On Building Apps For Startups [+ When to “Investors”]

San Fransisco (or SF. Not “San Fran” or “Frisco”)

Most startups can’t afford to have me m. That’s why I give a way “the good” for free and charge a premium on “the great”. I mostly work with large companies or top dog startups(YC peeps etc).

This is my perspective.

I know how to build a startup product because I’ve worked with almost 14 in my career & I’m going to give you all of that knowledge over the course of this 5 minute read (I use this app to help me read things quickly btw)

I love having outlines of everything I read so here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you a quick list of my assumptions of you as a reader(so you know whether to skip this one or not) & then I’ll give you an outline of what I’m going to talk about.

We cool?

My Assumptions

  • You’re the CEO/founder/top dog of your startup(Or of the startup you have in your head)
  • You haven’t built a company before
  • You have less than $30,000 saved up to launch this thing(PS: If you have less than $3000 saved up, go work at a coffee shop or a bar or whatever your most qualified for. I’m not trying to put you down, I’m just saying. You probably think building a company is a lot easier than it actually is)
  • You have some connections in your industry & with your target audience
  • You’re a human (Get out of here aliens. We dont like your kind)

Alright cool. Has everybody else left? Good. Now that it’s just the rest of us, lets jump into that outline that I mentioned earlier:

The Outline

  • Getting Your Feature List
  • Building that first prototype
  • Raising money
  • Having Google be your 1st tech hire
  • Where & How to Find Those Great Developers
  • Building that first App
  • Scaling (What’s going to cost your a lot in the future)

That’s quite a bit. I know. I hate reading too.

Here’s the cool thing tho. When you’re in one of those sections(except for “Having Google be your 1st tech hire”), all you need to focus is completing that section.

Ex: When you’re in “Building that first Prototype”, you can’t skip ahead to “Raising Money”(Well… you technically can, I just would really advise against it. I’ll jump into why in a bit).

So treat this as your guide. Read one section, complete it in a week or something and then come back for next section.

Aight. We good?

Lets Jump in

Getting Your Feature List

This is really the only job that is unique to you as a founder. Everything else can be hired out.

This is a crisp understanding of your company’s place in the world and how you’re adding value to society.

Once you understand what value your company brings, you need to create the feature list that enables it to “eat peoples faces off”(I’m trying to make that a saying).

Here’s what this would look like for Uber

Founder’s crisp understanding of value:
I want to create a company that sells busy people back their time via transportation.

Feature list (Try to keep this under 5 bullets)
Side Note: The type of tech (i.e. VR, Mobile, Console etc) really doesn’t matter. What matters is where people’s(more specifically, your target audience’s) attentions are. That’s why I’m a mobile engineer first before everything else. ;)

  • App Should Sync Up with User location
  • App should take in a destination
  • App Should find users transportation to their destination with minimal effort
  • App should show users that drivers have been screened so that the users feel safe
  • App should make payments as effortless as possible

That’s it.

Building The First Prototype

Side note: This is when most newbie CEOs start hiring developers for some reason. I expressed my frustrations about this in this post. if you want to some more context on why art directors are better first hires, go read that.

Unless you’re an art director/UI designer by trade, this section is going to cost you $1000 — $3000 out of pocket.

The goal here is to find someone like this gal or this guy and give them your feature list.

Side Note: A lot of new CEOs try to micro-manage design. Don’t do this… Ever. Your designer’s getting paid quite a bit for this for a reason. They are better than you at this.

You know you’re done with this section when you have a prototype app(I personally use this tool for my projects because you can export projects to your actual device) that looks like a finished app.

A 100% complete prototype should do everything you want your app to do except function(or make API calls as developers would put it)

Ex: An uber prototype would work exactly like uber except that when you request a driver, nothing happens.

Side Note: I expect a lot of questions here, so feel free to raid the comments & dig through the comments for answers to FAQs

Aight. That’s that for that

Raising Money

When should I raise money?

I get this question all the time.

Honestly, if you’re asking this, you probably should jump back online and do an huge knowledge dive on what it actually means to sell a piece of your company for $100,000.

You raise money when you’re ready. When people would feel privileged to give you their $20k to be a part of your company. You raise money when you have a solid prototype (Product Side) & you start getting a lot of customer attention (Business Side)

How much do you need to get a good first product built? Here are my estimates for most apps.
~ $60k without a tech background
~ $30k with a tech background.

