstream consumers want security, dependability, and brand recognition, early adopters are keen to use new technology because they’re novel and cutting-edge.
When beta-testing your MVP and promoting your app following its public release, it’s crucial that you market your app to those who are most likely to use it. In all likelihood, it’s the early adopters who will happily try out your app and encourage their friends to use it.
Another key aspect of marketing which you should be aware of is the need to utilize “viral loops.” Here, each new user brings in one or more new users, who then bring in one or more new users themselves, and so on.
In order to create viral loops that effectively convert your users into ambassadors (people who recruit others to your app for you), you must offer your users something of value. This must be something tangible and immediate that will make them want to bring their friends, family, and/or colleagues over to your product.
Uber’s dual-side referral code system is an obvious example. In the system, person A receives a free US$20 ride credit when person B (who also gets a US$20 ride credit) signs up for Uber using person A’s unique referral code.
In fact, Uber’s referral system is so successful that approximately 50 percent of new Uber customers arrive via referral.
Anybody hoping to develop their idea must also possess a solid grasp of numerous metrics that must be analyzed during and especially after release.
Here’s the list of metrics to track:
- Average revenue per user
- Breakeven point
- Cost per install
- Cost per loyal user
- Customer acquisition costs
- Customer lifetime value
- Net promoter score
- User engagement
- User retention
It’s vital that you develop a clear understanding of monetization and various other financial realities in order to comprehend how your app can generate revenue.
There are a bunch of standard financial concepts and metrics which you must know in order to stay afloat as a business. Some examples include burn rate, cash flow, growth vs profit, runway, and zero cash date.
There are also numerous app monetization strategies that you can use—and, in many cases, combine—in order to generate earnings from the download and/or use of your app.
I recently wrote an article detailing nine different monetization methods available to app creators. Some of these include:
- Advertising: Displaying third-party ads within your app itself or on your company website.
- Affiliate marketing: “The process of earning a commission by promoting other people’s (or company’s) products.”
- Selling data: An example is FourSquare selling its location data to Microsoft in 2014.
- Freemium: Providing users with a basic, functional, and completely free version of your product/service while simultaneously offering them a more advanced, feature-rich, premium version for a price.
- Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)/Subscription: Charging users periodically (usually monthly or yearly) to use your service.