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How to make an app in 3 weeks for $250 with no coding skills

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Note: This is a walk-through of my experience creating my first iPhone app by hiring a developer.  My goal is to show you how to make an app as well.  It’s called Photo Date and allows you to see the date your iPhone photos were taken. Download it here, its free.

Look at this beautiful behemoth

It seems like everyone wants to learn how to make an app, but few will follow through and actually do it.  After reading this, I hope you are motivated to get off the sidelines and launch something.

I knew that mobile was going to be a huge deal 9 years ago when I bought my first brick of a smartphone. Pre-iPhone days it ran windows mobile, had a dreaded stylus and even gave me an impressive bulge in my pants.

Making an app on my own has been on my geek bucket list for a couple of years, but I never got around to it until last month when I went from idea to app store in less than 3 weeks.

How to Make an App

Step 1: Break through your mental barriers

One of the main things that held me back was thinking that I needed the perfect, epic idea for an app. I’d finally think that I had it, only to find something similar already existing.

I only realized the lunacy of this mindset when I started to recognize it in other people. I’ve had dozens of people tell me about their super complex, mind blowing app idea – and now I just smile and nod, listening to them knowing the whole time that it is never going to see the light of day.

So that’s why I decided to do something incredibly simple for my first app. Why risk thousands of dollars on a large scale app project when I could start small and easy and gather learnings before trying to take down Angry Birds.

For my job I work on digital projects for Lexus, one of which being an iPad app.   Yes, I was more familiar with the app world then a lot of people but there is no reason anybody can’t do this. I don’t know any iOS programming languages and didn’t know what xCode was before starting the project.

How I found the mythical ‘perfect’ idea

The first thing I wanted to lock down for my app was the idea. Instead of something mind-blowing I just needed something incredibly basic. I thought and thought. Finally the idea just came to me while scrolling through my photos on my phone one day – “I can’t see when any of these photos were taken.” I can see an awesome map that shows where, but I can’t see when.

So then I went to Google and typed in “how to see iPhone photo date” and on the first page saw about 5 forum posts where people were looking for a solution. This helped me validate the idea by seeing that others would want this app and not just me.

Photo Date App Google Results


So boom, I found my idea.

Here are a few other ways to find ideas that people are looking for:

  • Pay very careful attention to the things your friends complain about.  The words “I wish you could do…”, or “I hate…” should make your ears perk up.
  • Lurk on https://discussions.apple.com and look for recurring things that people don’t know how to do, or apps/features that they ask for

I think its important for your app to fill a need if its going to be successful – but for the first app it should really be about just going through the motion and doing it as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The important thing to keep in mind, is that for your first app, it really doesn’t matter what your idea is. You shouldn’t be trying to re-create Instagram on your first try. You should be trying to come up with the simplest thing possible just so that you can get something out the door. That way when you go to do your next one, your more complicated one, the process will go more smoothly.

How to create mockups that a developer will understand

I’m going to show you two ways to do this.

1 is free.

The other will cost $20 (maybe even free).

Both cheap as dirt.

Free option – Skitch

Download Skitch and use the rectangle tool, line tool, text tool and arrows to create a ghetto mockup. Here is an example of mine. Pretty crappy, right?

Photo Date iPhone app wireframe

Example of my initial wireframe

$20 option (maybe free) Keynote + Keynotopia

If you already have Keynote, this option is free also! I didn’t so I had to shell out the $20. Ok so get keynote if you don’t have it, then download these free iPhone mockup templates here.

You’ll create your ‘app’ in one keynote window and open up the templates in another. Then you just select the pieces you need, copy them, and past them in your ‘app’ keynote window.

Each ‘slide’ is a screen of your app. If you can copy and paste you can design an app!

Photo Date Keynotopia

Here’s an example of what my slightly more polished wireframe looked like

It’s helpful to include notes on your screens that describe the functionality. For example: “On this screen the user can scroll down through their camera roll and as they do so the bottom bar will automatically change to show which month, year their photo was taken.”

After I did this, I exported a PDF. done.

Ultra-free option – You can always just draw your app out on paper and take a picture of that as well.

