Every now and then I receive an email from someone that is looking for advice about building a mobile app for their business or non-profit. These conversations usually start along the lines of, “Hey, I have a great idea for an app. Who do I talk to?” or “Do you know any good app developers?” Usually their thought process is that “If I have a really great idea for an iPhone app and I can find the right developer to partner with me on it, I’ll make a bunch of money from app sales or help a lot of people with my idea.” It is understandable why people think they just need a quality idea to build a great app, but app development is much more complicated and much more expensive than many realize.

How much does a mobile app cost, really?

The cost of developing a mobile app largely depends on the functionality of your app, but there is no getting around the reality that apps are expensive to build and maintain. Simple apps that simply display information, like MarketBeat’s, can cost as little as $10,000. More complicated applications that require user logins, cloud data storage, custom design elements and integrations with third-party API’s can cost as much as $100,000 (or more in some cases). There are tools such as ThinkMobiles and HowMuchToMakeAnApp that attempt to estimate development costs based on the functionality of your app idea. The general rule of thumb that I use is that if you can create your idea as a website or web application for $10,000, building it out as a mobile app will cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. In other words, building an app will be 5 to 10 times more expensive than building a website with similar functionality.

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There are also ongoing costs to consider in addition to the upfront development costs. If you need any kind of cloud storage of user data, you will have to pay a monthly fee to a cloud data provider such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. Your app will also need to be periodically updated to be compatible with the latest version of iOS and Android as well, which will require additional ongoing development costs.

There are some “no code” app building solutions like Appyie and Adalo that allow anyone with some technical skills to build an app with a minimal cash outlay. No code solutions can work for basic apps, but there is only a certain level of complexity that can be achieved with these tools (see examples). For example, you could probably build a restaurant menu app or an app for conference attendees to see speaker listings with a no code development platform. Anything more complex than those examples will require costly custom development.

Can’t I just find an app developer to partner with me?

Developers generally do not want to work in exchange for equity in an app idea. They know that their skills can command an hourly rate of $100.00 or more, so most of them do not want to work on someone else’s idea for free with the hopes that they may get a cut of the revenue share if the app idea is successful. Unless you have a proven track record of success building technology businesses, don’t be surprised when an app developer tells you that they’re happy to build your app on an hourly basis but aren’t interested in being a part owner of the app. Developers that are getting paid in equity are taking on a ton of risk, because there is always the possibility that your app won’t achieve critical mass and the developer won’t make any money at all.

Is a mobile app the right solution to the problem I am trying to solve?

Usually people want to build an app because they want to solve a specific problem, but they don’t always take the time to consider whether or not they should build a mobile app, a website or some other solution to solve their problem. Because of the incredibly high cost of app development, I recommend that people build a website/web application if possible. For example, someone once reached out to me about building a mobile app for a child sponsorship program that would display children that needed to be sponsored and provide donors an opportunity to sponsor a child and communicate with them over time. Everything this app needed to do could be built as a mobile-friendly website for 10%-25% of the cost of building it out as a native mobile application.

You might want to build a mobile iPhone or Android app because you think it will be more discoverable on the App Store and the Google Play Store, but that usually is not the case. Apple and Google tend to only recommend and promote applications that are getting a lot of downloads already. Your new mobile app likely will not place prominently in any search results and instead Apple and Google will instead encourage you to pay them to advertise your app to get more downloads. You cannot rely on free marketing from the App Store or the Play Store any more than you can rely on getting free marketing from Google by having your website in their search results. There is nothing magical about being in an app store, and you will still have to market your app on your own.

Who should build an app?

There is an extremely high bar for what it takes to build a great app and to have it reach a critical mass of downloads. Even companies whose primary business is building mobile apps are not always successful with new app releases. When a company does build a successful game or app, that success often does not last for a long period of time. For example, when is the last time you played Angry Birds or Candy Crush?

Building a successful app is incredibly difficult. Most people that try, fail. We even failed building an app for MarketBeat. We do have an app in the app store, but its functionality is limited, and it gets very little usage compared to our website and our newsletters. These days we recommend people use the mobile version of our website, which has all the same functionality that our website has on a laptop or a desktop. It is much easier to keep our website mobile friendly than it is to try to replicate the existing functionality of our website on an app.

MarketBeat’s mobile application (left) and MarketBeat’s mobile website (right)

If you are convinced that building an app is the right thing to do despite the odds being against you, these are the things that should be true about your mobile app before you consider building an app that will be submitted to Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store:

  1. You cannot create the same idea as a website or web application.
  2. You need to access APIs and other features on a mobile operating system that are only available to natively built mobile apps.
  3. There are not already several other applications in the app store that does the same thing your app will do.
  4. You have a budget somewhere between $10,000 to $100,000 to build your app.
  5. You can afford the cost of ongoing development and upgrades to your app.
  6. You have a trusted technology partner that can build and maintain your app.
  7. You have a solid marketing plan to get people to install your app.

If you cannot say yes to these seven criteria, you may not be ready to build an app. Instead, consider alternative ways to solve the problem you are trying to solve. Remember that an app is a container for business logic or functionality that you are trying to create. There are other types of containers, such as websites, web applications, desktop applications, web-based no-code solutions (like Airtable), or even hacking together some business processes using Google Docs. Consider these options before going headlong into a costly and time-consuming app development process that you may not fully understand.

While it can make sense to build apps in a few cases or if app development is your primary business, most people that ask the question “I have a great idea for an app, who should I talk to?” should not try to get into the business of building apps.