Top ten steps to developing your own app

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Stylist Team
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Everyone has a book in them. But that rule also now applies to apps. Follow our step-by-step guide to realising your digital potential

Let Stylist help you develop your own app at our next Stylist Network event on June 19. Click here for details

Words: Liat Clark, Images: ScopeBeauty, Rex Features

Diary? Pah. Who needs one nowadays? We have all the necessary travel, weather, translation and moon phase information on one little device. Our mobile and tablet apps hail taxis for us, allow us to do our banking on the commute and show us the ever essential picture of ‘cat in cereal box’. So omnipotent and omnipresent are apps, it seems unlikely that they’ll ever disappear. In fact, it’s predicted 70 billion apps will be downloaded this year alone; that’s 10 each for every person on earth. The argument for finally putting the genius idea for an app that you’ve been dreaming up into practice has never looked more watertight.

With more than 800,000 apps in the App Store, and Google Play expected to pass one million in June, the stats can be intimidating – but the payoffs are potentially huge.

In the last year Draw Something sold to gaming rival Zynga for £120m six weeks after launch and Facebook bought Instagram for £629m – that’s a lot of cash for a free download. Asking what an app-maker can earn is, however, akin to asking the length of a piece of string. At the top end, Clash Of Clans – one of Apple’s top-grossing apps of 2012 reportedly raked in £330,000 a day at its peak, while OpenTable announced in January it would purchase culinary social media app Foodspotting for $10m (£8.4m), two years after Alexa Andrzejewski, Soraya Darabi and Ted Grubb created it. But research by mobile analysts Adeven also revealed two thirds of iOS apps have never even been downloaded, earning them “zombie” status.

If you’re of cautious mind, App Empire CEO Chad Mureta recommends emulating those apps that consistently make the top 10 charts. But don’t be afraid to follow your gut instinct for something new and different – after all, before the launch of £5.5bn empire Angry Birds you probably didn’t think there was a market for launching kamikaze birds at pigs. Your concept doesn’t have to be wholly novel either. “If you think you can do something better and faster than anyone else, go for it,” says Spotify’s business development manager Owen Smith.

Technology research company Gartner predicts the app market will be worth £16.5bn this year – but you have to be in it to win it. It only takes one good idea to launch a business and there are more tools and support networks available now than ever. Iain Dodsworth, who sold Tweetdeck to Twitter for £25m in 2011 says, “A huge number of people have great ideas for apps every single day and a tiny percentage of them actually do it. Even those people who have built their app sometimes delay its release and then miss their opportunity.” With our internet economy currently accounting for 8% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and set to rise – this is the year to make it happen. And Stylist’s step by step guide will show you exactly how to go about doing it.

1. Decide what your goal is

Whether you’re a problem solver with a calling or a serial entrepreneur, your goals will affect your choices. If you have a real innovation, time, patience and investment are a must. Games company Rovio spent eight months and £85,000 developing Angry Birds, but their conviction paid off. If a quick profit is important, don’t develop an app that needs lots of upkeep – apps like Evernote have to store data on a server and are expensive to maintain. If you’re after a simple app to support your website this can be done using DIY services like The App Builder (, while the agency Mobile Backstage ( builds fairly generic apps to promote musicians and artists such as Mumford & Sons and Jessie J.

2. Find out the costs

The DIY route could cost a few hundred pounds, simple apps built by freelance developers (you can post jobs at cost £1,000-£5,000 and database apps £5,000 and over. “Games could cost anything,” says Spotify’s Owen Smith. “If it’s like Angry Birds, costs rack up, but you’re doing something new so the return is likely to be higher.”

The line of thinking is that if the app is complex and unique and has great functionality there will be more space and demand for it in the market. Khush, co-founded by Prerna Gupta, uses voice-activated software to compose backing music for your singing and is a unique offering. If you don’t have the expertise, agencies like The Connected Set ( offer a full service but will cost more than freelancers. Either way, ensure you register as the developer (£16 on Google Play, £64 for iOS).

A complete app could take months to make but if you’re in need of investment, build a basic version as proof of concept. Alexandra Chong, founder of women-only social network Luluvise, self-funded an early prototype that was used to attract a £650,000 investment. Iain Dodsworth advises getting to that stage as quickly as possible: “Build a small version so it’s obvious what the benefit would be. Show this to as many of your future users as possible, watch how they use it and what their assumptions are.” London is full of investors looking for the next big thing – Seedcamp ( is one of Europe’s biggest mentoring programmes for start-ups, typically investing £43,000 for an equity share, and newly launched Connect Ventures ( invests in mobile and web companies.

3. Test the market

Run your idea by friends and target groups – in Luluvise’s case this meant focus groups with London university students. But don’t be afraid to approach professionals. Contact app stores’ marketing departments or developers who have had successful launches. With London’s start-up scene booming, there are plenty of opportunities to touch base with the community – try new social Silicon Drinkabout ( or one of Google Campus’ events.

4. Pick a platform

Contrary to popular belief, iOS does not have the monopoly. Last year Android grabbed 54% of the market to Apple’s 34%, with BlackBerry taking 9%. However, iOS devices consistently generate more web traffic and transactions – possibly because its demographic is typically wealthier. The choice should be partly based on your demographic and partly based on your budget (remember app stores take around 30% of paid-for app revenue).

