How To Build Your First App: 7 Secrets From The Founders
Is this a huge mistake? Will it ever work? Will anyone care?
Anyone building an app for the first time is wondering these things. You’re not alone.
“No one knows what they’re doing. You think people who came before you know everything, but there isn’t one right way to do it. If you make a misstep, it’s not a big deal.”
– Whitney Linscott, CEO & Founder, Bracket Dating
You can and should build an app. Don’t believe me?
I just launched my first app, 19 Minute Yoga. I’m not a developer. I have a degree in English Lit.
A technical background is not required. Do you know what is required?
Tenacity and grit.
It took twice as long as I expected. But I still did it. And I want to share everything I learned, so you can build an app too.
The App Store has generated more than $70 billion in revenue for App developers. Apps are transforming and disrupting business.
You or your company should be thinking about building an app for one reason. Eventually, someone is going to come along and build an app that disrupts you.
After I launched 19 Minute Yoga, I knew I wanted to share some honest insights and takeaways. I jumped on the phone with 10 other app founders, technical and non-technical, to discuss everything from developing your idea to developing your code.
Thanks to the founders who participated and shared their experience:
- Allison Winston: President & Co-Founder, Kickwheel
- Estee Goldschmidt: Co-Founder & CEO, ShopDrop
- Julie Campistron: Co-Founder and CEO, Stop, Breathe & Think
- Whitney Linscott: CEO & Founder, Bracket Dating
- Monika Bhasin: Founder, GLYD
- Alexis Monson: Founder, Punkpost
- Diane Hamilton: Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Binary Formations
- Lori Cheek: Co-Founder, Networkd
- Amy Hutchins: Founder & Chief Product Officer, Unearth Technologies, Inc.
- Suzanne Hayen: CEO & Co-Founder, Let’s Be Chefs
Building an app can be a rollercoaster and it’s important to know your community and know you’re not alone. Download the apps mentioned here and follow the founders online to learn more about these leading entrepreneurs. Welcome to the community!
#1 Put Your Idea On Paper
Some of the best ideas come from a person creating a solution to her own problem. You don’t have to invent something completely new; you can improve upon an existing idea. Research popular categories and bring a fresh spin to an existing audience. 19 Minute Yoga was born when I realized that I couldn’t find a short, audio-first yoga app–anywhere!
Monika Bhasin, Founder of GLYD, an app that connects travelers with locals, said her initial work was getting her idea validated and that went hand in hand with putting it on paper.
“Write the idea out as an essay. It needs to be simple enough to explain to a 10-year-old.”
– Monika Bhasin, Founder of GLYD
To get started, consider the questions below. Write multiple drafts, as you refine your idea:
- What makes your idea different?
- Who is your audience?
- What are your business goals?
- How are you going to market and promote the app?
- What is the simplest version you can build first?
- How much will it cost to build the first version of your app, the MVP (minimum viable product), to get your first round of user feedback?
In addition to writing about your idea, it’s important to create a visual. Sketch a rough draft of your app. It will help you understand the story you want to tell. Don’t worry about artistic talent (or lack of!).
Suzzane Hayen is CEO & Co-Founder of Let’s Be Chefs, an app that delivers weekly menus and recipes to helps users save time and eat better. When Hayen was developing her idea, she used index cards to illustrate her user experience.
“Start writing things down on index cards. Draw each screen and show your friends. Here’s one screen, here’s the next screen.”
– Suzzane Hayen, CEO & Co-Founder, Let’s Be Chefs
Before you have a formal pitch or brief, simply talking to people will help you develop your idea. Don’t wait until you feel “ready.” My experience is that “ready” rarely happens. Start a dialogue with friends now. Collect initial feedback.
Ask The Pros
If you have the capital, you can hire an agency to help you get started faster. Whitney Linscott, CEO & Founder of Bracket Dating, launched her app to solve the “swipe” problem in dating. When she decided to build an app, she attended a workshop with an app development company.
During the 2-day intensive, Linscott was able to flesh out her concept, along with finer details like user stories. The workshop facilitated her first steps, but Linscott noted, “Just to participate in the workshop was $10K.”
Connect With Your Local Tech Community
Many cities have local developer or app focused meetups. Even if you’re not going to hire a development company, start networking and identify local resources. Search online, talk to people who work in technical fields, and connect with local groups. Maybe there’s a tech Meetup event you can attend.
