Custom Digital

How Much Does it Cost a Small Business to Build an App?

May 07,2019

Building your own apps and website take time and money, but they're worth it in the end. The cost won't look the same for every company though: it'll vary depending on what you're looking for, who you're working with, and what technology you use.

197 BILLION—that’s the number of mobile app downloads the world saw in 2017. At this current rate, we’ll see nearly three times as many downloads by 2021. That number isn’t so surprising when you consider to what degree smartphones, tablets, and the apps that populate them have become a part of our daily lives—we spend roughly 4 hours a day on our mobile devices, and nearly 90% of that time is on mobile apps. No matter how you slice the data, the metrics are clear—the mobile revolution is already underway, and if you want to take your digital marketing campaign to the next level, an app is your pass to the fast lane.

So how much does it generally cost for a business to build an app?

While it would be nice if there was a simple number, the truth is it depends on number of factors: the platforms you choose to support (iOS vs. Android), the team you’ll need to build, the technologies your team will wield, and the business model you’re ultimately trying to serve. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the common cost factors that go into building an app.

Cost factor #1: Business Model

Before you can even begin to estimate the cost of building an app, you must first define where the app will fit into your overall business plan. How will this mobile app bring value to your existing business model? Will it be directly involved in generating new revenue through sales? Or is the app about providing utility to your customers to help you distinguish yourself from your competitors? 

What if the app itself is the primary product, and selling it is your business model? The unique needs of your business model will drive the type of app you want to build, the scope of your development project, and the technologies you’ll need to bring that project to life—all factors that directly weigh into the total cost off your project.

Cost factor #2: App Type 

The technology tree you choose to base your mobile app development project will ultimately determine who you hire to build the app. Naturally this choice will have a major impact on the overall cost of your app.

  • Web App. Not technically a mobile app, but rather a mobile-friendly website that uses responsive design to ensure a smooth user experience across a variety of screen sizes from tablets to smartphones. This is by far the cheapest option for most small businesses.
  • Native App. An app is considered native if it is built with a language native to the operating system of a given platform or device. That means using Swift or Objective C for iOS, and Java or Kotlin for Android. The primary advantage of native apps is better performance. The major con is that if you want your app to work across multiple platforms, you’ll need to develop the app exclusively for each operating system. This duplication of effort naturally leads to higher development costs.
  • Hybrid App. The healthy compromise between performance and programmer productivity (i.e. lower development costs), is the hybrid app, which speeds up development times by allowing you to build your mobile app with the big three basic web technologies HTML, CSS, and JavaScript using frameworks like Ionic and Cordova. They are essentially websites embedded in a mobile app shell via a webview (a browser bundled inside a mobile app). The framework provides rudimentary access to the operating system and device features.
  • Hybrid App. Cross-platform app development frameworks like Xamarin and Phonegap, allow you to build your app in one language, creating a single source of code, that can be compiled into native code across multiple platforms as needed. While a cross-platform app will not perform as well as it could if it were developed natively, the advantage of a unified codebase across multiple platforms is worth it for many projects.

Cost factor #3: Platform 

It’s no secret that if you’re building a mobile app in today’s world, the two biggest ecosystems are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Both platforms provide access to a large market of potential customers. If you’ve got the money and resources, it’s definitely in your interests to launch your product across both platforms. That said, there is nothing wrong with starting with the platform that best suits your needs, and expanding your customer base after you’ve made a nice return on your initial investment. To help you make that choice, here’s a brief breakdown of the pros and cons of each platform.

Pros of Android App Development

  • Wider market penetration and reach with larger overall number of users for every category, especially in emerging markets in developing areas.
  • Large open-source community with access to Android mods like the famous CyanogenMod (which has been succeeded by LineageOS) or Paranoid Android.
  • Deeper access to Android’s operating system with more freedom to innovate.

Cons of Android App Development

  • Android users spend less and have lower media engagement diversity on average.
  • Android developers must deal with more backwards compatibility issues, multiple versions, and a larger variety of phone architectures and screen sizes, which can translate to higher development costs.

Pros of iOS App Development

  • iOS users spend more and have higher media engagement diversity on average, including greater participation in M-Commerce (mobile shopping).
  • Stricter guidelines and higher quality control tends to translate to a higher quality app with better security.
  • Apple’s steady release cycles and tightly controlled device ecosystem ensure most users are running the latest versions of iOS, allowing developers to focus on building for the latest APIs. There are also fewer different phone models and screen sizes for developers to contend with.

Cons of iOS App Development

  • The usual cons of a closed-source development environment—less freedom to innovate, less access to the operating system, and more stringent rules and regulations to contend with.
  • Apple’s frequent updates are a double-edged sword, that can add to ongoing maintenance costs.

This is just a sampling of some of the common features that make-up everyday mobile apps. Other decisions like whether or not your app will be free or paid, if your app needs to be connected to the internet to work, and how much back-end support is needed to power your app’s data needs, all factor heavily into the cost and complexity of your app. To get a better feel for the kinds of decisions you need to make for a budget, feel free to play around with some of theses app development cost calculators:

Cost factor #4: Design & Development 

When you really boil it down, the total cost of building an app is a product of your mobile development and design team’s hourly rates and development time. Depending on how your organization is structured, there will also be costs associated with things like administration, planning, infrastructure, marketing, and deployment. But for this section I wanted to focus on the ones actually building your application.

The Mobile Designer

Design matters, and people tend to buy with their eyes rather than their minds. Between the app with more functionality and the app with better visuals, the visuals will likely win…in the short term. In the long term, truly good design concerns itself with both form and function. User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design start with storyboards and interactive prototypes and ends with functional performant code. That’s why the role of mobile designer can be a separate and distinct role on any mobile app development team.

The Mobile Developer

The mobile developer will be responsible for writing the code that makes up all those features that are required to bring your mobile app project to life. They’ll also be there long after your initial release to handle updates, debug errors, and test new features throughout the life of your project. 

So how much does it cost to hire a mobile developer? That all depends on the specific technologies required to build the features you desire. For iOS, you’re looking for familiarity with Objective C and/or Swift, and the Xcode IDE. For Android, that means a solid Java background and intimate knowledge of the Android Studio IDE. For hybrid apps or components oriented frameworks, you’re looking for a solid grasp of web fundamentals (HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript), and frameworks like Ionic or React Native.

Once you've made up your mind what technologies and platforms you'd like to use, consider carefully whether you have the budget to sustain a project for months of development and the maintenance afterward. If so, don't hesitate to reach out to us so we can further help you digitally connect with your audience and strengthen your relationships.