The cost of building an App

by Josh Owens

January 6th, 2021

What will my software project cost me?

I get this question from time to time, I even posted an answer a while back on Quora. As someone who has an idea and some cash, but not deep technical skills and knowledge, it can feel overwhelming to figure out how to get started.

First off, welcome to the new Kickstand blog! Our team has worked with Fortune 50 companies and self-funded startups, so we have a lot of experience building applications and software for web and mobile. I’ve personally been building custom software for over 14 years now, my goal is to share some of what I learned over the years.

Be clear about what you need and why

One of the most important things is to convey to your developer is why you are building custom software. When they understand the why, the good developers will make sure the solutions they write will fit the needs of the business in the best way possible. Most people with ideas want to describe how to build the software, but it is the why that will lead good devs on a better path to your vision.

Think about a grocery product page, that page exists solely to get people to add the product to the cart, so an add to cart button is super important on the page. When we understand the goal is to sell groceries we can start to get context like where is the traffic to that page coming from? Do we need to think about SEO? Will page speed matter? These are questions we likely ask during the discovery process. Because we know eCommerce is a big goal, we know page speed does matter, optimizing page markup and descriptions do matter for search engines. It changes where developers spend time and focus on a feature they build.

Ok, but how much will it cost?

Software projects are like cars. The cost of the project depends on a lot of different factors. Sure, you can get a ‘used car’ version of an application built (10k), but expect more bugs and problems... You are likely cutting corners and trading off major concessions to get things done fast and cheap. You can buy a new car version of an app too. Do you want something dependable like a new Honda Minivan? You can probably get a solid app built for $40k. Want the top end of app development? That is gonna be like a new sports car, upwards of $200k. This will likely be many rounds of development, testing, and release - working towards a stable and full-featured application for customers.

Iron Triangle

When it comes to cost, you have three main factors to consider; Quality, Speed, and overall Cost. Projects are usually drive by overall budget, timelines, and scope of the project. In order to deliver something of value, a product owner will be forced to choose between quality, speed, and cost. Whenever someone asks me if it is possible to build a product or a feature, I always joke that given enough time and money, we can build anything.

Above all else, keep in mind the old adage: You get what you pay for.

Can I get a fixed price on my project?

There are two options for building out a project: fixed bid or time and materials. Fixed bid is where you try to scope out a project and document everything the team is going to build, up front. While fixed bids are tempting, the bigger the project then the harder it will be to nail down an exact list of features for a total cost. Issues start to arise when parsing of the scope comes into play, i.e. does X and Y satisfy scope, or do we need to also do Z to satisfy scope. The developers will also try to get done as fast as possible and will push back to not change scope. As a project owner, you will be looking to expand and change scope as you see the application in action and you start to use it. As Mike Tyson said, no plans survive the first punch.

A quality dev shop will give you an estimate and write user stories to work against. Estimations are just a guess and at the start of the project, developers and product owners have a lot of unanswered questions about the product. Working in an hourly fashion may seem scary, but it gives the product owner the flexibility to change their mind as they start using the software and learning what works. The product owner knows what the product should be, why limit an app based on an assumption made weeks or months before a team started writing the software?

What about bugs?

No software is bug-free. You should run far away from any dev or dev shop that says otherwise. Sticking with the car analogy, it is very rare to have a new car out for a year and have no recalls on it. Humans are fallible, that should be accounted for in the development process. This is why we do automated testing and manual testing of applications. We want to find these bugs before they are added to production software.

How do I choose?

You have an idea and you likely have a source of cash. Your top priority is to understand how much of your idea can be built and at what cost. The next step is to vet out the developer or dev shop you are talking to. Have they launched software? Can you talk to other app owners to see what the process was like for them? Have they ever had code audited? Ask them what processes they have in place to ensure code quality? Do they pair program, what kind of testing or QA work do they do? Do they have a weekly check-in where they show off working code?

If you are interested in getting an app built, feel free to drop us a line and we can chat.

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