How to make Mobile Apps for Fun and Profit

It is a lot easier to make mobile apps now than it has ever been. There are more online resources and developers available to help build apps than ever before. At the same time there is a much larger mobile user base of potential customers. Everyone seems to have a smartphone or tablet now.

However the market is very saturated and the platforms are limited in terms of what your applications are allowed to do. This means that if you have a great idea for an app it’s likely the case that there are others out there already and even a great app will need to be paired with smart ongoing marketing to get users. It is possible to make a good income from mobile apps today if you can make apps that people enjoy, be efficient with your time, iterate on new ideas, constantly review user feedback and usage stats and are active with marketing.

A friend of mine introduced me to the idea of building my own mobile apps for iOS early after Apple opened their developer program. As far as I know that was the first time anyone could write an application for a consumer phone and earn money from it. My friend made several apps one of them being a date countdown list. Users would enter in events like a spouse’s birthday, upcoming vacation, or anything else and it would display the number of days before each event. He was earning three thousand dollars per month and spent about a month developing it in the evenings. There was very little active work on the app after it was released. For a student it was a pretty sweet deal.

That kind of result won’t happen any more. In the early days mobile apps were totally new, everyone was interested in getting them and there were very few  available. It was a gold rush for a while.

At the time it was common for an iOS developer to charge one hundred fifty dollars per hour and many commercial apps developed for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can buy working app templates with more features than you would want for twenty dollars and modify them to your needs. Also developers with skills and lots of experience developing for iOS and Android are plentiful and can cost reasonable amounts similar to any other web development project.

I have made about ten mobile apps for iOS. The most profitable being encyclopedia like references. I wrote scripts that would grab images and text from wikipedia and index them so users could read about dogs, cats, cars, jets etc and search or sort by different metrics. Each time I made a new app it took less time because I could streamline the process. For a few years I was earning between three and four hundred dollars per month from one or two top apps. The Christmas season was always better than the summer. I also made some utility apps and games. The utilities didn’t do well and they took the most time and effort. I also made some games that didn’t earn very much but I enjoyed it and am happy I made them.

If you want to make mobile apps for fun or to express creativity you can be more self directed but if you want to make money from mobile apps there are some strategies you should follow.

It’s quite common for businesses to develop a mobile app that assists customers to user their existing services and give the app away for free. A mobile app is a good way to get people to come back as a repeat customer because it’s always available on their phone. Providing apps to existing customers also avoids the challenge of finding new users which is not easy and often costs more than the amount you can monetize from them.

The second approach to building an app business is to aim for lots of hit apps and earn millions of dollars. To do this you will need to follow a few steps.

Research top performing and popular apps in each app store category for platforms you would like to develop for. This will give you a sense of what people are downloading and paying money for.

Get yourself a mobile device and download apps that interest you. Pay attention to how you feel about the app when you see it’s icon, description and screenshots so that you can keep that in mind when you have to make your own. Open and use the apps to see how developers organize interfaces and design interactions. Read comments and user feedback as well as product reviews online. Also read accounts from people who have developed a mobile apps to hear what they learned in the process so you can avoid repeating common mistakes.

Choose an app that you want to build. Brainstorm ideas over time, add to a list and sort by the best ones for you. Consider that your first app should be fairly simple and not overly complex. Focus on finding an idea that is fun or useful and something that you would download. Leverage personal interests, hobbies or domain experience with ideas that take advantage of any unique skills you have. The idea should embody the most useful or entertaining thing you can think of. Don’t skimp on the app selection process. Building an app takes a lot of time and it can be easy jump the gun by getting caught up in the excitement of a new idea.

Once you have an idea you need to design it in detail. Draw out each screen and write down in point form what happens in detail when the user clicks on buttons or swipes on each screen. Be sure to cover all interaction cases. It’s a good idea to add a contact form for users to reach you with questions. This will give you feedback on what people actually use in your app and reduce the number of dissatisfied customers and poor ratings that will hurt your app store traffic.

