So You Think You Have a Good App Idea?

Joshua Howland Startup Advice

Today we are excited to have Joshua Howland as a guest blogger here at StartupFlavor. Josh is the founder of Lift Media, a niche ad network that he personally coded. He’s created dozens of apps for iOS and Android, some of which have been big successes. With plenty of opinions about mobile app design, he’s also been writing as a tech blogger over at Zagg. And until just last Friday, Josh worked for Zion’s Bank as a Financial Analyst and iOS Mobile Developer. As you’ll see, Josh is a self-taught coder who can both create innovative app ideas and also execute on them. He is now working full time on his latest startup, focused on mobile education app development, called LearnStack. And yesterday it was announced that both LearnStack and Lift Media made it past the first round of the Grow America competition, making him the only person with two companies as Round 1 winners. You can tell Josh has already accomplished plenty and is definitely on his way to even bigger things! We’re thrilled to have him here today. And with that, here’s his post about how to make your great app idea into a reality.

I get approached by people with mobile app ideas on a weekly basis. I honestly believe that your idea is as good as you think it is, you just need to ship it. You’ll see the success you work to achieve.

You need to stop talking. Stop going to startup meetings looking for developers. If you want to ship your idea, don’t let anything get in your way – including your lack of coding ability.

No developer background?

I’m an Economics major. When I started my app business I didn’t have a coding bone in my body. I certainly didn’t have any previous experience. Of course, I decided to try what most ‘business devs’ try. I looked for developers to write my apps for me.

When I couldn’t find a developer locally I decided to hire overseas. I had them create the frameworks (to save money), and planned to fill the apps with content, and paint them with design myself.

Overseas Developers Didn’t Work.

It was painful. The code was buggy. I was completely lost trying to develop and fix the apps myself – because I didn’t know how to write code. The apps didn’t sell well, and it looked like it would take a few years to break even on what I paid my developers.

Learn To Code.

It was obvious that I needed to learn to code. I once read on Twitter: Learning to code is the new MBA. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it has been one of the best decisions I ever made.

Here are the 4 tips I recommend to anyone ready to ship their mobile app idea:

1 – Dip your feet in.

Don’t be afraid to look at real code. There are websites where you can download the code for entire apps. Go get them. Play with them. Tweak the code, and see what you can do.

Because I had my apps developed overseas, I had a lot of chances to play with the code, break the app, and start all over again. This was some of the best learning time I experienced.

2 – Start building something.

Don’t wait to build. Find something simple and work through it. Some of the best developers I know started building without ever taking a class. Watch YouTube tutorials, read online tips, change your Google search bar in Safari to a StackOverflow search bar.

I built my app company and ad network while still working a full time job. Anyone that’s worked with me will tell you it took a lot of all-nighters. Nothing came quickly or easily, so don’t expect to have your first app done in a few hours.

3 – Find a mentor.

A year after I started my business a friend of mine was giving a 6 hour ‘crash course’ in iOS programming in between classes at BYU. I decided to take the course, and paid him with an Apple Airport Express.

The most important thing I did was find good mentors (including the friend that taught the class). It’s way easier to find developers that will help you learn than it is to find developers that will build your apps.

While I was learning to code iChat was my second most used app. I would try to solve problems on my own, and reach out to my mentors when StackOverflow and Apple Docs didn’t suffice.

4 – Make it a good mentor.

You don’t just want any programmer to help you; you want a good mentor.

Good mentors care about you. They don’t just give you the answer, but help you learn to find the answer, and solve problems yourself. They want you to be successful.

Good mentors care about your idea. If you work with a mentor that doesn’t think your idea is good, they won’t help you as willingly.

Good mentors care about quality code. There are a lot of ways to solve problems, the good mentor won’t just give you a quick fix, but help you get the best answer.

So Get Going!

No more excuses. Get out there and do it, and you’ll see the success you want.

I’ve learned from experience that you define your own success. It’s amazing that the monthly revenue I make today is exactly what I planned when I set out to start a mobile app company three years ago.

I have since been able to leave my day job and work for myself.

I get to wake up in the morning and spend time with my little girls. I get to decide when it’s time to start work, and when it’s time to stop. I get to choose what products to work on, and when they ship. I get to create my own business strategies. I get to decide how much money I make.

Go get your apps started. Go see the success you want.

Keep in touch. You can reach me on Twitter, or check out my personal blog at jkhowland.me. I’d be happy to help you ship your app idea, but expect to write your own code.

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About Joshua Howland

  • Thanks for the post, Joshua.  Any tips on how to find out about courses like the crash course your buddy taught at BYU?  Who to follow on Twitter, FB group, websites, etc.  

