We hear this almost every single day. The two most important questions: how long and how much? We’ve been asked by hip hop stars whether we can build an app in a week. We’ve turned around apps for famous, GRAMMY Award-Winning DJs in five weeks. Still, we very much believe and preach the notion to every potential client that nine women can’t make a baby in a month. No matter how much manpower you put on a project it doesn’t guarantee higher velocity or better results – as simple as that. In fact, in some cases it could backfire and create worse results.

Let’s take a step back. Back to the question of what does an app cost? First, let’s make sure that we’ve answered the question of why do you need an app? What is the purpose of your app? What is the goal of your app? Is there something in existence like a third party solution that can be sufficient for what you’re trying to do in the digital space, like a Mobile Roadie or Square, Squarespace or Etsy, or something that wouldn’t require you to build a custom app?

If you’ve analyzed your business model, have clear goals, have read through our rootstrapper material, and you still believe you need an app, then let’s talk about how much an app costs. Let’s pretend we are building Instagram for dogs. It’s going to be a mobile social media program where only dogs and other pets will have user-generated content uploaded by their owners. You’ll be able to follow. You’ll be able to like. You’ll be able to comment. You’ll be able to pretty much have the same functionality or features as Instagram or other social networks.

Now the first step, at least in our shop, is going through the rootstrap. What that means is going through a full workshop to take that idea of Instagram for dogs, for social media for dogs, and turning it into an actual product. What does that mean? It means going through all the various use cases. For example, as a dog owner I should be able to upload pictures of my dog. As a dog owner, I should be able to like other posts in the dog community. As a dog owner, my dog should be able to follow other dogs, etc., etc.

Now once we’ve established all those use cases we can start diving into the workflows and the user interactions. Now what that entails is the screens you see and how all the features and screens interact with each other in one really cohesive flow. As a dog owner, I should be able to create an account for my dog. I should be able to upload photos of my dog – all that good stuff.

Now once we’ve defined what the look and feel will be based on – the navigation, the layout, the structure, basically all of the nuts and bolts for our social media app (our blueprint is what we like to call it) we have an estimate in story points that is a reflection of what an estimated cost will be. Now, an estimate is just an estimate. It’s an educated guess at best, but we follow a Scrum methodology in our development process, which basically means we’ve refined our estimates to be pretty close to accurate. Based on previous history and velocity and the data of our past work, we’re actually able to anticipate what certain features might require in effort.

For example, let’s say in our app there is a functionality for a dog owner, for a dog, to follow another dog and add him as a friend. We may have created a similar functionality in another app and know that it’s a two-point story or a three-point story based on its complexity and what we need to do to implement that feature from A to Z. Once we understand the estimate with story points and the effort in weeks, we can determine our costs.

Now, a cost is just a reflection of the scope you’re getting. It’s the exact same thing as building a house or painting your home or engaging your lawyer. The more work your lawyer does, the more he bills you. The more work or changes you make to your house based on the original plans, the more it will cost. Understanding that a project is not fixed-scope can help you or any client understand what an app will cost. More scope, more work, more money. It’s as simple as that.

Now let’s say it takes ten weeks to build our app and publish it in iOS. We’re going to need to pay our development team X for ten weeks based on the estimate we provided. We’re going to probably need to look into hosting solutions that will cost anywhere between $30 to $50 with Heroku’s add-on plan. We’re going to want to set up an Amazon S3 account which will host all the media and assets, like our dog pictures, in the application. We may want to set up custom emails. This can be free and possibly even done with your domain registrar, but if you want to be fancy, you can get Google Apps and create custom emails and groups for your dog social media app.

You’ll also need a couple other things like SSL, which allows your site to be encrypted and trusted by the interwebs. You may want to sign up for a newsletter campaign to let all the dog owners know about any updates, events, dog parties, you name it. Depending on the email campaign, you could be looking at anywhere from $5 a month to $500 a month. You could pay for Google Analytics and go fancy, but we’d recommend that Google will be sufficient for your MVP. You don’t need to go beyond that. If you do, there is Kiss Metrics, there’s Mixpanel, there’s a lot of other really good analytics solutions to give you a very, very clear picture of what the behavior of your app is like and tracking.

Now those are pretty much all the costs. One thing that is very much related but people often don’t realize or recognize is that we can build the app. We can make it the best social media app for dogs on the planet. But we’re not building the Field of Dreams – meaning just because we build it doesn’t mean they will come. You still need to put money into user acquisition, whether it’s paid Adwords campaigns, PR company, or strategic partnerships with all the doggie hotels. Whatever you have to do in order to get people to learn about this app: that’s key. Make sure you don’t blow your money just on development so that you have some in reserve for marketing. It’s very important. Operational costs, maintenance depending on how big your app is, and how quickly it scales, you may even need one full-time developer. Although, you may be able to get away with just a part-time developer that will be able to fix bugs and what have you.


CEO and Co-founder of Neon Roots

Ben Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Neon Roots, a digital development agency with a mission to destroy the development model and rebuild it from the ground up. After a brief correspondence with Fidel Castro at age nine, Ben decided to start doing things his own way, going from busboy to club manager at a world-class nightclub before he turned 18. Since then, Ben has founded or taken a leading role in 5 businesses in everything from software development to food and entertainment.