Finding a developer without worry

I think this part scares people the most because they have no idea what the hell they’re doing. They are scared of hiring the wrong person, that they’re going to take their money, that their thing isn’t going to work properly, that the developer is going to take 4 days to respond, that they will try to cheat them out of money etc. etc.

How I hired a developer

I work with developers every day in my job and I was still hesitant that I could find the right developer. (I couldn’t use anybody I work with because they’re too expensive.)

So here’s what I did:

I went on freelancer.com and posted a project. I titled it ‘very simple iPhone project’ When posting a project you have to think what a developer is going to think as they’re scrolling through the site and you have to title your project so that they will care.

Does a developer care about this project title: “Revolutionary idea for real estate app” No.

How about this: “Exciting project with clear guidelines, reasonable timeline” This is better. This says, this person knows what they want and isn’t going to expect everything to be done in 1 day.

I named my project – ‘very simple iPhone app’ so that they know it would be quick and easy money.

Now – if you post a project on a site like freelancer, elance or odesk you are probably going to receive at least 20+ bids.  I got 23.  Who has time to review that many and how do you go about narrowing it down?  Most people get overwhelmed at this stage and give up.

But there’s a quick little trick you can use to eliminate 80% of all bids to narrow down the pool.


A lot of people on these types of sites will submit bids to every project out there, which is obvious by the 500 word responses you’ll receive less then 3 minutes after posting your project.

So what I did is in the description of my project I said, “in your bid include the answer to 2+2 so that I know you actually read this.”

And it worked, dozens of people didn’t do this so I ruthlessly deleted their bids. I made the mistake at first of looking at their profiles and a few were actually quite good. But then I remembered that if they can’t follow my basic instructions then it doesn’t matter how good their past work might be.

So don’t even look at their portfolios if they can’t follow basic instructions.  Communication is priority #1.


Testing your app

After your developer programs your app, you are going to want to test it to make sure it functions correctly.

To test it on your actual phone

  • Supply your developer with your phone’s UDID. Connect your phone to your computer and in iTunes it will show you the serial number.  Only phones with a UDID built into the app will be able to test it.
  • Your developer should send you an IPA – which is a packaged up file of your app. Then go to testflightapp.com, register an account and upload the IPA.
  • Then go to testflightapp on your phone, log in and it will install the test flight ‘app’ on your phone. Open this app and it should show a build of your app as available to download. Download it and you are ready to test on your device.

Highly recommended – Show your app to your friends and watch them using it. Don’t tell them how to use it, just watch them. This will give you ideas on how to improve its usability. I did this for my app and saw someone try to swipe left/right in between photos but they couldn’t. I assumed my developer would have built that in so I didn’t think to test it at first. So I immediately had this functionality added.

Submitting to app store

The submission process to the app store process is documented here.  Be aware that it costs $99/year for a developer license to submit to the app store.

The only thing worth noting here, that I messed up, is to make sure you have all of your screenshots uploaded to your submission before submitting it.  Apple no longer allows you to upload screenshots after it’s been approved.  The only way to get new screenshots up is to submit a new build of the app and go through the review process again.

Lessons learned

  1. Start with the simplest idea you can think of. Bonus points if you can make it simple and useful for people
  2. When working with a developer you don’t know, provide extremely detailed and visual instructions.
  3. Screen applicants out by making them follow basic instructions
  4. Have others test out your app to identify bugs, improved functionality or new features

What questions do you have about creating your own app?

If you liked this post, check out my full video training, How to Make Your First App. Use this link to save $30 as a thank you for reading my blog!

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50 comments… add one

  • Suhaskale

    Thanks for the insight. Locating a good idea using google was great. maybe u start a search engine called ideagoogle….

  • Taman

    Eh, I didn’t really get much out of this article. The title of this post leads the reader to believe that you actually created the app yourself, which you didn’t. You probably did a better job at prototyping it than some people, but I’m going to steal a line from Obama here, “You didn’t build that”.

    • Ben

      Sorry you didn’t get much out of it. Wasn’t trying to lead anybody to believe I coded it – the point was to show people that you don’t need to spend months learning to program in order to make your app idea a reality.

