The Million Dollar App Idea

Disclaimer

I haven’t created a million dollar app yet either, so you can take or leave my opinions. This post arises from multiple conversations with friends at different stages of life who all have different ideas about technical solutions they’d like to see in the world.

Summary

  • The glorious idea
  • The bleak truth of “good” ideas
  • The success of the “Yo” App
  • Overly complex ideas
  • Building your team
  • Finding a balance
  • Quantity vs quality

Mr. Krabs, I have an idea!

spongebob has a great idea

We’ve all been there.

Inspiration strikes us in the night while we sleep, and we jolt up, face riddled with an excited exasperation. We’ve discovered an idea too good to fail. We rush to the nearest piece of paper and write it down, before it disappears from our thoughts like a leaf drifts down a river. For some, this idea has been simmering for months, playing around with different forms and variations, occasionally being forgotten and replaced with a need to eat or do something else. For others, it actually is a bolt of lightning. A colleague says something to you, or you’re out for a jog, or eating a donut.

But is this idea actually any good?

In the bleak midwinter

To examine if an idea is good or not, conventional wisdom suggests to look at your predecessors. What has worked in the past? Why did it work? Will my idea generate similar traction? Why does this type of app succeed, while this one failed?

Fortune claims that around ~60% of startups fail to provide their investors a 1x return. On paper, that seems like a good sign. Our odds of starting a successful business of our own are almost 1 in 2! But, let’s unpack this one more level and see if that’s actually the case. According to Entrepreneur, only 0.05% of startups get funded by VC’s in the first place. Indeed, most startups are run out of the pockets of the creators and their family and friends.

In that case, we want to make sure that our idea is good. Like, really good. Good enough that we will be able to execute, market, and most importantly get a positive return on our idea. Unfortunately, most ideas that sound good to you, don’t sound good to others. Back when I first started doing web dev, one of my mentors told me that it’s vital to ask yourself: “Is this something that I want, or will it give others value?”. This question can save you countless hours of working on a product that no one will ever use.

Yo App

Yo is an app that is extremely simple at it’s core. I send you a “Yo”, you send me one back. Thats it. In 2014, Yo was valued between $5 and $10 million dollars. Surely not as valued as a unicorn like Uber, but a phenomenal return on such a simple idea.

This is where I think the greatest divide between apps that succeed and apps that fail exists. Some ideas are too big in magnitude, too hard to implement, and fail before they can get off the ground.

Two worlds

Let’s consider two scenarios:
1. You come up with an idea that will help users find clothes that fit them perfectly, are stylish and affordable.
2. You come up with an idea that sends users a funny text at a specified time during the day.

In scenario 1, we have a thick idea. To get this idea to market we would need machine learning for a recommendation system, machine vision to capture the physical specifics about a user (or a really detailed form, I guess). We need a marketplace where users can buy clothes, a relationship with fashion vendors, a relationship with a shipping vendor, etc.

In scenario 2, we have a thin idea. This idea is effectively it’s a database with two tables. One of funny quotes, the other of users and their specified times. We write some code to link the two and send a notification to users.

While the idea in scenario 1 is super cool, it’s extremely difficult to implement correctly. Also it’s more costly, and more risky. Scenario 2 can be built super quick, and you can get your idea in front of users in much less time, and for much less capital.

It’s often worth it to split larger ideas into smaller ones, if your heart is set on a thick idea.

News Team, ASSEMBLE

mo money mo problems
In the infamous words of The Notorious B.I.G: “Mo Money, Mo Problems”

I think it’s also important to discuss the people you’ll need to make an app a reality. If you need 3 PhD’s on your team, 5 engineers, and 3 sales people before you have a POC, your idea is probably a bit too unrealistic. Try to find ideas that are simple in nature, so you’ll be able to go farther with a smaller team.

Balance

guy balances on chairs

Survivorship bias is a hell of a drug. When looking at major companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, it’s easy to assume that with the correct mix of gusto, hard work and ingenuity, everyone can create a multi-layered complex organization. As with all of the logical fallacies though, this is a mistaken belief. These companies have visibility, and we don’t ever see the hundreds of similar companies that have failed around them.

For any good idea to bubble up, you need to strike a balance between realism and aspiration. If you believe your app will be able to compete with the top 10 in the app store three days after a 1.0 release, you’re going to feel disappointed. However, if you meter your expectations, and really narrow in on a straightforward value you can provide to your users, you’ll be able to iterate quicker and see measurable results.

Quality vs Quantity != Yin vs Yang

So is your app idea good? That’s hard to tell. Is there a market you’re inserting yourself into? What value does your app provide?

Personally, I’d much rather try three smaller ideas, and whisk them off to market and have them all fail rather than put all of my eggs into one proverbial basket. It’s important to not let your idea cloud your success, especially on a market like the App Store, where competition is tough, and it’s very hard to get visibility. Don’t be afraid to pivot, don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to make small projects. And most importantly, remember to make stuff that provides value.

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