Mobile App Series: Where to start?

Episode 18

This is part one of our Mobile App series, and today Scott and I are going to be talking about the most common questions that you might have as you get started to building a mobile app.

Find us on Twitter @The_Scott_Davis or @RobDickersonJr


Robert: This is part one of our Mobile App series, and today Scott and I are going to be talking about the most common questions that you might have as you get started to building a mobile app.

Scott: This is The Stretch Goals Podcast, where each week we’ll share insights and lessons learned based on our experiences as entrepreneurs. We’ll challenge you to create ambitious goals as you start and grow your business. I’m your host, Scott Davis.

Robert: And I am Robert Dickerson. Scott, I’ve got a great idea for a mobile app-

Scott: I bet you do.

Robert: We were talking before the episode that that’s the key question you get when people come up to you and talk about building an app. They’ve got a great idea. This is the best idea. You’ve never seen an idea this great, Scott.

Scott: Yeah. I mean literally every time somebody is like, “Oh, what do you do,” I can be anywhere. I can be the accountant’s office, airport lounge, anywhere, at a restaurant. “What do you do?” “I build apps.” “Oh, wow, that’s awesome. That sounds like a lot of fun. Hey listen, I have this idea for an app,” and then … “How much is that going to cost? How do I get started?” Those every single time, it never fails.

Robert: I think in this series talking about mobile apps I think we can kind of dive into different areas that people might have questions on. Just to start out, we really want to talk about if you have an idea, what is it going to take, how much is it going to cost, and kind of talk about those things, talk about the process of working with a company like yours to build the app, what are the expectations, what do you need to come to the table with. That’s going to be the focus of our episode today.
Just having an idea is everyone has ideas, right?

Scott: Yeah.

Robert: In any business it’s the execution of those ideas and it’s really getting into the details. If someone has an idea, what do you look for in terms of getting more information out of them about that idea? I mean maybe they’ve just quickly thought about something, they thought that it’s a great idea, or maybe they’ve done research. What kind of questions are you asking them just to get more information about this idea?

Scott: The first thing is, number one, I always try to separate myself from whether the idea is good or bad. It’s not my position to say whether your idea is horrible or good, but I do try to give you an answer on the questions you’re asking me. But to answer your question, where do you start and … One of the first things is, is to look up, to see if your idea already exists, number one. Go out into the app store, go online, search for whatever app it is, because there’s millions of them now. The likelihood that it exists is probably pretty high, at which point is it worth you going down this path and trying to differentiate and take market share from these other companies that are already doing this app.

Robert: Well, just because it exists is not necessarily a bad thing, right?

Scott: Yeah, correct.

Robert: Because you can identify if there’s a market there, but you have to identify where you’re going to come in in that market, like how are you going to differentiate yourself from existing players in that market.

Scott: Yeah, I actually like, my favorite two spaces to be in is one that’s already occupied where you can sort of stand on the shoulders of giants and then have some better features than them and take their user base. Or be in a fresh space. I don’t want to be in a place that has so many competitors, but I don’t want to create the next fart machine for the App Store. There’s a thousand of them. I don’t need to do that. But maybe there’s a couple of, maybe there’s two or three competitors in this space for this idea you have. How do you make it better? How do you differentiate yourself?

Those are the questions that I usually start with. But the next question I usually ask them is, do you have a plan? Have you thought about it, anything, anything more than just I have this idea? Do you have designs for it, for the workflow? Even if it’s as simple as a napkin sketch, it’s enough to get me enough information to know how much is going to cost them. When I give people quotes on how much an app is going to cost, I don’t give it to them based on what I would charge them. I give it based on what the industry will charge. I’ll say, “A freelancer will cost you this. A small agency will cost you this. And a larger development shop will cost you this.” And it gives them a range.

But the number one problem I do see is a couple of things. Number one, people automatically think that just because they have an app idea it’s going to make millions of dollars because they’re going to sell it for 99 cents in the App Store. Number one, people aren’t paying for apps as much as they used to, just to use the app. What they are paying for though is the content within the app. So you make the app free and then you sell bonus features or enhancements to the experience through in-app purchases. That’s the real money maker these days, micro transactions. But a lot of people don’t think about that. They’re going to make their fart machine app and they’re going to charge 99 cents for it and then they’re going to get 10 billion downloads. That’s what’s on their mind.

The next thing is that they always want to spend the least amount of money to build a product. That’s a universal problem. It doesn’t just exist in software. Everyone wants to pay the least amount for the service that they’re getting. You get what you pay for. That’s all I can say. You don’t want to skimp out, especially if it’s an idea that you’re passionate about, if it has great potential you don’t want to go the cheapest route. Don’t just go the freelancer route because it’s going to cost you less. A lot of times they’ve got limited hours or they’ve got multiple things they’re focusing on. You need a dedicated team to go on and build it, if you want to build it right.

But that being said, you need a proof of concept. That’s really where you want to start. That’s what I literally what I tell somebody. It’s like, “Hey, you need a proof of concept.” Get some napkin sketches, get a freelancer to build this really rudimentary idea, and see if it has legs, see if when you actually use it on the phone if it actually does what you intended and creates an experience that you were looking for. Then if that does answer that question, now you go into a larger scale development.

Robert: Yeah, I like that, how you start out with a proof of concept. It’s your minimum viable product almost to tell whether this is worthwhile.

Scott: Yeah, and we’ve talked about this in the past. I mean perfection versus launching. A lot of times people will try to perfect their MVP. The MVP is not meant to be perfected. The MVP is meant to prove your concept to see if you want to spend more money on it and see also if it’s potentially investible from somebody else.

Robert: I mean the one thing that you’ve kind of touched on is a lot of people think that the initial quote of how much is going to cost to build this app is that’s the end of it, once they pay this amount of money they’ll have an app. That’s not the case. Development for any software product is ongoing, possibly for ever. There’s alway … Hopefully forever for us developers. But really I mean you’re going to have bugs to fix, you’re going to have features.

I mean Apple and Android are always updating their libraries, so there’s constant updates to keep the app relevant to the latest OS update, to the latest devices. There’s testing across multiple devices. For Apple, it’s a little bit more limited and the subset of devices, whereas Android there’s all different types and sizes of devices you have to test with. You can’t think of it just as like here’s the amount of money that I’m going to spend to build this app. It’s an ongoing process that you have to figure out really a business plan around, “Okay, I’m going to put this money upfront to build it. How am I going to make money on it, and how am I going to continue to invest to improve it over time?”

Scott: Right, exactly. I think the other thing that I mentioned in there too, and those are all great points, is that let’s say somebody builds you an app for five grand. It’s just a few screens. It’s a proof of concept. It’s five grand. That’s what you allocate. A lot of times there’s this iteration process where you now have feedback and you’ve changed your mind and all these things have changed. That cost is not fixed any longer. That is a moving target, when you start scope creeping in and making adjustments and things like that. Like you said, I mean, that’s not the end of it. The cost will constantly change. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build an app and launch it on a very shoestring lean budget. It’s possible. I’ve seen it done many times. I’ve done it myself. But whether that’s the right thing to do or not is a different topic.

Robert: Most every product that I’ve developed we start out with this grandiose set of features. It’s this huge vision of what you want this thing to be. Really to get started you need to pair that way, way down. You need to cut out everything but the core of what you’re trying to do. That’s what you’re saying, is take that core, build a proof of concept that you can then take out to people. Because if you try to price out this huge vision that you have it’s going to be very expensive and it’s going to take a long time to get to market. You really need to cut down only what you need, use that to kind of go to market with that, and see what feedback you get from your customers.

Scott: Absolutely, yeah, I agree 100%. I mean I’ve worked on projects in the last year and I know I listen to this podcast of a company that’s trying to perfect the launch. I understand the experience. You want that to be perfect. But also when it comes down to cost and keeping your company alive you need to trim down the features and just get it out there, get people’s feedback and then slowly add in new features, because now you’ve got a user base. That’s really where you want to get. You want to get to launch, get some users. People are very accepting of, “Hey, I’ve got this feature and it kind of does what I want, but doesn’t do everything I want.” As long as you communicate with them, through a newsletter or push notifications or regular updates, people are very forgiving in that they will constantly come back to the app because they’re seeing improvements. That’s really the key, get the MVP.

Robert: Yeah, and I’m not saying that this is an easy part. It’s something that I, even with Mapout we have a mobile app for iOS and Android and we develop mobile apps for companies to use for training. It’s a constant struggle for me to prioritize features in terms of what customers want and figure out where to put those in the pipeline or development, how much is going to cost to build that feature. Because a lot of times it’s not only a feature maybe in the app, but you also have to build a back-end portion to that feature to support it, like if you have a chat or if you have, if you’re saving data offline for people to access. It’s not on the app portion but it’s other pieces of the puzzle too that you have to bring together to implement that feature.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. When Parse was around, it just shut down last week, but when Parse was around it made it very easy for people to just quickly stand up a back-end that didn’t need an API and just start pumping data into it and build an app around it. Now there’s a whole new slew of competitors in that space. There’s Firebase and all these other guys. But the thing is if I had to choose whether to have a full back-end team and a front-end mobile development team to build my app from the ground up, I wouldn’t. I would use something like Firebase or Parse equivalent, keep it very lightweight so that you don’t have the additional cost of maintaining the team to do the back-end piece too. Then once you’ve got your user base and you’ve got your concept nailed down, then you go and build out that back-end with your own custom API and database and all that stuff.

Robert: Do you think about the monetization aspect as you’re kind of evaluating these ideas in terms of thinking about how are the in-app purchases going work? Are we going to charge upfront? I mean is that something that people should be thinking about at the start?

Scott: Yeah, absolutely, you have to. It’s changed a lot because five years ago paying 99 cents for an app was very normal, and it still is. But one thing to keep in mind is that you’ve got, number one, you’ve got different demographics that use phones in terms of ages but also the devices themselves. You’re more likely to buy an app on iOS than you are on Android. But that doesn’t mean Android users don’t spend money once they have the app. You don’t want to limit your audience, number one. And if you’re looking to climb the charts, you don’t want to create a price of entry. You want to make it free so that everyone can use it because one thing that gets your app more eyes is more people downloading it because it pushes you up the charts.

We’ll touch on that in another part of this app series, is how to market your app. But you have to absolutely think about that monetization strategy because if you want to keep this idea alive, you’ve got to have revenue, or you have to be like Snapchat and have so much investment that it keeps the doors open. But for the regular person who comes to me and has an app idea, you need to have a revenue model behind it.

Robert: The other area you can have standalone apps that are just in of themselves you can sell like games and things like that. But the other area that I’ve been looking a lot at too is having an app as a companion to your existing product, so it extends your product. While it may be free, you’re growing your product in and of itself because now you provide a way for people to access it on your phone. That’s another model that you can think about. You might be providing for free but the goal is to drive users into your overall product.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, as a heavy mobile consumer I look at brands. Let’s say I find a new product, like QuickBooks Online. I use that to manage my books. They have a website. Oh, great. They also have a mobile app. So now I can maintain things while I’m on the go. Because the last thing I want to do is, go to a mobile friendly website on my phone. A lot of things are responsive, meaning that they format to your device based on the size, but the bottom line is I don’t want to do that. I want a mobile app. I want that companion app like you said.

Sometimes it’s full featured and other times it’s just enhancing the experience, like it’s a subset of features, or it’s a couple of features that aren’t on the website, that are more tailored to mobile. I agree, and I think a lot of companies, especially enterprise companies, they’re not thinking about that. They think of mobile very differently. But as a consumer of products I mean that’s a market that is very, that I would look at as a vertical that has a lot to expand in.

Robert: Yeah, the different experience I think is really key. That’s a great point that you brought up, because as you’re designing your app you really need to think about how someone would be using it in a mobile context. That might be totally different than say if they’re using it on their laptop, your existing product for example. So you really need to be thinking about that. I mean are people coming to you really interested in the mobile app? Are they talking to you about web based apps and things of that nature? Because I know there’s this huge debate out there of a lot of people are going down the responsive web approach.

I mean, my approach is that you need to provide both a lot of times, because people use apps differently and they have different expectations, and sometimes it’s hard to get the flow and the look and the feel to be exactly the same from a web base app for a native app. People have a different expectation of how the app should work. I mean is that kind of what you’re seeing and talking to people, and how do you kind of tell people to go the mobile route as opposed to maybe a web based app or something like that?

Scott: Sure, yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, I am biased because mobile development is what I love doing these days, and I want to be an expert in that field so I focus on that, but I still do the web side of things and the back-end thing. But to answer your question, yeah, I mean, let’s look at Instagram for example. They launched on mobile and people hemmed and hawed about not having a web version of it for a long time, and then they gave you one. Then guess what happened? Not that many people use the web version. That’s, it varies by product. You might have an idea that very much needs a web presence, like physical desktop and then also a responsive design. Again, for those non-technical people when we say responsive, we mean the UI will adapt to fit the screen size. When you hear that term, that’s what that means.

But there are certain apps, like QuickBooks like I just said. That’s a great example of a full experience on the web, and then another subset of features like maybe three quarters of features on mobile. That’s a good example of needing both. I think it just depends on the idea. A lot of the ideas that people come to me with though, they’re very specific like just, it’s just a mobile. Again, it’s a lot of these get rich quick schemes that people think when they come to me.

But also I think the other thing that happens a lot is people say, “Oh, I own this business and I want an app for,” and they’re thinking about a brand app. Basically what they’re thinking of is a website in mobile, which doesn’t always make sense. Let’s say, I don’t know, McDonald’s they would just want this app that talked about McDonald’s and showed all the locations but didn’t do anything else. Like it doesn’t have a high engagement rate. It’s just this brand presence. I always, always, always stay away from those. They’re boring to me. If you want to build an app and you’re going to spend money on it, I want to be engaged in what you’re doing and I want it to be fun. I want to build something cool. I don’t want to build a brand app.

Robert: No, that makes sense. I want to go back and talk about when I was first … I developed an app I guess way back in the day for Geowake and I charged 90-nonsense like you’re saying, and it amazed me that when people pay money for a product, even 99 cents, the level of ownership that they expect for that 99 cent. I mean, I had a couple of people that didn’t like the app and they wanted their 99 cents back, and they would let me know their thoughts and feedback.

So if you’re starting to put something out there and you’re starting to sell it, you need to think about how you’re going to support your users and how you’re going to deal with this kind of stuff. Because it definitely is a tangible amount of time, and you’re going to have to respond to feature a question, you’re going to have to respond to updates and make sure that people are satisfied because otherwise they’re going to give you one star. I think we mentioned this in a previous episode that when you’re first starting out, getting a couple one stars is not a big deal because you’re starting out, but you really need to think about in terms of your overall strategy, how you’re going to work with your users and build that user base to create a successful app.

Scott: Yeah, absolutely, there’s a high level of community engagement that you need to keep your app favorable in terms of reviews, so supporting it is going to take quite a bit of time and that’s something people don’t think about. That goes back to what you said earlier in the episode where you said it’s not just the five grand to build the app. There’s these additional costs that come down the line. And if you’ve got an app that’s doing well, you’re going to need more than just one or two people to support it.

Robert: I mean how often in terms of cost, in terms of cost over time, I mean how often are you updating apps to the App Store because you can get that initial, the idea out there, but then you’re constantly iterating and developing on that feature. I mean, are we talking every couple of weeks you’re sending out updates to these app out there onto the store?

Scott: If the app is being actively used by an engaged audience, absolutely, you almost have to. Number one, there’s always going to be bugs like you said, but number two, the landscape and the features change constantly. Like iOS 10.3 is coming out any day now, and that releases new features but it also changes things. You’re almost forced to make updates to keep everybody happy. I think the apps that don’t do regular updates sort of suffer and eventually fall by the wayside. Smaller companies tend to do that. They just get this app out there, and that’s it, they just leave it alone, and they don’t really do anything with it. I think the users notice that and you get less and less engagement over time and eventually they delete the app.

Robert: If we go back to cost, I mean you can give someone an estimate of how much it’s going to cost. But what do you look for in terms of if someone’s interested in building an app, how much money should they really have to support and build that app? I mean, if it’s a business it might be an ongoing thing that they’re building this app, but what about just the individual that has an idea, how much should they expect to put into this app, at least to get it started and then continue to grow it?

Scott: I would say if you’ve got a normal idea that actually has some legs to it I would say you should expect to spend $5,000 to $15,000 building it and maintaining it over six months to a year. That’s being relatively lame, but that’s, I’m making assumptions. Don’t let me scare you off. You could have an idea that only takes three grand to build, something very simple. Take a picture and upload it somewhere. Very easy. But the point is it’s going to vary based on scope.

I usually, the first thing I sort of look at are just two primary things, number one is the number of screens involved, and that’s why having that wire diagram or some type of mock ups from a graphical perspective is important because that tells me how many screens are involved. Then the second thing I want to look at is what’s the back-end going to look like. And what I mean by that is where is the data going. The data’s got to go somewhere. Is this an API that’s already built and I need to integrate with? Is this something that needs to be built? Is it something that can just go on Firebase or a Parse equivalent like I mentioned earlier?

But those are the first two things I look at that determine the scope of development time and then the cost. The reason I ask about the number of screens is because generally speaking you probably spend half a day laying out the user interface for each screen and then another one to two days actually implementing the functionality for that screen. Ultimately what happens along with that question of how much is this going to cost me, the next question that they ask is, “When can this be released?” It’s always an unreasonable expectation. The app should be released next week. But that comes into play. If you’ve got 50 screens, your app is not going to be done in 10 days. It’s just not. Unless you’ve got 20 developers. It’s just not. It’s not reasonable. That’s why I ask those questions. Is it’s very pointed, here’s your cost, here’s it’s based on, and how to go from there.

Robert: I mean a lot of times you might have a simple idea, but when you start wire framing, when you start sketching it out you end up with a lot of screens, because you need to … You might have settings. You might have a log in screen. You have a splash screen. You have all these different screens. You have forms that you need to fill out. So the number of screens starts growing and growing.

Scott: Yeah, and that brings up the point of having a good design around your project. Someone who I’d like to have on this podcast in the coming weeks is a fabulous designer, I won’t mention his name yet, but he’s got some, a great portfolio and he can talk about exactly what you said, which is how to make your idea very streamlined. You don’t want to have 50 clicks to get to one feature. You want to be very simple, very concise, anybody should be able to pick it up. Yeah, you always have to think about that. When you start wire framing, if it’s too complex, you’ve got to pair it down, because that’s cost associated with that, that’s user frustration associated with that, a lot of different things.

Robert: Yeah I mean the simple can help you in terms of cost, in terms of complexity, in terms of reducing your development time, and making it easier for the user to think about and you. Yeah, I like that idea. Design really is a core aspect in all this. It’s hard to find good designers that really understand this, that understand the interaction and all that. I do believe that that’s a really important point. And if you work with a company like yours, you already have that design element involved. Whereas if you’re hiring a freelancer, you might need to hire a designer and an app developer, because they might not have the same skill set. Your designer’s laying out your screen flow. That’s what we do here at Mapout, is we have a designer that handles that, and then we pass it off to the app developer that’s actually writing all the code and implementing it according to the design.

Scott: Sure. Another thing to think of too is that some graphic designers, they’re not necessarily good for mobile. They might be good for print or creating logos or creating websites, but it’s a different mentality. There’s a specific genre of designers that create designs that are specifically tailored to mobile. The other thing is, you may have a great beautiful design. It may be absolutely stunning. But your graphic designer may not know the intricacies of developing those features on a mobile platform. So if you’ve got a lot of custom UI elements that aren’t platform native, meaning a component that’s already built in to the operating system, then it’s going to take the developer even more time to develop that feature. That’s something that a lot of people don’t think about. Like they’ll show me a design and I’ll say, “Oh, this is going to take eight weeks.” They’re like, “Well, it’s just five screens.” “Yeah, well every single thing on it is a custom component that needs to be built from scratch.”

Robert: That’s the benefit of working with a company like yours, MobX, is that you understand the components and you understand how to streamline a design, to get someone there faster. So while you might be more expensive than say a freelancer, you’re going to have the designer, you’re going to have all those background, that background knowledge of how to streamline that. I think that’s really important to point out, that when you’re looking at the cost you have to look at people’s experience as well in terms of dealing with all these different things, and if you personally don’t have experience dealing with all that, just you dealing with a freelancer might not be a success. Just something to think about as you’re kind of evaluating, “Okay, I’ve got an idea. Who do I get to build it now?”

Scott: Absolutely. All good points.

Robert: All right, cool. Let’s wrap it up. Hope you enjoyed this series. We talked a little bit about if you’ve got an idea, how you think about kind of wire framing it and building a proof of concept, a little bit about how much is going to cost. We’re going to have a series of these and just talk more in detail about marketing, about other aspects of app development, and hopefully help you out as you kind of take your idea to proof of concept. Thanks for listening.

Scott: See you. Thanks for listening to this episode of The Stretch Goals Podcast. You can access the show notes for this episode and listen to other episodes by heading over to

Subscribe For New Episodes

Each week we'll share insights and lessons learned to help you create ambitious goals for your business.

Robert Dickerson


Robert Dickerson is the Founder and CEO of Mapout a mobile learning platform that uses video courses to educate customers and train employees. He helps companies develop and launch their products.

Scott Davis


Scott Davis is the Founder and CEO of MobX, a mobile development software agency. He has 20 years of experience developing software for Government, Finance, Sports and the Telecommunications industry.