I recently interviewed Rick Dunetz, a tech entrepreneur in the nonprofit space (and founder of the Side-Out Foundation), about how small business owners can create their own mobile apps—and was impressed with his thoughtful, step-by-step approach to app development.
There wasn’t room in the forthcoming magazine feature (in the September/October issue) to chronicle all of his great advice, so I’m sharing our interview below.
JCK: In the mobile phone age, is it smart business for small companies to create and promote their own apps?
Rick Dunetz: You have to ask yourself if your business actually needs one. E-commerce platforms like Shopify are very common now, and all the big ones are mobile-responsive sites, which means if you have it on your phone, you can use it quite easily. So you have to ask yourself, Is there some intrinsic value to having an app? You are already selling online. Why an app? You have to ask, What value are we giving the consumer? And what value is it giving to us?
What are the advantages of having an e-commerce app as a brand/company?
Some nice things about apps are that apps can can notify and alert people directly on their phones. And they can do things like poll consumers and ask them questions. A lot of times people will ask things like, “How was your experience today?” And companies collect that user data.
The advantages come when you figure out how to use an app to get people to shop more, both [virtually] or in your store. Apps can also be very useful in collecting customer feedback and consumer data.
For example, when I go to 7-Eleven, I have the 7-Eleven app. And I use it every time because I buy a fountain soda every day. And using the app, if I buy six sodas, the seventh is free. But you have to have the app to get that deal.
Don’t have an app jut to have an app. No one will use it. You have to give consumers an incentive to use it, and you have to have incentive to have one in the first place.
Not everyone needs an app. But it can get people into the store and create stronger customer loyalty. There’s value there.
There are many ways to build your own website these days—platforms like Square and Wix. Is there a way to build your own app?
Not yet—not a good one that really would have value for you. They look clunky still. You’re not going to be happy with them.
So how would a small business go about creating an app?
Once you make the decision to do the app, the very fist thing you have to do is create a scope of work for a developer. You have to know exactly what you want and you have to document that so the person who builds your app can get it right for you.
What do you want it to look like? What do you want it to do? Show the developer everything you want: “I like all these features, I think I can improve upon that feature, I like this better than that.” You must have a clear vision of what you want or you’re at risk of ordering something up that the person who built it likes, but that is nothing like what you envisioned. You’re going to be saving yourself a lot of aggravation by having that clarity for yourself before you take it to someone else to build.
What if you’re not a tech-savvy person?
You don’t have to be a developer and you don’t even have to be a “computer” person—you just have to know what you want and express that clearly. Show them an app you like and want to emulate and say, “I want something similar to this. I want a home button, this feature, etc.” You lay it all out.
Development when it comes to digital products is a lot like hiring a contractor to put a kitchen into your house. They go in and start putting the elements up, then when you get the fine details at the end they tend to make their own judgment calls. If you get wiggly on them, you will experience scope creep, meaning the scope of work has been altered.
Do you need to hire a separate visual person to create the fonts, photos, etc.?
You may have to. And one good way to do it is to go to 99designs.com, which is a site where you commission artwork, be it a brochure or a web landing page. I use that all the time. It’s almost like a contest—you put into the site that you want to build this thing, then you put your scope in, and then you say what you’re willing to pay.
Developers from around the world will come in and give you mock-ups of the user experiences as they see it. They all compete against each other. The project costs as much as you put in there. People bid for the contract. You pick the two or three you like and push them to fix things. In the end, the one you like best gets the contract.
How do you choose a good developer?
There are two different types, really. I like to work with freelancers because they cost less and they’re fast. The problem with them is, they’re technical, and that can be overwhelming for some.
The other type is someone from a web development firm, and they’re typically going to be three to four times as expensive as a freelancer, but you get the benefit of 30 people working on your project.
Once you decide who you want to work with, make sure you mentally add on about 25–35% more time for every deliverable. These guys have a hard time hitting deadlines!
How much should you be ready to spend on an app?
If you plan things and are really organized, you could get a good app for $5,000. If you wanted a good website, you should be paying between $25,000–$35,000. To have an app that really does stuff for you, $5,000 would be the low end. More feature-rich apps will be more. You have to map out the costs of building this app. What will come of it? Will it help us increase sales? Your $10,000 app might make you $40,000 in the first few years.