Building my first mobile app, Willow, has been a journey so far. What started as a spark and a drawing on a piece of paper has now become a growing social network. Though I still have a ways to go and lots more to learn, there are several things that I didn’t know when I started Willow that would have saved me a lot of time and money. I hope that some of these insights will help you as you start your company.
If you think you have a great idea, spend a ton of time researching potential competition. Who are they and what do they do? How is your product different? Who is funding them? How is your product going to be defensible against very well capitalized competitors? A little due diligence early on will pay dividends in the long run.
The Engineering Team
If you're non-technical, who is your technical cofounder? If you don't have one, find one – you need a technical partner to function as CTO. Keep in mind, however, that you need more than a talented CTO to be successful – it’s crucial that your entire engineering team is solid. Decide whether you want to contract out some of the work or build a team internally, and keep in mind that it takes a lot more than a dollar and a dream to build a scalable mobile app.
If you outsource the work to a developing country, understand the risk you are taking – bad engineering can and will ruin a startup. Though if you decide to do the work domestically, know that building a great mobile app can run you into the six figures very quickly. Balancing risks and rewards at the earliest stages of a company is key.
Last, but certainly not least: be sure to engineer everything with scale in mind; you are going to need a lot of users to be successful.
Design and Testing
User interface design is huge – mobile design has to leverage simplicity in a compelling way, which is why so many web-based companies have had a hard time making the transition to mobile. It’s important to keep in mind that there is less screen space to work with – you have to figure out how to do complex things in the simplest way possible.
Beta test your product thoroughly; preventable bugs and glitches are just that – preventable. Do absolutely everything you can to give your users the best experience possible, even if they only use your app for a few minutes. Time really is money, and those minutes spent in your app matter, especially if you don’t plan on monetizing right away.
What is your launch plan? How are you going to get your first batch of users? You can't just put your app into the app store and expect people to adopt it en masse. Whether through word of mouth, direct advertising, PR, or something else – you need to have a plan. If you decide to pay to acquire users, pay attention to your virality coefficient. You can easily overspend paying to acquire users if you aren’t careful.
Following launch, how do you plan on gathering user feedback? Constantly listen to your users and take advice from them. If enough people feel strongly about something, make a change. Sometimes you build an app with the intention of it being used for one thing, but it will be adopted by users in a completely different way – it is important to be flexible.
Post-launch and Investment
Know your long-term growth plan before you launch. After you launch and gain that initial traction, you’ll be glad you thought ahead. If you plan to monetize immediately, between development costs and customer acquisition costs, know how much money you’ll have left over to fuel the growth of the company. If you don't plan on monetizing right away, you’ll probably need investors. Spend a lot of time researching your investor targets and figure out how to get in contact with them. Of course, choose your investors wisely.
The Big Picture
Take the long view – if you’re building a startup and thinking about being acquired from the get-go, you won't be concerned about building a sustainable business, and you probably won't care about your company as much as you should.
On that note – while caring about your company’s success is important, be sure to remember to have fun, too. It takes a lot of grit to build a startup into a successful company, and it is certainly the path of most resistance as far as making money goes. If you don't enjoy what you’re doing, or have a lack of passion for the company or for what you’re building, the experience won’t be very fulfilling. Enjoying the journey and focusing on the best outcome for your company are not mutually exclusive!
When building a company, pretend that you will never be acquired by a giant like Google or Facebook; instead, imagine having to run your company for 20 years without selling. This might sound ridiculous, but it will force you to focus on building something sustainable and lasting. It’ll also help keep you from burning through cash too quickly. If you take this attitude and build something that users really enjoy using (even if the group is small but loyal), there is a high probability that you will be able to make money and/or find an exit eventually.
Building a successful company takes time (years, not months), patience, and a lot of trial and error. Some of the most well-known companies started out doing something completely different from what they are known for today. As a first time founder and CEO, I recognize that I still have a long way to go with Willow, and still have a lot to learn. I hope that the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned thus far will help you get your company started in the right direction. If you have a great idea, do your research, work diligently, build a great team, and keep an open mind about product market fit, there’s no reason you can’t build a great app.