Validate that the app is a great idea and people will use it. Before going any further you must confirm for yourself that the app you want to build is something that people want and would download or pay for. Ask people you know if they would use your app or have any feedback on your plan. Describe the features and experiment with how you sell them on it to improve your marketing material. A lot of app developers fall into the trap of thinking that other people will steal their idea so they keep all of the details secret. It’s funny because it happens so often and after doing so they always regret it. The biggest risk you face is not getting feedback now and adjusting your design and approach. Development will cost money and if you talk to people and get feedback early you can save yourself a lot of wasted effort. What if someone copies your app and ends up with a big hit? The chances of that are small, I have never heard of it happening. If the people you share the idea with were to copy the idea you could always just compete with them and both get rich. What’s the difference between competing with one thousand other anonymous app developers or that and one that you know. After you release the app and start marketing it thousands of people will see exactly what you are working on. Most business succeed or fail based on a long term steady increase in customer value not a clever idea alone. Obviously there are trade secrets that you don’t have to broadcast but in general people better able to communicate with others and get feedback will do far better by large margins.

Budget funds to have the app developed. If you will not be doing the graphic design or development on your own you will have to budget for that. The larger in scope your app is the higher the price tag will be. You can get price estimates from contract developers and designers to estimate your project.

Graphic design is really important for making a good first impression with users. It sets their expectations for quality and anticipated enjoyment. If you don’t have graphic design skills you will want to find one that will do work for you on a contract basis. You can find leads on sites like freelancer.com, ODesk.com and Elance.com. It is really important that you communicate exactly what you want from the designer before committing to paying for work. Unless you want to pay for design options it is a good idea to provide a sketch to the designer they will just polish without designing from scratch. To reduce the risk that the designer will not be able to deliver what you need split the project work into pieces and have them do only one part. If the results are good you can give them the rest.

If you are not a programmer you will want to hire a contractor to do the development work. You may be able to find one locally or online from services like Freelancer, ODesk, Elance, or others. Generally it is better to pay by the hour rather than with a set price for a completed deliverable. The reason for this is that it doesn’t limit changes you may want to make after development starts. It also means not having the developer spend time estimating and trying to plan over a set period of time when instead they could be focused just on building your app.

Provide requirements to the developer in point form. Each point should describe only one feature and it should be in simple language and very clear and easy to understand. Make it clear that the deliverable will be judged to be complete when each line is checked. When requirements are in any way vague or interpretable in multiple ways, bad things happen to the budget. Also ask for access to intermediate stages and regular but informal communication on progress and issues that arise. Unexpected development issues are most likely the cause of budget overshoot so don’t have the developer build things you don’t need and make sure that they understand in detail what they will deliver so that they don’t have to redo work.

Finding a developer that can deliver within your budget can be tricky. Break your project into multiple stages and have a developer do just one small part first. If they deliver you can have them do the next stage. When selecting a developer write a description of your project and ask for an estimate of cost, the timeframe they can deliver it, a list of similar apps they have developed you can try and a description of how they would go about implementing your app. You can choose developers that have a good balance between rate cost and previous work history that you are comfortable with. The description of how they would go about the project serves two purposes, firstly it gives you a sense of how they think and what they will be working on but is also lets you know that they read your description and understand it. Many contractors will just spam you with low ball offers after barely reviewing the requirements and charge you more after going over budget or bailing entirely. If applicants don’t write a description of approach and you like their sample work you can always just ask them individually and they will usually be happy to knowing that they are on a short list.

If a developer isn’t delivering stages that meet your specific requirements act quickly to communicate the problem with them and if they can’t address the issue politely end development and pay them out up to the current state and start looking for another developer. It is also a good idea to tip good developers so that they are likely to make time for you with bug fixes and new features later on.

