Developing Winning Apps at Wayne State

Detroit is on its way up, and one of the forces driving it is a surge in technology entrepreneurship. Wayne State University, in Detroit’s urban Midtown neighborhood, is working to create better entrepreneurs by connecting students and businesses — giving students a better real-world education and helping companies find and foster great, local talent.

One way Wayne state is accomplishing this is events like last month’s Mobile App Matchmaking. I was excited to attend, since Atomic Object has a close relationship with Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, and we want to build a similar relationship with Wayne State.

The Event – Mobile App Matchmaking

The event was sponsored by the college of engineering, and Wayne State invited software makers from Atomic Object and Grand Circus (which trains software developers) to:

  • review the students’ mobile app ideas,
  • answer questions about building a mobile app,
  • and help them to understand the challenges, frustrations and, hopefully, success they were about to encounter.

When Al and I arrived, the place was packed. There were maybe 100 people there to find out about the competition, learn about the rules and deadlines, round out their team, get some advice and, I assume, a few of them were just there for the free snacks and delicious orange-flavored water!

They had asked every team to write down the name of their app, a short description of the app, and what they were missing for building the app on these poster-sized pieces of paper and post them on the walls.

The Takeaway – 3 Essentials of a Successful App

As I walked around the event, reading the various mobile app ideas these students wanted to develop and talking to the students, there were some common themes that emerged about what they needed to build a winning app.

1. A Great Idea

It all begins with a great idea. The point of building the app is to make something that people will want to use because they get something in return. It could make them more productive, it can make their lives easier, or maybe just entertain them. The point is that people have to have a reason to use the app.

I saw some great ideas, but some of the ideas I saw were iterations of existing apps. That is fine, but the challenge there is that the app should provide some different features. Maybe it just does it better, it’s faster, it looks nicer, or it’s easier to use.

2. A Message that Resonates

A great idea is a good start, but in order for the app to be successful (as measured by the number of people that chose to use it), the messaging is equally important. It will be easy for your app to get lost in the sea of existing apps, especially if many have similar features. You must have a message that resonates with potential users.

A good message helps people understand how using your app will make them happier. Many of the messages or descriptions of the apps I saw were pretty good, but some were one- or two-word descriptions, which made it difficult to understand what they intended the app to do.

3. A Balanced Team

Great ideas and great messages don’t make an app. For that you need talented software designers and developers who can take the idea and the message, then turn them into a great product that people can download, install, and use.  They may like the idea, they may love the message, but without a great app, they will quickly move on to the next thing.

Great teams are difficult to put together, since team members should have complementary skills — business, marketing and technical — to be successful.

There were a number of teams that had all three of these qualities, but there were more that were short in one and sometimes two of these areas. One of the biggest needs was in finding technical help to actually build the app. This seems to be a common issue in the software development field. Atomic is also working hard to find talented developers. Michigan startups are trying to find ways to develop a pool of talented developers. See Xconomy’s “Michigan Startups Working to Bridge IT Talent Gap” for additional information.

As the evening wound down and people started leaving, Al and I decided it was time to go also. About half the cool Atomic Object stickers we brought were gone. Hopefully, we start seeing them on some students laptops at coffee shops and other student hangouts around town.

I think the kickoff meeting was a big success. Al and I both enjoyed being there, and Atomic Object made some new friends within the Wayne State community.