Don't build an app, build a business

11 July 2013

The BBC News article App Store ‘full of zombies’ as it celebrates fifth birthday comes as no surprise to anybody who has much experience with developing apps - most of them make very little impact at all.

Even Apple’s own spin on its app store stats sounded a warning bell, when Tim Cook revealed this stat during the WWDC keynote:

If 7% of apps don’t get downloaded at least once a month, there must be much higher figures for apps which don’t get downloaded at least once a week, once a day or once an hour. And an app that isn’t getting downloaded regularly isn’t making anybody much money.

I thought it was well established now that the App Store gold rush is long over, but it’s worth repeating the message so that more people don’t end up wasting their time. You will not make yourself rich by making an app now. You will not even make yourself a living. You will barely make some beer money, if you’re lucky. It is an insanely competitive environment and the easy wins were a long time ago.

If your plan is “I want to make an app”, go back to the beginning and start again. What do you actually want to achieve? You don’t need to make the world a better place, but you do need to provide something of value to some people. Come up with a proper aim and see what flows from there - starting at “apps” is thinking backwards. (It’s really the exact same point I recently made about educational games, but with some of the words changed).

Apps are cheap and disposable. They’re sold in a similar way, and for similar prices, to songs on iTunes. It certainly takes a lot of skill to create a best-selling song, but the best musicians don’t pin all their hopes on one song making it big. And many musicians fail, but that doesn’t stop thousands from trying - there’s a lot of glamour at the top of showbiz.

I suppose there’s a lot of glamour in being at the top of the App Store rankings too.

But don’t be distracted by shiny things that are far away from you. Be realistic about the risks. Concentrate on how you can provide value and be useful, instead of hoping for a hit.