App idea? Here's how to get started — with no tech background — in 2021.
There's a million ways to start turning your app idea into a reality — some good, some bad, and some disastrous.
And there's just as many voices on the internet offering a mix of valuable nuggets, conflicting perspectives, and outright misleading advice presented as fact.
In this post, we're going to cut through all the bullshit with seven steps that will allow you to start your journey with a foundation of success.
1. Be critical of advice on app development
First things first: there's an enormous amount of misleading advice on the internet about turning your app idea into a reality.
Everyone has an opinion, including:
- Development firms that want you to sign expensive development contracts;
- Successful entrepreneurs with limited self-awareness of how they actually became successful;
- Product leaders at large companies who's perspective is warped by having access to extensive resources only available at large companies;
- Investors, staff at famous accelerators, and others who operate in their own kind of bubble where cash is abundant and the weight of their prestige allows for opportunities not necessarily available outside such a bubble;
- All manner of other people who happen to be developers, designers, marketers, and more with varying experiences in different domains of the app development world.
The point is not to make you suspicious of everyone. It may well be ideal for you to hire a development firm or to take the advice of some billion dollar startup founder.
And just because someone is getting something by offering you advice (whether it be a development contract with you or the egoic satisfaction of getting retweeted), that doesn't necessarily mean the advice is untrue or malicious.
It just means you need to be cognizant of the perspective of every person offering advice. And you need to do that so you can evaluate two things for every piece of advice you receive:
- The degree to which various factors are influencing the advice given.
- The degree to which the advice applies to your situation based on the perspective of the person giving the advice.
2. Answer this: What's really driving your interest in apps?
There's no "one size fits all" approach to launching a successful app. The path you take depends entirely on what's driving your interest in the first place.
For example, are you set on a specific idea that you want to get to market as soon as possible? Are you exploring a few ideas and not sure which to choose? Do you just want to ditch your 9-to-5 asap, by any means necessary? Have you already ditched it? Are you more motivated to switch careers rather than launch a specific idea — so you can spend all day writing code?
Your answers to these questions (and more) will determine all sorts of things from when to hire developers or whether to learn to code yourself. You might even discover that developing and coding an original app is the wrong choice, and you'd be better suited launching a blog or eCommerce site on an existing platform instead!
The sooner you clarify these motivations, the less likely you are to waste time and money on an avoidable rabbit hole, only to take get on a better path with even fewer resources than you started.
3. Get real about what it takes to succeed
You may have heard otherwise, but here's the unfiltered truth: turning your app idea into a real app (that people actually use) is easily as complicated as launching a major motion picture. Some apps are like short films, while others are like Marvel franchises with the best special effects Hollywood has to offer.
But a good short film is still really hard to get right.
Would you watch a movie with bad acting? How about shaky filming or awkward dialogue or a poorly considered plot? I wouldn't. If even one of these things felt "off", I'd find something else on Netflix.
Apps are the same way. If the design is slightly awkward, or the app doesn't work as expected, or the user doesn't instantly know what to do next — you're done. The user quits the app, and probably never opens it again.
The point is that all apps require a large confluence of skillsets to get built and launched. And depending on your audience (consumer, b2b, internal), most need to be executed with world-class expertise if you want to succeed.
That means you've got way more ahead of you than just finding a developer to implement your idea. You'll probably need several types of developers, several types of designers, someone to manage them all, someone to drive product development, marketing and branding experts, legal experts, and a whole host of other kinds of experts depending on what your app actually does.
By the way, the development process is never finished in 3-6 months, despite development agencies making all sorts of unrealistic promises to wide-eyed founders. The most you'll get in that time is a rough first attempt that will usually take years of refinement and development before you see meaningful results.
Lots of people put all their cash into these so-called MVPs (minimum viable products), they fail on launch, and they're out of funds and stamina to continue.
If you don't want that to be you, you need to know what you're getting into to the degree that you can make informed, strategic choices. And you need to be ok with the fact that your journey will be a winding road of successes and setbacks that involve years of time and lots of money (whether it's yours or investors'). If you're cool with that, read on.
4. Start seeking a technical partner — right now
Yes, it's entirely possible for someone with zero tech background to launch a successful app.
No, you can't do it yourself.
If you're new to the tech world, you need a partner — someone who's personally and meaningfully invested in your app's success on multiple levels — with both technical knowledge as well as (ideally) some grasp of product management.
This is your technical cofounder. They are responsible for navigating key technical decisions that lay the foundations for your app's creation. They handle all the technical excruciata you don't understand that can make or break your app's success.
But here's the thing, finding a technical cofounder is hard for a million reasons, and you may have even been told to learn to code yourself.
