7 Characteristics of Revolutionary App Ideas

March 17, 2017

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From says “Platforms are like springboards for innovations.” Take the GPS for example. It was originally developed for military use but has now completely revolutionized the way like traffic updates, shipment tracking, and weather reports work.

Smartphones are another such springboard. They’ve allowed for the widespread sale and distribution of mobile apps. Mobile apps have made it possible for individuals and startups to make a disrupt the way entire industries work. The next seven sections will outline the essential characteristics shared by revolutionary app ideas that allow for them to make such a dramatic impact on the world.

1. The Founders Start With Why

The foundation of every great app idea begins with why, not what. Questions like “why do are you starting this business?” Gives entrepreneurs the ability to build companies around a central vision of real change. Startup founders have to regularly make tough decisions without anybody there to give them advice on what the best choice is. It’s important for them to have a framework of reference that keeps them on track to accomplish why they wanted to build the company in the first place.

Making money should not be that framework, companies focused solely on making money just repeat moves already tried and tested in the market. You can’t dominate an industry if you’re just implementing things your industry’s leader is already doing. Game changers like Facebook and Uber have become some of the largest and wealthiest companies in the world, but they weren’t built to become such. They were founded by people focused on a vision of what they can do to make the world a better place. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This concept originated from Simon Sinek in his bestselling book, Start With Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Action. His Ted talk will give you more details.

The model he uses to illustrate this concept is the Golden Circle.

As a New York app development agency we hear pitches for brand new app ideas every day. They usually say something along these lines, “I have an idea for the next big social media app! I’ve told my friends about it and they love it!” That is the wrong approach to starting a real business.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t dream of building a Facebook while he was sitting in his Harvard dorm room. He started with his why, from there he moved on to the how, and eventually the what.

Here’s an exact quote from one of his Facebook posts in 2006.

“When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better. [The Why] I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with. [The How] I think a lot of the success we’ve seen is because of these basic principles.

We made the site so that all of our members are a part of smaller networks like schools, companies or regions , so you can only see the profiles of people who are in your networks and your friends. [The What] We did this to make sure you could share information with the people you care about.

– Mark Zuckerberg”

In Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk he explains how this idea correlates directly to how our brain works. Our newest brain, the neocortex, can process the “what” level of the Golden Circle. The neocortex uses language to rationalize people’s surroundings and experiences. Our older limbic brains isn’t able to process language, it’s responsible for all of your gut feelings and emotions, including trust and loyalty. This is the part of the brain that’s actually responsible for decision-making.

When you explain your “what”, or the product you’re selling, our neocortex is able to understand the features, benefits, and facts you’re explaining. This just doesn’t drive behavior. When you start with your “why”, you’re speaking directly to the part of the brain that drives people’s consumer behavior.

Before you settle on the app you want to build a business around, think about why. Think about your belief system, and what you could create to help spread those beliefs. Next move onto the how. Ask yourself questions like “how will you spread these beliefs?” or “how can you incorporate that into your app?” Then you can actually move on to the details of the actual product. By using this strategy, your product will become an authentic reflection of you, making it possible to drive real change instead of just building a product.

2. They Focus on Value

“Successful companies create value by providing products or services their customers value more highly than available alternatives. They do this while consuming fewer resources, leaving more resources available to satisfy other needs in society. Value creation involves making people’s lives better. It is contributing to prosperity in society.”

Charles Koch

Long term businesses don’t create products, they create value for their customers. They spend time and resources on making some aspect of their customer’s lives better.

Look through your phone right now. How would you react if someone forced you to delete your favorite apps with all of your saved information, and told you that you couldn’t re-download them? You would probably be devastated because you love using those apps and have invested a lot of time, money and energy using them.

They also make sure the value is real. Mobile game companies are able to make a lot of money by creating addictive apps. By using gamified rewards, they keep you playing for hoursー just so you can unlock the next feature or skin. This is the illusion of value. Illusory value is not sustainable it won’t be long before people get bored and move on to another game or app.

How long do you keep a game app on your phone for before you delete it to clear space for a “better” app? Ten levels? A couple weeks? Eventually, you realize there is no actual benefit to your life that comes from the game, and you move on to something else. No business can survive long-term if they don’t create real value.

Uber has been successful because it has created massive amounts of value for both drivers and riders.

Riders never have to worry about being stranded or lost without transportation, and drivers have the potential to make more money than they would from a standard 9am-5pm job. Because the value the company provides is so high for both groups of people, no one minds that Uber takes a percentage from each transaction.

When Uber started out, they captured less value than they do today. Instead they focused on value. Drivers were paid higher margins and they didn’t do surge pricing for riders during times of high demand. This increased the level of customer satisfaction and multiplied their growth in the process. Only after growing significantly did they start to add more ways to capture some of the value they had created.

When business capture too much of the value that they’re creating for their users, they aren’t able to grow. The most successful founders focus on the making your customers’ lives better, grow fast, and then you can work on your revenue stream and turn into a profitable business.

3. They solve a shared need

By nature, all humans are hardwired with the same basic needs. Businesses that build products that help satisfy one or more of these basic human needs are the ones that stick around and end up getting mainstream adoption.

