Mistake 1: Hiring developers too soon
Every time someone decides they want to seriously pursue an app idea, the first thing they ask is “Where can I find a developer to build it?”
Is it reasonable? It’s a huge mistake.
You see, new app founders seem to be under the impression that they can tap a developer, explain their idea, and watch it come to life.
But that’s not how this works. For about a billion reasons.
The biggest reason is that a successful app, especially one targeting consumers, requires a confluence of skill sets to have any chance of being adopted by real users. That means you’ll need much more than a developer. You’ll need graphic designers, UI designers, UX designers, copywriters, marketing professionals, product managers, and often not one but multiple different kinds of developers.
Yet new founders, time and time again, will find a developer (or even a development firm) that promises them the world, spend tens of thousands, and end up with a dud on launch and no capital left to continue.
So what should you do instead? First of all, validate your idea to the best of your abilities by talking to potential users and fleshing out nuanced user personas. After that, make sure you understand the next steps in deepening your validation, including the differences between proofs of concept, prototypes, and MVPs. Only by understanding the goal of the earliest phases of development can you make informed choices about any early development steps you may or may not decide to take.
Mistake 2: Designing the app yourself
Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple. He didn’t write code, and he didn’t do much if any direct design work either.
As an app founder, you need to be like Steve Jobs.
Steve understood that good designers are sacred and that while he may have had the taste to identify great design, he did not have the years of practice under his belt to execute most design work.
While we’re all avid users of apps, that doesn’t equip us to apply nuanced user experience and layout principles that take years to even consciously notice let alone master. It’s like expecting someone who regularly writes text messages to be able to produce award-winning poetry with a bit of focused effort. Using apps gives us limited exposure to the craft, and we need to produce an experience for which our users will award us their attention. If we can’t do that, the app is dead on launch.
Steve was the arbiter of taste and the keeper of the vision. He empathized with users and understood their problems with merciless rigour and inner honesty. He was a great facilitator that allowed great designs to bubble to the surface. And that was possible because he found great people, pointed them in a direction, and let them work.
You don’t need to be a designer (and you shouldn’t). You need to find good talent and pull everyone together like Steve.
Mistake 3: Obsessing about intellectual property
The surest way to alienate anyone and everyone that could possibly help you succeed is to ask them to sign an NDA before having a conversation. You will immediately turn off engineers. Industry insiders will label you as an amateur before you can blink. No one will take you seriously.
Seems crazy, right? How do you protect your idea, right?
Here’s the thing, I’m not saying there are no situations in which an NDA/non-compete/other legal agreement is appropriate. There are. But in the vast majority of cases, there’s less at risk than you think, and anyone with talent is fatigued and unwilling to entertain intellectual property conversations unless a serious boatload of cash is imminently prepared to be transferred to them.
First of all, nobody steals unvalidated ideas. Most of the horror stories you’ve heard throughout history have involved one party with a ton of resources ripping off an idea of another party with an equally gargantuan amount of resources. When Google ripped off the iPhone with Android, for example, Apple had already spent countless millions implementing the iPhone experience and successfully bringing it to market. This was not the case of an exec at Google hearing a person explain the iPhone concept and then pouring cash into Android’s development. It's possible that employees of Google tried to pitch something similar to the iPhone at Google before but were rejected because there was insufficient evidence that it would succeed!
Your biggest challenge is going to be explaining your idea enough that you can convince someone to work on it with you. Nobody is going to understand your idea with even a fraction of the clarity you do, let alone with anything clear enough to be able to steal it. And even if someone does, and attempts to steal it, execution is everything!! Think about how many versions of Calendly there were before Calendly existed. The idea was out there for years, but now everyone uses Calendly because it was the sole product that successfully realized the idea in a way that provided real value.
Mistake 4: Seeking a technical cofounder too late
Remember how I said you shouldn’t seek a developer too early? Hiring a developer prematurely is a huge mistake.
All that’s true. This is different.
A technical co-founder is not just a developer. They may or may not even implement any of the actual features of your app. A technical co-founder is (ideally) an experienced developer that is first and foremost a business partner that you can trust to oversee all technical aspects of your business.
As a non-technical founder, the technical aspects of app development and deployment are going to remain largely mysterious to you even after they’ve been explained a bunch of times. You should venture to understand what you can at a high level, but there are always layers that you just won’t have the time to wrap your head around.
