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How to create an iPhone app: Five lessons from the team at goCatch

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Thinking of creating a mobile app? Don’t just think black-belt design and interface. Think value, think business model.

App development is serious business. Apple already hosts over 425 000 apps in its App Store but many more will be built because the market is growing bigger and bigger, and there are a million unmet needs. A recent Ericsson study found that 1/3 of the iPhone users in the U.S. interact with an app even before they get out of bed. Such is the demand.

Still, not all app developers are going to laugh all the way to the bank. For apps to be successful, they must deliver great value to users, and that value must be sustainable over a period of time. Only then can you build an enduring business model.
Whether you’re at the blueprint stage or seconds away from launch, here are five crucial steps to make sure your app has what it takes to be successful.

1.   Solve a real problem

This seems obvious but is not really so. You’d be surprised how many apps-for-app’s-sake are out there. Any app that doesn’t solve a decent problem, and by decent I mean real, it cannot have a business model.

Not only should your app solve a problem, but it should do it with flair. I like apps that solve a problem in such a way that it delivers wholly different solutions to different sets of users. This is the approach we took with goCatch, an app I recently co-created. goCatch makes it easier for taxi drivers and passengers to connect. Passengers get taxis more easily, and taxi drivers get more passengers. Everyone’s happy, including us.

2.    Think mobile, not PC

Apps need to have mobility built into their business premise. What is the point in creating a mobile app that can be used at one’s desk?

So, what kinds of things possess true value when on the go? Think location, situation and call connectivity.

For examples of apps that do this well, see the winners of this year’s CES Mobile Apps Showdown. Prize-winners included an app to encourage safe driving, one that looks up weather reports and another that adds an extra telephone line that can be used to make calls on VoIP or Wi-Fi networks. All of these are successful because they solve real problems for people are on the move.

3.    Think Transactional

Some mobile apps have been very successful using the pay-to-download business model (think Angry Birds). However, many others – or probably most – paid apps struggle. This begs the question: Does it really make sense to charge consumers for downloads?

Remember, we’re only just scratching the surface of the potential of mobile apps. I believe the most successful apps of the future will be free to download and use, but highly transactional. We can see successful examples of this in Amazon and eBay apps. With a transactional business model, you can quickly win over users who can then discover value without having to take the risk of buying an app.

4.   Show and tell

To tell or not to tell? That’s an unending debate in the startup community.

I believe startups should share their big ideas, however big those might seem. This is because it is important to get feedback, and a different perspective. Business models are far from perfect and can’t be conjured up from thin air. Besides, given the market dynamics, business models need constant refinement, too.

But how do you get good feedback?

Join forums and networks, or ask your mentors. Surround yourself with like-minded, sharp-thinking, pro-active people.

We entered pitching competitions (and won a few, too). This brought us vital feedback for goCatch’s concept, its business model and how we communicated its key messages.

5.    Communicate, communicate and communicate

So… your app has been released. Time for a beer? Not quite, if you want to succeed.

Many app developers meticulously plan the design and technology for their apps but forget to do the same for sales and marketing. We use a three-step approach to getting the message out: traditional, social and shoe-leather.

Traditional communication is writing media releases, creating online copy and talking to journalists. Social communication is building a viral Facebook event, chatting on Twitter and connecting with forum communities. Shoe-leather is the most important one. For us, it meant walking the city streets talking to real taxi drivers and real people, to understand their taxi experiences and how the app can improve those experiences.

You need to decide what to communicate. Every message you share with the public should contain your key message – the most important things about your app. Keep it down to 3 or 4 points. Refine them to perfection and learn them so well you can say them in your sleep. Make sure you present these loud and clear each time you communicate.

Ned Moorfield is a software engineer with over eight years’ experience. He co-founded goCatch and also serves as managing director of Zazu Apps. He has worked on projects for Macquarie Bank, Barclays Capital and AMP Capital Investors, among others.

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