Business Rx: Looking for your next gig? You can make an app for that

October 2, 2011

With the U.S. economy’s bleak job market, many experts tout the benefits of venturing out on your own with that entrepreneurial idea you’ve been tossing around. One new sector that’s booming is what we call the “App Economy,” thanks to an explosion of social networking platforms and smartphones in the past few years.

Appmakers aren’t just teen computer whizzes cooking up silly games for their iPhones. There is considerable opportunity to build profitable ventures around software applications for smartphones, Facebook, Google and other platforms. We recently studied this industry and looked at the number of people building, developing and consulting on applications specifically for Facebook’s platform. Turns out, Facebook alone has led to more than 53,000 new jobs in software companies that are developing everything from productivity tools to popular games like FarmVille. We estimated that the wages and benefits earned by those employed in and supported by the app economy translates to between $12 billion to more than $15 billion.

How can you get in now and create an app that could potentially lead to a successful entrepreneurial venture?

1. Identify an opportunity. Is there a problem you personally would love to see your smartphone tackle? If you are feeling a particular itch, chances are others are feeling the same way.

2. Do your research . Make sure your app idea isn’t out there already — at least not in the same capacity you hope to develop. If apps with similar functionality are out there, test drive your rivals rigorously. Chances are that you will not succeed unless you can find compelling dimensions where you can improve on existing apps.

3. Have a business model in mind. Think about how you can participate in the value that you create. If your goal of the app is to increase the brand recognition or to create a deeper customer relationship, then this may be all you need. On the other hand, if you want to earn money, give some thoughts on the revenue stream. Will you rely on advertising for revenue or are you planning to earn money through additional content? Can you create different versions with different functionalities; a free version that draws people in and more professional versions that users can upgrade to? Are there complements that you can sell, such as a free dashboard on the smartphone and a paid full version for the desktop?

4. Use your resources . The major platforms have great how-to resources available for those looking to develop apps. Check out the offerings from the giants, such as Facebook — http://developers.facebook.com/docs/guides/canvas/; Google — http://code.google.com/googleapps/; and Apple — http://developer.apple.com.

5. Test your idea, bring it to market quickly and update often . Develop a rough version of your app and let people test it. This prototype version will help you work out any kinks and validate your concept before you take it live and invest further. Once you have deemed it viable, get it out quickly. Evaluate the feedback from the marketplace often and in great detail. Then act on this feedback and update your app.

6. Concentrate on execution . Don’t spend a lot of money and effort trying to protect your innovative idea with patents and trademarks that take a long time to go through and are difficult and expensive to defend. It’s the way you actually execute on your idea — the design of your app in the way it looks and operates — that will make people want to use it and contribute to its popularity.

7. Get it approved . Even though there is considerable opportunity, the app marketplace is very crowded. Make sure you are creating something that falls within the guidelines of the platform for which you are developing.

8. Promote you r app . You can’t make money on your app if no one is using it. Use the Web and social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to spread the word. Existing apps are a natural venue to advertise your new app and to bring existing users to the new app. If your app is a complement to an existing business, spread the word with customers and clients. Clearly convey the benefits of your app.

9 . Continu ously improve . People have short attention spans — the next best thing is always around the corner, especially with the pace of development on social media platforms and smart phones. The lifespan of the average app is shorter than for the usual software program. If you’re not constantly improving your offerings and looking for ways to introduce new iterations, you’ll quickly be left behind.

10. Monitor the success of your app . Have a clear idea about the resources that you put in to develop, to advertise and to improve your app. If your app does not take off, be ready to pull the plug. Go back to your business model and evaluate your return of investment. If it doesn’t pay off, don’t throw new resources into a stalling app. Reallocate them to more promising ideas.

Il-Horn Hann and Siva Viswanathan are associate professors of information systems and co-direct the Center for Digital Innovation, Technology and Strategy at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Their research explores how digital technologies make new markets and business models possible.

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