That’s what a technical cofounder is for. They set the foundation and direction of all technical details and oversee these details such that they are likely to yield favourable results so you don’t have to (and because you simply are not able to).
As such, your technical cofounder is a pretty essential piece of the puzzle that can take a pretty long time to find. You see, any developer with the skill set to be a technical cofounder (technically excellent and experienced with an appreciation of product and business), has generally been asked on numerous occasions and turned down most offers. That’s because these folks are swimming in opportunity, so the best way to persuade one to help you is to have a meaningful relationship with them before you need them.
That means you need to be going to meetings, getting to know developers, and making an attempt to genuinely relate to and understand their interests — or socialize at the very least. Best to make this a habit and repeat starting today.
Mistake 5: Misunderstanding the MVP
As you navigate your app journey, you’re eventually going to come across the idea of an “MVP” if you haven’t already.
But beware, friends, this is perhaps the most sloppily used and misunderstood concept in the whole industry.
MVP stands for “minimum viable product.” It is a concept that was introduced in The Lean Startup to refer to the first version of a product (in this case your app) that has the minimum feature set necessary to be a viable, usable product for your earliest adopters.
Most people understand that, and might even be able to explain it to you.
But then they go ahead and use the term MVP as if it's synonymous with the first release of your product, or some god-forsaken, stripped-down Frankenstein app that no sane person would ever use. I call these MFAs or minimally functional abstractions.
For example, you’ll often find firms or indie developers promising to build you an MVP in a few months. They’ll do a bunch of magic, show you a demo, and say “Viola, this is your MVP!”
But that’s not true. What they’ve created is at most an MVP candidate, and more often closer to a mere prototype. You might have to iterate on that candidate for 6 months to a year before the product can, with integrity, be called viable. And that happens more often than anyone would like to admit.
It’s unlikely anyone is intentionally lying to you. It’s just that the term MVP is frequently used without rigour or depth of understanding, even by industry veterans. But the terms mean something very specific, and understanding precisely what it means and why it’s so important is one of many ways you increase your odds of success over the next guy.
Mistake 6: Allowing your idea to remain abstract
The harder it is for people to understand your app idea and its value, the harder it will be to corral the resources needed to launch a genuine MVP and in turn make your app idea a reality.
Yet so many app founders have done little work to articulate their ideas with potency, and that’s typically for a very specific reason.
You understand your idea better than anyone else. And you don’t realize how unclear it is to everyone else.
In other words, as the creator of your idea, you have personally grappled with its value and nuance in a way that most if any others have not. This means that when you make certain statements about your idea, the benefits and implications are (from your perspective) so self-evident that they may not occur to you to mention.
As such, you need to do the work of refining your pitch and your product’s story. You need to experiment with different ways of framing the problems your app is solving and the unique ways your app intends to be a solution to those problems. And you need to get specific! If you find you are hitting a wall beyond describing the problems and solutions at a high level, it's time to dive deep and rigorously think through the implications so that the next time you need to pitch your story is concrete and compelling.
Mistake 7: Taking advice for face value
There’s an enormous amount of misleading advice on the internet (and off) about turning your app idea into a reality.
Everyone has an opinion, including:
- Development firms that want you to sign expensive development contracts;
- Successful entrepreneurs with limited self-awareness of how they became successful;
- Product leaders at large companies whose perspective is warped by having access to extensive resources only available at large companies;
- Investors, staff at famous accelerators, and others who operate in their kind of bubble where cash is abundant and the weight of their prestige allows for opportunities not necessarily available outside such a bubble;
- All manner of other people who happen to be developers, designers, marketers, and more with varying experiences in different domains of the app development world.
The point is not to make you suspicious of everyone. It may well be ideal for you to hire a development firm or to take the advice of some billion-dollar startup founder.
And just because someone is getting something by offering you advice (whether it be a development contract with you or the egoic satisfaction of getting retweeted), that doesn’t necessarily mean the advice is untrue or malicious.
It just means you need to be cognizant of the perspective of every person offering advice. And you need to do that so you can evaluate two things for every piece of advice you receive:
- The degree to which various factors are influencing the advice given.
- The degree to which the advice applies to your situation is based on the perspective of the person giving the advice.