Build a Business, not an App

October 30, 2017

During the 2008-2010 App Store gold rush, all you needed were a pick, ax, and laptop to strike it rich. Forget a business plan and forget being original: Just make an app, any app, and your chances of making some profit were better than none.

Times have changed, and the single-app mindset can be catastrophic today, if you’re still chasing it.

App vs. Business

“Apps”, compared to a business providing an app, were novelty items during the emergence of the iPhone and Android. There were so little of them, that your best shot at success was just to be present. Today, there are so many apps, with more being released every day, that Apple has even begun deleting inactive ones due to the overwhelming supply (which sounds like a search problem over a quantity problem, but search isn’t really Apple’s strong suit).

My experience with apps and the App Store is probably similar to many developers’. I got in casually around 2008-2009, and built dumb apps because I was curious. I had no intention of making any money. But, I was around the raging waterfall of app demand, and got a little wet. This natural spectacle began getting too crowded around 2012 however, with hundreds of thousands of developers trying to get a sprinkle of all that flowing app money. And if during that time you put all your hopes and dreams into a single app, you were a dead man walking. You just didn’t know it yet.

It took me several years to begin adjusting. Even until 2016, I had not yet shed the single-app mindset. I kept producing single-utility apps without a story, hoping one would catch on. And some did, for the first few weeks. But an app cannot survive by itself in the jungle. It needs loving and caring parents to raise it to maturity. That’s what a “business” is. An app is this beautiful, newly-born creation, offering hopes of redemption for all of humanity. But it needs support. It needs guidance. You can’t just throw your new-born on a modeling stage (like Product Hunt) and hope for the best. At best, you could use that as a testing ground, but it’s important to realize the long game.

The Long Game

If you’re building an app and not a business, you’re playing the short game. Your chances of success will be much lower. And that’s just based off the definition of long vs. short: when you’re in it for the long run, you’ll have more time and gain more wisdom, which will allow you to nurture and care for your product in ways customers can begin to appreciate. But, when your mindset is that of “I’m going to hack together an app over a couple weeks, slap a 99 cent price tag on it, and post it around,” you’re setting yourself up for failure. Not that it’s not a great exercise and learning experience. But if you keep doing the same thing expecting different results…

That’s the loop I found myself in. I was releasing relatively useful app after app. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t driving a Tesla yet. It’s not until last year that I decided, or finally learned, that one needs to manifest their own existence into a product. That sounds intense, but let me explain.

An app is a reflection of the creative abilities of its creator. An app usually consists of a small ecosystem of software and customer reviews. A business on the other hand involves so much more. Marketing, customer support, branding, sustainability, long term strategy, finances, scheduled releases, and community fostering. With all these attributes, a business begins taking on a personality of its own, and creates survivability momentum not found with single-launch apps.

Now what?

So, let’s say you’re sold. Let’s say you now want to start a business as opposed to an app. Where do you start? Well, the distinction is admittedly subtle, but important. Here are a few things you can do to grow your app into a business, and increase your likelihood for survivability and success.

1 | Tell a story. Build a brand.

An app has a function. “Use this app to do this task.” Not much of a story there. Not much reason for a customer to stick around once they’ve used your app to accomplish their task. A business on the other hand has a story, and a byproduct of that story is an app. For example, Standard Notes, which is the product I am presently building, came into existence because I believed this:

Software should be built to last. In today’s fast-moving, growth-over-everything mindset, software bloats while companies grow faster than they can keep up, resulting in bugs, poor usability, and eventually, the death of the product. This treats the customer as a means to an end, and is insulting and deceitful.

Thus was born the app of my dreams: a safe and simple place to store your notes. It promises to remain simple for ever, so that it doesn’t grow beyond what we are capable of managing. It promises to pursue longevity over growth, so you can count on your notes being there for you decades from now when you need them.

The story resulted in the creation of the app. And while an app’s lifetime may be numbered, a story is timeless, and can remain important for centuries to come. When you build a product around a story, rather than a function, you increase your likelihood for survival and sustainability, while also better communicating why one should use your product.

2 | Foster a community

Community-building sounds like a difficult chore. But by this I mean, just have a place where people who like your product can hang out and ask questions. For me, this was as simple as a public Slack group and a discussion forum on GitHub. At worst, it makes the whole ordeal a lot less lonely. And at best, you’ve created a vibrant, self-sustaining community that can continue to exist even when you perish.

3 | Invest in the ecosystem surrounding your app.

An app is hard enough to build on its own. So to put work around the container of the app sounds again like an unpleasant chore. But you want to build a comfortable and safe environment for your app to grow in. You wouldn’t just drop your beautiful new-born at a Baby Gap runway and pick them up a few years later. Instead, you’d want to create a safe and nurturing environment where your model-to-be can come home to and rest, learn, and grow. It can take years, so you need to be ready to provide support to your new-born at any time. (I don’t know how I ended up with a baby modeling analogy. Just work with me here.)

More directly, the ecosystem around an app could include a full website (not a landing page) that describes your philosophy, your goals, and allows customers to get in touch with you or other members of the community. An ecosystem could also include consistent public communication with customers, like blog posts, tweets, videos, and other forms of social media (sorry, that term stresses me out too). Most importantly, a vibrant ecosystem must include unparalleled customer support. Remember, you’re in this for the long run.

The Final Ingredient

If you’ve done all these steps correctly, you might still find yourself struggling. The last and final ingredient? It takes time. A commitment to a business over an app means you’re not measuring yesterday’s download numbers as an indication of whether you should give up. A commitment to a business means you’ll do whatever it takes to grow this thing, even if it takes several long painstaking years.

And really, that’s the most important distinction between an app and a business: it’s your mindset. You wouldn’t chase after a failing app for more than a few months. A business with your name written all over it? Well, that sort of becomes you. You’d feed it to grow with the same ravenous energy you have towards feeding your own body and soul. And, if you ask me, that’s a good recipe for success.


If you're just starting out on your journey, please don't hesitate to reach out via Twitter if there's any way I can be helpful.