      • Exactly man. While I was reading your post, I had feeling that you are reading my mind. It’s exactly how you should do it. You are not developer, mostly marketer if I can say, and you have ideas, vision how to build something useful and market it.

        I am doing same, researching my self about technology, finding right affordable developers, giving them instructions, points, bookmars to save their time and cost me less.

        Right now we are team of three, me (desinger, projectant, marketer), my gf (front end) and backend developer. We are building Ad, Social and Blogging platform using latest technology (Meteorjs), which I can’t wait to finish and start promoting it.

        If you wanna chat sometime, add me on skype:ksifoking


    • Guillaume

      He did build it: he found the idea, planned it, found the resources, financed the project and turned out a profit.

      Ben, let the wankers be wankers. You can find satisfaction in knowing you’ve already accomplished more than 99% of the web-business circlejerk – you’ve brought a project to completion.

    • Can we get rid of this obnoxiously negative comment. This article was fantastic for people that can’t do coding. EXACTLY like the article said.

  • Hi Ben,

    Congratulations on finding a worthy developer. I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing. How did you decide not to have the developer sign a NDA? I’m also interested in the developer you used.



  • appleboy

    Thanks for the article! How did you negotiate a price for the programmer?

    • Ben

      They submitted a bid to the project on freelancer.com. I accepted their quote – so there wasn’t a negotiation. Their bid wasn’t the lowest but also not the highest.

  • Thanks Ben! I’m not sure what Taman is talking about – this article was very useful and met my expectations. Love the tip about 2+2 in the proposal!

  • Sylvain

    did it worth it? I mean, are you getting enough money out of this app?

    • Ben

      I’ve made around $100 from it so far so I should at least break even.

      • I missed how you are making money from this – ads? Where?

        • Ben

          Hey Shane – yeah there are ads at the bottom of the screen when using the app. I also launched a paid version a few months ago with no ads.

  • 4.

    This is great. But, where’s the bit about how it makes $40 / month?

    • Ben

      Thanks – I wrote this a few months ago before I had iAds added to the app. I’ll work on an update on how that all works.

  • Hi Ben, take a look a udemy.com if you are actually interested in making a course to teach this. I think it will serve you well and us for that matter.

    Keep me posted


  • shariq

    Thanks for the write-up! It was really beneficial. I have the same question as the visitor above… did you have them sign an NDA? How did you know they wouldn’t just run away with the app idea? Are you making money on it by selling it on the appstore or via ads? And lastly, can you put me in touch with your dev? Thanks!

  • JJ

    To the people saying that they clicked on the article thinking “he created the app himself”, does it really matter?

    I got a lot out of this article. Even more so than I would have if he would have just told me a bunch of free code academy places online and told me the steps needed to create my own app. I think this is great for people who have ideas but have little to no technological background (or just don’t have the time). If you have money and someone who codes for a living can make it for $250 why not?

    Great write-up.

  • kthomas

    Congrats on the app! Myself, and more than a few others who were using vworker.com (which merged with freelancer) were not happy at all with the policies and procedures at FL. One of the several problems I had was that the merger really put a kink in my particular business as I had many very small jobs at irregular intervals and the high minimum bids were just not acceptable.

    I highly recommend exploring the other services, including rent-acoder.com – I just found that site myself yesterday and placed a bid. I’m not sure about elance.com and odesk.com seems swell if you need an hourly type of arrangement.

  • Great job! Also a great tool I’ve found and used to prototype is an app called POP. I think it stands for Prototyping on Paper. It’s free in the App store. Just sketch your wireframes, take a pic, and add it to the app.

    • Ben

      Cool thanks, I’ll definitely check it out!

  • Hey, this is some rockstar stuff. Awesome way to invest $250.

    One question: when you added the swipe functionality, did you have to negotiate the feature addition with the developer, or did you have to pay him for the addition?

    • Ben

      Hey David – good question. I negotiated 1 round of revisions into our original deal so it didn’t cost more. I’d recommend asking for more rounds of revisions (meaning they send you a test build and you get to send your feedback and have them update it) but I kept it to 1 since it was such a low budget.

