Mobile Apps for Small Business – Lessons Learned

"We should really get an app!"  "Yes, yes we should."  GREAT, Now what?

Whether your small business is a law firm, service provider, retailer, or otherwise, you have probably had this thought or discussion with yourself, family or business partners already.  If you are like us, you do a quick internet search for "app development" and are quickly inundated and possibly overwhelmed with information about a product and a world all its own.  Pricing fluctuates from affordable to utterly cost prohibitive.  What exactly do you need?  What to you get for what price?  Is that a fair price?  You practice law, you repair cars, you design the best floral arrangements in the state, you have built and run a small business; the technical world of app development and marketing, might as well be absolute gibberish for you.  "But everyone else is doing it, we have to keep up with ACME Company down the road."

Yes, you must certainly stay ahead of the competition (If you are just trying to keep up, you are already behind).  Mobile internet use has now surpassed desktop internet usage and the trend does not appear to be changing course anytime soon.  More importantly, mobile app usage far surpasses even mobile browsers for the majority of the mobile internet use.  A mobile marketing plan of some sort is an absolute must for any small business that wants to stay at the forefront of their industry.  So what are some considerations and potential pitfalls that one may come across?

Alright, listen up; We have you covered here!  This article is written from experience.  Drunk driving defense is one of our firm's specialty areas, so the app was designed to be useful, relevant and applicable to that particular demographic.  We worked diligently with a fabulous local app developer to bring our ideas to life.  We came up with ideas, asked the developer if they were possible and eventually, the developer made each idea a reality through the app. In late March, early April, 2014, the app received an unexpected wave of national media attention from national media outlets like MSNBC, CNN Headline News, and local outlets around the nation.  Over a single weekend, the app went from 4,000 downloads to over 60,000 downloads.  As of today, our current download count is at approximately 80,000 and a new and improved version of the app will be release before January 2015.  The app went from a way to promote our business, to a new and independent business opportunity all its own.

Our personal experience has taught us a number of lessons along the way and we are certain this list will continue to grow as we progress.  Here is the list of the top 10 considerations that every small business will want to consider BEFORE taking the plunge into the world of mobile app development.   

  1. How will a current or potential customer benefit?  If you just want to put your website in an app form, forget about it.  Pay to create a responsive website or even a "mobile web app" that people can easily access from their smart phone or tablet.  First and foremost, an app must be useful to either a current or potential customers, or it will be a waste of time and money.
  2. Do you need your own mobile app?  Why reinvent the wheel?  Is there a mobile app already out there that provides the service to your current or potential customers which you can simply join or pay a licensing fee to use for your business? Chances are, if an app like that exists, it will save you time and money and allow you to also capitalize on the existing network and infrastructure.
  3. Clear Scope of work.  Make sure you have a clear, written scope of work for the app development and clear pricing for services and continuing services.  Once the app is developed and published, who will host it?  What are the ongoing obligations of the parties?  What is the cost for updates and maintenance? Is design involved in the quote or are they just providing the programing and code?
  4. Marketing plan.  How are you going to market your app and to whom are you going to market it?  It's great to have an app, but an app does you absolutely no good as a business if people do not download and use the app.  Do not make this an afterthought or you will regret your lack of preparation.  Generating downloads of an app other than within your own clientèle is nothing short of the wild wild west right now.  Are you going to want analytics regarding the downloads and usage?  What will you want those analytics to capture and report?  Put together a game plan ahead of time because how the app is developed and published will depend upon your plan. A lot of this must be built into the app itself prior to publication if you want it to work correctly.
  5. Device(s) – There are separate programing requirements based upon the platform that an app is going to be used on.  Programing is different for Apple, Android, Blackberry or Windows based applications.  Do you want your app to be usable on all, some or one of those platforms?  Make sure your scope of work agreement is clear on which platforms the developer is agreeing to provide.
  6. Type of App – I'm not going to pretend to know the technical jargon but this is important. If you decide to do a Native App (App downloaded from the app store), how the app is programmed will dictate whether or not updates and changes to the app must be resubmitted, approved and republished each time a change is desired, or whether they can be quickly made and published on the fly via a web-based interface.  There are benefits and detriments (cost being a big factor) to each option but this is a discussion you will want to have with the developer ahead of time.  If you don't anticipate making a lot of changes or needing changes available immediately you will save a lot of money going with the first option requiring updates through the app store.  However, if you will need to make changes quickly and immediately, be ready for the initial investment associated with creating the back-end interface.
  7. Publication in developer account.  Once an app is programed, the app is then published in the various app stores under either the developer's own account along with multiple other apps the developer has created, or individually, under a developer account created specifically for your business.  There are benefits and detriments to both.  Publication in the developer's account allows other people that are browsing or downloading other apps produced by that developer to also see your app.  This may result in extra downloads and greater visibility.  However, if you want to change developers or have someone else reprogram the app, most developers, for good reason, will not give a third party access to their other apps back end.  Depending on how your app is programed, you can transfer apps between developers at this stage but this requires the cooperation of everyone involved.  A sour ex-developer could create significant problem during this stage.  There is also the risk of having to completely republish your app in the new account thereby losing download counts and reviews.  Having the app published using your own developer account avoids those issues, allows you full control and autonomy, but you have to pay a yearly developer fee and your app will not have the extra exposure of being associated with the other apps.
  8. Own your code.  When you pay to have an app developed, it must be clear that you own it, not the developer.  The developer should deliver the code and programing to you upon the completion of the project.  You don't buy a car and keep it at the dealership, make sure the code is delivered at the completion of the project.
  9. Be ready.  Make sure your app is functioning and performing the way you want it to BEFORE you release it to the general public.  Restaurants and bars have "soft openings" you should too.  Have friends and family members play with the app and take your time to iron out all the wrinkles before it is released to the rest of the world.  Once it is released it is like a picture on the internet.  It is out there for the entire world to see and review.  Good reviews can propel your app further than you imagine but poor reviews can sink it just as quickly, if not quicker.
  10. Adapt.  Be ready to listen and adapt your product to the feedback you receive.  Chances of getting it 100% correct the first time are slim to none.  Listen, process, and respond to both the good and bad feedback you receive.  You will no doubt receive both.

Thankfully, many of these lessons are simply things that we identified that could have been a huge issue had we not worked with the right people from the beginning.  Thankfully we avoided them.  Others, are things that in retrospect, we should have vetted out ahead of time, that would have saved time and money.  We hope you find this article useful and do not hesitate to contact us with your own insight, questions or concerns.