Back in the early days of the App Store, a prevailing sense quickly grew that all you needed to become an overnight success was a great new idea for an app. I’m not sure that was ever really true, but certainly, it was easier then to stand out on the strength of a unique idea, and build a successful app around it, than it is today.
I think that idea of the App Store as a get-rich-quick machine still lingers to this day — I still often run into people who, upon learning what it is I do for a living, excitedly tell me about their great idea for an app, convinced that if only they could get someone to build it for them, it’d be an instant hit. The reality, of course, is that the App Store that launched in 2008 with 500 apps now has close to 3 million. It’s crowded out there, it’s hard to get noticed, and the way in which the idea is executed is a whole lot more important than the idea itself.
So then, what does make for a good “app idea” in 2020? As an indie app developer, how can you make sure you’re pursuing an idea that actually has a shot at gaining some traction in a crowded space?
Actually, I really don’t know. Nevertheless, in starting up my current project, I’ve tried to stick to a few guidelines that I think will help increase the app’s chance of finding an audience, should it ever find its way onto the App Store. These aren’t scientific or foolproof; they’re just a handful of simple ideas I’ve chosen to keep in mind based on past experience, and on what I’ve seen in the iOS community recently.
Don’t try to take over the world
This one feels pretty obvious to me, but is worth mentioning nonetheless. You’re one person; aim small. You’re better off aiming to build a simple product that a handful of people will love, rather than some sort of globe-conquering social media platform. Focus on quality within a niche, rather than spreading yourself too thin building something overly ambitious.
Solve a problem you’re personally facing
There are two big benefits to building something that directly solves an issue you’re facing, however small that issue might be. One, you inherently have a great understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, and therefore, what types of functionality are going to provide a lot of value. Two, the desire to solve a problem for yourself gives you an extra layer of motivation to help you keep moving forward when things get tough. Even if no one else ultimately uses the thing you built, at least you’re left with an app that’s useful to you.
Cut scope ruthlessly
If there’s one thing that always seems to hold true about software, it’s that it always takes waaayyy longer to build than you intuitively think it will. Even if you’ve got what feels like a pretty manageable, niche idea, always be thinking about how you can reduce the scope of what you’re doing and minimize effort — even if your instinct is actually to add more and more cool features as you explore the idea further. The nice thing about software is that you can always add those cool features via updates later. Getting the app across the finish line is always going to be hard, and you probably don’t want it to drag on months later than expected — especially since getting your app into users’ hands is the best way to figure out what kinds of additional features the app needs.
Make sure the core concept is easy to explain
At some point, in some way, you’ll have to convince people to give your app a shot. People are busy, and attention spans are short; being able to explain what your app does — and why it’s useful or different — in a quick and compelling way will help get users in the door. This can also help you gain clarity around what to actually focus on building initially — if it feels like the only way to explain your app’s value is to list off six loosely related features, you might want to consider narrowing your focus. (see “Cut scope ruthlessly” above!)
Keep monetization in mind
This is an area where I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I feel fairly confident saying this: if you intend to try to make some money with your app, it’s worth putting some thought up front into how you might go about it. Will it be a simple paid app? Free with in-app purchases? Will it use a subscription model? Will it be ad-supported? These are important to start thinking about early, because they can shape decisions around what kinds of features the app needs. For example, if you want to distribute your app for free, but provide a premium subscription option — a model that’s become quite common over the past few years — you’ll need to think carefully about which features are free, and which are premium; how are you going to make the premium subscription compelling, while also ensuring the free version is useful?
And there you have it: step 1 of my step-by-step guide to becoming a guaranteed overnight indie darling is complete. Is anything in here wildly off-base? Did I miss anything obvious? I’d genuinely love to hear from you on Twitter if you have any questions or thoughts 🐦