Side Note: I once worked with a founder who thought that knowing HTML/CSS was having a tech background… it’s not. Have you worked for agency as a Sr. AngularJS dev? You have a tech background. Have you learned to build your own websites online? You don’t have a tech background. We good?

On Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is easy when you know what you’re doing. It’s even easier when you have a working prototype.

I don’t want to dive super deep into this right here. Read Tim’s guide and you’ll be good.

Friends and Family

If your friends and family dont want to give you money for a working prototype of your app, your prototype is probably shitty. Circle back to “Building Your First Prototype” or “Getting Your Feature List” and start again.

Side Note: This may also be a “Your town sucks” or “You haven’t asked enough people” problem. Try really reaching out & showing people your prototype and momentum. If you get 50 smart people saying no… you may need to circle back to “Building Your First Prototype” or “Getting Your Feature List” and start again.

Having Google be your 1st tech hire

This section is a giant side note.

Side side note: Important terms — 
Backend Engineers: peeps that build functional shit i.e. your data processing, your data structure, your data types etc
Frontend Engineers: Peeps that make pretty shit i.e. your mobile app, your website etc

You can save A LOT of money if you developer knows about firebase & The Facebook RN(React Native) Community.

I’ve worked with startups that have run low on money spending 50k+ to build exactly what firebase does. It’s sometimes not in your developer’s best interest to tell you(because we get paid more if you don’t know) so take the time to really dive into understanding firebase.

Firebase: Firebase can be the entire backend of the V1(First Version) of your app. Ex: if you were building a “Slack app” or an “Instagram” today, you can either spend $70k on building your backend or get in on firebase for free

Where & How to Find Those Great Developers

“Alright Sam. I have a solid prototype & I’ve raised $60k, what do I do now?”.

You hit me up or you use one of these resources to find a Lead engineer(emphasizes on Lead. You dont want a pussy in charge of the software architecture of your company).

Side Note: Lead Engineers(Like Art Directors) don’t apply for jobs. We have jobs come to us. That being said, I haven’t met a lead developer that isn’t stoked to be completely in charge of a well designed project. That’s why I recommended great Art Direction earlier. There’s a method to my madness ;).

Before you hire an engineer

There are backend engineers and frontend engineers. Full stackers(peeps that know both) are either not as good as specializers(peeps that know one) or aren’t as great leaders. In my experience, frontenders make the best leaders


  • Linkedin: Look for Sr. / Lead Agency Engineers in your city, poach them.
  • AngelList: Reach out to them. The best people won’t reach out to you.
  • The ReactJS Community: I’m on here as well. You should say hi
  • Reddit JS Developers & React Native Devs: Post on here that you’re funded & looking for a Mobile Lead. Ask for Linkedin Profiles in your post. Screen profiles for the best person.

You should be good with those links.

Building that first App

Remember when you just gave your art director a piece of paper & money & magic happened?

This isn’t that different

There are really just 2 communicaiton points between you & your lead dev that get you from “no app” to “great app”.

Point 1: Data Structuring

Backend engineers love this shit, frontend engineers hate this shit. Regardless of who you get, you need to have this done before moving forward. Here’s what decent data structuring looks like. You want something a lot better that.

Point 2: Publishing

Here’s what “publish” convo looks like with my clients

  • Set weekly deadlines on concrete tasks based on your timeline(ex: “Build chat feature”)
  • have your lead developer push builds to your local device based predefined wins
  • Check in with your developer once a week or so to make use you’re on track with your timelines

That’s it . You should have a great app after this.

Side note: Was that easier or harder than you thought?


Scaling mostly happens on the business end (i.e. what’s your distribution & branding strategy? What is your company’s goal? What team do you need to get you there?)

Here’s what you need to do to make sure your Product stays tiptop though.

  1. Hire QA (Quality assurance) Engineers: Have your lead developer build out SOPs(Standard Operating Procedures) around cleaning up her code. She probably made a few compromises for speed. Dont worry, QA engineers aren’t as expensive as lead engineers.
  2. Get Feedback from the marketplace and write out another feature/issue list based on what your best/most ideal customers actually want.
  3. Build and test new features internally before publishing them to your customer base.
  4. Prioritize keeping your app clean: Your apps going to break & you’re going to hear about it. Set aside sometime every quarter (or every month if you’re a savage of an entrepreneur) to clean up all the reported bugs in your app.