#2 Tell Everyone
We keep our ideas locked up for too long. Fear of rejection and never feeling “ready” can trick you into keeping quiet. And, sometimes there’s concern that a person might steal an idea. We tell ourselves these stories to let us off the hook–to prevent us from executing. Because executing is hard. Get your notes organized and tell everyone.
This is a collaborative process.
Most importantly —> There should be communication with your key demographic before anyone writes a line of code. Start soft sounding your ideas directly with your prospective users. Stay connected throughout this entire process. Start early. Start now.
Early Feedback Forms
When I first started building 19 Minute Yoga, I recorded a rough version of my first class, posted it on Soundcloud, and collected early feedback through Google forms. I learned what people liked best, what I could do better, and how someone would describe my class to a friend.
Share your idea with friends, family, and most importantly, the people you want to help–your target market. A survey is a simple way to gather feedback. When Bhasin surveyed her GLYD users, she learned that she was missing some key features, including messaging and following. She realized this would greatly improve the user experience (UX).
Focus & Find Your Niche #DrillDown
Amy Hutchins, Founder & Chief Product Officer at Unearth, a collaboration tool for the construction industry, said “The hardest part was scoping down what we wanted to do.”
Hutchins and her team spent months talking to people in the construction industry. They realized technology could solve many pain points in the construction process, as a vertical it was a huge opportunity.
Know Your Audience
Do your research. Get feedback early and often. Share your idea with people who fit your demographic. Make edits and adjustments as necessary.
When Unearth was conducting early research, they learned a key piece of information about the construction industry–iPads are everywhere on construction sites because the industry wholesale adopted them first.
Ask yourself, is your audience using a certain device or platform?
#3 Don’t Skip The Boring Stuff
Get your ideas organized and start writing your project brief (here’s a project brief outline). Get specific.
Start with these questions:
- Why are you building this app? What will the app do?
- What content (writing/images/audio/video etc.) will be included in the app? What are the key features that MUST be included the app?
- Design and UX is very important. How does your app look and feel? How easy is it to navigate? Do you have wireframes or any creative design specifications? It’s OK if you’re not a designer, grab a pen and paper and hand draw your wireframe. (I sketched the first version of 19 Minute Yoga on a piece of paper and then we made a prototype with InvisionApp).
- What type of device (phone/tablet) or platform (iOS/Android) will you build for first? Hint: what does your audience use most?
- Will your app be used vertically or horizontally?
- Will your app need wifi to work?
- If you plan to make money with your app, how will you achieve this (freemium model, ads, e-commerce etc.)?
#4 Find The Right Developer
Building an app with someone is like a marriage. It’s an ongoing commitment and not a one-off project. If you’re a non-technical founder, this is the most important step. Give it the attention it deserves.
You have a few options:
- Learn to code – Invest in training and develop the app yourself or in-house. It’s not uncommon for founders to team up with a spouse or former colleague. One person is the developer–or willing to learn to code on the job–and the other person manages operations and marketing.
- Bring on a technical partner – Find someone who either knows how to code or has the technical skills (and interest) in learning to code. Search your local network, LinkedIn, and past employment for partners.
- Hire an independent developer or agency – You can outsource development to contractors or agencies (anywhere from $5K- $500K+), but there’s no easy button. Expect to be highly involved. It’s a very detailed process and requires many decisions from you. As you’re researching partners, don’t make your choice based on price alone and don’t pay 100% upfront. Take the time to review apps they have launched in the past. How is the functionality? Does it seem comparable to what you’d like to build?
Also, as a non-technical founder, you’ll benefit from a technical advisor or consultant. I know I did.
Search Everywhere For A Developer
When Lori Cheek launched her first app, Cheekd, she had two business-side co-founders, but no one on the technical side. Following her appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, she pivot Cheekd from a physical dating card business to a Bluetooth dating app. After hiring one of the most expensive agencies in NYC, she had an app that looked beautiful, “but the tech didn’t work.”
Cheek reconnected with a developer she had worked with in the past. She said, “We found our CTO on Craigslist.”
“In the beginning, it was a drawback not having a technical co-founder. Finding a CTO who was invested was the missing link.”
