You’ve got the BEST idea for an app. You’re so excited! And you feel increasingly certain it will be a resounding success… if only you can figure out how to get started. What needs to happen first? How do you choose the right development partner? What can you expect as your project progresses? And how can you make sure that the efforts and investments you make are going to give your app the best possible chance for success? If these questions are the ones currently swirling in your mind, you’re reading the right blog article.
At Distillery, we always strive to give our clients a clear understanding of what to expect when they’re working with us. And while we’d prefer to think that other software design and development companies operate similarly, we know that’s not always the case. So we’re using this blog to help prospective app entrepreneurs like you to better understand the process of how an app is born, as well as the role you’ll be expected to play in that process. Below are the basic steps involved in turning your app from idea into reality.
Research possible development partners. Do your homework. Do they have a good reputation? What about a good website — ideally one with customer testimonials and samples of their work? Do the leaders of the company have a solid track record? Check out leaders’ LinkedIn profiles, news stories about the company, and every review you can find. You’ll be in a long-term relationship with the company you choose, and your success depends on their ability to deliver. So it’s crucial to consider only trustworthy companies with a proven record in app development.
Meet with the partner(s) to assess fit and hone in on project specifics. A development partner worth having is going to have a ton of questions for you. (Be warned: sadly, there are disreputable companies out there who will simply build whatever you ask for, regardless of its market viability.) Our initial questioning is focused on helping you make certain that you have a product worth building, as well as a realistic and sustainable plan for building it. What will your app do? Does it fill a unique need? Have you validated whether there’s a market for it? Do competitor apps already exist? (You have no idea how many people we’ve talked OUT of trying to be “the next Uber.”) What’s your timing? What’s your budget? Are you self-funding the effort? Do you have investors? Do your investors need to “see more” (e.g., a prototype) before they commit, and — if yes — how does that inform your development plan? Bottom line, don’t let the questions scare you off. A development partner that’s legitimately focused on your success will want to help you refine your app idea into something that has a genuine future.
In addition, make sure to inquire whether, at the end of the project, you own the intellectual property (IP). Some development partners insist on retaining the rights to your code, charging you ongoing licensing or service fees. (We don’t agree with that practice. It’s your vision and your product. Working with Distillery, you own 100% of your IP, no strings attached.)
Assess and align your own resources. Before you align with a development partner, it’s crucial to determine what you’ll be bringing to the table. What’s the current state of your business? Are you the sole decision maker, or do you already have a team in place? Do you have a technology lead? Do you have someone focused on product development who could complement and direct our team? Do you have subject matter resources (SMRs) aligned to help us understand your workflow, your business needs, and the needs of your users/customers? We have worked extensively with solo entrepreneurs who are just getting started. But at minimum, we expect to rely on the entrepreneur or his/her designated SMRs to help us fully understand the needs and requirements the product must meet. We also expect that you’ll be involved at key points throughout the entire app development process. App development is a highly collaborative and iterative process; your involvement is an asset we build around.
Move forward with your chosen development partner, agreeing on a high-level plan. You’ll be expected to sign a contract and/or statement of work (SOW) with the development partner you select. Your contract and/or SOW should give you a clear picture of the payment terms, initial work plan, and division of responsibilities. You should also expect to hold a detailed kickoff meeting where expectations, communication protocols, next steps, and project timing are discussed and agreed upon.
Perform user and competitive research, and hone in your app’s core functionalities. For your app to be viable, it’s crucial to research before you build. Apps built on mere assumptions go nowhere, so be wary of anyone who’s ready to start building without first laying a proper foundation of user and market research. At Distillery, we use a collaborative, research-based approach. Our PMs, developers, and UX designers work closely with you to understand your user and business needs. We interview SMRs and users, validating and understanding their needs to help you decide which features are core to your app. We also perform competitive and market research to help you validate the perceived need and better understand what’s going to help you stand out.
We then assess what needs to be built versus what already exists (i.e., are there existing technologies that can be leveraged?). For example, if you’re building a mobile dry cleaning app, it’s possible to use the pick-up and drop-off functionality from another app — that piece already exists, so there’s no need to spend time building it. We instead focus on building the functionality that’s genuinely unique to your app: e.g., how users would provide information about their garments, including the garment type, specific care instructions, and feedback about services rendered. In all areas, we make recommendations and provide justification for those recommendations, bringing a point of view focused on helping you succeed. Of course, you have the final say on all decisions throughout the process.
