So you have an app idea and want to make a bajillion bucks

So you have an app idea and want to make a bajillion bucks

Summary: A reader with no tech skills and little money has a great idea for an app. He thinks Apple and Android will both want to make it a standard feature. You know this isn't going to end well.

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Reader Ron sent me an email recently. He asks, "I know you have a million people ask you this, and every one that asks is sure they have the next best thing. I'm a simple non-tech guy, and I have an idea that should have already been on every phone made. I don't have a lot of money, I'm an ex-Marine who now works in law enforcement, but I'm sure if the app is made, Apple and Android both will want to make it part of the standard features of the phone."

Whoa, there Tiger! Let's take a step back for a minute.

I do get this question. A lot. Ron is writing in response to my article, "True confessions of a former iPhone developer." I published that bad boy back in 2012 and it detailed some of my experiences as a very lazy iPhone developer.

Just to summarize: I spent all of a month doing development, I got into the app store about 35 days into its existence, I wrote forty very silly apps, I did absolutely no marketing (at all), and made about $7K over the life of the products.

While I've been a product producer for decades, I was a very low-key app developer. I didn't find it all that much fun, and it was a side project to get to know apps just as apps were becoming a "thing".

In any case, the app market is different now. When I launched my apps, there were 25,000 apps total. And that was a LOT. Now, there are somewhere over 1.2 million in each of the Apple and Google Play stores. That's a lot of competition.

Those numbers also raise the specter of something called a "discoverability challenge." In other words, how will people find your app? Notice I haven't even talked about whether doing an app is economically viable, or whether lack of technical skills is an issue. I'm just asking a basic question: how will users find this thing?

Here's a hint. If your answer is something like, "My idea is so great, it will just be found by itself," you better have an Instagram up your sleeve. Anything less (and even another Instagram) doesn't stand a chance.

Let's talk about the app business for a moment. First, let's acknowledge that it is a business. Business requires a set of skills, from design and product to support, planning, money management, and so forth. While it's certainly possible to be a lone wolf independent developer, that requires even more skills, because every task is on your shoulders.

Next, let's look at the potential for success. There is money out there. Millions and billions of dollars. Consumers are buying apps like crazy. But it's a complete crap shoot as to whether your app will win. I'll tell you this: if you have a name like Kim Kardashian, you have a much better chance of making bank than if your name is Ron or Dave.

Independent developers have had it rough of late. Jared Sinclair, who created a sweet RSS reader app called Unread, detailed all the work he did and his eventual income: about $40,000 for a year's work. That might seem like a lot, but a programmer with a salary can routinely double that income, and that comes with extra goodies like health insurance and vacation. Marco Arment, pretty well known as the creator of the Instapaper app, talks about app sustainability and what he calls app rot. He also cites other app developers who are also finding it a tough road.

My experience was unpleasant. I've introduced probably 100 or more software products over my career, so I know of software product marketing. The app store experience was just a circus. By the time I pulled my silly DaysTo Christmas app off of the Apple app store, there were sixteen identical clones, including one jerk who copied our description word-for-word. Despite complaints to Apple, they have yet to kick that creep off the app store.

I'm not complaining because my feelings are hurt. I wasn't in the app store game to make a living. It was a side thing for me. But if you are in the app business to make a living, you need to understand that this isn't necessarily a path to easy money.

Now, let's move on to some of the more worrisome aspects of Ron's comments in his email to me. Ron has an idea, and he says he's, "a simple non-tech guy." This implies to me that he has no intention of writing his own app.

Okay, so, uh, where does the app come from?

I'm being a little sarcastic here, but I've seen this one a lot. Someone has an idea and magically thinks either (a) the nearest techie will just write it up for free in return for a share of the eventual riches, or (b) it's a good idea to job the project out to a foreign developer, or (c) he has a friend with a cousin who's a consultant and that dude says he can build it for $800. Yada yada yada. I'm sure that every technical professional has heard some variation on this theme over the years.

Here's a simple piece of advice: if you can't write your app yourself, typing it on your own computer, doing the work yourself, with your own brains and skills, don't do it.

You will lose. You will lose friends. You will lose money. It will be bad.

Now, of course, if you're a serial entrepreneur, you have money to burn and you have experience putting together a business plan and a programming team, you can probably disregard my previous advice. But if you're just a guy with an idea, a non-techie, with, as Ron describes it, not "a lot of money," then run.

Run as fast and far as you can.

