We have all been guilty of letting the media fool us. Over the last decade, the blogs have mentioned hundreds of app startups that have seemingly popped up from nowhere and sold for billions a month later. After reading about so many app acquisitions, building a successful app startup almost seems… well, easy. Since the media doesn’t always mention how many obstacles these entrepreneurs and app developers have faced, we are given a false perception of what it takes to build a quality mobile app and create a profitable business around it.

How hard is it to make an app? There are multiple levels to this answer. On one hand, it’s not hard at all – a variety of software will allow you to launch an app in a matter of minutes if you are building an app solely for the sake of having an app.

Now if the question is, how hard is it for an app entrepreneur to have an app built; well, that takes on a different meaning. Difficulty depends on many factors including budget, experience, and the competency of their developers. The level of difficulty can range from relatively easy to extremely difficult.

These are still very different questions than – how hard is it to build a successful app startup (like Uber or Instagram)? In this case, it’s about as difficult as finding a steaming hot cup of coffee in Antarctica. Fortunately, if you know what you’re doing, you can substantially improve the odds. In this post, we’ll give you the cold hard scoop on what it takes to build a real app startup and finally answer the question – how hard is it to make an app?

Building an App vs an App Startup

Building an app vs building an app startup

By definition, building an app isn’t the same thing as building an app startup. Just because you build a great app, does not mean that it will be successful – it doesn’t even mean that a single user will ever use it. Just for clarification:

  • Building an app refers to the technical side of creating an app. It involves processes such as wireframing, app design and programming. A ‘great app’ refers to a software product that is technically sound and functions with little to no error.
  • Building an app startup refers to the business side of bringing an app idea to life. If an app refers to the product, the app startup is the entity that brings that product to the consumer and monetizes it. Building an app startup involves planning and implementing effective launch strategies, marketing strategies, pricing strategies and more. A ‘great app startup’ refers to a business that is able to successfully introduce the application to the audience, persuade them to download the application, and convert them into long-term users.

Anyone building an app startup will build an app, but not everyone building an app is building an app startup. For instance, a storage facility chain may build an app to better manage their units, but they aren’t looking to build an app startup. However, an app startup introducing a mobile auction platform will need to build the software in order to have a product to promote.

For an entrepreneur with no development experience, building a first version mobile app can be quite difficult. However, building the app itself is only the tip of the iceberg of what it takes to build a successful app startup.

How Hard Is It To Make An App?

To answer this question, you first have to define what you consider as an “app”. Most apps are crap, and it’s relatively easy to build another average app with standard outdated features and lackluster functionality. However, when most people are thinking about the app they want to build – they probably aren’t thinking about some mediocre app that looks like it was born in 2009; they are thinking of the cream of the crop apps that get downloaded by millions and become top featured selections in the App Store. How hard is it to make an app that can compete with the world’s top apps? It’s extremely challenging, and very few have the ability to pull it off.

There is no shortage of app ideas – everyone seems to have one, but only a brave few will ever move forward on developing it. Of those few, only a handful will ever launch their app into the App Store; and of the ones that do, only a small fraction will ever attract even 100 users.

For an entrepreneur with no coding abilities, there are three main factors that contribute to the difficulty in building a competitive mobile app in today’s market: the cost of development, lack of experience, and the inability to secure the right development team.

The Cost of Building An App

Companies like Facebook and Uber spend tens of millions of dollars each year developing and maintaining their software. If you expect to compete with these apps with a $2,500 budget, you’re living in a dream world. There is no such thing as high-quality low-cost app development. Big dreams take big budgets. Unfortunately, when pursuing app development, first-time entrepreneurs often underestimate the costs associated with building the features that they have conceptualized. A full-scale mobile application will easily cost over $50,000 in most cases to develop all of the features and functions. If you’ve adopted a lean startup strategy, a minimum viable product will likely cost $15,000 or more and will require additional capital for subsequent rounds of development.

