How Much Does It Cost to Create a Mobile App

It costs $500. We’ll be done next week.

Just kidding.

But I get it: you have this amazing app idea, it’s the best thing since sliced bread and the only thing you need is someone to program it. You probably heard of those hackathons where kids build apps that revolutionize healthcare, education, time travel… in just a weekend! How hard can it be?

Anyway, the app isn’t making money yet so you can’t afford to pay too much. It should be done next month (that’s way more than a weekend, right?). And it should work on any device (but everyone does this hybrid app thingie nowadays so it should be automatic).

Maybe your expectations are more reasonable. You’re not that person. You know pretty much what you want, you have a bit more time and you just want a quote.

The Frustrating Truth: No One Has a Clue.

No one knows how much it will cost to build your app and anyone telling you otherwise is a liar. Let me explain.

Imagine going to your broker and asking: how much does it cost to buy stocks? Well… If you buy the wrong ones it can be as expensive as you want.

Basically, it’s just the wrong question. You can get an app done at ANY price point. You want a $1000 app? We can make you one. For $10,000? That works too. A million? Makes sense. For the same requirements. Of course, the million dollar app will be very, very different from the $1000 one. Which one is good enough? Who knows!

Fortunately, there is a better way to approach this.

If You Know, It’s Too Late

You only know how much it costs to build a specific app once it’s done. But an app is only really done when it stops being updated and decays into obsolescence until the App Store lords deem it unworthy of their users. Or something like that. And then, obviously, it’s a bit late.

The solution, in short, is to start with baby steps. Have something to show right away, but make it really, really, small. If you need a developer to do this, it’s not small enough.

Can’t You Just Give Me a Quote? Seriously!

You can’t know how much it costs to do something until you know exactly how it will be done. To know that, you need to know what needs to be done, which probably depends on your business model. How do you make money? You’ll only be sure once customers tell you but they need to see your app to know. It’s a bit hard to do that in the beginning. That’s why you want to get it built, right? And how are you going to do this if you don’t even know how much it costs?

One Weird Trick

There’s a way out.

Have you ever noticed that you kinda know if you want an app in 10 seconds just by looking at screenshots in the App Store? Even better if there is a video. You haven’t tried it yet but you can picture yourself using it and you pretty much know if you want it.

This is what you need to replicate.

Now there is a bit more to it. To get to that stage, you need to get some fundamentals right. You need to have some hypotheses. When we do this exercise, we follow a process that looks a bit like this:

  • Clarify the app’s (and the business around it) purpose. My app helps travellers save money by letting them sleep on someone’s couch. My app helps busy professionals eat healthy by delivering homestyle meals to their office. For example.
  • Write a little story of a user doing just that. Think of a lot of details: why they decided to use your app, where they are, what they want, how they feel, what buttons they press, what are they expecting to happen…
  • List what needs to be in the app for the story above to happen. That’s your first specification. Anything else can wait.
    Sketch one or two screens roughly on paper. It should be ugly. If it looks too polished you won’t want to throw it away if it’s wrong.
  • Go through your little story; does the sketch in front of you support the story? Are all the buttons there? Keep redoing the sketch until it works. You’re going to have to waste some paper. Please recycle. Thank you.
  • Then you need to get feedback from real people. The sketch might help but a lot of things are still only in your head: what happens when I press this?
  • What is that? Around this stage you’ll have to create something that looks good. Like real mockups. It can be done in Sketch, Figma, Keynote or Paint, as long as it looks like a real app.
  • The cherry on top: make it clickable so you can show it on a real device, press buttons, and go around telling people that your app already exists and see what they think.
  • If, at this point, we show our nice little prototype to potential users and they say “Shut up and take my money!”, good news! You can go forward and have a developer build a minimum viable product (MVP). What should they build? The exact same thing, but that works for real. You just saved yourself an insane amount of explaining and misunderstandings.
  • If, on the other hand, people don’t care, that’s good news too! You just saved a ton of money! Just go back to the drawing board, change what you think (or rather what your users think) is wrong, and try again.

Take It Easy!

All of this may look like a lot of work. And it is. But don’t forget: you’re learning about what to build at every single step. And it’s an order of magnitude less work than building the whole thing right away.

If you approach app development the right way (i.e. have something out quick but start small), you’ll move forward knowing that you’re not spending money but really making an investment. You’ll still have to pay someone to develop it, but you won’t be as tempted to pick the cheapest developer. You’ll be able to focus more on their qualifications, reliability and reputation than on their price (hint: one developer can easily take 10x more time than another one to do the exact same work, depending on their experience, familiarity with the type of project or amount of distractions in their work environment).

But It’s Hard

Yes, imagining, prototyping, validating and building an app properly is a lot of work, especially if you don’t do that all day everyday. You need to design something that users love, but that is also implementable relatively easily. The early stages of a new application are at the intersection of business and technologie and, as such, is best approached by someone with a foot in each world. If that’s you, by all means, have fun and please share how the approach outlined above works for you! If you’re too busy to learn this stuff, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to help.


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