If you’re like most entrepreneurs, when the seed for a new app idea is planted it feels almost impossible to contain your excitement. A flood of possibilities and plans start flowing and you find yourself saying “this is going to be the next big app!”. When I first became an app entrepreneur (otherwise known as an ‘appreneur’), the question wasn’t so much can this be developed, but rather how can this be developed quickly in an intelligent and cost-effective way.
But after working in the custom software industry for several years and experiencing various failures and successes, I’ve changed my tune about native mobile app development for early stage businesses. These days, more often than not my advice to startups and entrepreneurs on a tight budget who want to develop an app is this: you’re better off starting with a web app!
Shocking, I know. An app developer telling you that you probably shouldn’t have a mobile app developed for the App Store and Google Play. However, so often in my consultations I talk to people who want to make a fitness app to host their content, or an app to help with booking for their hair salon–features that are more easily doable on web than in a native mobile app.
Why make prospective customers download an app just to make an appointment with you? And how are new customers supposed to discover you?
But before I dive deeper into those topics, here’s a few important reasons why people like to develop native apps in the first place:
Arguably the biggest pro to having your own app is the ability to send push notifications to your app users, keeping them actively engaged and just a tap away from your platform. The downside? People can just disable them! Furthermore, sending “notifications” via email with links back to your platform can be equally if not more effective.
App Icon on Home Screen
Having your brand icon on the home screen of someone’s phone means you’re more likely to stay top of mind for your users/customers. But there’s also workarounds for this on iOS and Android devices allowing you to save and install a web app onto your home screen, thereby offering the same level of immediate accessibility.
Efficiency of Native Functionality (GPS and Camera)
Coding for mobile apps allows you to design native functionality of devices with more fine grained control than web apps, especially in regards to location services and some advanced camera settings.
Full Screen Experience
Native apps can utilize the full real estate of the phone screen, whereas websites and web apps will have browser interference (unless the web app has been installed on Home Screen).
There’s a certain prestige that comes with having your own mobile app available to download in the App Store and Google Play. If any of the above features are critical to your idea, then perhaps a mobile app is still the right choice for you. But in my experience, I’ve found that developing web apps is the right choice in almost every use case. The remainder of this article will explain why!
The biggest advantage you get with a web app versus a mobile app is the ability for people to discover your content more easily online. Simply put, people don’t go onto the App Store and Google Play and search for things the same way they do on Google. For instance, I wouldn’t go to the App Store and search “pet stores near me”.
How much does the search volume vary? According to reports, people conduct approximately 39.2 billion searches on Google every week, whereas App Store searches total approximately 500 million per week. Obviously apps are not meant to overtake everyday search queries, but the statistics are still staggering.
Because there’s so much less organic searching done on the App Store and Google Play than web, that means that most app impressions and downloads come from direct searches or external referrals.
Going back to my previous pet store example, let’s say my Google search returns results for the PetSmart website. I visit their site, and have an awesome customer experience buying items there. While browsing, I notice a prompt to download their mobile app. From there I might either tap a link to their App Store listing (external referral), or I might open the App Store and search “PetSmart” (direct search) to find and download their app. Note: I have no pets but am a huge dog fan!
So unless you’re already an established brand or have a large social media following (not the case for most startups), then you’re going to benefit much more from increased traffic and discoverability on the web rather than in the App Store. You need a solid lead funnel source for people who are unaware of your product or service in the first place.
Furthermore, having a first-class website, a dynamic web app, an inbound content strategy, or a large social media following are all things worth focusing on prior to developing a mobile app for your business.
Why is it cheaper to develop for web compared to native mobile apps? One reason is that iOS and Android have different native functionality requirements and particularities that developers need to account for and test thoroughly. In addition, different device types and screen sizes require more custom coding, which can be time consuming and demand a higher level of developer expertise.
Cross platform frameworks such as React Native are making huge strides to assist with these complications, but at the end of the day there’s still just a lot more time required for the actual coding and publishing of native apps compared to web.
Conversely, a lot of libraries for web are more fleshed out and easier to implement regardless of device type. This is due to the simple fact that more people develop for web than native applications. Of course design needs to be carefully considered for web apps, especially in regards to browser-specific limitations, quirks, and spacing interference issues.
Furthermore, having less available screen space to worry about can actually be advantageous for startups who need their web pages to focus on very specific functionality in the early stages. Whether you’re releasing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or a finalized UI design, ‘ease of use’ and ‘simplicity’ for the user are the most highly coveted factors.
