How Much Does It Cost to Develop an App?

June 15, 2016 - 11 minutes read

mobile app developer

Short answer: anywhere from $25,000–500,000.

Long answer: building an app is like building a house. Who is it for? Bricks or beams? What’s the neighborhood like? Tree houses and penthouses are both “houses,” but serve radically different purposes at radically different price points.

The team here at Dogtown has launched over 100 mobile app projects for startup founders on 3 continents. As startup entrepreneurs ourselves we know that pricing is at the top of the mind for every founder. So we’ve compiled everything you need to know to make a ballpark development estimate to take your app idea to app store.

How much will it cost to make your app dreams real? Read on.

Understand: apps are more than just products

A wise developer once said that the difference between a native app and a “naive” app is only one letter.

A stumbling block for so many startups in the app industry is the drive to build a feature-heavy end product right away. The fatal flaw here is eagerness to skip over testing, validation, fundraising, and other critical early stage processes that improve the potential success of a new venture.

Building an end to end mobile product is like building a bridge. It requires researchers to test whether or not it should be built in the first place, surveyors to examine the surrounding area, architects to design the structure, and developers to bring it to life. Then, of course, a team to ensure the structure can meet the demands put upon it as traffic increases.

While commonly thought of as products, the fact is successful apps aren’t just products; they’re full-fledged tech companies in their own right.

Understand: apps are built in stages

Before you takeaway a price range for your app idea, it’s important to be familiar with the idea that app development proceeds in three stages: prototype, beta, and minimum viable product.

Each end product, or “deliverable,” serves a different purpose and comes at its own price point. Successful apps like Uber and Twitter go through iterative phases, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. (But instead of a butterfly, you get Tinder.)

mobile app pricing

Prototypes

Prototypes are essentially previews, built to display the look and feel of the app’s functionality without the back-end architecture needed for a full release. They’re so important that some Chicago iPhone app developers focus on prototypes exclusively. (That said, you’re usually better off sticking with one company from prototype to product.)

Beyond offering invaluable user testing, the big value proposition with prototypes is that they demonstrate your vision to investors. In fact, getting significant funding without a one is practically impossible.

Prototype pricing is easier to predict than other stages of the process since they don’t require database architecture and feature functionality. Generally speaking, a mobile prototype can be built for as little as $5,000 using lean UX principles. Note that costs can climb according to the scope of the project.

Beta versions

Beta versions of mobile apps feature a polished front end alongside a functioning back end and basic functionality.

Beta versions are critical for gathering early “soft launch” analytics and user input while the startup is still young and nimble.

Additionally, beta users are highly valuable. The exclusive feel and close relationship forged by communicating directly and implementing user requests creates “brand evangelists” with high sharing potential when the app reaches its official launch date.

When it comes to pricing, the variable with beta apps is the back-end code, with complexity varying to large degrees from project to project. Beta app development usually start around $50,000, going up significantly for complex apps like social networks and financial apps.

Minimum Viable Products

A minimum viable product (MVP) is a flawlessly coded and rigorously tested final app ready for deployment to the app store.

MVPs have a laser-focus on the core features of an app, making your product more approachable for new users while keeping costs down on second-tier features that might not justify themselves in the long run.

The biggest cost for MVPs is creating code that can handle heavy use without sacrificing speed and precision. Most startups budget between $120,000–500,000 for developing an app up to the launch date.

What you’re paying for with an agency

mobile app team

At this point you’re probably thinking: where are all these funds going?

When you work with an mobile app development studio or agency, you’re tapping into the experience of not just one person, but a team of specialists with broad experience launching apps similar to yours. The price of admission includes a wide variety of skill sets:

  • UX/UI designers
  • Front-end developers
  • Back-end engineers
  • An account manager
  • A product manager

That may sound like a lot of horsepower, but trust us; it takes a lot of coordinated talent to launch products that succeed in the crowded, competitive market of the Apple Apps Store and Google Play.

Questions to ask yourself first

Not scared off by the price tags? Good. The rewards for a well-executed app are huge.

…But before you drop us a line to chat about your idea, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who is your target audience
  2. What problem does your app solve for your audience
  3. What are the core features that can solve that problem

If you have clear answers to these questions, you’re ahead of 90% of entrepreneurs and ready to take the next step with your app idea.

Alternate approaches

The vast majority of apps that succeed on a broad scale go through dedicated development teams, whether in-house, with an app development company, or some combination of the two. That being said, there are alternative paths to consider:

What if I just build it myself?

Silicon Valley lore is full of stories about “genius coder” wunderkinds like Elon Musk who built wildly successful services like PayPal on their own with little more than caffeine and determination. Stories like these unfortunately give many budding newcomers to mobile app development the idea that they can succeed on passion alone, while the fact of the matter is that development has become significantly more complicated and demanding since the “good ol’ days.”

Today’s users don’t just expect products that work; they have to work beautifully, look amazing, and evolve quickly to keep up with their needs.

What if I outsource the coding to India/Phillipines/etc.?

There are excellent app developers all over the world. Unfortunately, the motives driving US companies to outsource are usually far from virtuous. If you’re looking outside your local area, make sure you’re partnering with a company that is fully invested in your app idea — cutting corners during development leads to cut corners in the final product.

The cult of the “Four-Hour work week” makes outsourcing work outside US borders look attractive. The danger with creative and technical work like app development is that so much can get lost in the process when startups try to use a “sweatshop” production style. Long story short, apps that cut corners to reach the app store simply can’t compete in a crowded market.

As a rule of thumb, only approach agencies that can display a stellar track record through portfolio, awards, and testimonials.

What if I cobble together my own team of low-cost freelancers?

It is possible to make a final product using a temporary team of freelancers, especially for extremely minimal iPhone app projects or single-task web apps. However, agency-quality products rarely come out of this setup, and it generally requires much more time. Part of what’s included in an agency product is years of experience, not to mention dialed-down project management and a team with proven compatibility.

Freelancer app projects are notorious for showing up at the doors of agencies as “rescue projects,” ultimately incurring higher costs for the client.

The “secret sauce” of successful mobile apps

app developmentRegardless of cost, apps that succeed on a large scale all have three things in common: passionate founders, detailed strategy, and starting small.

There’s nothing that can’t be solved by a great app idea perfectly executed. The first step takes incredible courage, but the rewards are great for those who invest in their app dreams. It’ll take all you’ve got, but believe us when we tell you it’s well worth the effort.

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