– Lori Cheek, Co-Founder of Networkd
Lori Cheek’s newest app, Networkd, helps users create better connections based on location. “You could be sitting next to someone–someone who could be the co-founder you’re searching for–and not even know it,” said Cheek.
Work With Someone You Know
Hayen said that Y Combinator recommends working with someone you already know. Even if it’s someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, search your network for someone who has a technical background (engineers, IT/tech specialists etc.). See if they are interested in partnering and learning to code on the job.
“Search your LinkedIn and start racking your brain for anyone with technical skills,” said Hayen.
Hire Good Communicators
Allison Winston is President and Co-Founder at Kickwheel, the mobile college fair. Winston, who connected with her co-founder on LinkedIn, emphasized the importance of communication skills.
“Hire an engineer who can explain technical things to you. Someone who can talk about what they are doing. If you’re not mind melding with someone, it’s not a good fit.”
– Allison Winston, President & Co-Founder of Kickwheel Co.
Work With Students
Estee Goldschmidt, Co-Founder and CEO at ShopDrop, a guide to the best sample sales in NYC, recommends reaching out to engineering students and finding technical team members at your local university. For example, in you’re in NYC, NYU Tandon School of Engineering is a good place to start.
It Takes A Village
Building a strong team is critical. It takes time to find partners with the right skills and culture fit.
In addition to development skills, you’ll want to consider graphic design, copywriting, community building, customer service, marketing, PR, and more (start thinking about that marketing plan before your launch). Keep networking and sharing your idea. You’ll start to identify the best partners and resources.
#5 Build Your MVP
The first version of your mobile app is your MVP (minimum viable product) or “alpha.” This includes only the most important features–the stuff users absolutely must have to use your app. Focus on functionality and UX. You want a simple app that tests your assumptions about what users want and need.
“When you want to throw in the towel is usually when something unlocks. You have to hang in there a little longer than most people. Ride the uncertainty. Embrace the process and never lose sight of the experience equity.”
– Julie Campistron, Co-Founder and CEO, Stop, Breathe & Think
This early testing will teach you a lot.
The process of building an MVP taught me some important lessons. I started with a web-based app, but I could have saved time and money if I had built for iOS from the beginning. The web-based MVP was so buggy that I couldn’t even share it externally. We ended up having to build the entire app over.
The first version of your app won’t be perfect, but it should pass internal Quality Assurance (QA) testing. It needs to have a baseline of functionality before you share it with external users.
Just because the app works on your phone doesn’t mean it works for someone else. QA testing is super important but often overlooked until there’s a problem. In her role, Annie Purcell MSc, Project Manager and Quality Assurance (QA) expert, identifies a broken feature and submits a recommendation on how fix it.
“I put myself in the shoes of the most destructive user possible–to try and outthink ways to disrupt the product before anyone outside the development team gets their hands on a download.”
– Annie Purcell MSc, QA expert
Be sure to test your app across a variety of devices.
Get Feedback Early & Often
At Unearth, a regular feedback loop was established during alpha testing.
“We looked at all the features we wanted to build and prioritized. The most important thing we did was get feedback early.”
– Amy Hutchins, Founder & Chief Product Officer, Unearth Technologies, Inc.
They partnered with alpha users who were willing to provide feedback in exchange for free use of the product. Hutchins said, “People were happy to use it and we set up the expectation that they would have weekly meetings with us to provide feedback.”
With my yoga app, we conducted one-on-one phone interviews and included an optional class review within the app. After completing a class, users could apply a star rating and/or a written comment. Users always had the option to “X” out. This helped us collect early and ongoing feedback.
Tight Timelines Create Lean MVPs
Julie Campistron and Jamie Price are founders of the mindfulness and meditation app Stop, Breathe & Think. Campistron and Price pitched the tech mentors on Apple’s show Planet of the Apps and landed a mentorship with Jessica Alba. After hearing the good news, Campistron and Price were on a tight timeline to launch a version of Stop, Breathe & Think for younger kids. Campistron said, “We wanted to have it live for Planet of the Apps and Jessica Alba. We really limited the functionality. We ended up doing horizontal layout only and we didn’t do account creation. We haven’t had any negative user feedback.”
Stop, Breathe & Think regularly collects user feedback with UserTesting.com. Campistron said, “This service finds candidates based on demographics. They set up the link and the task and the whole process is filmed.”
