Website or app: what should start-ups build first?

  • Alexandra Cain


    Roamz founder Jonathan Barouch says an app was an obvious choice for his business. Photo: Tamara Voninski

    Apps are becoming so popular that some start-ups are bypassing a website in favour of developing their own smartphone tool.

    One entrepreneur that has taken this approach is Jonathan Barouch, chief executive and founder of social networking platform called roamz.

    Roamz describes itself as “your personal tour guide to what’s going on around you”. For instance, let’s say you’re in Bondi on Australia Day. Checking in to roamz might tell you people are at the Havaianas Thong Race or at the OpenAir Cinema. You can also tell others what you’ve enjoyed.

    The roamz app.The roamz app.

    Barouch says building an app was an obvious choice for his business. “We’re a location-based service that people access with their phones, so it made sense for us to focus on the app. We do have a basic website and we’re working on a full-blown site, but the easiest win for us initially was the app,” he says.

    The advantage of building an app distributed through the Apple store is the global reach this gives the business. “People all over the world now use roamz – someone has just uploaded a shot of a lolly shop in Santa Maria in the US. If we’d been a web-based business achieving this reach would have been much more difficult,” he says.

    The challenges

    The challenge for businesses that are based around an app, says Barouch, is the difficulty in building one. “Building an app is more difficult than building a website by a factor of 10 because the skills don’t necessarily exist in Australia. In contrast, there are a number of world-class web developers here,” he says.

    If you want to build an app for your business, Barouch says it’s essential to have a clear idea about what it will do before approaching an app developer.

    “This is a step a lot of people forget – people tend to try to raise funding or hire a developer first. But you need to think about how the app solves a problem, and map out exactly what it will do before you go to the next stage,” he says.

    Ben Hamey, co-founder of app developers Bonobo Labs, says one of the benefits of creating an app initially is product testing. “You can test whether people are willing to pay for your product very quickly with an app. Apple makes it very easy to pay for something through its App Store, so if people are not willing to pay for your product there it’s likely they won’t be willing to pay for it elsewhere,” he says.

    When it comes to selecting an app developer, Hamey says businesses can choose between those in Australia or around the world.

    “It might be cheaper to use overseas developers, but if you’re building something you need to keep close to your chest, it might be worth working with an Australian developer.”

    What it will cost you

    He suggests looking for a developer that combines design skills with software development. In terms of cost, Hamey says there’s a massive variance.

    “Expect to pay anything from $5000 to $500,000. The more features the app has, the more expensive it will be. Initially, you really want something elegant that can be updated because sales are driven by regularly updating the app,” he says.

    But, Nigel Burke, managing director of web developers AVS Networks, says although some mobile-based businesses can get away with focusing on their app, every business needs a web presence.

    “Focusing on your app might make sense if you’re a tradie and people can log into your app to book an appointment, but most businesses need a full website,” he says.

    Burke says instead of developing an app, it’s also possible to develop a mobile-friendly website. “Most people can access mobile-friendly sites with their smartphone. Just steer clear of complicated menu systems, which are harder to access with a phone,” he says.

    Brennan IT‘s founder Dave Stevens agrees every business needs a website, which should be able to be accessed across all the major platforms including iPhones, iPads, android phones, laptops and personal computers.

    “A website is your ticket to play – but it doesn’t need to be complex, it can be simple as long as it’s informative and functional”.

    “If you’re starting a business now, try to get your customers to do their core business with you through a web interface. This will likely give you a competitive advantage and also give you the opportunity to have an interactive conversation with your customers about how they want to do business with you,” he says.