Finally, Ron said he thought his idea would make a great standard feature on iPhones and Android devices. We've all had those ideas. But let's give Ron the benefit of the doubt and say he's come up with something revolutionary. How do you present it to the big boys?

This is not an easy answer, because the showing part is easy. The keeping something from that showing is not. At this point you dive into the issue of intellectual property. Most companies won't even look at something if they think you might later take legal action claiming their work as your own.

One approach is to patent your idea, but there are serious challenges. Patents take a long time, they are ungodly expensive (all legal fees, and most of that a waste), and software patents are hard to protect anyway.

The way I look at the intellectual property, you want to sell your idea to the big boys is this: they have millions of users. You're not the first with the idea. It's probably been suggested hundreds of times. Unless you can turn it into a piece of software or hardware on your own (and there is always Kickstarter), or you've been in the business doing and you know all the players, road bumps and potholes, don't expect to license something to Apple or Google.

But David, what about the dream? What right do you have to squash some nice man's dream?

Yeah, you're right.

Okay, there is an exception to the "if you can't write the app yourself" statement. If you can't write your app yourself, learn how.

While writing great code takes some good solid education, almost anyone can start out and write some simple apps. It's not that difficult. There are a ton of training programs out there, there are some free programs on iTunes U, there are some inexpensive classes (like Lynda.com), and mucho advice on YouTube. Google has a great "Building your first Android app" tutorial.

These are all very inexpensive (or free) and can get you started with the basics of app development.

Let me be clear. I completely encourage anyone to go off and learn to develop their own apps. That's a great idea and a good investment. Where I'm coming down hard is if you're trying to get an app done by someone else. Hands on programming is the very best choice here and learning to code is a very useful and healthy life skill.

So, let me help you by giving you a decision tree. So you have an app idea and want to make a bajillion bucks:

  • If you're a serial entrepreneur and know how to plan and put together a team: go for it.
  • If you're already an app programmer: go for it.
  • If you have no tech experience: learn to program apps and do it yourself.
  • If you have no tech experience and don't want to learn to program: run, run away.
  • If you have no tech experience and want to hire someone else to build it: you are going to be throwing your money away.
  • If you have no tech experience and think you can talk someone into doing it for you "as a deal": good luck, but it will backfire on you both.

I've been in the software business for a very long time. Heed my words of advice.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Apps, After Hours, SMBs, DIY

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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Talkback

22 comments
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  • Ugh I hate this

    People I know and respect have done this to me... I have this great idea and if you will just code it for me....

    No thanks. Your idea isn't that great and I am not going to spend countless hours so you can (not) get rich on your thirty second brain fart.
    Mac_PC_FenceSitter
  • Here's the deal with apps

    Apps don't make money, businesses make money. If you're planning on writing some stand alone app and popping it on the app store and even marketing the heck out of it, you're not going to make much money. If you have an app that you truly believe in, then you'll be able to build a business around it. Well that's unless you get really lucky and go viral, but if you're betting on that, you might as well buy some lotto tickets.

    Several people approached me with their app ideas and the first thing I do is take my phone and search the app store - BOOM, there's an app that does that. More often than not, people have silly ideas that they think are awesome. I like listening to them though, because they always make me laugh. Oh, but the best ones are, "The app should do this or that." Okay, how will it do that? I don't know, you're a developer, you should figure it out.
    NitzMan
    • the thing I DON'T do is search for the app I want to make

      That will immediately de-motivate me when I see all the existing ones. I just go for it. Granted I am not expecting to make any money, I just do it for fun. Most people probably do not do it for fun.
      drwong
  • App Industry is like the Music Industry

    There are tons of bands out there.
    There are tons of apps out there.

    Only a very few bands make any money, and do so with investment and risk.
    Only a very few apps make any money, and do so with investment and risk.

    Only a very, very few bands make good money, and do so with incredible investment and risk.
    Only a very, very few apps make good money, and do so with incredible investment and risk.

    Record companies are not there to respect you; they want to make money off of your work.
    Software companies are not there to respect you; they want to make money off of your work.
    GDCM
  • Two types of app

    I've built quite a lot of iOS apps and the ones that make money are the ones that are an integral part of an existing business. Either they are in-company automation / support apps with a clear ROI, or they deliver the companies existing product / services in a way to bring in a measurable increase in sales and so the dev budget comes from marketing.

    The other type of apps, the 'publish your own and make it big' are a lottery. Yes - you can point to lottery winners, but it's hardly a business model....
    011010100010100
  • A couple of things ...