However you plan to receive feedback, insight into how someone is navigating and experiencing your app is priceless.
Release & Update
After building and testing (and building and testing), it’s exciting to officially release your app into the marketplace. I was psyched to see 19 Minute Yoga in the App Store for the first time. It can also be a little anti-climatic. There’s always something to tweak or update!
#6 Connect With Your Community
Invest in PR and community building at least 3-6 months before your launch. Find the social network that fits your goals and connects with your audience. Depending on your industry, you might have a platform specific approach. Goldschmidt’s ShopDrop takes an Instagram-first social strategy, as the photo sharing site has become a powerful tool and “changed the face of fashion” according to Vogue.
Where does your audience spend time? Research and prioritize.
Diane Hamilton is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Binary Formations, a development company with a suite of apps, including App Store Editor’s Choice, Home Inventory. She said, “The market has changed so much. You have to have a marketing plan now, you can’t just put your app in the store. Build partnerships and find people with the the same target market.” At Home Inventory, Hamilton reaches out to professional organizers, as her app helps users “cut down on clutter.”
Alexis Monson, Founder of Punkpost, an app that sends handwritten cards mailed by artists for you, said they focus on PR more than other types of marketing. Punkpost got featured in the App Store which was “huge.” Monson said, “Some of the smaller blogs have more engaged users and communities. It was surprising at first. They might publish a little less, but their readers are hungry.”
Meeting users in person builds community and creates the chance for important conversations.
“We have monthly events, every event has a theme, and we also pull people aside to talk to them about the app. I’m building a product for our consumers, so if they tell me something is not a good idea–that’s important feedback.”
– Estee Goldschmidt, Co-Founder & CEO of ShopDrop
Be Helpful In Small Group Discussions
Hayen said, at Let’s Be Chefs, Facebook has worked the best for them, possibly because she’s “most familiar” with the platform. On Facebook, they do some paid ads and Hayen frequently shares recipes, cooking tips, and answers questions in private groups, especially cooking groups and mom groups. Do a keyword search on Facebook to find groups related to your topic.
Reddit is a great place to engage in subject-specific threads. I have an account for 19 Minute Yoga and I search health and wellness related posts to see how I can help. It’s also fun to participate in Reddit’s signature AMA (ask me anything!). On Reddit, always be helpful, non-promotional, and authentic. Here’s one of my first Reddit comments about the benefits of short yoga.
Invest In Your Marketing Team
Notably, Unearth’s third hire was in the marketing department. Hutchins said, “I’ve been blown away by the value that our content strategist, Nick, has brought to the table–the leads and PR we’re getting from his work. We learn what’s resonating with people.”
#7 Listen to Customers, Pivot As Necessary
“Sometimes you need a palate cleanser. Sometimes it’s good to have an idea and try it. Sometimes you decide not to bring it to market. It’s not wasted time. You learn something.”
– Diane Hamilton, Co-Founder & Managing Partner of Binary Formations
Plan for success by staying connected with your community. Have a system for engaging and collecting feedback. You can start with a “help” contact email. As your community grows, you might invest in customer service software. Hamilton uses FogBugz and Punkpost uses a tool from Zoho.
When it comes to software, there are automated options for growing communities, but both founders emphasized the importance of a personal touch. You want your community to know there is a person listening.
As you collect feedback and analyze user data, you’ll make ongoing improvements and updates. You might decide to pivot. After ShopDrop founders identified the most popular topic in their app–sample sales–they re-launched with a new focus to serve their most engaged audience.
In general, don’t be afraid to pivot or roll out smaller apps to test new features. It’s part of the process.
“If you’re passionate about it and you’re willing to spend years working on it, you can do it. I think a lot people get hung up on the tech part because they didn’t go to school for it. It doesn’t matter. You’ll learn.”
– Alexis Monson, Founder of Punkpost
Before Kickwheel, Winston had a 10-year career as a teacher. When she was ready to make a move, she immersed herself in learning about technology and studying the industry. Some of her favorite resources include Chaos Monkeys, a book The New York Times called an “indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment” and the podcast Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, a legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor.
Winston, now President & Co-Founder of an app with more than 1.2 million installs said, “I was not going to let being a non-technical person stand in my way.”
Stay tuned for our behind-the-scenes podcast for more info on how to build an app.
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