Working in the web industry, while exciting and gratifying, still comes with certain number of occupational nuisances. The occasional IT call for your friend's WordPress blog. The awkward "Want to build me a website?" conversation. Mostly marginal, but I encounter one issue in particular on almost a bi-weekly basis: The iEntrepreneur. That friend, who while taking wonderfully cliché self-portraits on Instgram, had a stroke of brilliance: The next big app.
After disclosing my profession, I'm frequently cornered into these conversations at social outings, and while a handful of these ideas are innovative and refreshing, the vast majority are trite, poorly-conceived, and lacking any semblance of originality. I even had a friend tell me that if he inherited a quarter of a million dollars, he would pay someone to build him the next Angry Birds. Right…
The optimism behind these chats and the frequency with which I have them concerns me. It seems that there is a general misperception or even delusion about the app market, its profitability, and why, in fact, you should even build an app. I think this merits a little "Come to Jesus" on the topic.
Let's start with some of the more obvious issues:
Why You Shouldn't Build an App
The predominant motive I encounter for building an app is purely money. You can see the glint in their eye, the dreams of blinged-out grills and Gucci suits. Most of them cite the $67.6 million in profits that Rovio (Angry Birds) has reported.¹ This is the point where I usually pull out a needle intended for their proverbial bubble. The fun reality is most apps aren't profitable. No fattened cash-cow here.
If you take 1.43 Billion dollars that the App Store turned between 2008 and 2010 and divide that by the approximate 164,000 paid apps on the market being sure to subtract the 30% cut that Apple takes, you're left with about $3,050 a year. Not bad. You could recoup the $35,000 that the typical app costs in your first eleven years. Unfortunately, that's not taking into account the outliers like Camera+, Fruit Ninja, or TomTom, whose abnormal profits are skewing the data for all us average Joes. If you look at the median profit, which is the reality for half of the market, the yearly profit plummets to $682.² Not exactly a lucrative venture. It seems like the two forces driving app mania are likely the developers you're paying to build your idea and Apple, who profits from every download and the added value to their flagship product. So if you've caught the bug and were hoping to make a kajillion dollars, stop.
You're Not Native
If you've cleared those two hurdles, we can move on to the fun part:
Why You Should Build an App
One huge advantage to native apps is that they're convenient. I don't have to open a browser, type in some url, then stare at a stupid loading icon for an entire 30 seconds. I'm tired just thinking about that. Native apps offer quick access to your content or service. They're a fantastic way to augment an existing customer base, add value to your followers, or extend a preexisting product. When we built BabyTime and CoachSmart for Vanderbilt, they were adding value to the huge demographic they already serve. And guess what? Both apps are free. Vanderbilt saw specific needs in their community and produced two products specifically tailored to those problems. By pushing innovation in healthcare, they provided practical tools patients, caregivers, coaches, and athletes. Seem appropriate for one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation. If you're the size of Target, have the followers of Justin Bieber, or the momentum of Pinterest, maybe an app makes sense.
You're a Genius
As you many have already guessed, this is the rarest motive I find. As I mentioned earlier, most of the app ideas I hear just aren't good. Many have confused concepts. They want to rebuild Facebook but add some functionality that opens beer bottles. Look at almost all of the successful apps. They do one thing well, and that's it. Others are projecting personal oddities onto the general public. I doubt everyone is looking for an app that helps plan outfits for their cats.
In reality though, the majority of ideas I see, good or not, simply lack originality. Take your concept and look in the app store. There are probably fifteen apps that do the same thing, and five of them do it better. The market is rather saturated at this point, but if you have an original idea, please build it. Take AstroCantus for example. Not exactly a run of the mill idea. I personally never made the connection between music and the Milky Way. Wrap that in a stunningly simple UI, and you have a rather impressive app. So for the six of you reading this, who this actually applies to, be encouraged. Your innovative thinking has value. If your app makes my life easier, if it adds utility, or even if it's just fun, build an app. I'll buy it.
So the next time you want to talk about an app idea you have, consult this first and maybe just ask me about my week, but if you have a brilliant, unique idea, we'd love to talk.