Vetting App Ideas for Non-App Developers

Several inquiries over the past few weeks have come from non-developers with ideas for mobile apps. Half of the questions concerned how to go about creating an app, while the other half focused on finding funding or sponsors for the their app idea.  Some attention has been given to this, but it can be expanded upon.

Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Vetting your idea can save you a lot of time, energy and money. I recently was at a conference where a “senior investor” was bragging about having started something like 70 businesses, of which more than 60 were “disasters.” It was painful – listening to him that is, as it is highly indicative that he spent little or no time vetting his start-up ideas.

Going into mobile app development without being or having a mobile app developer is an uphill battle. It can be won, but that will come through a focused, persistent effort for a good product backed by a good business and marketing plan. It’s one thing to make an app; it is another to make a profit on it. Understand that 90+% of apps are distributed for free and roughly 70% of mobile app developers are not breaking even.

But you do have one advantage.  If you are not an app developer you won’t get caught up in making an app just because you can – and then trying to monetize it in a very competitive market.  While a developer can make an app for free, all of the time invested in making it and then trying to monetize it is an expense.  Instead, your time can be devoted to evaluating whether you can monetize your idea for an app.

Research is critical.

There are millions of apps; odds are pretty good that there is already an app similar to what you have in mind. There may not be, though. Even if there is something closely resembling your idea, there could still be room to compete.

You want to make informed decisions, either way. Fortunately, initial research is pretty easy – consisting mostly of keyword searches on search engines and app stores. Simply use the words that would define what the app does as your keywords. If you intend for your app to be specific to a specific geographical region, you can add it (i.e. India, Maharashtra, Mumbai).

Example: If you wanted to create an app that will connect you with fire department, ambulance, police department, etc. via one button, you could use keywords like:

*  ambulance app

*  ambulance app Mumbai

*  emergency service app

*  emergency speed dial app

Your First Decision Point

This early research should bring you to your first decision point – to proceed or not?  No one else can really answer that for you – it depends upon your degree of interest, how much you can and are willing to invest, what the competition looks like and what you think the monetization potential could be.

Leastwise, having spent some time examining what already exists you should be able to reach one of the following decisions:

  1. No – there are already lots of apps out there that do mostly what I had in mind, or
  2. Yes – my idea looks better than anything else that I’ve seen and it warrants further examination.

Don’t be disappointed if you decide not to pursue your idea, you’ve avoided a bad investment of your time and resources.  This does not preclude you from trying to evolve your idea, or since you’ve started looking at the wide world of mobile app development — perhaps exploring other ideas!

Feature Lists

While you are doing the searches, keep track of the URL and app names of anything that comes close to what you have in mind. You will likely want to download and try using those apps, or at least make a list of their features to compare (or add) to yours.

This is not to say that your app needs to include everything that other apps do, just to provide you a broader perspective on what you could do.

It is also worthwhile to evaluate the effort other developers put into creating their app. This type of information might be found on their company web site, possibly news stories or press releases concerning fundraising, talking with mobile developers or even raising questions on public forums (Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora, etc.). This can yield information like the company having received grant, investment money or is receiving specialized assistance, that it involves complex code or needs to connect with third party systems/software, has special security issues, and so forth.

Try to get an idea for:

  • how many developers worked on the app?
  • how long did it take them to create the app?
  • how is their app performing (# of downloads)?
  • are they getting good end-user reviews?
  • does it appear that the app is profitable for them?

Exact information is not really needed here. A rough approximation is useful for having something to compare against.  Knowing their app required only one developer three months to create or required a large team six months, will help you gauge the resources you will need to produce your app.

One emergency service app, for example, raised over $60k via a Kickstarter campaign plus $500k in contests in conjunction with students from MIT and Harvard – two prestigious universities.   That’s an indication that what may seem like a simple idea is really quite complex.  Their app would need to include GPS data, automatically acquire local emergency numbers, handshake with every telco and mobile operator to place calls even when the user has a “zero balance” on their account, etc.

Avoid the Mom Test

It is essential to ask questions and listen to the answers, preferably from people able to provide an objective and informed answer.  That means avoiding asking your friends and family…

“Mom, is this a great idea for an app or what?”

“Oh, absolutely Dear, that’s the best app idea ever!”

Functionally, the more critical the answers are, the greater their value. You don’t need people to tell you that your idea is great. You like it enough to question whether it is worth pursuing. You need someone to play devil’s advocate – why it is not great. That provides you the opportunity to make your idea even better and more competitive.

All of this barely scratches the surface.  If you would like more, take a look at Part One and Part Two of “Non-Developers with Ideas for Apps” to add some additional perspective.  Then, feel free to explore the rest of the Developer’s Guide as there is a lot of information useful not just for developers, but in almost any business (variable by article and subject matter, of course).   The next few articles will also be devoted to how non-developers can get into the mobile app market one way or the other.


Project Manager at the Opera Mobile Store providing Sales-Marketing support. Content development and research.

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