How to create a chart-topping mobile app

Invested development

Unless you have the skills to design, code and test an app yourself, development doesn’t come cheap. “Some people expect to get an app developed for £150, and they can’t,” said Createanet’s King.

It’s possible to find solo developers who will tackle a project for a few hundred pounds, he explained, but warned that the archetypal bedroom whizz-kid “might be really good at the coding, but he won’t be so good at the design or the user experience side of things”. King went on: “If you can’t spend money on decent development, then you won’t get a company that will be around in a couple of months’ time to support you.”

In other words, apps need a budget, which may be anywhere between a few thousand pounds and hundreds of thousands. Even freelance app developers will look at the budget as a means of separating serious prospects from those without a realistic idea of what’s involved. “I get lots of enquiries,” said Jason Kneen, who develops iOS and Android apps through his studio, BouncingFish. “A lot of them are rubbish, to be honest. They want to do the next WhatsApp or Instagram and usually have no clue about how the whole process works or the costs involved.”


Having worked with the likes of English Heritage and Friends of the Earth, Kneen takes the ideas that interest him and sketches out the work involved, then uses that to form a ballpark budget. It’s at this point that those without a solid business plan back out.

Many would-be app tycoons also underestimate the costs of the back-end infrastructure that supports the app. “People look sites such as Instagram and Yo, and are unaware that alongside the front-end there’s back-end infrastructure in place,” said Kneen. “This needs to be paid for somehow. There are cloud services that will do this for free, up to a point, but when they start charging you – when you hit a million users – you might suddenly receive a bill for $10,000.”

In addition there are design and technical challenges, from the difficulties inherent in building an app to work across multiple devices, resolutions and screen sizes, to issues concerning mobile connectivity and data flow.

“If you can’t spend money on decent development, then you won’t get a company that will be around in a couple of months’ time to support you.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge in app development is time. App projects often run on short two- or three-month cycles, with immovable deadlines such as Christmas or sporting events with which to contend. “Anything is possible, within reason,” said Rob Hayward. “It’s just figuring out what you can achieve in the given amount of time.” While there’s always a temptation to add more features, app developers learn to resist. “If there weren’t a limited amount of time, there wouldn’t be any restrictions,” Hayward said, “but when you’re delivering a product in three months, then extras need to do something vital – or at least tick a box with an investor.”

In a world where the changing of a single button can often result in hours of work, testing can be a major time sink, one that benefits from someone dedicated to the job, according to Hayward. This will not only cut down on lead times when adding new features, but could also uncover issues that developers and designers fail to spot. “You could be focused on how the design works, with different screen resolutions or languages, then a tester comes along, presses all the buttons in a different order, and finds something you wouldn’t normally find.”

The submission process can also lead to delays. Kneen told us how agencies often expect an app finished on Friday to go live on Monday. “I have to say that we can submit it on Monday, but it may be ten to 15 days before it can go live.” Apple sometimes rejects apps for peculiar reasons, and you may need to resubmit several times before this reason becomes clear.

“If you’re launching a brand-new app based on a great idea then you want your initial offering to be polished at launch”

One way to work with the time issue is to forget about cramming every last feature into version 1, and focus instead on producing a good, stable version that you can update. “You might get to a point where you have a fully functioning app, but with two missing features that the client wants to add,” said Jason Kneen. “If they hold out they could miss a deadline, and there’s no shame in having a version 1 app that does the job, then updating it two days later.”

Nick Kuh agrees this can be a viable approach, with developers “creating an MVP (minimum viable product), then iterating frequent app updates as they learn from their users and improve their product over time”. However, he also sounded a note of caution: “If you’re launching a brand-new app based on a great idea then you want your initial offering to be polished at launch.”

Why? Because it’s at launch that the app might benefit from press coverage and establish a long-term position in search results, while initial reviews will be more prominent and, in Kuh’s words, “more likely to sway new users”. “The better you make your app for launch,” he argued, “the more chance you have of long-term success. Also, submitting a great first version to the App Store gives you your best shot at getting featured by Apple – the holy grail.

An ad for Bizzard’s Hearthstone, a card-battling app that pulls in over $20 million a month

The bottom line

Is all this effort worth it? Well, few app developers end up selling up to Facebook for several billion dollars, but all those we spoke to were sustaining a successful business. “There’s plenty of work out there,” said Jason Kneen, who became a full-time freelance app developer in 2011 and has been busy ever since.

“It’s definitely possible to make a good living from app development if you combine the development of good indie apps with work-for-hire,” agreed Nick Kuh. “I’ve been developing solely for iOS since 2009, and five years on I’m still inundated with iOS projects and opportunities. I pride myself on the fact that every one of my own apps has earned enough through App Store sales to pay me back for the development time that I originally invested.”


Nick Kuh’s Scrabble-style game Wordsy

What’s more, there are major opportunities in the enterprise sphere. “From our point of view, the biggest growth has been in business applications,” said Rokk Media’s Dainton. “People are starting to see that these devices are really useful on a business level. If they have satellite teams or those going into different areas and different departments, then apps really help with productivity.” It’s a market Createanet is also chasing in earnest. “You might not make the next Angry Birds, but you could sell a lot of product into a 2,000-seat business,” said Kevin King.

In short, the gold rush might be over, but it’s still possible to make a good living from app development, and keep your hopes of building a breakthrough app alive. It won’t be quick or easy, but then building a successful business rarely is.

Thinking of starting your own app development company? Don’t worry, London isn’t the only place for UK tech startups.

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