/Culture/ The future of web apps

The next big apps will spring from small developers, not big brands, says Ryan Carson

It’s a very exciting time to be a web designer or developer. The reason is simple: with a small amount of money, a lot of heart and a great idea, you can take on the giants of the web. Here we’re going to look at some Davids who are taking on the Goliaths of the online world.

bit.ly vs Digg

For those of you who haven’t used bit.ly, it’s a simple shortening service that turns horribly long URLs into short little memorable ones. That might not sound that exciting, but what’s bringing it to people’s attention is the way that it’s snapping at the heels of Digg.com in terms of determining which websites and pages are popular.

That’s because bit.ly has smart functionality that enables you to see stats on any URLs you shorten (just add a ‘+’ on the end of any bit.ly address). It also got lucky by being chosen by Twitter as its default URL-shortening service.

Consequently, every day there are two to three million unique URLs submitted to bit.ly, compared to Digg’s 20,000. bit.ly also has a secret formula that’s going to help it automatically categorise URLs that are submitted to its service – which will make browsing through popular bit.ly URLs very interesting.

bit.ly is certainly David to Digg’s Goliath – it has just two or three full-time employees and $2million in funding while Digg has over 60 employees and over $40million in funding – and yet it’s being widely touted as a serious contender in the same market. That’s what’s so exciting about launching your idea on the web right now. If you have a great idea and are willing to work hard and mix in a bit of good luck, the sky’s the limit.

Even so, you may be looking at bit.ly’s $2million of funding and thinking “Gee whizz, that’s still a lot of cash” – and you’d be absolutely right. But the good news is that you can launch your idea with a lot less money – because that’s exactly what we did with DropSend.com.

For those unfamiliar with DropSend, it’s a way of sending and storing large files that you can’t email. It was our first enterprise-level web app and we had no way to predict how much it would cost to build, so we had to learn the hard way.

All in all, it cost us a total of £25,780. I’ve itemised these costs in detail in a post called ‘The Cost of Bootstrapping Your App’ (part one and part two). If you’re a small company and £26K still sounds like a lot of money, don’t despair. You’ll be able to spread these costs out over many months. In fact, it took us almost a year to get the financial stability and save the cash for DropSend.
Balsamiq vs Visio

The Balsamiq story is truly amazing. It’s a simple little tool for creating mock-ups of websites, iPhone apps and desktop software, started by an Italian software engineer named Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni and his wife Mariah Maclachlan.

Peldi launched Balsamiq with just $4,268.35 and in just nine months hit $100,000 in revenue with over $94,000 in cash in the bank. Previously, the only real options for creating mock-ups had been Microsoft’s Visio, Powerpoint or Adobe Illustrator. But all of these solutions are expensive and have a huge learning curve.

It’s easy to see why Balsamiq is doing so well:

  • It’s easy to use (just head to balsamiq.com and get started – nothing to install)
  • It only costs $79
  • It works on both Windows and Mac

Another interesting thing we can learn from Balsamiq is that beautiful design isn’t a prerequisite to success. I’m sure we’d all agree that the design of its site isn’t exactly the Mona Lisa – but it works. That’s frustrating for me to admit, as we really care about design here at Carsonified, but nonetheless, Balsamiq has succeeded despite its lack of design flair.
Mint vs Google Analytics

How could a small product costing $30 possibly stand up to a free all-singing-and-all-dancing app from Google? Shaun Inman, founder of Mint, an extensible, self-hosted website analytics program, would be happy to explain. He hasn’t revealed his 2009 revenue figures yet, but we know he’s doing well enough to ditch his day job and go full-time on Mint. Based on rough figures he blogged about in September 2008, he was making over $100,000 a year. And he only spends about one hour per day answering support emails. (To find out more, check out ourexclusive interview with Shaun).

Here’s what you can learn from Mint: if you build a kick-ass product and focus on a narrow niche, you can definitely succeed. Even against insanely big competitors like Google.
Remember The Milk vs Outlook

I’m a bit fanatical when it comes to the Getting Things Done mantra. If you haven’t come across David Allen and subsequently joined his cult, I’d suggest borrowing or buying his book Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity, which is essentially all about managing your overflowing to-do list. With that in mind, I’ve tried quite a few to-do applications, including the mighty Outlook.

But hands down, the task- and time-management web app Remember The Milk kicks everyone’s ass. The crazy thing is that it was built by just two people who live in Australia. But they get it – and that’s why they’re succeeding.

So what can we learn from RTM? I believe it’s succeeding because of the following reasons:

  • It’s web-based so you can access it anytime, anywhere, on any platform
  • They’ve built it so it works offline, using gears.google.com
  • They’ve built an amazing iPhone app, which syncs wirelessly with the web app
  • They’ve released an API so developers can build tools on top of their app

The best thing about the RTM guys is that they’re constantly innovating. They’ve rolled out an insane number of cool features such as SMS reminders, support for Gmail and Twitter, Blackberry sync and Windows Mobile sync.
Just do it

I hope these examples have inspired you because it’s never been cheaper or easier to build a really great app, focused on a niche audience. So if you build something that truly kicks ass, and you focus 100 per cent on supporting your customers, there’s no reason you can’t join the proud ranks of web entrepreneurs. Mount up!

.net magazine


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