This is misleading advice.
Learning to code can be a net positive, but it's not going to replace a technical cofounder. You need to code and work on real projects for at least five to ten years before you will have what it takes to manage the tech side of your business yourself. There's too much nuance and complexity. Even a fresh computer science college grad has been coding for four years, albeit not on real-world projects. And most of them would not be able to build an app anyone is interested in using, let along paying for.
The sooner you find a strong technical cofounder, the better.
That means you need to be networking with engineers and developing relationships starting right now. And you should probably spend at least 20% or more of your time doing it with the hope that you might find someone within a year's time depending on how good you are at your search.
Why so long? Because cold intros almost never work, especially with skilled engineers. You need to develop meaningful relationships, ideally before you even broach the subject of needing a technical cofounder.
And you'll most likely need to offer them a serious amount of equity combined with a competitive salary. Don't make the mistake of being stingy with equity and/or salary, particularly if you have the resources. No one will take you seriously, and you will likely burn bridges by simply revealing your naïveté.
5. Learn how to properly validate your idea
If you're in the camp of someone with an idea, you need to validate it — you need evidence anyone would be interested in using your product.
Now you may or may not think you've got this part covered, but be warned: false positives and false negatives are extremely common at this stage.
In other words, it's easy to convince yourself an idea is worth pursuing when it's not. And its just as easy to convince yourself its not worth pursuing when it is.
That's because of the way apps work. They're dynamic, complex, and hard to explain in words. Many ideas simply can't be validated until you have a working prototype. And even then, the prototype has to meet certain standards to be sure you're really validating the idea. That is, if you show someone a crumby prototype of an idea and they don't like it, all you've done is invalidate the prototype, not the idea behind it.
To get this right, you need a sophisticated understanding of all the options you have at your disposal, as well as real world examples of how to interpret what you discover.
Lucky for you, we're actively working on more content to tackle these nuances, so join our mailing list to get notified.
6. Get a bit technical yourself
Unless you're interested in a career change to become an engineer, you should not expect to do much technical work (if any) yourself. You need experts who are already excellent at those things, and one of those experts, as I've argued in Step 4, should be your partner.
However, there are important reasons to reach a certain threshold of technical knowledge yourself.
First, there's nothing more anxiety-provoking to a non-technical app founder than having no grasp of what's happening on the technical side of the business. Technical problems will inevitably arise no matter how great your team is. How would you like it if these problems were described to you in what amounts to be a foreign language?
You'd have no idea what's going on with a critical part of your business. Sound appealing?
Second, the more you are able to hold your own in a technical conversation, the more you will be capable of wooing engineers to be your technical cofounder. One of the biggest pain-points for great engineers everywhere is not being appreciated by nontechnical team members and stakeholders. If you can show them you understand their perspective, even a little, that puts you in a whole other category of desirability.
So what should you learn? Should you stop what you're doing and spend six months in a coding bootcamp? That depends on your goals and the opportunity cost, and the answer is not infrequently no. At the very least, you should understand basic technical jargon and explore code to the degree that you can a least get some basic things to appear on screen. More on this later.
7. Learn to keep the vision and "play the orchestra"
Your role in your app journey is similar to Steve Jobs and Apple. Steve was nontechnical just like you. He did not write code for Apple. He also didn't do much direct design of features despite being legendary for the best designed products in the world.
What Steve did is exactly what you need to do as the primary founder. He was the keeper of the vision, and he worked like hell to accumulate and orchestrate all the resources (human and otherwise) that allowed Apple to create the most beautiful and easy to use products the tech world had ever seen. He sought out the great designers, engineers, product managers, project managers, content creators, etc. and he put them together in a way that the products they created were "insanely great."
This is your job more than anything else. Nobody is going to be more invested in the vision than you. It is your burden to keep the vision alive and everyone aligned with it. And it's your job to get the right people to work together to make that vision a real world app — and that includes finding others to be orchestrators with you.
As Steve Jobs said to his technical cofounder, Steve Wozniak: "I play the orchestra. You're a great musician. You're the best musician in your row."
Your team is your orchestra. And you need to learn to play it above any other skill.
As you might realize by now, the above only scratches the surface of what you need to know to launch a successful app, but it's a unique poignant collection of topics to consider as you begin your journey. Each of the topics also has numerous other subtopics that we will explore both on the blog and in immersive courses. These include intellectual property, the app development lifecycle, funding, app founder personal finance, costs, timelines, and more.
As an app founder, your job is to be a sponge so you can navigate strategically. And you should do this with our content, as well as exploring these same topics from other perspectives.
Keep being a boss!
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