Quality app development agencies will often charge anywhere from $45 to 100+ per hour. Entrepreneurs will also have to fund the hosting and maintenance of their application. Unfortunately, to build a high-quality app, you’ll need a significant development budget. Lack of budget is the factor that weeds out the majority of would-be app entrepreneurs.

Luckily, there are many ways that you can raise money to build your first version application; but, it won’t be easy. If you believe in your app idea and in yourself as an entrepreneur, here are a few ways that you can raise the money needed to build your minimal viable product.

4 ways to fund a startup
  • Savings: Many entrepreneurs will tap into their savings or into their nest egg to fund the initial steps of their app journey. This may include using funds from previously established savings accounts, borrowing from 401ks, or liquidating other investments.
  • Loans: App entrepreneurs often rely on outside loans to access the finances needed to push their ideas forward. Home equity loans, personal loans, and even credit cards are popular methods of financing for many app entrepreneurs in the beginning stages.
  • Crowdfunding: Innovative and fresh ideas often do well with crowdfunding. Thousands of entrepreneurs have raised the funds needed to launch their application by pre-selling the idea to their audience or raising donations before actually building it.
  • Be Creative: Entrepreneurs are meant to solve problems, and sometimes when funding is the challenge, they will need to be creative and figure it out. Take Airbnb for instance, instead of going for a traditional loan, the founders created 500 boxes of cereal labeled Obama O’s and Captain McCains and sold them for $40 per box during the presidential campaign. By being creative, they were able to generate over $30,000; giving them the boost necessary to get their software to the next level.

Want to learn more about raising app funding to build your app idea? Check out our article, How to Find App Funding for Your Awesome App Idea

Building An App With A Lack of Experience

how hard is it to build an app? - lack of experience

Developing a high-quality app requires organizing many different moving pieces – and this can be a problem for first-time mobile app entrepreneurs. Just because someone uses apps or has an idea for one does not mean that they know what is necessary to build it. When entrepreneurs act as the project manager with no previous experience, it often leads to massive delays, inefficiencies, and additional costs.

Project managers are responsible for putting all the players in motion, directing the show, and overseeing the development of the project from beginning to end. Entrepreneurs who are working with freelancers or in-house teams will often have to manage the projects themselves. Effective project managers fully understand what is being built, can strategize the best steps to build it, and can use the most up-to-date practices to complete it.

App development practices change often. One day, everyone is using double clicks; another day, swiping is the new thing. One month, 3D technology is trending, and the next, it’s all about augmented reality. Managing an app development project means you need to be a step ahead of the market and be able to direct a team to deliver a product that will exceed the high expectations of users.

So, how hard is it to make an app? Well, if it’s your first time managing a development project, it will probably be more challenging than you expected. There’s nothing that can prepare you more than getting your feet wet, but here are a few things you can do to make yourself more comfortable with managing the development of an app project:

  • Learn the Art of Wireframing: Words have a funny way of getting misinterpreted and miscommunicated when it comes to app development. You may envision the app clearly in your head, but you may not be able to explain it in a way that a designer or developer can recreate. With limited experience, you may even lack some of the jargon needed to explain your ideas properly. Fortunately, wireframes allow you to visually express exactly how you want the app to be organized. It helps you outline what pages it needs to include, how each element should be laid out across each page, and how each page interacts with the next. Wireframes allow project managers to immediately convey their vision to developers in an easily understood manner. Furthermore, creating a wireframe is pretty easy – even a simple wireframe drawn in pencil is usually enough to convey the message.
  • Join Coder Communities: Anyone managing the development of a mobile app needs to stay abreast of how mobile and development practices are changing. A few good ways to stay on top of the things include joining developer communities on LinkedIn and Facebook; engaging in developer forums; and subscribing to leading programming blogs. Always keep track of what types of functions and features are trending, and which ones are no longer considered vital to the customer experience. The more you know, the better you will be able to direct a team to build a modern application that exceeds user standards.
  • Check the Competition: Before you start thinking about how your app should look or function, download your competitor’s apps. Identify which parts of their app stand out and which parts could be improved. Knowing what the competition is offering will give you a baseline for the level of quality a user will expect. If you want to be a better project manager, knowing how a great app should look and function is key.

