How do I get started building an App?

Get started with the finish in mind.

Question asked by Matt on March 23, 2016
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Getting Started (and finishing) With Your Web or Mobile App

I read a great quote recently (can’t remember where) stating that with all the startup talk these days, people have forgotten how to finish. To me, finishing means having a sustainable business, and I think there is a tendency to leave key pieces out of the startup plan. Read on to learn how starting the right way can help raise your chances of finishing too.

turbo snail trying to finish

Many people plan to fund their new app idea using other people’s money, and they believe that the app will generate such a buzz, and so many users, that making money will be easy down the road. Maybe it will. Any given new idea can have this kind of success, but it’s a lot like winning the lottery with a set of numbers that show up most often. You feel like you have a better chance of winning, but the odds aren’t any better with the “sure winner” numbers than with any other set of random ones.

If you’ve done even a little reading on starting up, you’re probably tired of hearing that ideas don’t matter. They do matter, but the development of that idea matters more, and sometimes we discover that what we thought was a good idea has very little chance of finishing.

So How Do You Know If You Can Finish With Your Idea?

With the exception of some lottery-winning and truly revolutionary ideas, good ideas are testable. They solve problems for real people who are accessible. You know you can finish with an idea if you test what you think you know by talking to real people, and you get favorable feedback. Sometimes a small tweak is all that is needed to turn a good idea into a great idea. These tweaks come from discussions.

Most importantly, put your ideas of what the app should look like and how it should function on the shelf for use later. This is where most people start because it’s fun or comfortable. If you know this and want to do it because it’s fun, then by all means, have at it! But understand that those mockups and specifications should be thrown away (or at least put on the shelf) when you *really* start.

The Business Canvas For Web & Mobile Apps

Like many others, We’ve latched onto the Lean methods for developing ideas and developing apps. Experimenting with your assumptions forces you to think about why the plan will work or not work at each step, so the feedback process is very important even if you only get a small amount. Of course, more feedback means increased validation (or tweaks to get validation), and increased chances for success, so get as much as you can!

Here is the canvas we use when sitting down with clients for the first time. Boxes are filled from left to right, so they’re organized by how one should define their idea (notice that the solution doesn’t show up until halfway through). The lower sections of each column either refine a big idea or summarize a set of details from the section above it, depending on how our brains tend to think about defining things (or maybe just my brain).

You can download the Google Spreadsheet version of this here.

Filling Out The Canvas

When we have an idea, we tend to focus on the solution. This is because we already know the problem well (it’s a problem we have) and we already know the target customer (it’s us). The canvas forces us to take on the perspective of other people in search of a solution that will appeal to more folks with the same problem we have.

I’ve created a fictitious app called The Castle App, which will help me illustrate how to fill out the canvas. This app monitors credit cards and personal identities on the internet, and sends alerts for suspicious activity. You’ll quickly see that this app promises quite a bit and the solution is not realistic, but the intent is to lay out the thinking process that goes into the canvas (not to outline a viable business idea).

NOTE: as a first pass, you should be able to fill out the canvas in an hour or two because finding answers to these questions is not difficult. However, the initial answers are not typically good ones, and finding good answers takes a few more passes through the canvas. It’s also terribly beneficial to get feedback from your potential customers (that’s the whole point of lean methods), and from experienced third parties that have done this a few times (shameless plug for BOUNDLESS — we can help!).

#1 Customers

We start with customers, who are users willing to pay for the app. Step outside yourself for a minute and imagine the type of person that would agree your app is worthwhile. Avoid the immediate thought that everyone will find it useful for various reasons. At some point in the very distant future, your app might reach large-scale adoption, but not right now. Right now, your app needs to solve a very specific problem for a very specific person. Who is that? I’ve outlined the potential target customer for The Castle App below.

NOTE: Some apps, like a marketplace, will have two sets of users. In many cases, one of the user types will also be a customer (pays for the service) and one will not. The user types should each have a separate canvas so their specific needs can be carefully considered.

#2 Early Adopters

Out of the people you identified as your target customers, who will be really excited to use your app, and could not do without it? These are your early adopters, and they are the people you’ll need to find and solicit for feedback. They are also the kind of people that will tell other people about your app. For The Castle App, early adopters might be the following.