    • The crash course I took was about 1 year after I started learning to code. It was very helpful, but there were about 7 of us in the class, and I think only two of us walked away with any understanding. The biggest reason for that was because the two of us had already looked at code, and continued to look at code daily.

      So dig in yourself. StackOverflow is an amazing resource. You can even create a bogus account for your really newbie questions.

      As for where to find groups, or crash courses. Check out the CocoaHeads or NSCoder Night at a university near you. There are usually a few regular attendees. If you don’t scare them off by asking them to develop your app for you, they’re very friendly.

      • I have a little experience with coding and have built a basic app with just a few features but at least it’s a starting point…hopefully it will help me walk away with stuff from the group meetings or any crash courses.  Thanks for all the recommendations.  I’ll check them all out.  Oh, and of course, I will NOT ask anyone to write code for me!

  • Josh,  I’ve been telling people your story all weekend. I’m inspired and it inspires others to know they can do it them selves. I do make sure they don’t expect huge results right away, but to believe they will come only after they get started.

    We just started a Mobile App Developers Meet Up in St. George and had 20 folks show up for the first meeting. I’m sure there are others like this all over the place. This is a great way to meet mentors and to start learning from scratch.

    I don’t have a “coding bone in my body” yet either but I learned some things at that meeting and I’m sure I’ll learn some more at the next one.

    • Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say. 

      I think we need more ‘business devs’ going out to things like your meetup, and taking a chance on teaching themselves. That’s so cool. I have a friend in St. George who I think is interested, where and when is the meetup?

  • Agree with Wayne, great article! What would you suggest for someone wanting to get involved and where to find a mentor?  

    • If you visit a CocoaHeads meeting near you (usually at a university) or a NSCoders Night, you can usual find skilled developers.

      Don’t scare them off by asking them to develop for you, or to teach you right away. Come with a specific question about some code you’ve looked at.

      If you don’t scare developers off with over-reaching requests, they’ll be very accepting, and very helpful. If you make friends, they will be willing to help you and mentor you along the way.

  • Brent Davis

    Hey Josh. I’ve been thinking about learning how to program for a few years now. I’d love to know if you have a short list of things to learn (ie – programming languages).

    • You might need to get a broad understanding of computer science principles, but I don’t think there are languages that are better to start on than others.

      I think you should learn the language of the app or service you’d like to build. If it’s a web service, dig in to Python/Django. If you’d like to build an iOS app, learn Objective-C. If you’d like to build an Android app (heaven help you), learn Java.
      The reason I recommend learning the language of the app you’d like to build is because I believe one of the most important things to feel like you’re making progress learning to code, is to actually build something. 

      When you start to learn a language, and build a ‘hello world’ app, it’s not encouraging. But to ship an idea you’ve had in your head since the iPhone came out? That’s an amazing feeling.

  • cyor

    thats great advice, best ive heard yet.. now how much would it be to hire YOU to build my apptacular idea..? ;P

  • piggy

    Don’t expect to have your first app done in a few hours….. I get that Josh… but I am so scared someone will just steal or actually puts it on the market while I’m learning! I mean, all the biggies came from common thoughts who everybody thought about but yet didn’t put it in shape. Mine is exact. Mine is such a common thoughts, everybody will think “Well, why didn’t we have that before” once it finds it. But therefore, I am afraid there are some folks already thinking about the same AND have fund to hire someone!!!

  • LaLaLaLisa

    Wanna trade mentorship??? 🙂 I’m a designer / UX / Usability gal (lots of experience w online marketing, branding, and such), and have been begging my developer friends to learn to be better mobile peeps. My first ap was designed awesome but developed poorly (twice). So disappointing! I went to a dev conference to meet new ap developers, and they’re all slammed and super busy. I love your advice to jump into the code. I just started doing that again this week, and have some ideas that could really use some REAL dialogue with someone who’s been there, done that…. (I’m local to SLC). Cheers cheers.

  • mattman

    i got a great idear for a app but want a partner to make it how do i get someone to make it

  • Alisha

    So is there anyone you can give your idea to and they take it and you get a small percentage of the sales?

    • Gaege Root

      I know it’s a bit late, but I’m actually working on developing a platform for people such as yourself.

      It’s still got quite a bit of development to go but in the meantime I’ll be providing valuable information for non-technical app founders like yourself at http://appmakerhub.com.

      Best of luck in your ventures!

  • Gaege Root

    Good quick post to get people up and doing something instead of just talking. Wish there were more of this on the web. Too many people with great ideas and not enough direction.

    Gaege Root

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