How to Start an App – 8 Steps You Must Take Before Starting Mobile App Development

Coming up with a unique app idea, no matter what goals you want to achieve with it, simply isn’t enough anymore – the mobile app markets is simply too competitive. It is getting harder to stand out, and the investment is large, both considering your time and budget.

Going into the mobile app development stage unprepared can result in costly, frustrating and brand-damaging mistakes.

However, if you invest your time to piece these building blocks together, you will make the development process fundamentally easier and give yourself lots of competitive advantage. It takes some effort to have a successful app, but it’s incredibly worth it.

So many app developers get too caught up in their app ideas and the big picture of a complete app, that they overlook the early stages. Forget about the day your app launches right now. You must learn how to start an app first, then you can move on to create an app and really dive deep into the app development process.

Let’s get started!

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1) Deeply research your market

The first step to inform everything you do moving forward is a thorough market research. You need to know the current offering on the market and use this knowledge to find a gap your app will fill and serve a fresh, complete solution to the problem you’re solving.

Extensive market research should help you discover:

  • Who are your competitors?
  • What is their strategy?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of other app developers in this market?
  • What are their customers saying in the reviews and on social media?
  • What is their unique selling point?

When you have the answers to these questions, you will be able to avoid your competitors’ mistakes, double up on the strategies that work, and clearly define your unique take on the problem and the path to solving it. There are millions of available mobile apps, and this is your opportunity to ensure yours stands out.

Browse through the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store to see what else is out there. If few apps fit the description, it’s either good news or bad news. On the one hand, there might not be a market at all for the app. On the other hand, there could be a void in the market, opening the door for new app businesses to take advantage.

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2) Define your elevator pitch and target audience

Can you articulate your app’s specific purpose? Can you name its difference from your website and its specific use cases? This is probably the trickiest step for business owners and marketers. Boiling all your ideas down to one or two sentences of clear purpose is hard, but it’s also one of the core steps to ensuring the success of your app.

This is the time to define:

  • What will be the app’s key functionality? 
  • Can you define what problems your app solves?
  • Who are the potential app users?
  • Why would people want to use it?
  • What is the added value compared to a mobile website?
  • Which business goals will it help you achieve?
  • What audience will benefit from it?
  • What does that audience need and crave?

Being honest when answering these questions will ensure you don’t waste resources on redundant app features or targeting the wrong groups of people.

If you can’t clearly articulate the situation where your app solves a problem, there might not be an app business to pursue here. App ideas are useless if they don’t solve problems for real app users.

By now, you should also be confident about your elevator pitch. If you accidentally found yourself in front of a potential investor and they asked you about your project, how would you convey your mission in only a couple of sentences in less than a minute? Again, strong focus and clarity this early in the process can amplify your success in so many ways, so don’t miss your opportunity to be precise and clear with your app’s purpose early on.
Native / Hybrid Matrix

3) Choose between native, hybrid and web app

There are a couple of technical decision to make early on, and this is a crucial one. Choosing between native, hybrid, or a web app carries many implications for your later development and maintenance. This is why it’s key to leverage your market research and the core purpose and functionality you’ve just defined, so you can make the best decision.

The core differentiations between native, hybrid and mobile apps are:

  • The programming languages they are built in. This affects and depends on your budget, desired time frames, and available expertise.
  • Access to native device APIs. This will depend on the device’s functionalities that you want your app to access.
  • Distribution method. This will largely affect the way you market your app and define your promotion strategies.
  • Multi-platform support. This will be based on your target audience and the market you want to penetrate; most often, you will want to be present both on Apple’s App store and Android’s Play store.

Native apps are perfect for heavy-duty tasks such as gaming or the use of photos or videos. On the other hand, web apps are best for solutions that require easy updates, but don’t require any access to device’s native abilities.

These two types sit on the opposite sides of the spectrum, with native apps being most expensive to develop and findable in different app stores, while web apps are quite quick and low-cost to develop, but you can’t amplify them through app stores or have your users download them to their device.

