It’s a tough time to be a mobile app developer. According to Gartner, less than 0.01 percent of all consumer mobile apps will become financially successful throughout 2018—yet apps continue to be a common development goal and product focus for new and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Why are the odds of success, at 1 in 10,000, so low? And what can you do to protect your app from being one of the 9,999?
The Big Picture
There are many factors preventing the majority of app ideas from becoming successful, but many of them are rooted in these three overarching problems:
- Apps are expensive. For starters, it costs a lot of money to build—and maintain—an app, with even basic apps costing at least $25,000 to start. This large monetary requirement takes some entrepreneurs out of the running immediately. For others, it makes profitability much more difficult.
- Apps are plentiful. Thousands of new apps go live every day, driven by the high market demand for new content and functionality. But that high volume means lots of competition, which makes it harder for even “good” apps to make an impact.
- Apps are often free. Users are accustomed to getting content and functionality for free (or nearly free) in most cases, so they’re not inclined to part with their money easily. This makes it hard to monetize apps in a way that stimulates profit.
Other, more specific issues, can be broken down into three categories: development-level failures, which happen before an app goes live, execution-level failures, which happen as you take an app live, and support-level failures, which happen in the weeks and months following a launch.
Software Development-Level Failures
These failures and problems can kill your app before you even make it to an app store:
- Cost issues.
Development costs are hard to estimate, especially if you’re unable to foresee the challenges associated with your app, or if you need to pivot halfway through. If you’re operating with a limited budget, and you run through it before you can finish a marketable version of your product, you might find yourself unable to get things running and recoup the costs.
- Timeline issues.
It takes a long time to build an app—anywhere from several weeks to several months (or even longer), depending on the complexity of the operation. Again, this is hard to predict and account for. If you’re timing your app to coincide with a special event and you miss it, or if you don’t have the funds to continue operations while you get the app up and running, you might be forced to halt development prematurely.
- Bad tech.
Not all development firms offer the same talent or expertise. If you pay for an app that’s built using obsolete standards, or one structured on subpar coding, you could find your product unusable—at which point, you have to start from scratch or abandon the operation.
- QA hell.
From the outset of a project, it’s impossible to guarantee how much time it will take to QA test the product, or what that testing will entail. Developers who want to launch a product with confidence will spend extra time rigorously testing the product, which can eat up more time and money. If you choose to skip this step, you might launch with critical bugs that render your product a flop.
- User unfriendliness.
Even if your app solves an important user problem and is technically capable of doing it, it might never see the light of day if it isn’t user-friendly. If it takes too long to figure out how to use the app, or if it isn’t obvious what problem the app solves, it won’t be successful.
- Pivot failure.
When entrepreneurs realize their app or venture isn’t going to work out (due to new information, the realities of the project, or the onset of competition), they often attempt a pivot—changing the direction of the company. If the pivot is unsuccessful, because it was rushed or poorly executed, it could ruin all your efforts to date and make it impossible to keep moving forward.
Have you created a business plan for your app? If not, you’ll almost certainly be vulnerable to these app-killing issues:
- Demand and desire.
If you launch your app successfully, and it works as intended, you might think you’re a shoe-in for success—but if there isn’t suitable market demand for your app, you might still become one of those 9,999 failures. You need to offer a solution to a common problem, or at least give people something valuable if you want to get your first downloads.
- Cash shortages.
It costs money to keep an app up and running—especially if you have a full business revolving around its existence. Estimates vary, but you can expect to spend at least 20 percent of the initial development cost on maintenance every year, not to mention costs for hosting and other expenses. If you don’t have a conservative budget planned, you could run out of cash before your app starts generating money.
- Monetization woes.
Speaking of generating money, if your app doesn’t have a clear route to profitability, it will eventually collapse. There are many ways to monetize an app, including offering paid advertising, selling in-game features and items, charging a subscription rate, or even directing people to your primary business. But if you don’t have a clear strategy in place, your app won’t magically generate cash for you.
- Team issues.
If you started the app with a partner, or with a team of people, you have to be prepared for the possibility that those team dynamics will break down. If they do, the company may collapse—or head in a very different direction than you originally intended.
Remember, there are thousands of new apps rolling out on a daily basis. Even if you had a completely original idea in your initial plan, chances are, you’ll eventually face a competitor who offers something similar (or better). If you can’t adapt to that competition, and appeal to your target demographics, you won’t be able to survive.
- No secondary or complementary plan. Is the app your only potential source of revenue from this project? If so, you may want to rethink your strategy. Consider launching a website that serves a similar purpose, or developing a product that works with the app. You could even use the app as a springboard to launch a content marketing strategy, or write a book, depending on the nature of your app. In any case, relying exclusively on the app to generate revenue leaves you more vulnerable to cash flow volatility and sudden market shifts.
Marketing and Support-Level Failures
Even if your app is capable of making money in theory, it may still fail if you fall victim to these problems:
- Placement and description problems.
Writing an app description is one of the most important elements of supporting and marketing your app; it’s often the text that gives people their first impression of your brand, and can make or break your download figures. If you write a bad description, or if you don’t post your app to the right stores and markets, you won’t stand a chance of succeeding.
- No initial audience.
If your app is good and serves a real market need, it should grow on its own once it hits a certain threshold. But what about those first hundred or thousand users? You need to have a game plan for early adoption, such as seeding the market or offering free versions for new signups. Otherwise, you might never generate that momentum.
- Unclear branding.
Your brand is at the heart of your app’s success. It should define your core values and distinguish you from your competitors, at a minimum, so make sure you take the time to polish it.
- No marketing or advertising strategies.
Most apps need some marketing and advertising support if they’re going to be successful. There are many options here, including content marketing, pay-per-click ads, and SEO, but you should have something in place if you want your app to keep growing. Too many new app developers neglect this, thinking the app should grow all on its own.
- No review or rating optimization.
Before downloading an app, most users check out the ratings and reviews. If you have too many bad reviews floating around, or if there’s nothing to be found here, your prospective downloader will move on to something better. Some apps fail simply because they couldn’t get their ratings up fast enough.
- Minimal customer support. Your app users are the lifeblood of your business; if you don’t take care of them, your app will fail. Make sure to have ample tools for user support, including an option to report bugs and contact customer service for help.
If you plan your app correctly, understand the risks, and complement your efforts with additional strategies, you’ll greatly increase your chances of success. Many of the failures that hit the market were doomed from the start because their lead developers or entrepreneurs were too short-sighted to plan for contingencies. Take your time, draw up your business plan long before you start developing, and be prepared to hit some unexpected obstacles along the way.