IndustryWill Your Web App Make Money?

Ryan Carson
writes on April 7, 2006

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Building Web Apps from A to Z, Part 1

This is the first article the series on how to build web apps. Today, we’re tackling the important issue of cashflow and the financial viability of your web app.

We’ve learned a ton about this issue because when we built DropSend, our first enterprise web app, we faced the same question; will it make us money? DropSend currently has 17,000 users and we’ve gained those in just over five months. It uses six servers which are co-located at 365 Main in San Francisco. It’s LAMP based and was built by three developers and one designer (with help from myself and my wife Gill). We had desktop apps for both Mac and PC built and both use our private API. It has taken us nine months to build, from conception to launch. The whole thing cost £35,000.

With so much at stake we had to be sure that DropSend would be financially viable and not just a bunch of web-candy for people to play with.

Is your web app going to make enough money?

Unless you are a large corporate company with money to burn, or a bedroom coder who is ‘just doing it for fun’ then before you begin building your web app, you need to ask yourself the most important question of all – will people pay money for it? It’s not materialistic to think about the money. If you don’t devise some kind of revenue model behind your app, you’re not being realistic. Let’s clarify that statement. If your app is just something that you’re building for fun, then it doesn’t need to be financially viable. If it turns into something valuable in the future, then great. Delicious is a good example of this.

However, if you’re putting a lot of time into your app and you plan to make a living out of it, it’d better have a solid financial model beneath it.

You’ll get 1% – 2% paying customers

If you’re offering a free plan to your customers (for example DropSend offers a free plan that enables users to send 5 free sends a month before they start paying) then expect to get around 98% or 99% of your customers on that plan. That means that you can only really bank on 1% or 2% of your total customers on the paying plan. In our experience this is true and other major players in the web app industry have agreed. This is about the industry average.

Many people (including ourselves before we built DropSend) vastly overestimate the number of paying customers they’ll get. Do the math. If you estimate that you will have 2000 customers in the first 6 months then work out how much money you will bring in if only 1% are on your paying plans. It’s that simple. Then, just to be on the cautious side, estimate how much money the app will bring in if you only get 65% of the signups you need. See our example cashflow spreadsheet below as an example.

A screengrab of several rows of a cashflow spreadsheet

The almighty cashflow spreadsheet

In your quest to find out if your web app is financially viable the first thing to do is create a cashflow spreadsheet. This can be done in Excel, but you can also use many free online spreadsheet tools like Num Sum.

A cashflow, for those of you who are not familiar it, is a simple document that helps you determine how much cash your company will have at any one time. Essentially, it just adds up your income for each month, subtracts your expenses for that month, and tells you if you have any money left in the bank. It’s definitely not rocket science, but it is essential to the success of your business.

The reason for creating a cashflow, is to help you see cash shortages coming, long before they hit you. This gives you time to adjust before you go out of business. If you would like more information on creating cashflows, there’s an in-depth article on cashflow at Signal Vs Noise. If you’re a small company, your cashflow should cover the current month and three months into the future.

Once you’ve created your cashflow spreadsheet, you need to plug in your expected revenues, month by month, and make sure you’ll make enough money to stay in business. Be painfully realistic. Be cautious and then reduce your expected revenue by another 35%. If your company is still cashflow positive (you’ve got money in the bank) even with this pessimistic outlook, then you’re good to go! If not, be very careful about proceeding.

Minimize the risk

A great way to minimize the financial risks of launching a web app are to build it as a “side project” to your paying work (be that a company, day job or whatever). If your company is already doing something that is bringing in cash, then keep doing that while you build your new app. This means you can launch your new app, hold your breath, and see if it takes off. If it flops, you’ve still got your bread-n-butter income coming in and you won’t go bankrupt.

The Credit Card Test

A great litmus test of the financial viability of your app is what’s called the “Credit Card Test”. Ask yourself if you would actually get out your credit card, punch in the numbers, start date, verification code and name. Is your service valuable enough for people to fork over their hard-earned cash, or is it just useful? There’s a big difference! If your app is not aimed at you then try to empathize. Put yourself in your users shoes and try to imagine what would stop you punching in the numbers. If you feel confident that your app is valuable enough that people will actually go through the hassle of paying for it, then it’s time to get busy building it!

Research?