The best of both worlds are hybrid apps: they use the same code base for both platforms, they can access device’s features and they live in both app stores. In short, you can build an iOS app and Android apps simultaneously with a single build. They are also an ideal choice for most app goals and purposes, including productivity, utility and enterprise apps.

Once you’ve decided on your app type, you will much more easily allocate your resources and plan your entire development project.

4) Know your monetization options

An app can play many different roles for your business and your bottom line. Generating revenue directly off the app is an obvious one, while others may simply be serving as a resource for your audience, or indirectly assisting other phases of your sales funnel and increase your brand’s reach.

What role do you want your app to play in your business model? If you are planning to make money directly from your app, this is the time to look at the app monetization models:

  • Freemium apps – These apps are free to download, but certain features and contents are locked, and they can only be accessed through a purchase.
  • Paid (premium) apps – The user needs to purchase the app from the app store in order to use it. Because of the cost barrier of this model, a mobile marketing strategy is critical to demonstrate the unique, superior value compared to the free apps.
  • In-app purchases – This model works by using the app to sell digital or physical products as a mobile commerce sales channel.
  • Subscriptions – This model is similar to freemium apps, but brings a benefit of a recurring stream of revenue.
  • In-app ads – This is possibly the simplest model of all because there is no cost barrier for the user. As with any advertising space, it’s important to never sacrifice user experience in order to gain more ad space.
  • Sponsorships – This model usually becomes possible when you achieve a solid user base, as it allows you to partner with specific brands and advertisers. It is a win-win situation because brands pay for user actions, and your app generates further engagement for the user.

As with any other choice, each path as benefits and disadvantages. While your decision now can be changed later, it’s important you gain a solid understanding of all the models first, and steer your mobile app development based on what aligns with your business best.

5) Build your app marketing strategy and pre-launch buzz

If there is an element that so heavily affects your app’s success, it’s the preparation to market and amplify it, including your branding, PR, pre-launch efforts, outreach, and simply overall web presence.

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Now, you might think it’s too early to think about app marketing before you’ve even begun your development. However, your efforts will multiply in the long run if you start creating the buzz around your app before it’s in the app stores.

This is the right time to start with the following:

  • Define your branding. How will your name, colors, logo and the tone of your content set you apart from the millions of other apps and businesses? Ensure consistency of all these across your app and all platforms you exist on.
  • Find your channels. Where does your target audience mostly hang out? Are they easier to reach through social media or email? Do they prefer video over written content? How much time are they spending on their mobile device?
  • Create content. Based on your answers in the previous point, you should now know what content your audience craves and where to reach them. Start mapping out your written and/or video content and sharing it on selected channels.
  • Kick off your outreach. What people are influencers in your industry, both small and large? Put some effort into reaching out to them in a personalized manner and provide them lots of value for putting your app in front of their audiences.

You can even create an app landing page that you’ll ultimately use to drive app installs and promote all the features. Even if you just have the app title right, it’s worth it to get this page build. Some of you might even take the app’s graphic design concept to create some nice visuals for the landing page. All of this will improve your app marketing strategy.

These steps will make promotion easier when the launch time comes, and you will have a warm community to launch for.

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New App discovery methods

6) Plan for app store optimization

Many steps you’ve done so far, including your market research, your app’s unique purpose and your marketing strategy, largely affect your app store optimization strategy. This is the key to discoverability in the app store; over 60 percent of all apps are found through this organic search.

It’s important to respect both app stores’ requirements and best practices, and use this as a brilliant opportunity for your app to shine with its visuals, features and distinctive purpose.

While you won’t be able to complete all the ASO tasks this early in the process (nor should you), this is an ideal time to start sketching out your final app store look and feel, and ensure that the development follows your ideas.