In other words, does the webpage fulfill its role from a UX standpoint (inform and/or convert)? With less available real estate, developers can focus on exactly what needs to be displayed in the center of the mobile web view, allowing for a straightforward user experience.
So how does this make web development more affordable? The effort to design, program, and optimize pages for mobile apps is more time-consuming for a development team than web. While web apps will usually need to account for desktop views as well as mobile, responsive web design has become an industry standard with plenty of well-maintained resources, libraries, and answers available online to assist with this.
With a web app, you get the immediate benefit of being available on any device that can access your website. Similar to discoverability, the ability for people to be able to find and access your content on any device type connected to the internet is a huge advantage.
No more excuses about ‘not having enough storage space’. No more worrying about whether people will be willing to take the time to find and download yet another app. Someone can simply discover your website online, tap a link, and boom–they’re in!
Although there used to be concern around offline availability for web services, Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) now allow for some features to work even if a visitor is offline. With these advancements, web apps are further closing the gap on the advantages of having a mobile apps.
With recent data showing that the majority of people don’t download new apps every month, as a startup your best bet is invest in a web app–something people are more willing to try out first or even discover organically through an online search.
Perhaps nothing is more contentious in the app development industry than the notorious 30% revenue cut that Apple and Google take on app sales, including subscriptions and in-app purchases (IAPs).
Because Apple and Google’s fee structure is so exuberant and controversial, this is one of the first points I raise during consultations with entrepreneurs and startups to make sure they’re aware what charges they can expect. If you’re on a tight budget, having to factor in an extra 30% cost to cover the revenue share fees can be daunting–especially if you’re depending on recurring revenue in a subscription model. Note: on top of the annual developer account fees, $99/year for Apple and $25 one-time fee for Google.
Isn’t there some way around this revenue share fee? Well, take a look at some of the most downloaded apps in the market: Netflix, Spotify, and Epic Games. Each of these companies has tried–and failed–to come up with creative ‘workarounds’ and publicity stunts to dispute the fee policies of Apple and Google. Take it from someone with first-hand experience dealing with the Apple review team, as a developer your best bet is to just bite the bullet and factor in an extra 30% cost or more into your pricing structure. Or better yet, develop a web app instead and avoid these fees altogether!
Developing payment systems for web is effective and intuitive with a payment processing platform like Stripe. We love using Stripe because they have an abundant suite of tools and resources, streamlined integration methods, and excellent security protocols. From a legal and data security perspective, you should not be keeping your customers credit card info on file anywhere, so let Stripe handle it! Compared to Apple and Google, Stripe has reasonable and standard pricing options, and most startups can expect Stripe fees to add 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.
Did you notice a typo on one of your web app pages? No big deal, just fix the typo, push the changes live and new visitors will see the correct spelling. But with a mobile app, the updating process is more cumbersome. You’ll need to fix the typos and upload a build to App Store Connect and the Google Play Console, test the alpha or beta versions thoroughly, then submit your update for review.
Your app update will usually go live within 24-48 hours after your submission. Not terrible, but still a drawn out process compared to a web app that will automatically update itself!
Some advancements have been made for pushing native app updates live without going through a full App Store review process. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you’ll open the Facebook app and it will suddenly have different UI elements than before, even though you didn’t download the latest update in the App Store? Well, with React Native or Apache Cordova, developers can utilize the CodePush functionality to do just that.
Once a CodePush update has been deployed, the next time a user opens the app the update will be installed onto their device in the background. The app can then perform a force refresh if it’s an emergency update, or for a more elegant user experience the app will simply load the new content the next time a user opens the application.
However, even with the strides made possible by CodePush, web changes are still far easier to roll out compared to native mobile apps and will update automatically onto a user’s device.
While there’s no doubt that mobile apps are a powerful means of building brand awareness and increasing user/customer engagement, in most cases entrepreneurs and startups can benefit more from the discoverability that comes with cost-effective web app development. Web apps can be accessed by people on all device types easily as long as they’re connected to the internet, and deploying updates is a faster and easier procedure.
As an early stage startup, it’s likely that your primary goal is to get more leads and convert more customers. If you fall into this camp, then you should invest your time, money, and creative energy in developing a platform that can be as robust as you need it to be for the ‘awareness’ stage of your buyer’s journey.
Lastly–and possibly most importantly for startups–a web app grants you the ability to adapt quickly should you discover the need to pivot, whereas a mobile app will be more costly to experiment and test out new features.
Is a mobile app or web app right for your business or startup? You can learn more about the process by downloading my free resource How to Create Successful Mobile Apps for iOS, Android, and Web.