To save on developer budget split the project into many pieces so that you can do as much of the work as possible just using the developer skill set for the pieces you can’t implement. You can have a developer build a base platform so that you can then write labels, and layout elements. You can also have the developer take what you have done and finish any remaining pieces that you were not able to do. If you do this be sure that you don’t allow too much time to pass or they may move onto another project.

It is a good idea to have a development environment setup on your computer so that you can test each of the deliverables the developer gives you before starting. It is also important to keep a list of the contractors that did a good job for you so that you can call on them again.

Monetization of your app can be done in several ways. The most common types are a sale purchase price, upsells through in app purchases of extra features and in app advertising through one of many mobile ad networks. The options you choose will depend on your app because some will make sense and others won’t. Having a purchase price can deter people from trying your app that might otherwise be willing to pay though an in app upgrade. Releasing a free app with in app purchases allows you to get a user that is interested and demonstrate the value of your app over time working your way up to a sale. In app advertising is easy to set up but the revenues are typically lower than from purchase sales and depend on apps that users run for long periods of time.

Releasing the app will require some descriptive text that pitches your app to potential users. You may want to review what other apps say and make note of the things you communicate to your users. You will also need nice screenshots that highlight your app in a good way. If it’s your first app release you should throw a launch party and invite your friends too just for fun because that’s allowed.

The revenue distribution for mobile apps is skewed so that most of the money is made by a relatively small set of developers. Eighty eight percent of all developers together earn eleven percent of all app revenues with apps that generate less than ten thousand dollars per month. Nine percent of all developers earn thirty five percent of revenues with apps that generate less than one hundred thousand dollars per month. Two percent of all developers earn fifty four percent of all revenues with apps generating up to half a million each month. Its important as an app developer that you keep improving and moving yourself up the ladder where all of the revenue is.

Follow through after initial release is critical. Most of your success will come from updates made over time as you make your app better and build a customer base. All successful app developers make this a priority. Provide good support to your users and make them happy. Negative reviews hurt your rating and in turn app store traffic. Constantly fix bugs and add new features. Do more of the things that work and drop the things that don’t. Releasing regular updates is also a good way to retain users you have because they will be prompted for the update and reminded of your app.

Use analytics to track stats. Collecting even minimal information about how many people use your application on a regular basis and which features they use can help you decide what to improve or change. You should also add new features and observe the results to see if people use them. It’s a good idea to remove outdated and unused features because overly complex options will confuse people and reduce their enjoyment. App usage will naturally decline so you want to find the things people want to make your revenue sustainable.

Marketing your app can make a big difference to your overall success. Each interaction your apps have with users are valuable so you don’t want to waste them. Make a website and collect email addresses of people who express interest. Add links to social networks in your app so users can invite their friends to download it. Add a list of other apps somewhere in your application. Have it pull the list from a server so that you can update it as you make new ones. Have your app prompt people to review it if they like it. It’s a good idea to ask people if they like the app and only ask for a review if they do. Go viral by designing the app to use interaction with other people through social networks like Facebook. Users will invite their friends to interact with and they in turn will download the app so the cycle continues.

Advertising can bring you new users. Because the app ecosystem is large with a huge number of apps competing for users it is almost impossible to acquire new users through advertising at a lower cost than the value you can monetize from those users. Advertising for a launch can be a great idea though because new app releases are usually featured in the app store new releases section resulting in a burst of users. If you can supplement that burst of users with advertising you might be able to gain more exposure by becoming a trending app that are often showcased in app stores. With planning, timing and luck you can work your way up to top downloaded or selling apps and stay there for a long time gaining a large amount of users.

Make new apps with the experience gained from your last one. Use existing resources from past projects to reduce costs. Compare app results against each other to pick future options that will have the best result. If a certain type of app doesn’t work then pick something new or branch off from the more successful ones. Find the developers and graphic designers that you like and work well with and drop the ones that don’t.
Now go and be wildly successful.