Question: How can you make an incredibly dangerous, misguided and high-risk bet with a single sentence?

Answer: “I have an idea for an app, and I’d like you to build it for me.

I’ve heard this opener more than a few times at MojoTech, and it always surprises me a bit.

You want to spend $100,000 or more on an idea?

Your idea is the very beginning of a possible app, but if you want to maximize your chance of success, having an idea is not the last step before turning to an agency to build it.

The reality is that most ideas can be evaluated pretty effectively without spending much, saving you a lot of time and money along the way, and also leading to a better product in the end.

Here’s the advice I always give to potential clients who come to me with an idea:

First, validate the need

Thousands of apps have died a quick death because of the builder’s assumption that whatever problem they were solving for themselves was shared by others that were willing to pay to have it solved.

The tragic part is that validating the problem costs nothing more than time, and possibly a few cups of coffee.

Talk to as many people in your market as possible, and ask them about their challenges.

Not “would you use an app that did _____?”, but probing questions that will help you reframe your idea to fit the market:

  • What are you struggling with?
  • What have you tried to do to solve the problem?
  • Why have other solutions failed?

Listen closely, and take a lot of notes.

Many of the best app ideas come from someone trying to validate a different idea and discovering a more pressing need. By asking probing, open-ended questions with an open mind, you can focus on discovering the problem that needs to be solved.

Next, validate the market

If you’re going to pay to have a product built, presumably it will make money for you.

There are different ways to make money from an app; it doesn’t have to mean charging for it. You might plan on building a large free user base and then making money on advertising. Or you might plan on selling the company down the line. Or charging just for premium features.

But whatever your plan is, make sure that there’s a market that can support it.

Why do so many apps targeted at indie musicians and students often fail?

Because money. Or more specifically, the lack of it in the market.

Before you build, think very carefully about the true size of the market that will support your business, and whether getting them to pay will be painful.

Fine-tune your idea into an MVP

Contrary to what some say, an MVP is not a smaller version of your product.

An MVP is a basic product or service that’s designed to test your solution without building the entire scope. Sometimes, an MVP doesn’t look anything like your big idea. Take a look at the example from my post on how to approach building an MVP.

If you wanted to build an on-demand dry cleaning pickup and delivery app, you could either:

a) Build a mobile app with limited features (even though the bulk of of the cost of the app will likely be building its core, not the extra features).

or...

b) Set up a simple SMS relay to let people text their pickup location to you, and iterate from there.

The key is to build the most basic solution that still delivers value and allows you to test your idea. Often, this kind of thing can be done without an agency or developer at all.

Come up with a unique selling proposition

Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is the reason your customers will want to buy from you.

What makes your product different? What makes your product valuable? What makes your product worth paying for or using? Distill your idea into language that will convince your customers to buy.

Try the “working backwards” approach used at Amazon, where the team writes the press release before they build the product:

For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product's customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.

If the benefits listed don't sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they're not (and shouldn't be built). Instead, the product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they've come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!).

— Ian McAllister, Amazon

Understand the technical challenges and scope

Finally, if you haven’t yet talked to an expert (though agencies can be helpful in guiding you through the steps above), it’s time. Talk to the people who might be building your product, and get a solid understanding of the technical challenges involved.

  • How long will it take to build a version that you can test in the market?
  • How will the technical challenges be solved?
  • Is there a way to build the product differently than you imagined, but still accomplish the same goal?

Once you’ve done that, your idea has become much more than simply an idea, and you’re ready to build.