  • grey

    question. when you posted on the free lance website for developers to make bids, how much of your idea did you have to put into the ad for it? do you outline your whole idea where anyone can see it, or what? I would like a little insight on what to put in my developer request post, like how much is too much, how much is too little, etc.

  • Daniel

    Great article, thanks! It has inspired me to pursue an idea that I’ve had.

    What kind of marketing did you do for your app?

  • Nick

    Hey, Appreciate you taking the time to walk us through your process! An great idea also, my question when you put your idea up on 1 of the freelance sites to find a coder, how do you know if any 1 of them will steal your idea! I know I have a great idea! But theyre are some legal issues I am not sure of, it is nothing illegal.. But, I do not know who to contact to find out, and yes I would like the name of your coder my idea is simple nothing as hard as something like yours! Id love if you could email me! Thanks a lot!!!

  • Rami

    Hey man,

    Nice article, can you please get me in touch with your developer?


  • John

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. This is a very instructive article. I especially loved the ‘captcha’ idea, asking them to answer 2+2. :)

    Did you ask the developer to hand over the source code? If so, did you negotiate that beforehand and was it any issue for the developer. I would also be interested in getting the that developers infos.

    Thanks again,


  • James

    Hi Ben,

    Great advise I found it very useful thank you! I am thinking of creating an app myself and have a few small ideas to start off with. I was just wondering how much did it cost you overall to end up with the app complete and on the app store?

    Also could I please have the contact details of the developer you used?

    One more! Do you have any advise on making money from your app?


  • Sharon

    Thank you for sharing :)
    Can I please get the details of the developer you used?

  • Corey Stevens

    Can you please put me in touch with your developer. Email me at cstevens4343@gmail.com.

    Much appreciated!

  • You can run a search on any of the search engines for “free article submission websites”.
    Squidoo is a site started by entrepreneur Seth Godin.
    Usually, the list owner (that would be you), will offer a premium
    for subscribing.

  • jim

    Hey Ben,

    Nice article. One question, how do you market your app and since your app is free, how did you monetize this app?


  • cris


    This article is very interesting and helpful. Would you please get me in touch with your developer?

    Thank you!

  • Great article.

  • Cohen

    This is a great article, thank you. I do have some questions however; how can you trust that the person you are hiring isn’t going to just read your add and take your idea? And if your app is free, how are you making a profit?
    Again, thank you for the great article!


    • Ben

      Hey Cohen – I just wrote this post that hopefully will answer your idea theft question: http://benphilabaum.com/app-idea-theft/

      As far as how I’m making a profit, I have iAds implemented within the app as well as a paid version ($.99)

  • Dan

    Hello Ben,

    Great article. However, there seems to be a general unaddressed question that has been repeatedly asked in the comments:

    “How did you decide not to have the developer sign a NDA?” -Jay Ragan

    “I have the same question as the visitor above… did you have them sign an NDA? How did you know they wouldn’t just run away with the app idea?” -shariq

    “when you posted on the free lance website for developers to make bids, how much of your idea did you have to put into the ad for it? do you outline your whole idea where anyone can see it, or what? I would like a little insight on what to put in my developer request post, like how much is too much, how much is too little, etc.” -grey

    “when you put your idea up on 1 of the freelance sites to find a coder, how do you know if any 1 of them will steal your idea!” -Nick

    All of these are not quite the same question, but all hit on the same point. If there is obvious money to be made from creating your app, why wouldn’t one of the 22 other bidders simply make and submit the app themselves? You’ve taken the time to read and answer other questions throughout this comment section, so you must have already read the above questions. So, does the question not have merit? Is the question already answered elsewhere? Is the answer supposedly self-evident and does not need to be pinned down?

    Thank you for your time,


  • Nina

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!!

  • jaimeZ

    Hey, I’m still a bit unclear on how do you protect yourself that the coder or company that will develop your app idea won’t steal it? Should they idea be copyrighted first? I guess we all feel that we might have that next million dollar app in mind and before posting it for a bid, how do u make sure they won’t just read it and take it?

  • Tiffanie

    What about patenting your app idea? Did you provide any non-disclosure agreement forms to the developer, so they don’t run with your app idea?

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