#3 Path To Customers

In many cases, the specifics we outline for customers and early adopters are likely to be true, but they’re not useful. So to qualify what we write, it is always a good idea to consider how we can reach these people. “Willing to pay for true quality” might be a characteristic for people that buy Mercedes Benz cars, but it’s not really useful if we don’t know where those people are likely to hang out (either online or some physical place). If you don’t have a path to your early adopters and/or your target customers, you’ll need to rethink who you are targeting and make adjustments to the previous sections. Here’s what I’m thinking for our super-awesome Castle App.

#4 Problems

Now that we have a tight group of people defined, and we know where to find them, we can turn our attention to their pain points. What problem are you attacking for your customers? List out the top two or three problems you think users of your app will have. Users of The Castle App will most certainly have these pain points when dealing with privacy on the internet.

#5 Current Solutions To The Problem

If a good number of people currently have the problems we’ve outlined, there are most certainly a number of ways those pain points are addressed right now. List all the solutions you can think of which correspond to the problems. Doing this helps to iron out the problems themselves, so some rework of the previous section in this column is expected. We should also list solutions that are not app-related, or even electronic. Sometimes a notepad and a pen are the biggest competitors for an app, and people just aren’t willing to give them up!

#6 Your Solution

Taking into account each of the top pain points and their corresponding solutions, describe your solution. This is where you list the high level things your app will do to solve the customers’ problems. Make sure that each of the features you list can be directly related to a problem from the previous section. It’s also worth thinking about how your solution will be better than the existing ones.

#7 App Goal Statement

Now that you’ve defined who the app benefits and the problem/solution, you can think about your app at a higher level. What will this app accomplish for it’s users and what benefits will it provide? Summarize this information in a goal statement by answering the basic question:

What benefit does the app provide?

After all is said and done, The Castle App is supposed to provide security and peace of mind. So we don’t simply summarize WHAT the app does, we instead outline WHY it does those things.

#8 Revenue Model

Here’s where things get interesting. If at all possible, charge for your app from day one. Many people think about the revenue model as being separate from the app, but it can be the difference between a successful startup and a failed one. Pricing as an afterthought can really hurt the adoption for an app, and proceeding without it can trick founders into thinking the wrong things are a priority.

Validation for the idea can easily be affected by pricing too, and a bad revenue model or no revenue model can easily skew the results from user conversations. If you decide or discover that users are not willing to pay for the app, there has to be another way for the startup to make money. The people you expect to pay for it now become customers, and another canvas will be needed for them.

The revenue model for The Castle App is similar to most software as a service (SaaS) models, where users subscribe monthly for access.

#9 Marketing Message

On a number of occasions, I’ve heard people say that they have built an app and now need to start marketing it. Although this progression of events seems reasonable at first, it is completely backwards! Before we invest thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into building a product, we need to make sure that we can describe the product in a way that makes sense and is needed by a group of people that will pay for it. The previous sections help do that for us, but we need to go further because the descriptions and bullet points are too complicated. Here’s where we nail down the following:

  • Choose a good name and web address for your app. Verify they’re not already in use or trademarked in some way. This is easily accomplished by doing web searches.
  • Craft the message for your app. This should be the short and catchy tag line that summarizes the app’s goal. You can dig a little deeper and use something that is related to why your app does what it does.
  • Find a good image that lends immediate context to your app. When coupled with the tag line and a short description, people should immediately understand what your app is about.

At this point, you’re ready to tell people about your great idea and put up a landing page.

#10 Metrics

Metrics help define what will get measured and how you will measure progress and traction. These are typically used as we get closer to launch and after, but it’s useful to get them down on paper and refer to them every now and then. As you build a startup, metrics provide actionable insights for user communication (this is a whole separate article — stay tuned!).

#11 Unfair Advantage

This section gets you thinking about why you are better than the next guy who wants to build the same thing or a similar thing. Try to avoid features as an advantage because they can easily be copied. Instead, focus on the intangible things that you have and take years to get. Industry experience and access to potential customers are fairly strong advantages.

What Have We Learned?

Hopefully, the process of filling out the canvas has helped clarify details surrounding the idea, and provided a framework for how your startup will become a sustainable business. You now have a draft of the business plan which needs validation, tweaking, and revision, so get in touch with us for more information on how to do it!

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At BOUNDLESS, my co-founder and I have over 35 years of collective experience building software. We’ve helped many startups clarify their ideas, find workable solutions, and build their apps. We love answering questions and helping entrepreneurs get started. Fill out the form below and we'll answer your questions regarding building an MVP, lean app development, choice of technologies or any other subject you think is relevant!

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