Mobile Apps for Small Businesses: Why, When and How?


When mobile apps began appearing in 2008, they quickly became very popular.

The problem was that digital agencies were talking small business owners into buying them for a lot of money – when in fact those businesses didn’t need them at all.

Today, it’s time to revisit the situation. Over the past few years, advances in technology and the emergence of some new platforms have made creating great mobile apps much more affordable. And a great mobile app can take a small and medium business to the next level.

Why Would a Business Want an App?

Apps are great for businesses that already have an established, loyal customer base. Communicating through apps (via push notifications) is faster than communicating through emails or online advertising.

A smartphone is your user’s hallowed ground: if you have access to it, you’ll be able to interact with your customers via something that’s always close to them. It doesn’t get any better than that.

However, there’s a huge problem that small and medium business owners face – the problem of the “cool factor, big app” mentality.

The Problem: a “Big App” Mentality

Uber, Snapchat and Instagram logos

When we think of apps, we think of Snapchat, Instagram, Uber, etc.

The problem is that those are ecosystems in of themselves. They are very expensive to build because they require talent to come up with solutions to problems that have never been tackled before. They require entire teams of some of the most talented programmers in the world and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build.

As a small-medium sized business, or as an agency with small-medium sized businesses as clients, you don’t want to build that kind of app.

Avoiding Custom Apps Based on New Concepts

The first thing you need to do if you want a custom app for your business is to eliminate the idea of building custom apps based around new concepts.

Don’t chase any “cool factor:” it will cost a lot of money and won’t give you the return you’re hoping for.

Startups like Uber base their whole business around the app. Usually, they have a strong base in technology: their whole business plan revolves around hiring talented teams of engineers and UI/UX designers. They wouldn’t go to a marketing agency to build an app like that. So, if you don’t fit that description as a business (most small-to-medium-sized businesses don’t), then that’s not the kind of app that will help your business.

Small Business Apps are Now Cheaper and Easier to Make

Back in the day, it was really expensive to make an app. The prices varied from $5,000-$10,000 just for an iPhone app. This meant that – if you wanted to have one for iPhone and Android – you’d have to pay around $15,000 just for development.

The businesses that spent that much money now lock back with remorse. A lot of money was spent, and it didn’t do anything for their business.

But now, you can get an app for $1,500 – sometimes even less.

The technology has moved forward a lot. You’ve got many platforms that you can build mobile apps with, e.g. “WordPress for apps”.

That’s why this situation is great for digital marketing agencies as they can now offer app development services for their clients.

Is It Even Worth It to Build an App for Your Client?

It’s always important to first think about the purpose of the app. Ask yourself if it makes sense for your business to even have an app in the first place.

The truth is, for a lot of businesses – an app doesn’t make any sense.

What would be the point of having one for a brick-and-mortar business selling goods that buyers don’t buy frequently?

However, there are industries out there that are great candidates for having a useful app.

Promising Business Types and Industries

Promising business types for apps

Businesses that already have a loyal customer base with customers that come back frequently are the types of businesses that could benefit from having an app. Think restaurants, gyms, hotels, and beauty spas.

Those types of businesses have common needs and are easy to build apps for because the framework already exists or is easy to create.

The common things those businesses can do with an app are:

  1. Offer loyalty programs
  2. Send out push notifications often. For example, a restaurant could send a push notification like, “We’re doing half-price appetizers all day today. Come and visit us.”
  3. Offer online ordering services with advanced options, such as saving the contact info once the customer makes the first purchase – making it incredibly easy for them to order the service next time.

2 Important Things to Consider

There are two important things you should consider if you want to purchase an app:

  1. People won’t download crappy apps or apps from businesses they’re not in love with. If your client wants to have his app on the user’s smartphone, the user really has to be in love with the client’s business.
  2. Just having an app won’t change your company on its own – it won’t make, or save, your business. It’s not a good marketing strategy to start with an app: your business needs to be successful on its own first. The app will then take it to another level.

The Best Time to Recommend an App to a Client

Email capture landing page

You should first build your customer base.

If you have a new business, building an email list is a priority. Use online advertising (Google Adwords, Facebook ads, etc.) to start catching emails.

Once your customers start coming back again and again – and once they start leaving positive feedback – it’s time to build an app.

Why is that a good sign? Because, when you know that customers are responding to your online promotions – which often don’t get a great response rate – you’ll know they’ll respond even more to promotions provided via an app. It’s much harder to ignore push notifications than it is to ignore Facebook ads (a proportion of the customer base doesn’t even see those ads).

Once you see people starting to take advantage of promotions that you’re running on those paid mediums, it’s a great sign to have an app created to make your customers’ lives even easier.

The Process of Making the App

App making process

Don’t compromise the quality. Since you already know your customer base is happy at that point, the app cost won’t be such a huge risk.

And that’s why you don’t want to be completely cheap here.

Define Achievable Goals with Your Client

Make those goals doable, understandable, manageable and beneficial.

One of the main goals should always be to make it easier for clients to interact with your company. It creates a strong marketing touchpoint.

After that, define what features the app is going to have – and what metrics and KPIs you will use to determine what success means. It’s really important to implement objective indicators of success with the agency you’re working with so you’re all on the same page and know what success looks like.

Hire a Good UI/UX Designer

A good designer will be the key to a successful app. You can include one even in the goal definition phase.

Search for a versatile professional. Even if the potential candidate isn’t perfect in graphic design, he can still contribute a lot. Graphic design is less important on small devices – it’s all about interaction design and usability.

An ideal candidate should be able to create intuitive flowcharts and wireframes: that’s the most critical component of the app design.

If you’re working with an agency, make sure to ask them about the designers that will be on your project.

Hire A Reliable Developer

Again, don’t try to save money here. Hire a reliable developer who specializes in mobile app development.

Also, consider hiring JavaScript engineers: there are lots of frameworks out there (such as Meteor) that make it easy to develop apps for multiple platforms.

One thing to remember here: request that the developer sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). You don’t want him to take your app idea and make it on his own.

Finally, you have to realize that you’ll need the developer to update the app on a regular basis so make sure to nurture a good relationship with him.

If you’re working with an agency, make sure to ask them some questions about the developers that will be on your project.


Mobile apps for small and medium businesses don’t have to be complicated. They just have to do one thing well – they have to lower the interaction barrier for clients.

They’re also much more affordable to build now.

But before you decide to buy an app, make sure you already have a strong, well-established community. Otherwise, it won’t be worth the time and money.