How to make your mobile app take off

One of the growing areas that clients ask me about is how to create and market a successful app that can transform their business. Smart entrepreneurs know a good app can be transformational.

As a public relations professional who operates at the intersection of business and technology, one of the growing areas that clients ask me about is how to create and market a successful app that can transform their business. Smart entrepreneurs know a good app can be transformational. I recently met one such entrepreneur: Guy Wolcott, the founder and CEO of Sawbuck. I think his story is the perfect case study of how to create an app that will transform a business.

There are two main ways that one can be successful in creating an app in the business world. First, you can come up with an app that creates a new market. For existing businesses, this is very challenging. You have a business model already in the marketplace, making it tough to focus your innovative energy on creating a new market. Attempts at this usually fail, leaving executives frustrated with the role the app plays. Rather, these companies are much better off focusing on creating an app that enhances its current market position. A great example of this strategy is Amazon, which has created a seamless shopping experience through an app that is often easier and quicker to use than the website. I find myself using it more and more in my life, leading me to increase spending on the site.

That brings us to the second way to create a successful app, and back to the story of Wolcott, the founder of a web-based real estate platform called Sawbuck. Sawbuck was one of many startups in this space, but unlike Redfin or Zip Realty, Sawbuck was trying to work within the current brokerage model by referring business to existing brokers. However, because of the vision of a smart founder with an ace up his sleeve, Sawbuck is on the verge of joining Zillow as one of the most relevant real estate Internet companies out there.

Guy had one simple idea - but it was a powerful one. How do we create an app that makes people think, "Woah. How did they do that?" or "Wow. That is so cool." If you can do that, people will download it just to play with it. It's a simple idea. Then, when they are looking to purchase a home, the app will be there on millions of smartphone and tablets, ready for use.

That vision - creating this type of app - became the main focus of the company over the last two years since it was founded. It had the fundamentals in place: a business model that made money. However, what the company needed were more customers. And, with a background that was more Internet executive than real estate executive, Wolcott was ready to create the app to get the job done.

Two months ago, Sawbuck released its cool real estate app, called Homesnap. Homesnap allows the user to take a picture of any home, and the app will then pull up the relevant info about that home. Users are completely amazed by how the product works, and that creates buzz. The buzz leads to downloads. And the downloads lead to people by homes, which leads to customers for the brokers they refer business to. Those referrals lead to profits for Sawbuck. Voila! The business is transformed.

And the app is that cool. I asked 10 tech-savvy friends if they could figure out how it worked. None of them could. If they couldn't figure it out, there is no way the average user could figure it out. And that is at the core of what makes the app successful: the combination of coolness, newness, and wonder.

I asked Wolcott about the process that led to his vision and how he executed that vision. Here is what he had to say:

“The first app that really struck me was Shazam. It did one simple thing well; but more than that, it did it delightfully. Of course you could type lyrics into a search engine and find out the song name. But by combining the sensors of this device in your pocket with a bunch of data and a big brain in the cloud, Shazam made it simpler and a lot more fun...I was determined to apply that formula to our world, homes, and real estate.”

The idea was simple: take a picture of any home to find out all about it. If it worked, it would be simple, useful, and delightful - the Shazam formula.

When I asked the president of the newly formed Application Developers Alliance, Jon Potter, about this he said: “App developers are digital craftsmen whose goal is to change the world around them. A great idea in the hands of a great developer can extend, change, or even create a profitable business model. As a distribution mechanism, a marketing tool, or a service unto itself, applications are an essential tool and unparalleled opportunity for nearly any industry.”

As of writing this article, just 10 weeks after launching its app, Homesnap has been downloaded 130,000 times. If this pace continues for subscribership, and 1% of those customers buy a house, Sawbuck will see a 3000% revenue increase. And that just amplifies its existing business model, without getting into how they can market the product to sellers as well as the value of the data collected and advertising networks. That, folks, is how you create an app that will transform your company.

Joshua Lamel is SVP and head of the technology practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Washington, D.C.

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