Commence software development. At this point, you’re finally ready to begin building. At Distillery, we build in small chunks, using an Agile/Scrum approach in which all decisions about features and design continue to report up to you. Our approach mirrors the scientific method: we begin with a hypothesis, research that hypothesis, and — drawing on the results of our research — provide product-forward guidance that helps you build the right things at the right time. For example, maybe you initially felt video chat was crucial to your dry cleaning app, but our research showed that users weren’t very interested in the feature AND that it would take two months to build. In that case, we’d advise you to focus first on developing other features. Again, however, you always have the final say.
Flesh out your concept. If your investors or partners are waiting to see more before they’re willing to proceed, you need to build something that showcases your app… without building your complete app. However, even if you already have a full green light to proceed, you should still begin by building out your baseline concept. Doing so helps make certain all parties involved are in agreement on the basic functionality of what’s being built. There are three primary options for fleshing out your product’s concept. The most basic approach is to create clickable wireframes which showcase certain of the app’s screens; these wireframes do not contain any code. In traditional parlance, the two remaining options — prototype and proof of concept (POC) — do have some crossover, but for our purposes we differentiate them as follows: a prototype conveys the user experience and contains some working code (but falls short of full functionality), while a POC is a working piece of software designed to demonstrate not only the user experience, but also the central piece of technology your app is trying to build. We can help you determine which option is best for your needs.
Build minimum viable product. Immediately trying to build several “perfect” versions of your product that work on all platforms and all devices is pretty much never a good idea. There’s simply no compelling business case for it. We belong to the Eric Ries’ “Lean Startup” school of thought, which advocates smart resource allocation via an iterative process in which you cyclically build, measure customers’ reactions (testing your assumptions), and learn.
So we recommend starting with a single platform (iOS, Android, or web) and first building a minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP includes only the features that are truly critical to your app, creating a solid, stable product that you can deploy, learn from, and continue to expand. You can eventually develop your product for as many platforms as you like. But starting with an MVP saves you time, money, and headaches. And if any potential development partners tell you otherwise, it may be because they’re only focused on the additional hours and money headed their way as a result of your decision to “go big” right out of the gate.
- Develop marketing plan. In actuality, you should begin thinking about how you’ll market your product much earlier in the process. It’s placed here in our list only to make sure you’re laser-focused on your marketing plan in advance of product launch. Is your app’s landing page ready to go? What about your app’s product description? Have you thought about how you’re going to get good press coverage? Have you set up analytics? How will you create buzz on social media? Are you planning to create ads? Distillery can advise you on some of these pieces — and for those we can’t, we can direct you to trusted marketing and advertising partners who can. We’ll always make sure you have the help you need in all areas.
Launch product in App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android). It’s time for your app to take center stage. We’ll stand by your side through every stage of your app’s release, helping you anticipate issues and avoid common pitfalls. Product launch is an incredibly exciting time, given that, once it’s out in the market and being used, you begin gathering data and gaining feedback that can help you refine and improve your product. And if your plan includes development for another platform, you’re now positioned to begin that process from an informed, data-fueled point of view.
Execute marketing plan. No matter how amazing your app idea is, you can’t expect that your product will magically succeed on its own merits. You need to actively help it along, giving it the momentum it needs to find its audience and make an impact. Execution of your marketing plan requires focus, dedication, and perseverance. Again, however, our marketing and advertising partners can give you the help you need so that, from a marketing standpoint, you know precisely what to do, when, and how.
Continue to refine and improve your app. Software development is never totally done. Metaphorically speaking, releasing an app is less like high school graduation and more like childbirth: you’ve given birth to this beautiful app “baby,” and now you need to raise it, nurture it, protect it, help to correct its course where needed, and get it on the right path for continued success. We frequently assist our clients with continuing product development, helping to add new features, develop for new platforms, make strategic modifications, and provide real-time issue management. We’re committed members of your team for as long as you’d like our help. We’ll never leave you stranded.
Interested in finding out more about how Distillery helps clients transform their app ideas into sustainable business success? Let us know!
About the Author
As Distillery’s Partnership Director, Sam Wheeler is responsible for building strategic client and industry relationships. He’s passionate about matching clients with innovative, custom-fit solutions that help them grow their businesses. In a former career as an elementary school teacher, he learned the value of putting people at the center of everything you do. When he’s not working, he loves spending time at home with his wife and daughter, enjoying frequent hikes, BBQs, and trips to the coffee shop.