The key elements for app store optimization are:

  • App name: it should easy to spell and pronounce, unique, and descriptive, fitting within the length limits (50 characters for iOS, 30 for Android)
  • Keywords: this is only applicable to Apple, and it’s an extra space to specify the search terms relevant to your app for the app meta data
  • Icon: use a clear color palette, avoid using lots of small details, and opt in for contrasting colors and a simple, clear concept
  • Screenshots: make sure to use all five screenshots and to leverage caption texts to tell a story and highlight benefits, including the app design
  • Description: focus on the first three lines (before the ‘More…’ link) to clearly convey the key points, use bullet lists, and have a call to action
  • Preview video: it should be short and go straight to the point, with a clear and universal message that will work in any localization. You can create YouTube videos and repurpose the content for ASO as well

You’ll need different an app store connect account and developer account to manage your ASO. Things like your app icon and user feedback can also play a role in how the app market perceives your app project. Early adopters have a big impact on the long-term success of your iOS apps and Android app. Getting this right will make it easier for you to offer in app purchases from actual users.

7) Know your resources

Ideally, you’ll be able to announce your launch date ahead to create the buzz around your launch and make people excitedly wait for it.

For this to happen, you need to be aware of the development time frame in front of you. According to Kinvey’s report, most businesses need between 7 months up to over a year to develop and deploy a mobile app.

This is why you need to start conversations with your developers and technical teams as early as possible. This will help you guide your entire project more effectively and allocate appropriate due dates to various planning and development stages, including:

  • Use case(s) definition
  • Mapping of required functionalities
  • Minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Wireframing
  • Programming language/platform selection
  • Coding
  • App design
  • App analytics
  • Testing

You should also think about the way you’re going to make an app. Will you hire an app developer? Or will you use an app builder to make your own app?

These early decisions in the app making process will have a significant impact on your app business and development process over time. With an app builder, you don’t necessarily need to learn iOS development to make an iPhone app for the iOS app store. You don’t need to learn software development for Android apps either.

This is the best time to also revise your budget. Depending on app’s complexity, features, infrastructure and many other factors, the full app development price can vary between under $10,000 for simple iPad apps all the way to six-figure budgets for a more complex, full spec app. Keep in mind this will also vary between different agencies and developers based on agency size, expertise, required and available time frame, and more.

Another costly factor is the ongoing support of the app. It will require continuous monitoring, crash logs review, optimizing for user experience based on comments, and keeping up to date with the operating system updates.

Knowing what resources you’re working with early on will prevent any emergencies and delays further down the line.

8) Ensure security measures

And finally, you must include a privacy policy in case your app will collect any sensitive information from users. This policy needs to cover what information is being collected and how is it used.

Lots of app developers are so focused on their own apps and the app idea itself that they neglect crucial security features. But security is an important step whenever you make an app or start a new app project.

The benefit of taking this step so early is to give yourself plenty of time to get any legal consulting you may need, as well as plan and implement safety measures within the app.

The security of your app is one of its key points, and you must ensure it is being built early in app development. Your users’ data is your most valuable asset, and you should ensure you have processes in place to collect, handle and store this data, as well as to manage any potential security risks.

Final thoughts on how to start an app

How to start an app? There’s no single answer to this question.

The app idea alone won’t be enough here. You need to take the right steps early to ensure success for the long run. So before you start thinking about new features and app updates, take a few hours to focus on how users interact with your app. Close your eyes and think of the user interface on a well-designed native app.

How will they access an in app purchase? Think about taking your app idea and getting it ready for launch on the app store. It all starts with preparation.

Once you go through these preparation steps, you will be ready to dive into your app development without distractions and lead it to a successful app deployment and launch!

Ian Blair

Ian is the CEO and Co-Founder of BuildFire. He's a visionary leader and tech-driven strategist running a team and platform that powers 10,000+ mobile apps. Ian has been building mobile apps for 10+ years. He's also an expert digital marketer responsible for millions of organic site visits and hundreds of thousands of leads.