One of the great things about overseeing business development at Small Planet is responding to the steady stream of inbounds from big companies, small companies, startups, and just regular folks who want to make apps. We get inquiries in all shapes and sizes, and end up having conversations with all sorts of interesting people with compelling ideas. It’s fun and it keeps things fresh.
The majority of these inbounds do not lead to projects, with us or anybody else. The reason in most cases is pretty clear—making and maintaining a good mobile application usually costs real money.
We’ve designed, built, and launched over 100 iOS and Android apps for clients in the last ten years. And we’ve done hundreds of updates to these apps, adding features, tweaking interface designs, and optimizing functionality, all in the name of continually improving the user experience and application value during a product’s lifecycle.
We’ve done this work with many different types of clients, across many different verticals, in service of all sorts of business objectives. We have a body of knowledge and a track record of success—we’ve seen and done a lot in this space. So it is very safe to say that this discussion is informed by a ton of real-world experience.
Well, good for you, but how much does it cost?
Even “simple” apps (and we hear that term used a lot) can quickly become expensive. Our typical client projects run well into the six figures—a $400K cross-platform (iOS/Android) application is not unusual at all, and that’s just for the initial version-1.0 launch. Apps that require the creation of backend systems to do things like securely manage user accounts and process payments, or require a CMS to populate new content, may cost significantly more.
How do you figure?
While no two mobile applications are the same, the good ones all benefit from a number of things done thoughtfully, whether they are being made for the consumer market or for the enterprise.
It is not unusual for Strategy, Concepting, UX, Content, and Design to take up just as much time as Development and Testing, even for clients that have a clear vision of what they want. For many pieces of work it is the concepting, experience design, and interface design that require the most time and energy. So while many folks are out there looking for a “developer” for their app, I think that language often sells short a major piece of the work at hand.
“I’m looking for a strategy, design, and development partner” would be more accurate.
In 2019, our average client project lasted 24 weeks from kickoff through version 1.0 submission to the App Store and Google Play.
The mobile applications we made and updated during the year were for a diverse set of clients and spanned all sorts of categories: health and wellness, streaming entertainment, real estate, ecommerce, lifestyle, publishing, market research, games and more.
Almost every project was cross-platform, which in our world means mobile apps delivered for both iOS and Android. Sometimes we leverage tools like Unity and Xamarin and code once, and sometimes we code independently for each platform—that decision is influenced by a number of factors and can significantly impact overall cost.
What kind of team is needed?
For typical engagements, a team usually looks like this:
- Producer (product and project management)
- UX Lead/Product Strategist
- Content Strategist
- Interface Designer
- iOS Developer
- Android Developer
- QA Associate
Larger projects require more hands on deck, or individuals with specific skill sets, but this is a decent representation of a team that can produce great work.
At Small Planet, we pay our staff fairly. We are not an offshore company—we do all of our work with our staff here under one roof in Brooklyn, NY. So while our cost structure may be higher than many other parts of the world, it’s pretty typical for the U.S. And our experienced staff has delivered together for years, so we are super-efficient and move swiftly.
Payroll/benefits costs for a team like the one above run us about $16K/week on average. So, on a 24-week assignment, payroll alone can easily reach over $350K to cover the hours put in by this team. Add any additional staffing and overhead like rent, communications, equipment, insurance, etc. and a $400K+ app happens really fast.
Can you go out and do it yourself offshore or with your own freelance team, and do it for less? Maybe, if you can find people that you trust and are available and work really well together. Doing it this way is a lot riskier if you care about excellent work and time to market. And it still won’t be cheap, not at all. Quality freelance talent costs real money as well. Offshore? Maybe, but we haven’t heard any real success stories from folks that have gone that route.
What happens after launch?
All that was about getting an app out the door. In many respects launching an app is like having a baby—it isn’t over, it’s just getting started.
Marketing and user acquisition costs may be significant and, in many cases, are materially more than the costs of designing and developing the product itself. Attracting new, high-quality users and then engaging and retaining them over time is a full-time job, requiring a small specialized team.
Products built for the consumer market and larger enterprise audiences require a dedicated team driving user engagement, which often means iterating on features and functionality on an ongoing basis. We are still making improvements and adding new elements to apps that we launched years ago, and also helping our clients take this work in-house, so they can maintain things going forward. These are digital products that need ongoing attention and often significant budget to maintain and grow.
It may be that building a great app and giving your users a valuable mobile experience is one of the best uses of budget for your mission. Just be sure you go into it with clear eyes and full hearts!