The other factor that may affect the financial viability of your web app is competition. Do your research. How many other products are out there? Can you make yours better/different? Is a bigger company than you planning to launch the same thing? When will that happen? What is their ‘route to market’? Do they have marketing channels already in place? Take all of this into account. But the most important thing is don’t let it put you off. Remember, everyone thought there were enough search engines in the world, and then came Google. Everything can be improved upon.

In Part 2 …

In the next part in this series, we’ll talk about how to project manage the building of your web app and give you some tips and tricks for speeding things up. As always, please feel free to agree or disagree, by commenting below.

29 Responses to “Will Your Web App Make Money?”

  1. Hello Ryan,
    Thanks for the article. It was great!
    Can you be so magnanimous to send me the rest or point me to where i can get them? Tanks for sharing

  2. Thomass Cross on December 1, 2010 at 10:28 am said:

    Nice blog!! i also know a very good site for How to make money

  3. Anonymous on November 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm said:

    Creating and developing web app would be a great help for you to earn money
    Support is the not so good part

  4. Thanks for the kind words. I’m afraid we don’t have plans to follow up this post right now. Sorry!
    Best,

  5. Very easy way to get money online with programming free join here http://www.getafreelancer.com/affiliates/gotyas/

  6. For someone who might be thinking about launching software, this is a great read. Another piece of the proverbial pie also includes the on-going support. For me, that was always one of the most difficult things to quantify in terms of expense.

  7. Cinnamon good for diabetic, and we have the product formulation between cinnamon and tea, and good for healty for the information please meet the blog

  8. Typical industry pr specimen poking and proding the Information Technology “Professionals” towards the next bubble. There are already mumurs about a “Web App Economy”
    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/10/20/mark-pincus-web-3-is-the-app-economy/
    You know what I think Mark Pincus? Methinks, social gaming will just make Westerners fatter and lazier.

    Osama Bin Laden couldn’t devise a better weapon to destroy America’s economic might than “social gaming”.

  9. Don’t suppose there is a fresh link to that cash flow template? Apparently it’s no longer on your servers… cheers 🙂

  10. Thanks very nice post…

  11. I agree, everyone thinks that their web app is great and will make a substantial amount online. This post definitely shed some light on that assumption.

  12. Has part 2 of the web app came out yet? I couldnt find it. Although this was a great post.

    google bizkit

  13. I want to be into this bussiness am intrested

  14. thanks admin good post

  15. I get learned through your article, that there are too many things to research and to rearrange that can help me to do my project in better way.

  16. Hey Jaun,Thanks for the kind words. I'm afraid we don't have plans to follow up this post right now. Sorry!Best, Ryan

  17. Ryan, great article! can you follow up on Part 2? or do you have another resources besides this blog for more info?

  18. Cant deny the reason that we earn for a living. And thus, having read this article makes me think that i should start from scratch to try this one. Since i myself is not involve in a large company or what, well, i should start by making it a solid foundation right? Named one , and that's Delicious.
    If one's really not making it serious on making this web app, well I expect that's there's no money behind it. But if you try and make serious with this stuff, I'm sure it'll do good in the end.

  19. Yes, Of course it's a good way in money making. Creating and developing web app would be a great help for you to earn money considering it as your par time job but it consumes such amount of time that would require great effort and perseverance.

  20. Good money making goodness. 🙂

    Thanks Ryan!!

  21. Good money making goodness. :)Thanks Ryan!!

  22. Hello,
    Monetizing creative online content is a great way to create an income stream with almost no upfront investment, but the tradeoff (once again) is time. It takes a tremendous amount of time to create the amount of content that will eventually produce a decent stream of passive income.Passive income
    Thanks

  23. Hello, Monetizing creative online content is a great way to create an income stream with almost no upfront investment, but the tradeoff (once again) is time. It takes a tremendous amount of time to create the amount of content that will eventually produce a decent stream of passive income.Passive incomeThanks

  24. David Jordan on January 20, 2009 at 3:03 am said:

    I was thinking about to launch an web application, I get learned through your article, that there are too many things to research and to rearrange that can help me to do my project in better way.

    Thanks a lot.

  25. David Jordan on January 20, 2009 at 8:03 am said:

    I was thinking about to launch an web application, I get learned through your article, that there are too many things to research and to rearrange that can help me to do my project in better way.Thanks a lot.

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