So You Have an Idea for an App? (#Postac Guest Post)

by Dr. Sean Miller
Co-founder, Ivy League Edge


In a recent post  on the The Professor Is In, Margy Horton described a conversation she had with a group of humanities PhDs about entrepreneurship. One participant asked whether Margy, Karen, and their ilk hadn’t already grabbed all the low hanging fruit. In other words, she wondered how many businesses where academics help fellow academics the market could bear. It’s a fair question, and Margy had an astute answer, in which she likened academic entrepreneurship to space colonization. She also provided a list of business ideas that extended beyond academics serving academics—brand consultancies, marketing firms, and writing consultation businesses, to name a few.

As we academics contemplate the post-ac landscape, we’re faced with the question that all freelancers face: will people want what I have to offer? And as educators, when brainstorming viable business ideas, we tend to gravitate towards services—like the ones Margy listed—as opposed to products. This post is for those of you who feel the entrepreneurial itch, but are considering how to make and sell products, rather than or addition to services. To get more specific, this is for those of you who consider yourselves fairly tech-savvy, but not necessarily hackers by nature.

A bit of background: Academia was my third career. After college, I worked for a number of years as a network engineer. Then I tried my hand at teaching English overseas. I graduated from the University of London in 2010 with a PhD in English. Shortly afterwards, I landed a two-year research postdoc at Nanyang Technological University. While there, I published an adaptation of my doctoral thesis, on the cultural currency of string theory as a scientific imaginary, with the University of Michigan Press. But like most newly minted PhDs, I didn’t find a permanent academic post. So I got a job back home in Portland, Oregon as a software trainer. It was while toiling away at that relatively unfulfilling job that I worked up the nerve to strike out on my own as an entrepreneur. I had an idea for an app that would teach high school students how to read with critical acumen. Inspired by a passage from Roland Barthes, I called it Readerly.

In light of this new venture, I’m struck by the naiveté of the question posed to Margy. As I’m sure Karen and her post-ac consultants can attest, when it comes to starting a business, there is no low hanging fruit! It takes creativity, dogged persistence, and most importantly, courage. Many of us think we have a great idea for a product or service—a ton of great ideas. But the fact of the matter is that ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that counts. The appeal of making products, though, is that they, unlike labor billed hourly, can scale. Make a product once, sell it a hundred thousand times. And we happen to be living in a Golden Age of opportunity for a particular kind of product, namely, software.

To make software, though, you have to know how to code. Oddly enough, during all those years in IT, I managed to avoid learning how to code. I was blocked, perhaps akin to writer’s block. This app idea was the impetus to finally stick my neck out and learn to do it. I found a great tool for reluctant hackers called LiveCode. It’s an application development platform that features an easy-to-understand natural language script—and ports to all the major operating systems. With one code base, you can build apps for the iPhone, Android, Mac, Windows, and soon, HTML5. After a couple false starts, I quit my job and threw myself full-time into coding. Four months later, I’m happy to say I have 2 apps just about ready for the market, Readerly, and Foyl, an app that helps high school students prepare for their college interviews.

The patron saint of Silicon Valley, Paul Graham, is fond of saying, “A startup is a company designed to grow fast.” To grow fast, a company needs to sell something that scales—that serves a critical mass of people simultaneously, even when its creators have gone to bed. Software can do just that, whether it’s an app or SaaS, software as a service, delivered via a web browser and purchased by subscription.

Unfortunately, what we as entrepreneurs think potential customers want and what they’re actually willing to pay for, more often than not, don’t align. This is where the wisdom of Silicon Valley’s other patron saint, Eric Ries comes in. Ries is the most prominent advocate of the lean startup method, which he defines as “a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers’ hands faster.” It’s essence is a tight cycle of product development. You get what’s called a minimum viable product (or MVP) out on the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Then you seek out what he calls “validated learning—a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty.” Startups use the results from experiments based on small product variations to tweak the product in order to fuel the engine of growth. Ries calls this the “lean startup process,” a virtuous circle of “learn, build, measure.”

