In the past month or so, I met with a handful of groups who sought guidance on putting together an iOS minimum viable product with a fully functioning backend. These groups consisted of non-technical people: a journalist, a wall-street type, a management consultant, a CPA, and even a fashion model. They all have one thing in common: they want to make an iPhone app but don’t know where to begin. The conversations were mostly the same with the exception of the app idea. Otherwise, I spent one to two hours explaining the following concepts:
1) What is a back-end
2) Popular frameworks: Rails, Django, Node.js, etc
3) Deployment options: EC2, Heroku, Linode, Rackspace, App Engine
4) Key questiosn to ask back-end developers
5) Key questions to ask mobile devs
6) Approximate timeframe
7) Approximate costs
8) Misc: legal, graphic designers, etc
In each meeting, my diagnosis was fairly similar. Developing an MVP with two qualified engineers working full time should cost around $5,000 per week and take about three months (these numbers varied widely based on the complexity of the idea. The values I cite here are conservative). At 12 weeks, that comes out to about $60,000. In every meeting, this is where it got interesting. Everyone had sticker shock and none of the groups could initially comprehend how costs could be so substantial. I tried explaining that those cost estimates actually aren’t that bad. Every group I worked with in the past six months spent several times more than that on their iOS products.
The interesting part was learning about the alternatives. Every group seemed to know of vastly cheaper alternatives. One group said they were quoted $5,000 for their app by a development firm in Pakistan who said they could do it in four weeks. Another group said they had a friend who willing to do it for no upfront cost and a portion of revenue as compensation. Lastly, another group simply had an advisor who seems to think finding and engineer to develop their MVP for free in three weeks is completely reasonable. I have no doubt that they were telling the truth. It would be no different if I said I heard on TV somewhere that by taking certain pills, I can lose 30 pounds in 30 days. I heard it. It’s gotta be true. That sounds better than exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and watching my stress level.
My impression is that these groups did not want to believe my numbers. That’s okay. I have no vested interest in the outcomes of any of the projects and I wish them best of luck. But I have no reason to lie or distort the numbers – I wasn’t vying for a contract. If I was, the incentive would be to drastically reduce those estimates. Four weeks and $6,000? Sure, why not. IF I was shooting for a contract. Therein lies the key. I didn’t care what happened after each of those meetings. My plate is pretty full right now. My hunch is that the people who quoted much lower estimates and timeframes were shooting for the development work.
If you have a great app idea but no technical skills, feel free to scoff at my numbers and get your buddy to do it for free or go on Craiglist and offer the gig for equity. It’s all the same to me. Meanwhile, I’ll describe some of the gigs I took on in the last year or so:
- A group contracted a company in Egypt to make their iOS app. It was way over budget, terribly organized, and far past their time estimate – they were on month 9 of what was supposed to be less than half of that. They finally gave up on the Egyptian crew and hired to me to start a whole new one from scratch. All that money & time on the Egyptian team was just wasted.
- A three-man team hired a developer to code their iOS mvp and actually got it done within budget and on time. Unfortunately, the developer used Phone Gap and when they needed to access more complicated native API’s in an upgrade, the developer couldn’t get past that barrier with the PhoneGap SDK. So, they hired me to re-build the app into native code which took four weeks and cost them $15,000. Silly rabbits.
- I am currently working with an individual who contracted out a lot of development to a group in Pakistan. Surprisingly, the code is okay but their communication is poor and the language barrier has led to several costly mis-haps.
There’s more but you get the idea. In all of us, there is a strong urge to believe what we want to believe and disregard the rest. Do you think you’re smart? Do you think you are an above-average driver or better looking than the average person? I answer ‘yes’ to each of those questions (maybe not the good-looking part) and yet, it can’t be true for everyone. Maybe I’m not that smart and my driving sucks. But my internal nature forces me to believe otherwise. This visceral optimism compels people to go with their desires even when experienced people strongly advise otherwise. It’s why we ignored the Simpson-Bowles committee suggestions and it’s why non-technical people to ignore the advice of a seasoned programmer and chart their own path. Only, it’s not the road less traveled. It’s actually a pretty busy road with a ton of traffic jams, accidents, detour signs.
So if you want to shoot for losing 30 pounds in 30 days, go right ahead. I’m sure there are success stories out there somewhere. More importantly, a lot of my business comes from these situations after they explode and the customer has to get in shape the old-fashion way – long, grueling, no short-cuts. Think about it: if it was that easy, anyone would be able to do it.