How to Build a Unicorn App

Updated: 27th May, 2016: Prices and timelines in this post have been updated to reflect Gigster’s current prices and timelines.

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So you want to make an app. What existing multi-billion-dollar product is it most like, and how is your idea different? Is it an Uber for Thai food? Maybe it’s an Airbnb for pools, or a Tinder for Phish fans.

Although it’s often parodied, at Gigster we’ve found “Like X for Y” to be a surprisingly useful way to describe a tech product. For one thing, it makes it very easy for us to start estimating how much it’s going to cost to have the product built. When someone wants to use Gigster to build an app, they have the option of selecting which existing app is most similar to the product they want built.

Gigster’s internal calculator takes in spec templates and rapidly outputs accurate quotes on how much the described product would cost to build. And we know how much it costs to build an MVP of a lot of existing, popular apps after seeing & quoting thousands.

A basic, minimum viable product (MVP) version of Tinder — with only the core, essential features implemented — would cost $37,542 to build for iOS. Snapchat would cost $39,934, and Uber would cost about $48,240, making it the priciest of the popular apps.

The Data

If you know what a good freelancer tends to charge, per hour, a price estimate on a project becomes a function of how many hours of work it will take them. When we got started, in order to get a rough idea of how long projects took, we built a bunch of different products ourselves.

In the months leading up to Gigster’s launch, in addition to building Gigster, members of the team worked as freelance app developers. That work became the basis for our very first price estimates. “The initial data for the calculator is bootstrapped from our intuition,” our CTO Debo Olaosebikan says.

Over time we’ve used the data we’ve collected to improve the calculator. If, in an exit survey with a freelancer, we discover a build we thought would take 8 hours actually took 16, we update the weights in our calculator.

We’ve done this a lot by now — thousands of times. Now, we have a good idea of how much most apps cost to build. And some of them cost a fair deal more than others.

The following price estimates are for building very basic versions of some of the most popular apps on iOS and Android. The apps we included are: Uber, OpenTable, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Yelp, Amazon, Tinder, Yik Yak, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Product Hunt, and Snapchat.

Gigster - iOS Prices

Android and iOS rates differ by a fair margin. Of these 13 most popular apps, the median MVP price is $38,340 for iOS. For Android the median price is $30,600. The price to develop a web app is typically about the same as developing the app for Android.

Gigster - Android Prices

Uber is the most expensive app to build as an MVP on either platform, at $48,240 for iOS development and $38,520 for Android. Snapchat is the least expensive on either platform, at $33,120 for iOS, $26,460 for Android.

For most of these apps, MVP build time is about 3 months. But for the more expensive apps, build time goes up to about 4 months:

Timeline To Build Popular Apps - Oct 2015
How Much More to Bring it to Launch?

The above price estimates and timelines are for minimum viable products (MVPs). MVPs are very basic versions of apps in development, with only the core and absolutely necessary features implemented. A more polished beta version of these apps costs about 50% more money, and takes about another month to build. A polished, launch-ready product costs about three to four times the amount an MVP would, and takes between three and four more months.

What Causes Apps to be More Expensive to Develop?

Once you estimate hourly rate, price is a function of time to build. Build time itself is a function of the complexity of the product. Because of this, the back-end of our calculator tracks what features an app includes, and how long each takes to build.

Every new feature adds to the build time. Some are very basic, and easy to build: a button, for example, is a feature. Others are more complicated, and made up of simpler features: a feed is a feature, a user profile is another, a login system is a third. When a customer tells us they want to make “Twitter for X”, we can guess at a lot of the features their product will probably have: e.g. a feed, user profiles and login, a posting interface, a way to comment or like or share feed items.

Then there’s a certain kind of app that takes much longer to build and costs much more because it’s almost twice as complex. And it happens to be a very popular app design, right now.

These apps have more than one kind of user, and the different kinds of user require very different UIs. Uber, for example, is essentially two apps — with different features — in one product: one for passengers and one for the drivers. Other examples include other marketplace apps, like Airbnb, which has a very different user experience for guests and for hosts; and Open Table, which literally has a very different user experience for restaurant-goers and restaurant-owners.

Among these apps, Uber is still particularly expensive because it requires a lot of features other apps don’t, including mapping and real-time navigation.

“Based on current demand, I think apps that connect a user with a need to another user with expertise or with a resource are the most popular kind of product right now,” Debo says. “Uber’s very popular — it’s in the air. It’s particularly funny because that’s exactly what Gigster is.”

To begin your next tech project go to app.trygigster.com/new and you’ll be able to connect with an engineer who can help.

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The Gigster Blog is the official publisher of Gigster company news and updates. You can find insights into the company culture as well as pieces about design, engineering, and startups.