The alternative to managing a project in this way is to work with a reliable development company that goes above and beyond to understand your application and your vision. A strong development company will have experienced project managers that can translate your vision into an effective plan to be carried out by a development team.

Finding A Developer to Build Your App

There are millions of developers out there, but finding a great developer is a challenge. In most cases (but not all) the quality of the developer available to you will be related to the size of your budget. If you can afford the best developers, you can hire the best developers.

Many entrepreneurs figure that as long as they bring a great app idea to the table, they’ll be able to easily partner with a developer to build their software. Unfortunately, quality developers often will not invest their full-time efforts into building an unproven concept without a salary. While you may persuade one to take a lower salary in exchange for equity, it’s unlikely that they will strike an equity-only deal; and if they do, the likelihood that they will stick around long enough to finish it is minimal.

Hiring a freelancer may seem like a low-cost option, but sometimes, it can cost more than going to an agency. A freelancer may have a lower hourly wage, but they can come with their challenges. When compared to an agency, freelancers are often extremely limited. An agency, which may have dozens of developers, has a collaborative knowledge that is exponentially greater than that of a single freelancer. Additionally, agencies have more capacity – freelance developers are known for abandoning projects when a better offer comes around; which can put entrepreneurs in a losing situation.

building an app - finding a developer

How hard is it make an app? Well, it’s MUCH easier when you have the right development partners on your side. Here are three tips for hiring the right developers:

  • Check For References: A developer can tell you just about anything regarding a past project or client, but if you really want to know how the project went – ask the client. It’s great to view the cool apps in their portfolio. However, just seeing an app doesn’t tell the story of what it took to get there. A great app may have taken double as long to build as projected, may have cost double as much, or may have changed hands between several agencies before it was completed. Talk to past customers and ask them about the details. Ask about how well the developer communicated, how committed they were to the project, and how smooth the process was. Check their reviews on sites like BBB and Clutch.co. The better you are able to vet each candidate, the more accurate you will be in choosing the right development partner for your project.
  • Check For ‘Cultural’ Fit: Whatever developer you choose, you will likely be working with them quite closely during and after the development of your application. Find someone that you work well with; someone who has the professional qualities that you consider important; and someone that you can stand to deal with for a long period of time. The relationship between an app entrepreneur and a developer is like a marriage. Make sure to find a spouse that keeps your interest!
  • Understand Their Policies: A valuable developer isn’t just someone who codes well – it’s someone who communicates well, is attentive to the project, won’t abandon ship right in the middle of development, and aligns with your expectations. Ask candidates about their communication policies, how delays are handled, and etc. It’s the fine detail that can make or break a project!

The Real Challenge for App Entrepreneurs

Build a successful app - 3 steps

Is it hard to make an app? Yes, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not the hard part. The most challenging part of building an app is knowing what to do with it after it is built. How do you get users to it? Can you make money off of it? How do you keep users on it once they are there? These are the types of questions that must be answered to become a successful app startup.

You’ve built a great shovel, awesome. You’ll need it. The hole you need to dig to find success is about the size of the Grand Canyon. There are three major hurdles that entrepreneurs will need to overcome when attempting to build a successful app startup: finding the right market, attracting users, and monetizing the app.

Finding the Right Product-Market Fit

When you launch an app, you’re not only competing against other apps that are in the same space as yours – you are really competing with the millions of apps in the App Store. Every app is fighting to be featured. Every app startup wants its app to be the king of its category.

However, no app serves everybody. The clearer you are about what market would benefit most from your particular app, the better you will be at getting it in front of them and persuading them to download it.

