So You Have an App Idea

It's time to have 'the talk'.

by Pete Albertson

November 16, 2023

Dear reader,

I want you to understand that I get it, I do. You discovered something, some sort of app or tech tool that doesn’t exist that you and people like you would find super useful. So exciting! Now you’re curious if this idea could be lucrative. You’re so excited about the idea and its potential that you’re afraid to mention it to your family without making them sign an NDA. “Am I the next Mark Zuckerberg?” you ask yourself. Before you go and buy 16 identical blue hoodies, I have something to tell you.

The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.

I’ve had many friends, people I love and respect, come to me with their app ideas. I can’t remember how many times and how many different pitches I’ve heard. Some of those ideas were original. Some of them even sounded like useful things! And who knows, maybe with the right team and sufficient time, money, & expertise, they could be successful. But the difference between an idea and a successful tech product or company is more than almost everyone realizes.

It could be an app, but is it a business?

Take a moment to think about all the different apps on your smartphone. There may be dozens or even hundreds. Now think about how many of those apps you pay for. I’d be willing to bet that the only apps you are paying for are actually selling you content (Netflix, Spotify) and not software. In fact, outside your professional life, I’m willing to bet you don’t pay for any software at all.

Think about your app idea in that context. Are you trying to sell to a consumer? If so, you’re going to have to convince them to do something they rarely if ever do. Now if your idea is for a business, that’s a very different story. Businesses love to save time, or increase efficiency. In a business setting you can quantify the value of time (employee time, customer time, etc) and therefore quantify the value of your product. If you can do that you can, maybe, demonstrate that your product pays for itself. Now you’re on to something. But honestly, the app ideas I’ve heard over the past decade have almost never been business products.

Originality is overrated

Apple didn’t invent the portable music player, they just made a superior version (trust me, I had one of the first portable music players, and while it seemed awesome to me at the time, it was not). Google didn’t invent the search engine, they just made a superior version. Facebook didn’t invent social media, they just made a superior version. And so on, and so on. A lot of “first movers” later get crushed by someone else’s superior execution.

You should also take a moment to ask yourself why is this thing I’ve thought of not already a thing? It’s quite possible your idea isn’t in fact original, but already determined to be infeasible for any number of reasons. That doesn’t mean we should immediately dismiss an “original” idea, but we should be honest with ourselves about why someone else hasn’t done it yet.

Execution is everything, and execution is hard

There’s no question you can build an MVP (minimum viable product) in a relatively short amount of time on limited resources. Something simple that helps validate your idea. If you’re extra scrappy, you might be able to make that work for awhile. But eventually you’re going to need something that meets user expectations, which are continually rising over time.

If your app has competitors, there’s a good chance your product is going to need to meet or exceed your competitors’ “experience” to survive. The quality of your product will ultimately become the determining factor and that’s going to require a lot of that aforementioned time, money, & expertise. If you’ve ever hired a contractor to remodel a home or build you a piece of furniture, you’ll know from experience that you get what you pay for. And generally speaking, the more original your app idea is, the more work it will take to design and build because there won’t be existing products to take ideas or inspiration from.

Jeez Pete, you’re a real wet blanket

I know, my negative lecture is pretty well rehearsed. But this is a frequent conversation and I know there are product developers who will happily take anyone’s money to build them an expensive dead business. You should be wary of anyone who just nods ands says, “when can we start?” Part of what I sell in addition to my technological expertise is my product sense as well. The best product engineers will not be afraid to push back, ask questions, and challenge assumptions. Any successful business should be able to withstand that.

I have also had my own experience with trying to build and validate ideas only to learn the hard way that it ain’t easy. Learn from the mistakes of others like myself. If you’re still interested or just not yet sufficiently discouraged, feel free to reach out and we can have a more involved conversation specific to what you’re thinking. I promise I’ll give your idea the fair consideration it deserves and I’ll be honest with you about what I think so that you can move forward in whichever direction well-informed.