So you want to make an iPhone app…

This response really goes for almost anybody looking for a technical co-founder, CTO, start-up developer or prototype developer, and whether the compensation is split in equity, cash, or future shares.

You are a person with an idea. An idea that you think is pretty nifty. It’s for [insert audience here] and it does [insert features here]. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Why an iPhone app?
If your answer is: “because everyone is doing it,” then you have a problem. If it’s along the lines of “I see everyone with iPhones,” “it’s a big market,” “I’ll make a lot of money- because everyone’s making money doing it,” these are all going down the same drain. The drain is: assumptions. So let’s qualify the question:
– Who is your target user
– Identify the competition
– Narrow down the basic, easiest, and simplest features that distinguish your application.
– Is the above application required on a phone? (Mobile, voice, cell network, etc.) Does it have to be a native application? (Uses the accelerometer, camera, iTunes/iPhoto, etc.)

2. Do competitive analysis
– Are there other apps that do the same, or similar things
– How much do they charge
– Do they seem successful
– What technology are they using on the phone
– Are there competitors on other devices/sites, etc.
– How long to market
– Did they reach success/saturation/etc.

Download every app that seems marginally similar. Do this on other devices- Droid, mainly. Visit every site and do every search that would pull up your app. Get a really good idea for what the market is, how your app would fit in it, and what you can expect. Quantify this research.

I can’t tell you how many people already think they’re at the stage to approach a developer with an idea, and haven’t done the above steps. And, I don’t consider it the developer’s job to do the above steps. This is vetting an idea. And you need to vet it, to sell it. And, you are largely selling your idea to a prospective developer, because they get *a lot* of offers. You have to get them jazzed, and show that you are committed. If you can’t put in the time to do the above, then you aren’t really that interested, or you think it might not be that great of an idea, which is OK. Not every idea is great.

Do the development yourself. Do it on the web. Create a comment form and see if people use it. If enough people use it, you may have a good idea.

Hire out fo the work- or do it yourself. I’ve met a few folks who outsourced the work, then they wanted changes, and learned how to make those changes themselves. If you are very passionate about your idea, you can learn how to do it. At a startup weekend, I helped a guy add a feature to his app. I reviewed the code (that he had received from a former contractor), sent him some work I’d done with the same library, and after a day of testing and coding, he implemented a version of the feature. It’s not rocket science. Perhaps more iPhone developers were created when they opened up the development- at $100/year – than any other new technology. So you can learn it and create your own app. There are tons of resources out there for learning to make an iPhone app.

In response to some of the questions above:
– Native apps take longer to develop and require a more precise skillset, namely iOS development chops. Web development, though, is cheaper faster and more readily available. If you can create a web version of your app, optimize it for mobile devices, not only is it less expensive, but you don’t have to play the “google/apple” competitive game- it will work on both devices.
– Competitive landscape: nobody likes to make an app that is the same as one out there. Also, you may encounter unpleasant surprises once you do launch, if all of your target users are out using something spiffier. You can learn a lot from those that have gone before, and improve on an existing idea, in other words, “pivot.”
– Making money in the Apple Store: Apple takes 30% right off the top. You have to sell a very high volume of iPhone apps to make any money. High priced apps don’t sell as readily as $1 apps. You may want to make a free model that gets users in the door, then upsell them later on. Either way, don’t expect to make a lot of money unless you make a great app, and usually that means spending a lot of money. If nobody has done your market niche yet, you may have a winner. A friend of mine entered a niche that was vacant, and makes a nice steady income. He developed his own app, and it was a very, very clear niche and wholly vacant from competition at the time he entered it. Though you may distinguish your app a certain way, it has to be clear from the user’s perspective that you’re offering something useful, that wasn’t there before.

Some useful resources if you’ve read this far:
– Eric Ries’ blog Lessons Learned
Steve Blank’s Customer Development Methodology