How to break into the mobile app business with little cash and no programming skill

Think you can make a bajillion dollars creating an app? David Gewirtz shows you how to get started. He doesn't guarantee you'll make any money, but with this step-by-step guide, at least you'll know where to begin.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I can't tell you how many letters I get from readers asking how to break into the mobile app business. Most tell me they have no software experience, little cash, and expect to make a bajillion dollars.

As I've written before, lack of experience, skill, and money is not a formula for software success. But as many of you have told me in no uncertain terms, who am I to insist that you can't dream? What if you're the one with the blockbuster idea and I, jaded old-school software entrepreneur that I am, just don't see it?

In this article, I'm going to take you through the steps you need to get an app up on the Android and Apple app stores. I'll outline tools, resources, and steps you'll need to take. I'll even show you some tricks for building your own apps without any programming skill whatsoever.

Whether you make any money is out of my hands. At least you'll have a starting point. Over the next weeks, I'll write more about how to really understand the software business. But for those of you who are impatient to get started, here's what you need to do.

Sign up as a developer

Let's get started with the basics -- getting access to the app stores. In this article, we'll look at the Google Play store and the iOS App store because they are, by far, the biggest players. Once you complete an app, you'll need to submit it to the app store and each company will go through a review process designed to determine if your app is up to basic quality standards (and, sadly, those standards are very low), and make sure you're not embedding malware or other nastiness in the app.


Once accepted in the app store, the two companies will list your apps and you'll get a percentage of the selling price. When Apple set up the original App Store, they paid 70 percent of the selling price to developers, taking a 30 percent cut for themselves. While Apple's 30 percent cut may seem like a lot, those who have been in the software business for a while know that's actually a pretty good deal. For software sold through retail stores, developers might see less than 30 percent of the final sale price. With app stores, developers keep a lot more.

In order to get into the game, you'll need to sign up for each app store. For iOS, you'll want to join the iOS Developer Program, which costs $99/year. For Google Play, you will need a Google Account, and then you can go to the Developer Console and pay your $25. Both programs provide some excellent developer resources, but I'd strongly recommend you tap into the Develop and Distribute tabs of developer.android.com for some great guides on both product design and marketing.

Decide what to build

Congrats! You are now a developer. Now you need to build an app. Later in this article, I'll take you through a number of app development tools that will help you build your first app without any programming background. You'll want to explore them in depth, because the capabilities of those tools will help you determine what you can and can't build.

Even so, you have a couple of major choices upfront. Clearly, you're not going to be building a revolutionary new tool that uses all of the capabilities of smartphones and tablets. You'll need to learn to code for real to do that. If you're using a non-programmer's app building tool, you're pretty much limited to form and data-based apps, mobilized Web pages, and games.

There is, of course, no guarantee you'll see any money from any of these. The app market is a hugely competitive market. Even so, I'll start off by recommending you avoid mobilized Web pages. We are all used to getting our Web page content for free, and a mobile app that just reformats that information is unlikely to generate an app store sale. The way you can make money on mobilized Web pages is contacting companies with their own basic Web pages and offering to turn them into free apps. You won't get a stream of income from app sales, but you could get a decent services fee for creating such an app for someone else.

Forms-based apps are apps that interact with data entry, databases, and store the data for later retrieval. They're relatively easy to build and you might be able to build something based on an area of knowledge you have.

Games, of course, are games. Games are the hottest segment of the mobile app market, but concomitantly, it's also the most crowded segment and the segment where it's hardest to stand out. That said, building a game is fun just for its own sake, so you might want to give it a try.

Decide how to price it

Next comes pricing. Remember that apps are cheap by comparison to PC and Mac desktop apps. Just about everything is under ten bucks. More to the point, and here's a big hint, nearly all of the biggest money producers are apps that are free to download and offer in-app purchases.

Frankly, if you want to make money, I'd recommend you start with the in-app purchase business model. Personally, I don't like in-app purchase -- but you can't deny the success the model has had. After all, buyers can download, try, and get sucked in. If they find value, then they are far more likely to buy your in-app upgrades.

Next:How to build your app even if you don't program

Build your app

So let's take the big step and build your app. I've told you over and over again that I do not recommend you job out or pay someone else to write your app. Rather than repeat myself (well, I guess I just did!), in this article I'm providing you with four tools you can use to just go ahead and do it yourself.


