How to turn great iOS app ideas into something real

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Time to find a great programmer.
Time to find a great programmer.
Photo: Graham Bower

My friends, family and even complete strangers are constantly asking me how to get their million-dollar app idea in the App Store.

This is always a shocker for me because, after countless hours of hard work over the past two years, my app is barely breaking even.

But I can offer one solid piece of advice for anybody hoping to turn a clever idea into a world-beating app: Find yourself an amazing developer and hold on tight.

Welcome to the tech industry

Of all the people who have pitched their app ideas to me, not a single one of them has had the programming skills to actually build it themselves.

They are almost always seeking advice on where to outsource the programming. And the answer is — you can’t. Or at least, not all of it.

The big names in the tech industry — Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and new kids like Oculus VR’s Palmer Luckey — did the programming of the initial product themselves. Sure they hired other programmers later. But their ability to roll up their sleeves and get to work on the code meant they were able to make informed decisions about the ongoing technical direction of their product.

You may argue that your app idea is for a specific sector like fitness, travel or food, and you have expertise in that area. That’s great. You’ll need it. That is your “domain knowledge.” But you’re also attempting to break into the technology business, so you’ll need some serious tech brain power.

Every Jobs needs his Woz

Steve Jobs was one of the rare exceptions to this rule: a technology leader who was not a programmer himself.

But Apple was not launched by Jobs alone; he did it with his partner, Steve Wozniak, the brilliant engineer behind the Apple I and Apple II. Later, Apple’s comeback was built on top of the rock-solid OS X operating system masterminded by software guru Avie Tevanian.

Jobs once explained that, unlike other professions, the difference between the average programmer and a great one is “at least 25 to 1.” He went on to say that “the secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.”

Great programmers are a rare breed. I’m not a programmer myself, but I’ve been in the tech industry for more than 10 years and I can count on one hand the number of truly great programmers I’ve encountered.

Fortunately, I persuaded one of them to work with me on our gym app, Reps & Sets.

Members of the elite group of excellent programmers are highly paid and can pick and choose their work from a global marketplace. But money is usually not their main motivation. They want to work on truly great stuff. To make a “ding in the universe.” And that’s ultimately how Jobs attracted them.

To get these kind of talents working on your app idea, you’ll need to recruit them as a partner, offering a major share in both equity and decision-making. If they settle for anything less, they’re probably not the caliber you need.

Your idea is worthless … even if it’s a good one

With more than a million apps already on the App Store, chances are someone has already tried to execute on your idea.

But that’s not necessarily a problem, because an app’s success is not based upon how original the idea is, but how well it meets the needs of its users.

People who are unfamiliar with software development tend to focus on functional requirements — what the app does. But what really differentiates an app is how well it does what it is intended to do.

A good idea is important, but it’s not enough. Your business will succeed or fail on execution. And in the tech business, execution means programming.

The chicken and the egg

Taking on your programmer as a full partner is not just a way to incentivize them. It can be an important step toward building great software.

The design process is a collaborative one, which usually starts with a chicken or the egg problem.

Which came first, the user interface or the database? The way you design one will have an impact on the other, and vice versa. So to build a great app, the programmer and designer must work closely together, collaborating as equals.

For example, for Reps & Sets I had some specific user interface goals in mind. Like enabling the user to base each workout on a program, but vary the details, since every workout is unique.

This kind of goal has profound implications for the underlying data structures for the app.

Solving these challenges in a good way involved a lot of discussion and debate. We drew sketches of interface concepts and data structures.

We argued. We debated. We listened.

And after a lot of deep thought and many collaborative iterations, we hit upon a formula that works. And, I believe, it continues to differentiate our app to this day.

So, if you’ve got a great iOS app idea and are ready to knuckle down and about make it a reality, it’s time to start looking for an amazing developer. It’s a crucial first step to take before you make any serious investment in your app idea.