Choose one market to begin. Even if your solution has the potential to serve several markets, your marketing budget will likely be limited; so it’s much better to focus your initial efforts on the market where you can be most effective. Learn everything you can about the consumers in this market. Join the groups that they engage with, go to the places they frequent, read the magazines they read. Speak to consumers as much as you can, and gather their feedback whenever possible. Identify their challenges, their pain points, and the qualities that they don’t like about competitor solutions. Know thy customer – because the better you know them, the better you can serve them; and the better you serve them, the more effectively you will be able to monetize them.

Getting Users To Your App

Is it hard to create an app - man on phone

It really doesn’t matter if you’ve developed the perfect solution to someone’s problem if that person is never aware that the solution exists. “Build it and they will come” is not a phrase that is applicable to app startups. Build it and do nothing else, and no one will come. Not even a single user. It can be a lonely world in app startup-land.

App marketing is a very strategic process. Once you know who your market is and where they spend their time, then you can start identifying the best marketing techniques to reach them. Some of the most common and successful marketing techniques that you may want to consider include:

  • Influencer Marketing: Word of mouth has always been one of the most effective methods of advertising a product, and today, influencers are the mouths of the social media world. Applications that are able to align themselves with the right influencers can be quickly exposed to large audiences. With the right influencer promotion, these apps can spread like wildfire. Not every influencer is a celebrity. In fact, not every influencer is even extremely popular. Some influencers have small audiences but have a strong influence over these niche audiences. If they say they like a product, people tune in. If they ask people to share it, their followers click “share”. Find your audience – then align with the people that influence them.
  • App Store Optimization: The majority of app downloads come as a result of people searching the App Store. App Store Optimization (or ASO) is a process for making your app more visible within the app store. Through this process, apps hope to rank closer to the top for specific keywords and search phrases.
  • Press & Media: The press plays a major role in the success of popular app startups. When the press begins mentioning your app, people take notice; because, if the media is talking about you, you must be newsworthy, right? Building the right media relationships is critical for an app entrepreneur. Being mentioned by the right source can give you immediate credibility and expose your application to thousands of potential users.

Want to learn more about marketing an app? Check out our article, How to Advertise an App for Maximum Exposure

Generating Revenue (App Monetization)

How to monetize an app

Finally, a successful app startup needs to be able to generate revenue. Focusing only on advertising is not a sustainable way of earning income for most mobile app startups. Most applications are not receiving millions of views per day. For those that are, many do not make enough revenue from ads alone to support the growth of the business. Finding the right monetization model will likely take quite a bit of testing. Some consumer groups are more apt to subscriptions than others; while some types of apps are more suited towards in-app purchases than others. Here are a few popular methods for monetizing a mobile application:

  • Freemium: A freemium app mixes a “free” app and “premium” app. Basically, users are offered a free version of the application. This free version is stripped down but offers enough features to realize some of the benefits of the software. A “premium” version is offered for either a one-time or recurring monthly fee.  With this version, the user can access additional features and further improve their experience.
  • In-App Purchases: This method allows users to purchase credits or virtual items through the application during usage. The “in-app purchase” model is extremely popular with mobile games. With games, users may have the opportunity to pay for additional lives, coins, or game items.
  • Paid Apps: For some applications, users are willing to pay up front just to download the application. App startups with higher brand awareness may be able to attract paid users, but most users won’t spend without a trial. Some app entrepreneurs offer a free version of their app that displays ads (which can become extremely annoying), but also offer an ad-free version in the form of a paid app.

Want to learn more about monetizing your mobile app? Check out our article, How To Identify The Most Profitable App Business Model

So… Just How Hard Is It To Make An App?

A final note here. Launching a successful app is highly difficult, and it certainly isn’t for the easily shaken. Although many app ideas will fail on their journey to success, a few will survive. Yes, you can be a part of that few. The key is to know what it takes to build an app startup and prepare yourself for the journey. You wouldn’t take a trip around the world without planning your travels first, would you? Don’t start your app without a well-thought plan in place.

Are you ready to bring your app idea to life? We’d love to help you. Our project managers and app developers know exactly what it takes to build cutting-edge technology and position it for success. Contact us today and let’s discuss your idea!