November 2, 2014

SCHULMAN | A Guide to a Killer App

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Hi, want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg with your killer app? If you don’t, come up with an app and dream bigger — unless you’re pre-med in which case you’re dreams might get crushed. You should probably dream smaller (that was a joke by the way). Making an app costs you nothing — i.e. the average college kid’s monthly budget — but you can benefit from experience and improve others’ lives.

A few weekends ago, I was lucky and got to help a friend with a business plan for his app. I’m no expert, but I want to share what I learned for any aspiring Mark Zuckerbergs. If you have a secret app that you haven’t told anyone about, your should reconsider your approach and tell people about it. Your biggest challenge will be getting the user base to make your app profitable.

We have preconceived conceptions about what makes apps successful because we are only exposed to apps that have passed the initial hurdles. I thought the biggest hurdles would be overvaluation because of the headlines in the Wall Street Journal. The biggest challenge for apps starting out is getting users. From a business perspective, you need 50,000 users to be profitable. I don’t mean to sound discouraging but that’s a lot. That’s 10 times the size of my home town and three times the size of Cornell. Only one percent of apps reach that point.

You need 50,000 users because there are three ways an app can make money (which should be obvious to anyone with a smartphone): You can charge up front for the app, you can charge for advertising or you can charge for in app purchases. The Internet (i.e. an article in Forbes and few blogs) agree that 50,000 downloads is the point where these methods generate meaningful amounts of revenue. Also, having users opens up to making money through sponsorships.

The app store is not going to encourage people to download your app. The only way people will find out about it is if you tell them. However slim the odds of reaching critical mass are even slimmer if your friends don’t use it too. Those first 100 to 500 downloads should be easy because those are the people who personally know you. How are people supposed to use your product, if you haven’t told people that you created it?

You might have the best app the world but it may never get downloaded. Plenty of other services violate our privacy, are cumbersome and drain data but people use them anyway. A lot of times, its dumb luck that promotes an app. Take Venmo (not to say Venmo is successful because of dumb luck); I doubt the developers expected people describe their transactions with gags but either way it’s great marketing and promotes Venmo.

People get excited about being early adopter because there’s a glamour factor to be a part of the next Facebook. Technology is changing the world for the better making our time more efficient, and connecting us with the people we love. Sticking with the Venmo example: There is no longer that pause when someone asks you to pay them back and they don’t have cash (because who needs cash in college?); it’s not life changing but it makes life more elegant. I might sound like Mr. Rogers, but if you get passionate about it, I’d call your app a success.

So, if you have an app don’t hide behind the opaque curtain of the app store hoping that one day people will come to you. Go out and proactively get people to download it. Why do people use apps? They simplify our lives. So, if you have an app, get passionate about what you’re doing and do it for fun (it also helps keeping costs down) and, most importantly, tell people about it.

Eric Schulman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.