I think we have a serious problem in our industry.

I believe it generally started when Basecamp became quite successful and 37signals started to talk about their theories on the subject. Their basic mantra was “Don’t quit your day job to build a web app. Build it in your free time and use your day job to pay the bills until your new app brings in enough money to quit your day job.”

I used to agree with this, but now I think I’ve come full circle.

I’ve seen a lot of web apps launched recently which haven’t succeeded. They’re not failing miserably, and they’re not wild successes. They’re just kind of puttering along, sapping just enough resources to be a problem, but not succeeding enough to really take off.

The majority of these apps were built by small web design firms or freelancers who bought into the dream without really understanding how much time it takes to make an app succeed. I speak from experience as this is exactly what happened with Amigo (which we sold in a firesale a few months ago).

Who Died, Who Survived?

There’s a really interesting post over at Meish.org with a great graphical example of the various web apps that have gone under. Here’s the graphic Meg put together:

Web 2.0 company logos who are crossed out

It’s a sobering reminder of how tough it is to launch a successful app.

So what’s going on here?

I believe there’s a general misconception that goes like this:

  1. Identifity a niche need that you have that’s currently under-served
  2. Bang out somewireframes (or better yet, just start HTML’ing)
  3. Ask a designer or developer to help out, in return for a bit of equity
  4. Tweet about an invite-only beta
  5. Listen to beta feedback and make tweaks
  6. Launch
  7. Get TechCrunched
  8. Build recurring revenue till you can quit your day job
  9. Live the good life

The major problem occurs between step #7 and #8. Most apps will fail here, not because there’s a problem with the idea, but because they don’t know how to market it. The reason for this is that it takes significant passion and time to properly market an idea. Sure, you may get lucky and the app magically spreads itself, but the cold hard truth is that most apps need serious time and effort in order to make them a success.

We need to consider that 37signals and the success of their apps are probably outliers – anomolies that aren’t easily repeatable.

So now what?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of 37signals, but I think that unfortunately a lot of folks are getting the false impression that it’s easy to build a successful web app.

It takes time, passion and more time in order to make something succeed.

With that in mind, here are my suggestions for avoiding the web app Deathly Hallows:

Make time for marketing

Plan for the fact that marketing the app is going to take at least two days a week. I’m talking about about 16 solid hours of work, at a minimum.

How will you do this if you’ve got clients banging down your doors for changes or updates every day of the week? I’d highly recommend saving up enough cash so that you can take at least two months off from normal client work in order to make your app a success. This is two months after you launch. Keep in mind you might not be making a single $0.01 during this time, so you’ll need plenty of reserve cash.

If it’s impossible to make time for marketing, you’ll have to get investment in order to hire someone who can do it for you. This is pretty dangerous though, as this new recruit isn’t going to have your passion or understanding of the app.

Create a resource that helps your customers kick ass

One of the reasons why 37signals has been so successful is because they have built a large blog that’s aimed at their potential customers. Signal vs Noise has around 90,000 RSS subscribers and it does one thing really well: offers great advice, opinion and tips for people who might subscribe to their products.

If you read one thing about building a community around your products, read this comment by Kathy Sierra. It sums up this idea in a couple paragraphs.

Spend money on advertising

I think a lot of us are lulled into believing that if you tweet enough about your new app then it’ll surely succeed. Wrong. It’s very likely that the only way you’ll be able to get the word out to the masses about your new idea is by spending cold-hard-advertising-dollars.

Now, if you’re going to go down this route, it’s vital that you can track the effectiveness of your ads. You need to know:

  1. Conversion rates on clickthroughs
  2. Percentage of clickthroughs
  3. What keywords are converting well for you
  4. Where people are dropping out of the conversion process
  5. Which ads are working (always test different copy and designs)

A/B Testing from the Start

One of the keys to increasing conversion rates on your site is to test the hell out of it. Plan on doing A/B testing from Day One, and never stop. If it’s a bit overwhelming, just tackle one page at a time, starting with your home page. Google Website Opimizer is the way to go on this.

To wrap it up

The most important piece of advice I’m trying to communicate is that you need to prepare for the huge amount of time it’s going to take after you launch to make your app succeed. Of course you need to believe it’s going to kick ass, but make sure you’ve got a  plan for making that happen. It might take several years of work to really make your web app a success, so be prepared.

Plan on building a business, not just a side project.

I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree, or if you have tips of your own.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/david_han