Here’s a few real world examples:


Needs: Belongingness and Esteem

Existing Problem: People want to feel instantly connected with others in their lives

Novel Solution: A way to interact, share, and connect with friends and family with just a few clicks


Needs: Safety, Aesthetic, and Cognitive

Existing Problem: Public transportation is unpredictable, dangerous, and unappealing

Novel Solution: An app that lets you order premium black cars to pick you up in minutes and drive you to your destination


Needs: Cognitive and Safety

Existing Problem: It’s extremely difficult to stay in control of your finances

Novel Solution: A simple dashboard that gives you a snapshot of your finances, and guidance on how to spend wisely


Needs: Love and Esteem

Existing Problem: Finding new people to date is difficult, awkward, and hurtful if they say no.

Novel Solution: An app that instantly connects you with others looking to date in your area.

Pokemon Go

Needs: Self-Actualization and Esteem

Existing Problem: The ability of role playing games to make people feel accomplished is limited by the medium of the game

Novel Solution: An augmented reality based game that allows people to play Pokemon in a seemingly real world.


Make Sure It’s a Universal Need

It’s crucial to be wary about “scratching your own itch”. The goal of every business is not to sell something to yourself. It’s about selling things to other people. It’s a bad idea for founders to custom tailor a product to their needs and wants unless they are sure that these needs are shared by many. In order to provide people value, founders have to understand what their customers value. Entrepreneurs have to get involved in their customers communities and figure out what they like and what they don’t like about how they currently live their lives.

Steve Jobs came up with the idea for the iPhone by surrounding himself with younger people. He knew that it would be impossible to know what consumers much younger than him wanted. He would do things like go to coffee shops and take notes on how people were acting, or hide in the bushes outside the Apple store to see what customers did when they first arrived. This made it evident to him that having both a phone and an mp3 player was unnecessary, and thus the idea for the iPhone was born.


5. They Differentiate Themselves

The Story of an Atheist Bible Salesman

Entrepreneur, Trevor McKendrick, needed to make some extra money to cover his rent. He decided to look through the App Store for apps that were making a lot of money but were low quality. He came across a number of paid Spanish Bible apps that had a lot of downloads but were poorly developed. He hired a Romanian programmer to help him make his app, but instead of making it the same as every other Spanish Bible app, he decided to include a brand new audio component.

The app was so successful that after one year he had made $73,404. And the app still makes thousands of dollars every month to this day. What made this app such an overwhelming success is that McKendrick didn’t just improve on already existing products, he added an entirely new feature to the app that nobody else had done yet.


How Forest Beat Pomodoro

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.

If you search the App Store for a Pomodoro timer you’ll see many versions of the same app. With such a crowded market it’s difficult to stand out, but Forest was able to dominate the market. Forest is one of the top grossing productivity apps available, and the idea is entirely based on the Pomodoro technique. So how did they compete with every other Pomodoro app?

They completely differentiated themselves. They started by not using the Pomodoro word anywhere in their product description. They added gamified features that would let users grow virtual trees for every session –  eventually creating a forest of productivity. And to put the icing on the cake, if you grow your forest long enough, Forest will plant an actual tree somewhere in the world.

This combination of gamification and social good, not only made Forest stand out from other Pomodoro apps, it made them approximately 10x more popular and one of the highest grossing productivity apps in the App Store.


6. Start With a Niche Market

Appreneurs want millions of people to download their app, so they think they need to make a product that everyone wants. This is a common misconception.

Facebook didn’t start out with the product they have today, they started out as a social network at Harvard. The exclusivity of Facebook was one of the primary reasons they were able to grow so fast in the first place.
When you create a niche product you’re able to tailor it specifically for your target audience. Demand is greatest in quantity for mass-market products, so before the internet, that’s what every company sold. This meant that there was a huge underserved population that didn’t want mainstream products. The internet also made it easier for companies to create and distribute products, so instead of competing against established brands they would be able to sell” the long tail”.

Long tail business models allow companies to start small, build products tailored for their audience, grow quickly, and then expand to bigger audiences or more niches. Just because you’re selling to smaller audiences doesn’t mean you can’t make a lot of money. I’m sure you’ve heard of a few of these “Uber for X” apps like Postmates, FlyCleaners, and Instacart. They are all very new companies, and they focus on a much smaller niche than Uber does so how is it that you’ve heard of them? Because you’re in that niche. It’s much easier for them to get their name heard when they are competing in a smaller market.


7. Develop an Exponential Mindset

According to Max Ventilla, CEO of Alt School, the three questions every entrepreneur should ask themselves before they build a product are:

  1. Am I building something that scales?
  2. Does it get exponentially better with scale?
  3. Does it get better over time at an accelerating rate?

Network effects: [Houseparty] Make inviting friends to your app a primary feature. If each person that downloads your app invites three friends to download it too, you’ll be able to grow your user base at an accelerating rate.

Big data: [Facebook] As more people use your product, you can collect more data. If advertising is how you plan on monetizing, the more data you collect the easier advertisers will be able to target the right audiences to see their ads. This was Facebook’s competitive advantage over Google when they allowed advertisers to use their platform.

Economies of scale: [Zipcar] Setting up your initial infrastructure could be wildly unprofitable. Zipcar had to buy hundreds of cars before they could launch their app because they couldn’t grow a user base if they didn’t even have the transportation. But purchasing these cars eventually became a fixed cost. With enough time and a large enough user base, Zipcar was able to completely revolutionize the car rental market.

What’s The Next Step?

Steve Jobs once said, “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.” If you’ve found your revolutionary new app idea then get started now. The next step after you find your idea is to validate it. Check out our article on the 4 ways to validate your app idea today!