What I’m learning in my ongoing adventure in software development is that, if we academics have the gumption, we’re well positioned to succeed. Software development requires three overlapping skills: you need to know how to code, to design, and to write. These skills can be learned. We’re all excellent learners. And coding, unlike writing, holds a certain satisfaction in that it either works or it doesn’t. There’s really no wrangling over hermeneutics. Learn, build, measure. Rinse and repeat.

So, you have a great idea for an app? What I suggest is that you spend a few days shopping around for a development platform. Then take a deep breath and dive right in. Start making your own apps—simple ones as first, then work towards making your great idea a reality. I recommend LiveCode. Or you can try your hand at the internet standard, JavaScript, through a learning website like Codecademy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, with a little effort, you could be building basic apps with LiveCode in a matter of hours.

I’ll talk more in future posts about the ins-and-outs of software development and internet marketing. Take a moment to answer the following questions in Comments section below. What’s your idea for an app? If you haven’t started building it, what’s holding you back?

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


So You Have an Idea for an App? (#Postac Guest Post) — 6 Comments

  1. WOW, thank you so much for writing this, and I’m glad there will be a whole series from you! You are so right that, in all the talk of service-based businesses, we tend to forget that developing and selling products is a viable path. Karen and others have provided a great model for service/expertise-based products (webinars, books, etc), but it’s great that you’ll be talking about the tech/app angle. The longer I live in the Research Triangle (NC), the more I realize that my own business, ScholarShape, has tech both in its DNA and in its future. We will see what happens on the space colony. Looking forward!

    • Hi Margy,

      Thank you for the kind words! I follow your posts here avidly. What kind of tech initiatives are you mulling over for ScholarShape?


      • Hi Sean! The short answer is, I want to provide some kind of access to scholar support for people who would otherwise be unable to work with an academic consultant/coach/editor due to schedule and/or budget restrictions. There’s no substitute for the one-on-one human interaction, of course, and it’s hard to imagine my job being even partially done by a computer. But, tougher problems have been solved before, so we shall see! I look forward to your future posts!

        • Margy, I absolutely agree with you–there’s no substitute for one-on-one interaction. It’s worked pretty well at Oxford for a thousand years (give or take). In the abstract, it’s a great problem to try to solve: how do you scale quality one-on-one interaction? I’m wondering if you have something in mind like what Karen and Kellee are working on, that is, a web-based subscription service with access to video instruction, worksheets, and other interactive support resources. Sean

  2. I realize this is meant to be an enthusiastic and encouraging post. But I found some of this advice to be way too simplistic. I have been sitting in the middle of Silicon Valley for the past 6 years, where I did a PhD that included taking computer science classes and have a professional background that includes coding, though that’s not my main focus. If I had an app idea I really believed in and wanted to start a company, even with my past technical experience, I would never try to code it myself. There are multitudes of undergraduates coming out of Stanford and similar places with 4 years of focused CS education that builds on years of childhood tinkering. And all of them are moving to the Bay area or similar hubs right after they graduate, given the app boom. A compelling idea, a good business plan, and the entrepreneurship and hustling to get yourself into the competitions and incubators to get money/networking/mentoring will get you the interest of someone you can hire to help you code. Maybe you need to learn to code enough yourself so you can be a good boss. But if you don’t have that background already, work on the idea and becoming the other half of the team that a startup would need. And then hire the coder. At least that’s my point of view.

    • If your ambition is to build the next unicorn, that is, a tech startup with an eventual valuation over $1 billion, then I whole-heartedly agree with you, A. But there are lots of niche opportunities that don’t require a larger organization, one that, by necessity, would divvy up the labor into specializations. A one or two person team is more than capable of making a product that solves a costly problem for those niches profitably. In these cases, why not take the initiative and DIY? Fast growth, as Paul Graham would have it, isn’t the only game in town, at least, outside of Silicon Valley.

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