    Couple of extra points before you reach for a teach yourself book and think you'll become rich.

    No human being short of a true genius - and chances are you are not one - can pick up a coding manual and churn out a high quality, professional app first time. Your first app, even if you have coded before, will not be a masterpiece in all probability. In fact it will probably stink. It takes time, practice, and effort to become good at writing code, just like pretty much everything else in life.

    Secondly, even if you are the best coder on the plant, that doesn't mean you are a good designer, graphics artist or UX expert. Half or more of an apps appeal to the consumer is not the functionality - people are shallow, and something that looks slick is often chosen over something that doesn't no matter how good the latter is. Also, while you can pick up a manual and learn to code, it's a lot harder to pick up a manual and learn to draw.

    Thirdly, I don't care how much HTML and CSS you've written. While it's technical, it is not coding, it's mark up. JavaScript? Well OK ... but that's a safe little playground compared to native coding, and you will find native is a whole new world. Java? Great. So you can migrate to Android - but you are not an Android developer yet, young Padawan.

    As for me? Well, I've been a developer for over twenty five years. I like to think I'm good, but there are always better/faster/younger (definitely younger these days :-( )/whatever, and I certainly don't think I've learned every trick yet. And I can't draw for **** unless you want an app that features stick men.

    But hell, come to me with an app idea, and if I am free I'll code it for you. Your side of the deal? You make sure you can afford it - pending investment and equity deals don't cover my bills I'm afraid and if I don't know you I'll want to see the funds in escrow/part up front - you pay a fair rate for my time, you hire someone who knows Photoshop from a hole in the ground and pay for their time too, and *maybe* we can get your idea up and running.

    Just never claim that no one else has done it first, unless you're pretty damn sure that no one else has done it first. And don't be surprised if and when someone else does it before you because sometimes that lightning flash of inspiration strikes more than person at a time.

    If Apple and Google and whoever like your idea enough, maybe they'll buy you out. I reckon that happens to about 1 in 100000 apps. Maybe less. You've got more chance of winning on a scratch card.

    Oh, and don't expect to become rich over night, either. In the short term, it's going to cost, have overheads, and probably lose money. You won't break even let alone make a profit for a while. So be in it for the long term, or don't start.

    Other than that, I wish you all the best. Good luck with it. For some people, it works out well.
    exeusdev
    • Teach a new dog, an old...

      I'm just starting out in computer science. The "better/faster" part of your reply I get. (Along with the rest, which I thought was funny and true - having done stuff for "friends" before, and gotten zippola for payment.) But I don't get the "younger" part. Somebody will ALWAYS be better, faster, younger. I could live with that. I mean, think about it. What's the alternative? You're either gonna get "older" or you're gonna DIE. I'll hit 30 eventually. Hopefully. Somebody else will be 25, another somebody, 45 or 55. Whatever, right? Learn from them all, is what I say. Or maybe just teach 'em all a trick or two.
      JssT
      • Youth is wasted on the young ...

        I never said I can't learn from the younger folks out there. I just said that they're younger and I'm not lol.

        The truth? Younger invariably means less responsibilities, so cheaper, more able to work late, whatever.

        Older? Well, I have less energy, more grey hair, need to use glasses (never used to) and rely on lists more and more (thank Bejesus for Reminder apps ...). And I have long term financial commitments, more experience, so I cost a little more maybe.

        That's pretty much all age means. But you'd be surprised how many employers seem to think that vital parts of your brain shut down after say 35 and want "bright young things".
        exeusdev
    • Seems spot on to me.

      First time I have read an article that describes so many situations perfectly. It is how I would have written it. I just can't write that well.

      Oh one more thing, Thanks.
      hawc
  • Patents

    I am interested in your statement, "Patents take a long time, they are ungodly expensive (all legal fees, and most of that a wasted..." I am interested in what you think is wasted and how? This will help me gauge the perception of patents. Thanks for your time!
    LawyerScientist
  • Run Away from Apps!

    I used to think David was a pompous @$$ but he finally said something that is so profound and so right on the mark, I might change my mind about him!

    To reiterate one point: business is not only about the product, which in this case is the app. Unless you know more about the business than the product, then step back and do some research first. A lot of great ideas are lost because the person with the idea cannot create a business around them.

