Ever since the advent of the iPhone, mobile has become a channel of increasing and predominant importance in the small business sector. And within that channel, the mobile app has become a critical pathway. According to a recent AT&T study, nearly 72 percent of the 2,246 small businesses surveyed said they use mobile apps, with almost four out of 10 (38 percent) admitting they would find it hard to survive without them. Clearly the 24/7 infusion of mobile technology into Main Street America has meant that there are many tools for entrepreneurs to use for success.
Yet for small business owners who aren’t tech savvy, launching a mobile app for their own small business may seem like the equivalent of asking them to put a man on the moon . However, based on the plethora of affordable do-it-yourself resources available now, those entrepreneurs who don’t know a lick of HTML—or even what HTML is—shouldn’t be intimidated.
Following are some best practices that small business owners should heed when seeking to build their own mobile apps.
Check out open source platforms
If you’re a small business owner with limited funds, then this may be your best option. “Even if you need to hire a developer, there is often code already—in the open source platforms—that you can alter to fit your needs rather than program from scratch,” says Tom Tegart editor and co-founder of the Milwaukee-based Overnight Buses Travel Magazine, an iPad publication that launched earlier this year. Although Tegart and his co-founder and art director Jen Kuhn, wanted to launch a travel publication on the Apple tablet ever since its release in early 2011, both felt stymied by the operating system development costs.
“So while we had a business plan and a lot of passion, it wasn't until we discovered the Baker open source platform that we realized we could do it on our own,” Tegart explains. “Adobe has their own platform for creating magazines on the iPad, but it starts at $5,000 a year, far out of our price range. Baker, on the other hand, is a free, open source.”
As described by Tegart, the process of creating an app was easy and cost-effective. “Baker provides all the code to make a book or magazine into an app,” he continues. “All we needed to do was to provide our own content and change the app store icon.”
Mobilize your website
Small businesses seeking to build a DIY app should have a mobile-friendly site in place first, as opposed to relying on a desktop site that may not be translate well to a mobile phone.
“Make sure it’s mobile-friendly so when people are searching for your business on their phone, it’s not looking all crazy and barely navigable when they go to your site,” urges Zach Cusimano, COO of Bizness Apps, a two-year-old San Francisco-based DIY-app builder that caters exclusively to small and medium-sized businesses.
He suggests that small business owners get an HTLM5 version of their site. (HTLM5 is the latest version of the HTML standard, a core technology for the Internet. To get a tutorial on HTLM5 and a download, click here.) “And then if you want to create a more engaging experience with your clients, create a native app, which can be downloaded from the Android or iPhone marketplace,” Cusimano says. “Those types of things are more interactive and engaging when you use features such as a camera, check-in, or coupons.”
Capitalize on the capabilities you already have
Tegart says this is an imperative considering that there is a dearth of programs that will allow small businesses to create apps using HTML and CSS, which is another computer language that’s becomimg a standard for building websites. (To get a tutorial on CSS and a download, click here.) “A lot of small businesses already have a web developer on staff so they won't need to hire someone new just to get their app out," he says.
Stay away from custom developers
For cash-conscious small businesses looking to build DIY apps, enlisting the choice services of a custom developer could be a foolhardy move, primarily because of the untold costs it can incur.
“It’s extremely expensive and time-consuming,” insists Cusimano, who says most of his clients are in sectors that range from restaurants to professional services and healthcare. “You might not even know what you’re getting or even like it at the end of it. You could also see very low return on your mobile development.” Also your user base might not be engaging enough to warrant this type of cash outflow.
To illustrate his point, Cusimano describes a recent incident regarding someone from a bar who wanted a web developer to build a quirky, but—considering the nature of the business—fitting, app for his business. The idea was that, when one of the bar’s customers downloads the app, an image appears on their smartphone screen of a cup of beer being filled up all the way. “Then when enough people [download the app], the beer goes over and they win a free drink,” he explains. “That’s custom development and it can run upwards from $20,000 to $50,000 for mobile application.”
Don’t try to get everything and the kitchen sink in
When launching an app, take your time with the design and planning. “Trying to add in all the features you want usually results in a stalled project,” warns Tegart.
Ask yourself if you really need an app
This may be self-defeating if you’re dead set on having a mobile app, but if you’re in a specific industry that doesn’t lend itself to active audience engagement, and you have a limited budget, a mobile site may be all that you need.
“The question that comes up a lot: Should I build an app or a mobile site?” explains Itai Sudan, CEO of the Silicon Valley-based Dudamobile, a three-year-old company that helps small businesses build mobile websites using app-like interfaces. “There’s a little confusion about that. If you’re a small business, the first thing you need to do is build a mobile site. If you look at statistics out there, [an overwhelming number] of local searches are done on Google and Google indexes mobile websites. It doesn’t find apps in the app store,” Sudan explains. “So when an end user is walking down the street googling for a Thai restaurant or a locksmith or whatever, you want to be sure your service is ranked high up there. Google Indexer prioritizes mobile sites with searches done on a mobile device. So that’s another reason why a small business needs to make sure they have a mobile site.”
This doesn’t mean that Sudan always plays devil’s advocate when it comes to small businesses developing mobile apps. On the contrary, he’s a staunch proponent of them as well as an ardent aficionado. But he’s also a clear-eyed realist.
“It’s a matter of discoverability,” Sudan says. “Having a mobile app is many times a barrier to entry. In specific cases, it makes sense to build a mobile app, especially if you have a large user base that is very engaged and returns to your app on a consistent basis. You need special features that are only available to apps. But this is a very small portion of small businesses. Most of these mom and pop shops would do really well just by having a mobile site.”
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