Richard Branson on Building a Killer Mobile App
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
It has only been six years since Apple released the first iPhone, but in that time, the device and its applications have transformed how we interact with the world and each other. Those changes are still under way: The app business is growing at a phenomenal pace, with more than 50 billion apps downloaded from Apple's App Store by May 2013, at a rate of over 2 billion apps per month; a similar number are being installed on Android phones via Google Play. Apple has paid $10 billion to developers since the iPhone's launch.
I don't usually include a lot of statistics in this column -- this isn't about money, but how you can start your own business with a great idea and a better attitude. My point is that at its core, the app business is no different from any other type of enterprise: entrepreneurs are creating apps out of frustration at a lack of service.
One young entrepreneur who made headlines with the sale of his app this year was Nick D'Aloisio, 17, a British high school student who created the news aggregator Summly. When he was preparing for his exams, he found the repetition of information annoying and so he built Trimit, an early version of his service that was downloaded more than 200,000 times. In March Yahoo purchased his invention for a price estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.
What I find striking about Nick's story is that he started building his app at home, probably in his room. A recent study by Freelancer.com found that in Britain, "There has been an increase of 34 percent of businesses setting up in their spare time in the last 12 months, and all of them revealed they did so because starting a business today is easier, saying that costs are lower thanks to being able to start up online." They also found that of the respondents who started their business in their spare time, 56 percent set up office space in their bedrooms. We can be sure that many of those entrepreneurs are creating apps -- you don't need a store front or office space, just talent and the willingness to work hard.
If you have an idea for a "killer app," here are some tips to help you move your idea off your kitchen table and into the mainstream.
1. Be ready to fail -- and try again.
When you're developing your idea, be honest with yourself about whether your app, product or service will truly deliver value to customers. Ask potential users for constructive criticism. If you are not delivering something that makes people's lives easier, it's time to start over.
2. Keep it simple.
Remember that your app should do a few things very well, rather than lots of things badly. Simplicity will generate word of mouth.
Be very careful about any additional features you add - they must bring value to your core offering.
3. Empower your customers through design.
Steve Jobs said: "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." Once you've decided on what your app does well, focus on what your users are trying to achieve and make it easy for them to get the job done at every step. Never ask them to stop and figure out how your app works.
4. Test, test, test.
If your app is flimsy or bug-ridden, people will delete it the moment they encounter a problem, and they won't download it again. In today's connected world, any badly made product or poor service gets bad reviews, which can bring an end to any startup.
5. Plan to get noticed.
There are currently more than 900,000 apps available on the App Store alone, so new entrants must work harder to get noticed. To get your app on people's radar, think about who your potential customers are and how they would prefer to learn about it. Whether they're looking for high ratings or they make decisions based on TV ads, plan out how you're going to reach them and then make some noise.
6. An entrepreneur's work is never done.
No matter what business you're in, you should never consider the design of your product or service "finished." Make improving it part of your everyday work.
7. To get ahead, listen.
The ability to listen to customers is the most important skill an entrepreneur can have. Don't just rely on metrics - find ways to connect with the people using your app and learn what they think of your offering and how they're using it.
Remember, your idea doesn't have to be the next Instagram or Angry Birds - one of our former employees, Lance Stewart, left a few years ago to build his own app business, and has evolved his company Wavana from a developer of travel products such as Tube Exits (which helps you plan journeys on London's underground) to one that is trying to shake up the way people plan and organize conferences, called Showcase. He created that business because he was frustrated by missing the good stuff at trade shows! (Learn more about his business at showca.se.)
Most great business ideas are right under our noses, just waiting to be discovered; you may be developing one right now, under your own roof.