By Christian Thurston, a Gigster Employee
I work in tech. My sister doesn’t. Over Christmas she came to visit me in San Francisco and this conversation happened:
Sister: I want to build an app.
Me: Really? What do you want to build?
Sister: I don’t know but I want to build one.
My initial reaction was confusion. My sister uses tech and works in design so she is well integrated into the digital world but she’s never shown an interest in building technology.
Moreover it seemed backwards to me. Silicon Valley is firmly indoctrinated with the tenets of lean methodology which basically advises to scrappily solve any problem manually and only build tech when it makes sense or when your manual solution won’t scale. An app is normally a means to an end and not the end in itself. Like riding on an airplane is about getting somewhere, not about riding the plane.
Then I realized that if you haven’t ever flown on a plane before then it actually makes sense to want to do that. Once you’ve flown on enough planes the novelty is gone and you only fly for the destination. But in the beginning it make sense as a goal. So, for the benefit of not just my sister but all the folks out there who want to build an app here’s a guide for coming up with app ideas.
Apps ≠ Businesses
Let’s get this obvious point out of the way. There are plenty of apps that don’t make money and aren’t meant to. There are plenty of ways to make money that don’t involve apps. Of course, the majority of app makers want to make money from their creations but it’s not the sole reason people build apps to begin with. We’ll touch on some of the business considerations in this post.
The easiest and most obvious way to come up with app ideas is to look at what apps currently exist. There are several directions you can take this.
Cloning: The least original approach to take but it can work, just ask the Samwer brothers.
Inspiration: There’s nothing wrong with borrowing concepts from popular apps out there and using them in a new way or for a new market. We hear plenty of analogies here at Gigster including people who want to build Tinder for X or Uber for Y.
The concepts that drive these apps are the ones you want to emulate. Tinder simply turns a complex question (Who do you want to date?) into a simple binary decision: yes or no by swiping. Likewise Uber is the concept of getting something quickly on demand. These concepts can be applied to different markets to create interesting apps.
Just be aware of the limitations of this strategy. For example an on demand app works best for a service you both need often and quickly. A dental checkup doesn’t qualify.
Look at Crowded Spaces
Crowded spaces get a bad rap. Crowded spaces means competition and as Paul Graham rightly notes: “You can only avoid competition by avoiding good ideas.” So how do you win in a crowded space?
You can take Dave McClure’s advice and “niche to win“. By focusing on a smaller subset of the larger market you can get a foothold and access a specific audience. By doing that you can make an app that is tailored to the unique needs of the audience in a way that the broader app can’t.
Also in crowded spaces you can go through the 1 star reviews of the biggest apps in that space and see what the common themes are. You’ve now found the biggest pain point or dissatisfaction with current solutions and you can focus your app around those problems.
This will often mean adding a feature but can also be as simple as better design, faster performance or even offering a free competitor to a paid app.
Scratch Your Own Itch
Scratching your own itch is probably my favorite tactic of all. You instantly start with a user in mind – you. If nothing else you’ll build something you’ll use and the process of turning an idea into something you and other people can use is very rewarding.
The app could be for your work, hobby or a small and quirky problem only you have. Have a process for keeping notes and getting into the habit of spotting problems you have in day to day life that you’d like to see solved.
Exercise your idea muscle every day
Following on from the last idea is to turn app ideas into a daily habit. Think of it like a muscle that gets stronger every day as you exercise it. Don’t try to come up with perfect ideas or even good ideas. Just focus on the process and you can’t help but develop ideas you think are promising. Set a target to think of 20 new ideas a day. It’ll be hard at first but over time you’ll get better and better at it.
The true challenge is to focus on executing on one idea even as you come up with new ones that seem more exciting (aka shiny object syndrome). For your first app pick the one that’s the simplest and fastest to build an MVP version of and go from there.
You can do this throughout the day when you’re waiting in line for your coffee or you can do it as a 30 minute session at the same time everyday. You can keep a journal of all the things you did today and think about how an app could have helped make that experience better or replaced a current process you have for doing something.
Imagine the Future and Then Build It
This is another piece of advice that comes from Paul Graham in his essay “How to Get Startup Ideas“. A lot the advice there translates over to building apps. The general gist of this concept is to come up with ideas indirectly by immersing yourself in the near future and then working backwards to what you should build now.
The challenge with this is that the ideas you have to build might seem too small or like it won’t be relevant for today but new concepts are often like that. By the time everyone realizes the potential it has become the next big thing and you’ll be playing catchup.
Brainstorm with Friends
This is a fun dinner party approach to the problem. Get a bunch of friends together and tell them you’re looking for app ideas to build. Get the ball rolling and see what ideas they have. Just make sure they fully understand you’ll actually be building the idea so they can decide if they want to share their ideas with you. In general nobody should really worry about their idea being stolen but you don’t want to risk losing a friend so just make sure everyone is on the same page with this approach. These folks will probably be your first users anyhow!
Listening in on Social Media
There are plenty of social media listening tools out there like Mention and Hootsuite. You can use them to notice when people use certain phrases that indicate the need for a solution or opportunity that might be your next app idea. What phrases? Keywords like “I wish there was…” or “I hate it when…” are a good start.
People use apps for all sorts of reasons. One of the most common reasons is to solve a problem they’re having. The more problems you hear about the more app ideas you’ll generate. Charities are set up to solve real world problems and it’s no secret they’re usually very resource constrained. You can talk to charities whose mission resonates strongly with you and see what apps they might want built. You can then take those on as projects.
My sister loves animals so for her I’d tell her to talk to charities that help animals and see what their needs are.
Most apps can be explained in a few short words. So let’s focus on just the words. Take a few startup trends and hot spaces and make a list (this can include popular startups like Uber, Airbnb or Tinder). Then make a list of industries. One list will be the columns and the other list will be the rows. Combine an item from each list and you’ve got the seed of a new idea.
For example: Tinder + Real Estate = an app where renters discover properties by swiping on current listings. Landlords find tenants from swiping on their profiles. When you match you get to chat and go from there.
Did we miss any approaches? Know some that should be on the list? Let us know on Twitter.
Of course, the idea is just the first step. Next you’ll have to validate it (if you plan on having a lot of users) and actually get it built. We can help with the building phase right here at Gigster.