From the October 2011 issue of Startups

Going Mobile Without Going BrokeMobile applications are no longer an option for small businesses--they're a necessity. Digital research firm comScore reports that nearly 40 percent of American mobile subscribers accessed downloaded apps in June. And, according to a consumer survey conducted earlier this year by MTV Networks, 91 percent of respondents said apps expose them to new things; 77 percent compared apps to personal assistants; and 83 percent of daily mobile app users reported believing they're "addicted" to apps.

Related: The Best Mobile Apps for Business

The fundamental appeal of branded, business-centric mobile applications is clear: Whatever your company does online can also be done on smartphones, which adds portability, location targeting and other cutting-edge technological enhancements to the mix. The potential of mobile apps extends far beyond marketing. Sure, companies can leverage applications to promote their products and services, reaching on-the-go consumers looking for compelling places to shop or grab lunch. But mobile apps can also support online purchase transactions, customer loyalty programs, turn-by-turn directions and social media interactions.

Even so, more than three years after Apple first opened its App Store and two years after Google responded with its Android Market, the majority of branded apps available for download promote large, Fortune 500 businesses--not the local restaurants and retailers who stand to benefit most. Chalk that up to cost considerations: Contract app development projects alone can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000, exceeding the budget of the average startup entrepreneur. And that doesn't even take into account ongoing maintenance and software upgrades.

"If you can type in an e-mail address, you can create a mobile app."
-- Michael Schneider,
Mobile Roadie

Enter Mobile Roadie. The Beverly Hills, Calif.-based firm offers an automated turnkey platform that gives its clients the ability to build and manage their own customizable iPhone and Android apps in a matter of minutes. Just upload the desired content and information, and Mobile Roadie handles the rest, including the app store submission process. Best of all, Mobile Roadie pricing begins at $499 for initial setup and $29 per month for ongoing support.

Related: Why Mobile-Friendly Websites Are Critical to Your Strategy

"If you can type in an e-mail address, you can create a mobile app," says Mobile Roadie CEO Michael Schneider. "Every brand and business has its superfans--the people who are most loyal to that brand, and who go out of their way to promote it. Mobile apps enable them to promote your brand, share your content on Facebook and Twitter and be a more loyal patron and consumer."

All fledgling businesses should factor mobile apps into their plans from the outset. Creating an app using the Mobile Roadie platform is the easy part. Knowing what you want the app to do--and which consumer segments you wish to reach--can pose a bigger challenge.

Here are five lessons all smartphone savants must learn:

1. Know what message you want to send. "Before you start working on your app, make sure you know what you're selling, what you're about and the look and feel you want, like your logo colors and font," Schneider says. "You also need to know what content you want to put in. You can integrate your app with your blog or your YouTube channel, but that only works if you have existing content."

2. Understand your audience. "Mobile applications are where people are going to interact with their favorite brands, but you have to know what your customers are interested in," Schneider says. "Apps allow for new kinds of user experiences and a different community feel than the web, which results in real engagement and commerce opportunities. Fans and users spend more money in apps compared to websites, and they come back more. But you have to drive loyalty, whether that's by pushing messages or having visual content."

3. Clarify what you want your app to achieve. "Whether or not an app is successful depends on the goal," Schneider says. "Is it the total number of downloads, or how often people are coming back? How responsive are customers when offers are pushed out? How viral is your content? Or is it how many people are opting in and giving you their e-mail address?"

4. Forget about BlackBerry, Win-dows Phone and Palm. As of June, Android controlled 40.1 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, and Apple's iOS captured 26.6 percent market share. Both are growing each month. Their rivals are fading fast. "iPhone and Android are all that matters. Everything else is irrelevant," Schneider says. "Entrepreneurs don't have to think it's one or the other. With Mobile Roadie, you can do the work once and launch your app on iPhone and Android. It's not cost-prohibitive, so there's no reason not to do both."

5. Fasten your seat belt. "Small businesses can really take advantage of the perception that apps are only for large companies," Schneider says. "Home Depot has an app, but people don't expect Joe's Hardware to have an app. It's an impressive thing for any business to have, like a website was 20 years ago. It sets your company apart, and it puts you on the same playing field as the big boys."