For an aspiring entrepreneur, coming up with an amazing app idea is only half the challenge. What good is an app idea but no money to build it?
Actually, I’d argue the idea is more like a tenth of the challenge. Execution is where the real magic happens but finding the funds for app development is often one of the biggest hurdles.
App development is expensive and for someone with a burning idea for the next industry-disrupting app, not having the cash required to build it can be a stressful predicament.
So what are the options for a cash-strapped app startup wanting to keep moving forward?
How do you create an app for free or with very little money to invest in it?
Firstly, it depends how far off you are. Being only a few thousand dollars short is a much different predicament than being a few hundred thousand short. Are you really looking to create an app for free or do you have a little to put towards it? Having some capital to contribute will open up additional opportuinities, even if it’s just a small ammount.
I’ve compiled this list of 8 alternative ways to get your app developed if you don’t have the funds to pay for it yourself. These options will obviously be a little more challenging than simply paying a developer and very few will be possible without any money at all. But, one of these alternatives may just enable you to keep up the momentum and reach your goal of launching your app.
1. Reduce Feature Set
Depending on how much you have in your budget, the first option you should look at is reducing the feature set. Talk to a developer about which of your features are contributing most to the cost and see if you can do away with any of them in the first release. Often you’ll find that peripheral features can be stripped out with little consequence to your users’ experience. Stripping it back to just the basics will also help keep it simple and enable you to focus on your core features.
2. Build your app cheaply offshore
This is the most common fallback for strapped-for-cash founders. I personally wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a sound technical understanding of app development and server administration, have a lot of time on your hands for project management and quality control and know what to look for in a development team.
If you don’t have those three prerequisites, getting your app built cheaply offshore is not a good idea. Like many others to try this option before you, you will most likely lose what little capital you do have. The likelihood of project failure increases dramatically when you send your project overseas and in many cases you have little recourse when it comes to getting a refund.
The same applies to local app development companies who get their development done offshore. Same risks, same prerequisites.
3. Raise capital
Despite what you may have heard, raising capital to build your app through venture capital firms or angel investors is extremely hard for first time app founders. I’m not saying it’s impossible but most professional investors are looking for a team with a track record in order to minimize their risk. A mobile app launched by newcomers to the industry doesn’t scream “safe bet”.
For inexperienced app startups the most common way of raising capital is from friends and family. Yes, this means asking your own personal network for money. It doesn’t sound very appealing I know, but you’d be surprised at just how many app projects are funded this way.
The key is to perfect your pitch. Be professional about it. Put together a comprehensive business plan and design a prototype (or pay an app designer to design one). Do thorough research and be prepared to answer any questions someone might throw at you. Treat your friends like you would a VC firm and do everything you can to minimise their risk. If you can appeal to them on an emotional level and make it sound like a reasonably safe bet, with the potential for great reward, you’re in with a good shot.
Another way to raise funds through your own network and potentially your wider network is by running a crowdsourcing campaign. It’ll be a lot of work and will still require you to create a pitch and annoy family and friends with pledge requests. But, through crowdsourcing you have the potential to reach a wider audience. If you appeal to a passionate niche group, this approach can, in some cases be quite lucrative.
4. Find a technical co-founder
If you have a strong pitch but hate asking for money, you might be better off finding a technical co-founder. There are a number of benefits to finding a programmer to partner with in your startup. Not only will they hopefully be able to build the app for free or at very low cost but they will assumably be also around to administer and maintain it long term.
If you already know a coder, asking them to be involved might be fairly straightforward. If you don’t know any, finding one and convincing them to build your app for free will be tough. It can be done though. There are various online tools for finding co founders including https://cofounderslab.com/ and http://founderdating.com/. Or you can post to startup groups on Facebook, Reddit and other platforms.
The key to attracting a developer to your project is being passionate and prepared. Treat them like you would an angel investor. When pitching them, let your passion shine through, enabling you to appeal on an emotional level. Then show them you are well prepared and have the necessary skills and resources to pull off your side of the deal.
When looking for a technical cofounder make sure you get to know them before you pitch them though. If successful you’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, so you want to make sure you get along.
5. Offer an app developer an equity split
Instead of finding a technical co-founder you could try pitching your idea to an app development company and see if you can interest them in partnering with you. Your pitch will need to be amazing and even then, be prepared for a lot of rejection.
App development companies get pitched to all the time and have seen passionate people like you build their apps and fail many times before. As a result, app development companies are generally very risk-averse when it comes to investing their time and resources in speculative ventures.
If it does happen it’ll usually require you to part with a big chunk of your company equity. Plus, the developer will want to see you have skin in the game so be prepared to have to cover at least part of the development cost.
Be careful of development companies who overquote then discount the project in exchange for equity. This is a fairly common practice and essentially means you are paying full price for the development of your app and giving away equity in your company at the same time. Always get multiple quotes, even if one developer is offering to take a partial equity payment, so you know you aren’t getting scammed.
6. Build a proof-of-concept
This will cost you money and not just loose change, but it can be a far more cost-effective way to get something to market and fast. The term proof-of-concept is a fairly loose one. It refers to anything that is used to prove (or disprove) the value, merit or technical viability of an idea or concept.
In the app world, a proof-of-concept could take one of a few different forms. For example, before building a fully-fledged custom marketplace app you could put together a simple proof-of-concept web version using www.shopify.com. Alternatively you might build yourself a basic version of your app using a no-code platform like Bubble.io or Adalo.
You might pay a developer to spend a few days hacking together a rudimentary app that can serve as a proof-of-concept. Be prepared for something very bare-bones and not at all bug-free. There are also companies like www.dreamwalk.com.au that offer hackathon services to rapidly design and develop extremely basic but functional proof-of-concept apps. This can be a very cost-effective alternative if your app idea is a simple one.
7. Startup Incubators
These can be competitive to get into but if your idea is sound and you have what it takes to pull it off, this might be a good route for you.
Being accepted into an incubator program requires a big commitment on your part but in exchange you will be given access to resources, funding and expertise. The amount of each will depend on the particular incubator. For example, as part of their offering to startups https://antler.co includes funding, office space, coaching, mentors, assistance with legal, finance and other administrative tasks and connects you with corporates, experts and potential investors.
If you have an app idea but no money, this could be a good option for you, provided you are willing to put in the hard yards. Incubators are businesses too and they will have high expeectations of you.
If your app idea solves a big problem, targets a specific niche or just sounds really appealing, you could try funding it through pre-sales.
You’ll need to setup a marketing website for your app and be able to accept payments. Customers will sign up for your closed beta launch or for exclusive early access to your app once it’s complete.
To attract visitors to your site you’ll need to promote it with Facebook ads, or some other form of paid or free advertising. The key is conveying the benefits of your app to the consumer in a very short period of time. Exclusivity can also a powerful motivator here.
With pre-sales you’re asking people to fork out cash for something they may get, some time in the future, so your pitch needs to be perfect. Be very visual in your presentation, push the benefits and make your target audience an offer they simply can’t say no to.
So, if you were wondering how to create an app for free or at least for much less that retail, these are some alternatives. This is by no means an exhaustive list and if anyone knows of other options, I’d love to hear about them. What it does show is that being strapped for cash doesn’t mean its all over for your app idea. With a bit of creative thinking and a lot of hard work you could still make your dreams of being an app founder a reality. As the adage goes – Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
About the Author
Joseph Russell is an award-winning app designer, app strategist and founder of DreamWalk. Over his 11 year career, Joseph has helped hundreds of businesses and startup founders plan, design, develop and launch successful apps.
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