Appery.io: This tool builds a nice integration of data services with apps. It's a little complex for beginners, but it's mostly drag and drop. Their free plan allows a maximum of three pages and one user, but that's really all you need to get started.

Good Barber: Seriously, that's their name. They have a 30-day free trial. After that, plans start at $16/month. What distinguishes this product is there are some very nice design elements, Google Font integration, and a good selection of icons to choose from, as well as some good YouTube tutorials and webinars.

Appy Pie: Appy Pie is free if you let them run ads in your app. If you upgrade to their $7/mo plan, they won't run ads, and they'll help you monetize with iAds and AddMob. They have preset app categories you can choose from like church, restaurant, radio, etc. They also offer a relatively wide range of features you can add to your apps like GPS locations, notifications, and more. This is a good choice if you don't think people will buy your app, but might enjoy downloading it for free. The monetization with ads can help you offset your costs.

GameSalad: This product has a powerful drag-and-drop game creator, good enough to build an Angry Birds or Flappy Birds-style game. You import graphics and assign behaviors, and build up your games from there. A free version includes ads, but there's a $299 version that removes the ads and makes in-app purchases available. If you want to make money from games, you need in-app purchases and these folks make that process relatively easy.

Create app graphics and icons

No matter what sort of app you create, you'll need some app graphics and home screen icons. I personally recommend using Photoshop and Illustrator, but they are both relatively difficult to get started with and moderately expensive. If you want a cheap or free tool, look at Canva.com. This is a nice little online design program that can get you most of the way to your final image.

Make screenshots

No matter which platform you build for, you'll need to upload screenshots to the appropriate app store. Both iOS and Android allow you to press a sequence of keys, and a capture of the screen will be deposited into your camera roll.

On iOS, you'll want to get just what you want to capture on your screen, then press and hold the Home button. While holding the home button, press the Sleep/Wake button. On your Android device, the screenshot options tend to vary (I know, you're surprised). For my Galaxy S4, I have to hit the Home button and the Power button at exactly the same time. If I time it right, it works perfectly. Some Android devices have a Take Screenshot option on the Restart screen while others use the volume keys. You'll need to Google your specific device, but it's an easy search.

Make an intro video

One of the very best sales tools you can offer is a video of your app. Once you've built your app, upload a video to both app stores. Although Google Play has long supported intro videos, iOS has only recently introduced the capability with iOS 8.

Here's a great introduction to the feature on iOS 8. For iOS, the easiest way to record a video is using Quicktime. Here's a short instructional video on how to do it. For Android, you have a bunch of options and the page linked to here offers some great resources and tips.

Test, test, test

Before you submit your app, you'll need to test the living heck out of it. This is not something you can do yourself. Because you know how your app is supposed to behave, you're unlikely to find the sequences that send it into a tailspin. Get lots of friends to try it out. Let your mom or grandmother try it out. Give it to your dad. Most apps can't survive encounter with dads, so that's always a good way to test. If you can, release early versions to users who may have expressed interest in what you offer and see if they can break it.

It is good to find bugs. Any bug you find before you ship is likely to mean better sales and less returns. So test, test, test.

Submit your app to the app stores

Okay, you've reached the big day. Time to upload your apps and by tomorrow, you're going to be a zillionaire. Well, not exactly. But even so, go back to the developer links I provided at the beginning of this article and submit your apps, good descriptions, icons, video tutorials, and screenshots. If you do everything right, you'll get a confirmation and you can sit back and wait to see if the app is accepted.

Back in the days when I submitted my 40 silly iPhone apps, the average wait time was 13 days. I'm told it's substantially less (for most apps), but your mileage is likely to vary. Good luck. The email that says your app is on the app store may be one of the most exciting you receive.

Market your app

I could write a book just on the complex topic of app marketing. The short version: The more money and notoriety you have, the better your app will sell. That's the only thing that can explain the $200 million take for Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.

Even so, if you're just starting out, you can do some marketing. Word of mouth, demos, telling friends, and asking friends to tell friends can get the ball rolling. Use your social networking resources, respond to the app pages online, and always be proud to show off your app.

Good luck! May the market forces be with you.

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.

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