    Unless you can make a business out of your app(s), then don't waste your time. You will only frustrate yourself and be more cynical like me and David!
    sbarman
  • The world is built in large part

    by people too stupid/naive/ignorant to know they couldn't do it, or don't even care - they just do it because that's what they want to do for whatever reason. Then when 1 in a million DOES hit it big (flappy bird, minecraft, etc) then it can benefit society. I don't think we should discourage people from doing these things.
    drwong
    • We're not discouraging anybody

      It's good to have a dose of reality before you jump into something. If you know and understand the reality, then you can make better decisions. Every app solves a problem. For example I am a landlord and I needed a quick and easy way to send statements to my tenants. I built the app for myself, but then other people found it useful and began asking for features. It makes me a few bucks, but nothing to set the world on fire. Unless you're willing to put a lot of effort and build a business around your app, you can't make a living off it.
      NitzMan
    • Bullies of the Sandbox

      There were a few pearls of wisdom, but the overall tone of the article feels like, "you can't play here". The headline talks about making a "bajillion bucks" but did the guy really state that was his goal.
      kaur
  • What this has become

    Building and selling apps in an app store is just one step up from multi-level marketing....its littered with people that want to get rich quick; otherwise, maximum pay for minimum effort. Dumb luck can strike and make you rich, but for every Angry Birds there are tens of thousands of dumb flashlight apps.

    Having said that, if you want to create something, go ahead. I might make you a couple of grand over a year. It could pay for a nice vacation, or a new laptop, what's the harm.
    tbutton
  • Patents

    You said..."One approach is to patent your idea, but there are serious challenges."

    The first challenge is that you cannot patent an idea.
    Ideas are the hardest thing to come up with and the easiest thing to steal.
    But they are not "patentable".
    nmasson
    • I wish Apple knew that...

      they seem to be patenting every damn obvious idea they can. In an ideal world they wouldn't be allowed to get away with it.
      allis0
  • If you have an idea read this.

    If you are interested in creating a app starting a website or whatever idea you have its important to look at the other side of the story. Here is the thing i stumbled into this article while searching for Swift . And here is the part that bothered me since there is some truth to this , its also disturbing how wrong it is on some levels . Being realistic is a good thing but you also need to know that being optimistic is key here is the thing you wouldn't send your car to someone who never worked with that sort of car you wouldn't even ask for an opinion and if you did ask it would be wrong , the person might have some level of knowledge for cars but not that particular car , you wouldn't call someone who is in debt and just getting by to give you an idea on how to get out of your financial crises , you would go to someone who has success and knows whats up and here it seems like the author hasn't made a ton of money from apps guess what some people did some didn't doesn't mean that your thing can't be the next best thing , having 1+ million apps on the app store will make your app harder to find but it also gives you a ton of competition so you will have to work hard and do something that the others haven't done . My point is don't stop because of this don't stop in any subject whether its apps or any business idea people will tell you 1000+ reasons why it wont work and guess what you end up doing it . Yes you need business skills and you might be in business with apps , a 10,000 $ in your bank can make a difference in the area of business you are in and knowing what to do with that money will get you a long way . If someone takes their time to read this i am not bashing anyone and i don't know anyone here so i cant judge , but what i am saying is you will scrap that idea after its there people have seen it you have marketed it you have done everything only after that you have an excuse to say the project has failed , unless thats the case dont stop! Don't get to crazy be realistic but break the rules and invest your time in something you believe in a idea , business, apps ,products whatever it is it can have the potential to be the best thing . Now me personally i didn't sell any apps and make a huge fortune , but being in a tech company owning it actually for what was against all odds , and now i see people coding and doing their thing a we are going to bring new things . So ask anyone who did it once they will tell you they can do it again , and most of the time they end up doing it ! Ask anyone who never did it and they will tell you all the reasons why it cannot be done. Thinking big will never hurt you it will make you stronger and better its not easy , but thinking of bringing the new Instagram as mentioned even if you don't end up doing it think of all the things you will learn along the way and think how your brain will pop in new ideas of the same size because you have been training it that way . If you are looking for all the reasons why you cant be doing that's all you are going to see , If you start looking for all the reasons why it can be done that's all you are going to see.
    timmgates
    • PS

      So yes it will take a long time maybe and some effort but learn it and don't stop along the way do it yourself . The points that the author made are spot on! So do it yourself
      timmgates
    • I don't think you read the article

      (a) The author is actually a rather successful software developer.
      (b) he notes that he actually did make money, without even trying to.
      (c) his advice is targeted at people who don't code, and don't have experience as an entrepreneur or team leader. Everything you've said about yourself suggests you aren't who he's talking about.
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter