Apps are big business, whether you're offering users a cab ride in two taps or the ability to send self-destructing photo-messages, valuations of anything up to $20bn show their huge potential. With YPlan's second birthday fast approaching, here are a few tips for how to build your own world class app.
1. You're not building an app, you're fixing a problem.
I've often overheard people at the pub chatting away enthusiastically to their friends about how they're set to become the next app billionaire, "if only I could think of an idea!". The first rule of this game is simple, don't set out to build an app - the app comes later, it's your means to an end - what you need to do first and foremost is find a problem and work out how you're going to fix it. Not only will this mean that your end product is useful to consumers, but it helps you stay driven. By knowing you're solving a problem for the public, (even if it's a personal bugbear like never being able to find a taxi when you need one), you'll be motivated to keep refining and improving your product. Whilst my co-founder Viktoras and I were visiting friends in San Francisco after we'd quit our jobs to spend time brainstorming our 'big idea' we were constantly at a loss for what to do with our free evenings. There wasn't anywhere we could go to browse events and book tickets all in one place. Nobody was answering the question "what are you doing tonight?", so we decided to create something which would solve that problem. We weren't thinking about mobile or apps specifically, we just wanted to identify a problem and find a way to fix it, which is exactly we did.
2. Think properly about your business model, don't assume advertising will work.
Once you've come up with your idea, you need to think very carefully about how you're going to monetise it. Don't assume that adverts will solve all your money worries - you need to have a sizeable footprint before brands will show any interest, and it needs to grow even further before you'll be able to charge meaningful sums of money for them to display ads. You also need to be careful that any ads you do show don't disrupt the user experience. Instead, think about how you can build a two sided marketplace with your product as we've done with YPlan - we're a transactional platform, just like Hailo, Uber and numerous others - which lets you make a small commission on each in-app purchase. Alternatively you could opt for a straight forward paid-for model as photo-editing app Afterlight have done - everyone wants their pictures to look professionally shot, and Afterlight gives you the tools to make them look so for a one off payment when you download the app.
3. Never stop testing.
Understanding your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is crucial. Strip everything back to the bare minimum so all you're left with are the core features that your product needs to function. Once you've built it, give it to as many friends, advisors, family and old colleagues as you can and get them to feedback on it. That way you'll find out pretty quickly if you've created something that nobody wants. When Viktoras and I first started this whole process we would construct business model after business model, subject it to an intense process of MVP testing and then scrap it and move on to the next one. It was quite intense. We worked through 50 different projects, before finally settling on YPlan as idea 51. Even now we continue to refine our product through an ongoing process of A/B testing. At any one time we'll have some 40 different versions of the app being played with by a select group of early adopters. Only by constantly gathering feedback about your product can you continue to improve it and stay ahead of the competition.
4. Be picky about the people you work with.
It might sound like an obvious one, but building the right team is crucial to a successful business. Everyone will have a different area of expertise - you can have generalists, designers, builders, marketers, the list is endless - so recognising drive in people that excel in fields outside your particular area of expertise can be tricky. Ultimately you need to think about company culture- are you hiring people who have the same sense of ambition? People sometimes confuse company culture with personal interests, it's great if you all have an interest in the same type of books or films, but that's not what culture in the workplace really means. It's knowing that everyone is committed to building the best product they can, no matter what sphere they're operating in.
5. Grow it slowly, but grow it right
Acquiring new users is pointless if you're not able to retain them, and you can only do that if you're constantly looking for ways to improve your product. Don't get caught up in a numbers game, retention should always be your top priority - we want people to hear about YPlan through word-of-mouth from friends, colleagues and family. Those kind of recommendations carry significant weight, and that kind of organic growth is what drives widespread adoption. If someone starts using a service, and for whatever reason don't have an enjoyable experience throughout the entire user journey, then it's extremely difficult to get them back. Only by constantly improving your offering are you going to achieve sustainable growth for the business. I remember back in December 2012, barely a month after we'd launched, we were tweeted by Stephen Fry saying what an excellent idea he thought the app was. We met face-to-face shortly afterwards to talk through some of our plans for the business and how we were aiming to expand - we would never have been able to arrange a meeting like that were it not for the power of personal recommendation.