Build iOS apps on a budget without learning to code

One month. $5,000. And no coding skills!

Would you believe that’s all it takes to go from idea to an iOS MVP?

My friend Angus McLeod at Knotable has used the process below to build his own iOS MVP and has seen other non-engineers use it to build their own, too. 

What I love about this process is that you see progress on your app every day. Can’t say that about many outsourcing projects.

Here’s Angus breaking it down…

1. Put your idea onto “paper”

This means visually mocking up the whole app flow using your tool of choice. By “app flow” I mean a screen-by-screen diagram of how a user will experience your app.

I prefer Skitch or Sketchbook Express because they’re quick, easy, and free.

2. Set up a development framework

Your development framework will have 4 layers. You need to set them up before you hire anyone.

  1. Cloud-based Project Management Software: I recommend Trello. The management philosophy behind Trello is Kanban.
  2. Analytics: I recommend Indicative.
  3. Source Code Repository and Testing: I recommend getting a Github account. Then you’ll need Test Flight to test the code.
  4. Servers/Backend: For an iOS MVP use Parse. Then you won’t have to worry about spinning up servers with a hosting provider. Parse’s free tier of service is ideal for an MVP.

Don’t worry if this all sounds too technical. Even if you don’t have a computer science degree (I don’t, either) you can pick up these tools pretty quickly. You just have to dive in and start doing it.

3. Hire freelance developers

On eLance (or oDesk or Guru) write a short job post that:

  • uses the lingo of tech (i.e. describes some of the technologies your project will use)
  • makes your app sound cool
  • specifies that you don’t hire teams
  • says that you require a paid 3-5 hr trial
  • offers between $10 to $20 an hour (make sure you post that you post an hourly job – not Fixed Price)

If your post is well written, you will get around 30-40 responses within a day or so.

Evaluate those responses based on:

  • Country/Region (in order of preference): Ukraine, Russia, Other Eastern Europe, South America, China and India. (There are many good developers in China and India but the sheer volume leads to significant variability.)
  • Assessment criteria: 40% responsiveness, 40% country/region, and 20% profile and CV.

4. Develop the MVP

First, break your mockup into atomic tasks in Trello.

  • “Atomic” means that you can describe it in natural language in a few sentences. Put those tasks into your “To do” list.
  • Assign your developer(s) to individual tasks and require them to complete these atomic tasks within 24 hrs each at most. One of these tasks constitutes the “trial” mentioned above.
  • Wherever possible, give visual instructions and illustrations of tasks and feedback on tasks. The more you write, the more will be lost in translation!

In terms of managing the developers:

  • If a developer does not respond, remove them and hire another.
  • If they complete the task incorrectly 3 or more times remove them and hire another.
  • Get the developers to release a build via Test Flight after every few tasks.
  • Make sure they give you a release once a day. Test it and give them direct and immediate feedback.
  • Make sure that cards are moving across your Trello board quickly from your “To do” list to the “Done” pile. Since your tasks are “atomic” they should be quickly completed if the developer is competent.

Using this process dramatically reduces the risk of outsourcing. Since you’ve hired the developer on an hourly basis, it’s easy to see how much time it takes them to complete tasks.

More importantly, it’s easy to determine when and if you should let them go and hire someone else.

Contrast this system with outsourcing projects that are done on a Fixed Price basis. You typically don’t see progress each day and you don’t have transparency into how much work is being done and who is doing it. (This is why I told you to make sure you only hire freelancers hourly)

5. Minor design touchups

A developer can make a functional app without designs. But to submit an MVP to the app store you’ll want to clean it up around the edges.

Here’s how you do that:

  • Go to dribbble and sign up for a pro account.
  • Search “for hire” designers by country. Send messages to designers from the Ukraine, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • Offer $20-$30 per hour.

You’ll want to manage your designer using the same process we outlined for managing your developers.

If you follow these directions, development of your app should cost you around $4000 and the design another $1000.

Clearly the price is right!

But the best part about using this system is that you’ll see your app come to life before your eyes –  literally the day after the developer you hire starts working on it.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Angus McLeod
Manager at Knotable.com
Angus McLeod
Angus McLeod
Angus McLeod

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  • Joe Callender

    Could there be an “MVP-er” version of this for those of us for which $5k is not MVP territory?

  • Hi Joe. A web app might be a little cheaper than a mobile app. Depends on how light you want your MVP to be. For instance $2k could take you a long way for a webapp.

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