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Should Every Small Business Build an App?

So many apps are on smartphones that small businesses might be tempted to build an app to keep up

As a part of our journey to start a small business, let’s take a quick look at what’s involved to build an app and then sell it on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store. Our last series of articles looked at online places where you can build a webstore quickly. But those stores were for physical goods. What if your business idea requires you to build an app?

Then, it’s useful to take a quick look at the two most popular app stores in the marketplace. Once you understand how to build an app on these two operating platforms and the costs and fees related to selling you app, you’ll be able to make better business decisions.

Note we’re not trying to teach you the technical side of building an app, like how to code or how to beta test. We’re only giving general information.

We’ll give a general overview of how and where to build an app—i.e. hire app developers or do it yourself. We’ll give some general cost estimates. And we’ll have links to more focused articles about the Apple App Store and the Google Play store.

Let’s start with the first step: what, exactly, is an app?

What is an App?

An app is a piece of software that runs on a mobile device. According to Apple, an app should be more than a thin client. But, most apps tend to run like a thin client. Some computing is done on the mobile device and some computing is done remotely, on a server connected through the internet or cellphone network.

Over the years, the term app has come to be used more and more loosely. Some folks seem to call any piece of software an app, even when it’s software running completely on a computer.

For this article, we’re going to stick to the mobile devices definition. We’re going to say that an app is a piece of software that runs on a mobile device but also communicates in some way with servers off-device.

How Does an App Work?

As we said, for this article, we’re going to say that an app is software that partially runs on a mobile device and partially runs off-device.

On the off-device portion, sometimes, the app does something as simple as pulling data from a database (e.g. a grocery store app showing you different varieties of apples). Other times, a lot of data crunching is done off-device. Examples include when you’re running an app with a map that pulls from Google Maps or an app with voice commands that uses Siri.

For an illustration, here’s an article with a video from Amazon Web Services explaining how their cloud servers can be used to run a simple app. Note how the on-device software connects to various databases and cloud servers for number crunching. Note also, because important data are stored off-device, you can access your data from any device anywhere, as long as you download the app and sign in through your account.

How Much Does it Cost to Build an App?

The price for building an app depends on whether you plan to build it yourself or if you plan to hire developers to do it for you. It also depends on the complexity of the app. Some apps are so generic that they’re more-or-less off-the-shelf products (e.g. online store app) but others are completely original software.

If you plan to build the app yourself, of course, this will cost you nothing.

A simple, off-the-shelf app can cost a few thousand dollars. But a complex or completely original app can cost five to six figures.

Do You Have to Know How to Code to Build an App Yourself?

You don’t have to know how to code to build an app yourself. But the app won’t be very original. It would be a template sort of app with standard functionalities. You get to pick some of the layouts and colors and get to decide which functionalities you want to leave out. Depending on how you plan to use the app, this might be OK.

For example, if you have a restaurant or a shop and want an app so people can make orders or shop online, then a generic app built with a template would work quite well. Naturally, you’d have to use their servers to run your app, so you might want to consider the pricing carefully before using such an app building template.

If your app idea is fairly original, then, yes, you’d have to know how to code or you’d need to hire someone who knows how to code to build the app.

Why Would a Small Business Need an App?

Some small businesses build an app because it’s a new idea that they think they can make money on. These apps tend to be paid apps or apps with in-app purchases.

But other small businesses might want to build an app for marketing purposes. These apps tend to be free and simply make the existing customers’ lives easier.

For example, does Starbucks or McDonald’s really need apps? Customers can order in the store or at the drive through just as well, with or without an app. But of course the customers appreciate the coupons and faster payment methods that these apps often provide. The apps are just a new way to market a business’s existing products and maybe build more customer loyalty.

Now that You’ve Decided to Build an App, What Next?

Let’s say that, after reading everything in this post, you’ve decided that you need to build an app. So, what’s next?

Apps run on specific operating systems. The biggest two are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. There are, of course, other systems like Microsoft’s Windows OS, Amazon’s Fire OS, and Samsung’s Tizen OS. Each will have its own coding requirements and app building guidelines. However, most small businesses probably want to focus on just iOS and Android to keep down the cost of building and maintaining the app.

So, we’ve written two articles focusing on iOS and Android. We’ll briefly talk about the store guidelines, agreements, and selling fees on these stores. These are just introductory articles to give you a quick overview, so you can decide whether app building is truly for you:

Next Up….

Next up in our how-to-start-a-small-business guide, we’ll share our thoughts on the second ever Entrepreneurship article. The article is on how to think outside the box.

Interested in starting and running a small business? Here’s the beginning of our step-by-step guide: What to do right after getting that great business idea.

Questions? Comments?