App Planning

How much does it cost to make an app?

Every potential client who walks through our door inevitably asks the same question “So how much is it going to cost to make my app?” The short answer is, we don’t know without putting in some effort.

Many development agencies will give you an estimate after hearing your idea, but you should know that those estimates are notoriously wrong if you’re trying to balance your checkbook using that number as an expense. The inaccuracy of rough estimates without research and planning is exactly why MotionMobs doesn’t offer contracts based on estimates. To learn more about our philosophy on development, check out our Approach page.

But maybe you just really, really want an idea of how much it’s going to take to build your app. You can run the numbers on your own to get a ballpark price. Here’s how.

Starting price for apps

A Google search is going to show a huge range of prices to expect to pay for a custom app. The general industry consensus is that the starting price for a custom mobile application is around $20,000 for a single platform. Keep in mind that is the starting price, which means it will likely get you a bare-bones app. It’s very similar to car commercials that advertise the starting price for the base model but show you the top of the line car driving down the street that costs at least 20 percent more. The apps you know and love on your iPhone or Droid absolutely cost more than $20,000 to make. Check out this great post (although old) about how much popular apps would cost to build if you took the idea to a developer.

When an app is more than a mobile app

Users and businesses alike assume that an app receives data from another source, processes information, delivers results or analytics, and almost always allows for some kind of user interaction. This means that apps no longer exist in a vacuum, like the way apps could when the App Store was new. No one achieves wild success in today’s market with a calculator app, a flashlight app, or a digital sticky note app. Users now expect the complex functionality they experience in apps that have been refined over many years and have had millions of dollars poured into them.

The mobile app itself can actually end up being cheaper to build than the backend that runs your app-based business. So your starting price of $20,000 must double, if not triple, to support the database and processing that happens outside of the app. Let’s be generous in our bare-bones guess and say it will take $60,000 for that mobile app plus a robust backend to keep it and your business running.

Why so expensive?

Consider that your app idea will involve at the bare minimum a design and a developer. Often, development firms have more than one developer working on a project at a time to help finish it faster. Good designers and developers easily command $150 or $200 per hour for their work. Junior-level workers may be cheaper, but you get what you pay for. (Outsourced work overseas generally only costs $15 per hour, but the difference in rates should be a red flag to anyone serious about their idea.)

Let’s split the difference and say everyone who works on your app idea costs $175 an hour. That means all of your design, development, testing, and bug fixing would need to be wrapped up in 114 hours to cost $20,000, which is less than three weeks of full-time work. Only an incredibly simplistic app could be mocked up, screens designed, coded, deployed for testing, thoroughly tested, fixed, and submitted to a store for distribution in that time frame. In fact, nearly any professional would tell you that you’re crazy if you expect to take an app idea from start to finish in less than three weeks that the general public will actually download.

Realistically, most app projects have timelines counted in months, not weeks. At MotionMobs, most of our projects take between three and six months to finish and involve either one or two native mobile applications and a backend to handle the data. Our average project size is about $125,000, and we’ve built many apps for less and many for much more.

The ongoing cost

Up to this point, we’ve only talked about the cost to initially build the application. Any app that has people using it also needs someone to maintain it. Industry standard rates determine that you can expect to pay your developer 20 percent of your overall development fee per year to maintain it and update it to reflect operating system updates from Apple and Google. This does not cover adding new features. Even if you can sneak by with an app for $40,000, that means you should budget another $8,000 in support costs annually.

Cost of acquiring users

It is not enough to build it and assume users will magically appear. There are millions of apps available across the iOS and Android platforms. Getting discovered is hard. You must plan on an advertising and marketing budget to get users to download your app. There are plenty of creative options for making this affordable, but it will still be a significant line item in your yearly budget. Don’t count on immediate viral success through organic word-of-mouth traffic. You have a better chance of winning the lottery.

Ready to make your app into reality?

If you’re still here and still want to talk about your app idea, we do too. We love making apps that make dreams come true for our clients. Let’s chat about your idea and see how we can help your app idea become reality.

By Emily Hart