If you want to bring your big idea to life as an app, it will cost you something. But, not as much as you might think, and any sweat equity you put into the project yourself will pay you back in droves when you start to make money from your idea.
If you want to make money, you’ve got to spend… something.
In this post, I want to talk about each phase of translating your idea into an app as well as the different “costs” that you might have to pay in each phase. Not every cost is directly financial. In some cases, it may be more worth it for you to invest your time (instead of your money), especially if you plan to use the app building process to advance your skills, level up your career, or get a new job.
The direct financial costs will vary based on where you live or who you hire to help you with the work. Make sure that, if you do end up needing to pay someone to help you with your app, shop around for different prices and alternatives. There will always be someone more motivated to work with your budget, or some technology that can do it better than a human. So, be smart about who you hire and what you pay (more on that in a later post).
With that, here are the four phases of app development.
Before you sketch out your idea on paper, you’ve got to make sure there’s an audience for your app (if you’re actually just building this for you or maybe your grandma, you can probably skip this section). A successful app has people who use it—that’s your target app audience.
These people—I’ll call them “users”—don’t just appear out of thin air. You need to go find them and try to understand what makes them tick.
For example, let’s say that you have an idea for an app that reminds people when it’s time to do maintenance on their house. There are a lot of reasons people might want to use an app like that, but it’s your job to find out who is motivated enough—and why—to pay money for an app like that and use it every day. Those are the people you want using your app.
Some people might want an app like that because they chronically forget to do maintenance until it’s too late. Others might want an app like that because it will eliminate paper lists and Post-It notes all over the house. But, these people probably won’t pay you for your app. On the other hand, you’ve got your young, first-time homeowner whose never lifted a hammer in their life and didn’t know “escrow” was a word until they met with their real estate attorney. This user has no concept for what it costs to maintain a home—or how costly it can be to forego maintenance. For these users, your app can become their number one source for all things homeownership, cost savings, and maintenance advice.
The young, first-time homeowner might very well pay for an app like that for as long as they own real estate.
But, you don’t know if any of that is true until you validate your hypotheses. Validation means talking directly with people in your various “user groups” and gathering information on their problems, processes, and pain points related to the topic of your app.
Validation can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Really big companies pay users to sit in room with a professional researcher and answer questions about their lives. In some cases, these users even get early access to a mobile app before everyone else so they can test it and give the big companies feedback.
When you’re just starting out, it’s better to keep validation cheap and informal. Joining Facebook groups or other online communities where potential users are having conversations is totally free. Talking with friends, family, or co-workers who might have insight into the problems you’re trying to solve for users may cost you a few coffees or beers. If you need information from a bigger audience, you might want to create a survey using Google Forms (free) and pay a little bit to advertise the survey on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn and through AdWords on Google.
Once you do start getting feedback, make sure you’re collecting people’s email addresses and sending regular email campings to them through a free tool like Mailchimp. Down the road, if you need to do more validation, you have a relatively captive audience and won’t have to pay as much in advertising dollars to get answers to your question.
So, the verdict? You can get through validation completely for free if you’re willing to do the legwork to find the right people to talk to.
After validation comes design. This is the first phase where you might want to invest some money to get it right, but a lot of first-time app builders choose to take this task on themselves. The reason is that most folks with big ideas also have an idea of how their app idea should look and feel. And that’s a good thing. My designer friends will hate me for saying this, but it’s easier to learn the elements of good design than it is to learn how to code a fully baked app.
If you do want to DIY design, you will want to invest in some specialized design tools. Here are some of the ones mobile app designers are fans for today:
- Sketch – $99 total after a free 30-day trial. You can useSketch forever for that price, but you’ll stop getting product updates after your first year. Subsequent years cost $79 per year.
- Balsamiq – $90 after a free 30-day trial. Balsamiq makes it really fast and easy to create low-fidelity wireframes, which most developers will have no problem translating into a fully-baked app.
- Adobe’s Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator – Much more expensive than the products above, but completely worth it if you plan to spend a lot of time designing products.
- Keynote – Apple’s Keynote product is its alternative to PowerPoint. It sounds crazy, but you can use Keynote to design and even animate mobile app ideas, completely for free (if you have a Mac computer).
So, what’s this all mean? Design can cost some money, even if you want to do it yourself. But, if you spend some time up front (literally) sketching your ideas on paper, taking screenshots of app designs you love, and writing down all your app’s use cases, it’s totally possible to finish the major parts of your design using free trials from Sketch or Balsamiq.
Development is the most costly part of building a mobile app. That’s why we spend so much time talking about validating your idea and getting the design right first. The more changes you make during development, the more time and money you might end up spending before you ever make any money from your app.
As with any other phase of this process, DIYing the development will save you a ton of money. Freelance developers in the US charge between $41 and $160 per hour. Investing only your time begins to pay off very, very quickly, if you’re willing to learn. It’s difficult to calculate the full cost of development since there are so many different ways to do it, but here are some of the key categories to keep in mind:
- Software and Hardware – At the base level, you may need to use XCode (for developing iOS apps) or Android Studio (for developing Android apps). Luckily, both are free, but you will probably want to invest in an Apple computer, since XCode only runs on a Mac.
- Alternative Platforms – There are plenty of platforms that offer a no-code or low-code (meaning you don’t have to write a lot of complex code) way to build apps from scratch. Each of these platforms comes with its own costs that you’ll need to weigh for yourself. If you are going to invest in one of these platforms, make sure you’ve vetted the alternatives and can ensure you’ll be able to launch your apps to the correct app stores at the end of the process.
- “Memberships” – If you want to distribute your apps through the App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android), you’ll need to pay for that privilege. For iOS apps, Apple charges $99 a year, whereas Google has a one-time $25 registration fee if you want to distribute Android apps.
Maintenance and Updates
Once your app has been released and is getting used, you’re bound to find things wrong with it or that could use some refinement. The beauty of this is that you can be selective about what you change or update.
You don’t have to answer every customer email or respond to every app store review. If your app is getting used and is making your money—and that’s your primary goal—it’s worth waiting to see if the feedback you get negatively impacts your goals. If it does, you’ll want to address the feedback quickly. If it doesn’t, you can wait until you’ve got enough cash on hand to make the updates.
Paying for app updates is just like paying for development. If you do the work, you’ll need to pay for it. If you do nothing, you won’t need to pay a dime. It’s also worth mentioning that Apple and Google do not charge you every time you distribute an app update. The up-front fees should be the only fees you have to pay.
If you are using Apple or Google technology to charge your users for using your app—that is, you make people pay for your app when they download it or have in-app purchase features—Apple and Google will take a cut of those payments for themselves. But, this won’t come as a bill to you in the mail. You’ll just get the checks (well, direct deposits).
So How Much Does It Really Cost to Build an App?
Like so many projects, the financial cost of building an app can range from a few hundred dollars in required expenses to several thousand if you’re paying freelancers to do the work for you. The obvious benefit to taking the time to learn the skills required to be an app developer is that you can turn those skills around and make even more money freelancing yourself. Or, you could use your experience to land a high-paying job as a full-time software developer. There are many ways to keep the costs down and a variety of options for cutting corners in the interest of getting your app to users faster. If you’re comfortable with the tradeoffs, that corner-cutting could pay off in the short-term.