Rina Onur, co-founder of Peak Games, argues, “It’s not about the platform or game genre but the service you provide.” You can roll out the product to other platforms after testing one space. On the other hand, global gaming company ZeptoLabs’ goal is to be “on as many platforms and as many devices as possible”, according to chief revenue officer Diana Moldavsky. However, both Moldavsky and Chong cite having to maintain their product on multiple platforms as their biggest challenge, so mobile web apps could provide a good alternative. “Native apps for smartphones are fundamentally flawed in that you can only bring it to that market,” says Alasdair Blackwell, co-founder of Decoded ( – a technology teaching school that runs coding workshops.

“If you build it on the web with a responsive design you can shrink it down and adapt it to any screen size.” Flexibility is key, he adds: “Your app should work on desktop, tablet and smartphone.” You should also make your design flexible and adaptable to ensure it is future-proof.

5. Learn to code

Basic knowledge will enable you to discuss ideas with your programming team. “Every day I say to myself, ‘If only I knew how to code’,” says Chong. “You’re definitely at a disadvantage as a non-engineer founder because finding and hiring strong engineers takes so much time and that’s time you’re not developing your product.” Groups like Decoded teach the basics in a day, and General Assembly ( has intensive 10-week-long courses that get you to entry-level developer status.

“Suddenly you have the tools to change the world around you,” says Facebook’s head of developer relations Simon Cross. “Not everyone is an author but everyone knows how to write.” Iain Dodsworth adds, “While it’s not easy to learn how to develop apps as a beginner, it’s worth remembering you don’t have to learn everything. You just need to know enough to build your idea to a level where you can release it and see if it builds some momentum.”

6. Hire experts

Considering a US report by Canalys found half of the £80m app revenue made last November went to just 25 developers, you’ll want to align yourself with the best. Contact developers behind apps you admire for a quote. Keep terms vague before getting them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Commit them to a timescale, and where possible get recommendations for designers and other staff. “The best way to find people is referrals,” says Chong. She had to hire an agency to build the prototype, but says they are too expensive. “I believe strongly in hiring full-time employees who are part of the team, have share options and will be around to see their work stand-up in the marketplace.” Avoiding agencies means you’ll have to project manage every step of the way. “So much of the creative process happens through coding,” says Blackwell. “If you outsource the doing, you’re outsourcing the thinking.”

7. Prioritise design

Your app icon is essentially free advertising, so make it work for you. “You live or die by how good your design is because people have very short attention spans,” says Owen Smith. “This applies to mobile more than anything – the screen is so small and people download apps flippantly, so you have seconds to get their attention. Make sure it works.” Again, find out who designed apps you like.

Otherwise, you can use a design studio such as Aspire Design Studios ( or ustwo ( Hiring several coders ensures your app runs smoothly, but hiring one designer means the vision remains consistent.

8. Make it social

Integrating your app to social networks using their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) can personalise experiences and streamline registration – apps like Draw Something offer a Facebook sign-in, for example. Provide full transparency and control, so users don’t feel nervous about giving up data. “We have 680 million active mobile users, and app developers find Facebook is a great way to get visibility for free,” says Cross. The demand for totally social apps is not petering out either –, founded by Michelle Gallen and Mehdi El Gueddari, brings professional networking to life by showing you what events your “connections” are attending. It won Most Useful App 2012 at the Nokia Digital Media Awards.

9. Market the hell out of it

Test the product’s functionality privately in beta [a practice run, where the app is tested for bugs] using Apple’s TestFlight ( or Android’s HockeyApp (hockeyapp. net), sending invites to friends, family, journalists or test groups. Aside from consumers identifying glitches, it’s the first real test of usability.“Gather as much feedback as you can before it goes live,” says Smith.

Once launched, be as bold as you dare. Smith suggests asking Apple or Google’s app stores to test it, while Chong suggests telling everyone you know and prompting users to give five-star ratings. Through it all, listen to what’s being said. “Showing you’re listening to your users and prepared to act on their demands creates good will and an element of trust. Get them excited about the updates you’re working on. Then your users will market the app for you.”

10. Go free

In 2012, free apps accounted for 89% of all downloads according to Gartner, which predicted that by 2016 in-app purchases (as in some games, where money can buy you virtual lives or ammo) would rise from 10% to 41% of store revenue. Peak Games’ Onur says, “Free to play is the future in emerging markets,” while Chong asserts, “Our focus has always been on making the product as perfect as possible before monetising through app downloads.” Get your customer base first – you can always change the cost later or sell advertising space. Follow these ten steps and you should have an app to be proud of. Now go out and create it.

I wish I’d thought of that

The digital world’s creative geniuses name the app they wish was bearing their name

Alexa Andrzejewski, founder , Foodspotting

“Timehop, an app that reminds you what you were up to on this day last year. It’s a daily reminder of just how far I’ve come.”

Eric Brotto , account director at Smile Machine

“To-do list app Clear. It’s very simple and intuitive to use. I use it every day to track my tasks both in my work and personal life.”

Kathryn Parsons, co -founder, Decoded

“I love Sanebox – it intuitively categorises your emails by priority which is incredible for me as I get hundreds of emails a day.”

Iain Dodsworth , founder, Tweetdeck

“Hailo – it shows you where the nearest black cab is on a map and how long it will be. You can also use it to pay your fare.”

Dominic Wong, lead developer, Hailo

“Feedly brings together news from all my favourite sources and presents them in a beautiful, intuitive way – I use it daily.”

Alan Thomson, web developer

“I really like Songkick – it tracks the bands you like and alerts you when they’re playing live near you. I’ll never miss a gig again.”

Roly Walter , founder, web app

“Pocket saves articles, videos and tweets so you can pick it up again later. Great for reading news on the tube.”

Let Stylist help you develop your own app at our next Stylist Network event on June 19. Click here for details