Small Business

Building Apps For Your Business: 5 Things You Need To Know

Designing apps for your business has become the next hot trend, and, thanks to a variety of online, do-it-yourself app-building tools, you don't need advanced programming skills or thousands of dollars to build and publish an app that will attract new business, expand your company and improve customer relations.

Do you want to jump on the app-building bandwagon and deepen your connections with your customers? Here are five things you need to know about building apps for your business.

1. Start small, with a clear vision.

Before you get started, you need to define the goal you want your app to achieve. Dave Castelnuovo, developer/creator of Pocket God by Bolt Creative, a San Francisco-based app store that creates original iPhone apps and games, believes because all entrepreneurs love the creative process, "once we get on a roll, and our mind starts cranking out great ideas, it's really hard to put the brakes on it and focus on just one core concept. The great thing about the app store is you can update and evolve your application over time. Use this to your advantage and create your app in stages." He recommends investing your time and money conservatively in the beginning: "It's very beneficial to use a small initial investment to focus on one key piece of functionality that would be valuable to your customers, then use the profit from the app to finance future updates."

Robert Boyle, digital media strategist/EIR at Squeaky Wheel Media, a digital communication agency based in New York City, agrees that with all the new technologies, it's easy for business owners to get wrapped up in bells and whistles. "Mobile apps can help you in lots of different ways -- with brand awareness, building buzz, driving users to your location, etc. -- so knowing what you want to accomplish is really important. Otherwise, you'll be confronted with more questions and headaches than you can imagine as you begin building the app," Boyle says. "Be specific when defining your goal. Have everything in the app focused on making this happen."

2. Do your research.

After you define your primary goal, see what others in your industry are doing with their apps. "Do a search on the app stores around keywords associated with your business to see what other people are doing in your space," Boyle suggests. "Because you've already defined your overall goal, you can conduct a fine-tuned search about what else is out there that works toward making that goal happen. Also, this research will help you determine if you should build an iPhone app, an Android app, a BlackBerry app or something different. You'll be able to see where your competitors are ... and where they're not."

3. It's all in your name -- and your brand.

There are hundreds of thousands of apps in different app stores. You need to make sure you brand your app so you can be seen and heard. Understand how users look for apps and how you can make yours stand out. According to Castelnuovo, this starts with the icon you design to match your app, which should be tied in closely with your business name, app name and unique brand: "The first thing a user notices is your icon, then your app name. Those are the only things they will ever see unless the name and icon entices them to click through to your app." While you should have your potential fans' interests in mind, make sure that, above all, your app icon and name reflects exactly what the app does. "You shouldn't try to please everyone with your icon," says Castelnuovo. "It will only fade into the background noise of the hundred other icons on the same page. Be a little drastic, take a chance and do something that creates an emotional impact. It's better to create a strong reaction in a fraction of the audience than a so-so reaction with everyone."

Your app name can also be used to lure new fans. For example, the Doodle Jump app uses the text "BE WARNED: Insanely Addictive!" as part of its name. This is a great way to elicit a strong reaction that will get more people to click through to your app page. Castelnuovo says, "One trick we use with our Pocket God icon is to highlight our updates by changing our icon with each new version. They see that our icon is changing, that our main character is being put into different situations, which drives curiosity and a click through from someone who wasn't interested in it earlier." This trick can work with business-oriented apps, as long as you make sure your updated icons all look like they belong to the same app and company.

4. See if a DIY solution will really meet your needs, and get ready for the next steps.

Cost-efficiency is important, especially when it comes to building an initial app that will be complementary to your existing business. Because you may need to build your own custom app to save money, Boyle recommends using services like BuildAnApp, SwebApps and AppBreeder. "They offer you an out-of-the-box/DIY solution that meets your goal in a very cost-effective way. As a small-business owner, you wouldn't want to pay a developer $5,000 to build an app that you could do for $200."

But what if DIY doesn't meet your needs? Then you should be prepared to hire a developer, which means having a basic outline of the development process together. "You need to make sure you're as prepared as humanly possible for interaction with real-life programmers." This means you need to create documents to help guide your app's development: a list of pages/elements you want to include in the app (e.g., "store locator," "game," "product list," "contact info"); a list of example apps that feature the functionality you want included; and your overall goal, defined in writing. "If you are very thorough in preparing these documents, the process of development will be much smoother, which will save you time and money in the end."

5. Know how to hire a developer.

Once you have a clear goal in mind for your app and a sketch of its framework (and you've established you just can't do it yourself), it's time to find and hire a developer. App developers lurk in many places, so your best bet is to start by conducting a very focused Google search for developers based on your preferred platform -- iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, etc. Boyle suggests you look closely at each developer's portfolio and ask important questions: Have they developed apps for clients that meet goals similar to yours? Are they in the U.S. or outsourced? Do they understand design? "Once you've figured out which shop you like, get a list of references from them and contact those references to help you figure out how much oversight you'll need to provide, how comfortable the team is working with people who aren't developers, and what it's like overall to work with that developer. Be certain before you sign your contract that you define the date for the final delivery of the app, the overall budget for the project and anything else you're worried about so you're all on the same page."

In terms of working with offshore firms, Boyle stresses, "Only you as a business owner know what you can pay and how comfortable you are working with an offshore firm." Working with offshore companies can really keep costs down, but it also means you'll likely have to closely oversee the development process.

Determine the goals you hope to achieve with your app, a sketch of what it will look like and decide whether you're going to go the DIY or the professional developer route, and you're well on your way. Then all you have to worry about is how to spread the word.

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