The Idea Comes First!

Walt Disney liked to remind everyone that it all started with a mouse. He wasn’t talking about a peripheral that controls your computer, and he wasn’t really talking about a furry little rodent. He was talking about an idea.

There is a temptation among iPhone developers to try to create an app based on a bestselling title in the App Store. There are a few problems with this approach. First, dozens, if not hundreds of other developers are doing the exact same thing. Second, it can take several months to create the app and then have it approved by Apple. By the time it finally makes it to the App Store, the original bestseller may have lost favor among users, and any hopes of riding its coattails are gone. Finally, the developers of the original bestseller are probably not resting on their laurels. Most likely, they’re funneling a significant portion of their earnings from the original into enhanced versions of their app.

A better approach is to create an app based on an original and compelling idea.

Write what you know

My advice to app developers is similar to what successful authors tell aspiring writers: “Write what you know.” Think about your hobbies, education, family life, and work experience. Identify the knowledge or interests you have that others might share. Are you a road warrior, a soccer mom, a political junkie, a black belt, or a movie fan?

Once word got out about the success of my own app (see sidebar) people would ask me for advice about apps they might develop. Typically, after a few minutes of discussion, I was able to make some suggestions.

    • For the dad who coached football, I suggested an app that recommends plays for different situations, complete with animated diagrams and even videos.
    • For the avid Eagle Scout, I suggested a “being prepared” guide for scouts that could include graphics that show you how to tie knots, help you identify plants and snakes, etc.
    • For a dentist, I suggested a guide to brushing and flossing, including videos and a countdown timer with music to encourage you to do a thorough brushing.

These were simple ideas, but they were meaningful for the person I was talking to. Of course, these particular ideas may not become bestselling apps—but they can be financially successful. If only 0.1% of the 30 million iPhone and iPod touch owners buy your one dollar app, that’s still $30,000.

Find a programmer

In the examples given above, the coach, Eagle Scout, and dentist weren’t iPhone programmers. Fortunately, there are thousands of iPhone developers out that, and some of them are looking for good app ideas to develop. There are a number of online resources that can help you find a programmer, but the one I recommend is Post a description of your project on the site and programmers will bid on it. You’ll have to give enough information about the project so that prospective developers can give you an accurate quote. But don’t post too many details initially—someone else might take your idea and run with it. Once you are in communications with a prospective developer you can have them sign an NDA and give them more details about the app.

Build a better mousetrap

100 SoundsYour app doesn’t have to be 100% original to be successful. For example, if there are one or more apps of a certain type, and these apps have significant deficiencies, you might develop an app that addresses them. I used this approach with my own app, 100sounds.

In the early days of the App Store, there were a number of “soundboard” apps available. Each of these apps played 10-20 different sound effects (bells, whistles, duck quacking, explosions, etc.). The problem was that 10-20 sound effects aren’t very many. You get bored with them quickly, and if you want more you have to buy another app. Then, you have to switch between apps to access the different sounds.

Sound effects were something I’d been interested in for a while, and I already owned 10,000+ royalty free sounds. I decided to build an app with hundreds of sounds, so I decided to call it 100sounds. I quickly reserved a Web address for the app ( and started work on it.

To summarize the “better mousetrap” approach: Find an app or a number of similar apps that interest you. Then identify the deficiencies and missing elements in these apps. Finally, develop an app that addresses the deficiencies and outshines the competition.

Original ideas are more likely to succeed in the App Store
Summer 2009
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