Early adopters in the small business custom app game were primarily owners of restaurants and gyms, but now, thanks to an increase in mobile application development options, many SMB owners are creating apps to reach their customer base, improve customer service, increase internal efficiency and boost brand awareness.
Despite the obvious merit of having a custom app, many SMBs stop short when confronted with the sheer variety of options for development. Choosing between template-style DIY app creators, development companies, services that require some coding and individual contractors can be a daunting task if you're not familiar with the app building industry.
This buying guide not only offers recommendations for a variety of common business-use cases for app creation but includes general information about the types of apps out there, features you should be aware of, common roadblocks, and the pros and cons of different app building platforms and services.
App basics: web apps, native apps and hybrid apps
As you search for an app creator, you'll probably come across the terms native app, hybrid app and mobile app. The difference is simple.
Native app: Native apps are built for specific platforms and are downloaded through app stores. The obvious downside to choosing a native app is that different versions have to be created for different devices (primarily iOS and Android). The other challenge with native apps, is that because they're distributed through app stores, they must be submitted and approved by the store prior to being published. The iTunes App Store regulations recently changed to include the stipulation: "Apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service will be rejected." While it's unclear how broadly Apple is applying this regulation to submitted apps, if you create a native app, you should ask the potential service or developer how they handle changing regulations as well as the submission process. When asked about the changing processes for app store submission, Robert Sekulić, the VP of marketing at app creation company Shoutem, said, “not a single app published with Shoutem was rejected based on 4.2.6.”
Sekulić attributes Shoutem’s compliance success to its harsh internal review system of app requests and its unique platform architecture, which Sekulić says allows users to build truly native mobile apps and, “not mediocre hybrid apps [such as] those that are being sold as ‘native’ from other app builders”. Sekulić also said, regarding new app store guidelines, “Clearly, Apple doesn't want web apps with a native container around them to be present in the App Store. Hybrid apps will never be able to achieve the performance, speed, security, and reliability of native apps and provide fluent user experience Apple requires.”
Regardless of the type of app you create, or the creation service you choose, it’s vital to ask in advance how the company you’re considering approaches compliance with app store guidelines and what their track record is.
Hybrid app: Unlike native apps, hybrid apps only have one codebase, but like native apps they can (in some cases) be accessed through app stores. Most hybrid apps are built using HTML5, like web apps, and then wrapped in a native cross-platform technology, such as Cordova or PhoneGap. This essentially means you're creating a web app that looks like, and can be accessed like, a native app. Hybrid apps are popular because they have many of the same features of native apps, but they're easier to create, update and manage due to their single codebase. On the flip side, hybrid apps can have problems with the app store approval process, especially in the iTunes App Store. As with creating a native app, you should always ask app makers that specialize in hybrid apps how they approach the app store submission process.
Types of app creators
There are several types of app creation platforms, from DIY services that allow you to make your own app in minutes to custom programming services where you to work one-on-one with a developer to create an app from scratch. Choosing the right app creator for your business depends on how much money you're willing to spend, how quickly you need your app and how concerned you are about having your app accepted by the iTunes App Store.
No code platforms
No-code app creation platforms are popular because of their user-friendly, drag-and-drop interface and low cost. Most no code services allow you to design your app for free and then charge a publishing fee (between $15 and $500) as well as a monthly subscription fee, which ranges from around $15 to $150 a month, depending on the features included.
Some levels of service include access to the app's code for optional hands-on development, the cost of submission to app stores and automatic maintenance updates. Other subscriptions are more bare bones. Many no-code platforms offer additional custom development services via in-house developers on a separate pricing structure.
The best thing about no-code platforms is ease of use, and thanks to the proliferation of no-code app technology, many no-code options offer robust functionality to creators and users. No-code apps are quick to create, which makes them popular with businesses wanting their apps up and running in a hurry. The downside to no-code platforms is that your app is at risk of being rejected by the iTunes App Store. Some DIY creators help their customers submit their apps for approval (and even include the cost of submission in the subscription fee) while others don't. Before committing to a no-code platform, ask how the company is handling current app store guidelines.
Custom-build companies specialize in creating one-of-a-kind apps for their clients. Companies like these typically employ large teams of designers, developers and project managers. The benefit to opting for a custom build is total freedom to create the exact app you want, and you are guided through each stage of the development process. The major downside to custom-build companies is cost and timeline. Naturally, creating an app from scratch, without using templates, takes longer than going the no-code or hybrid route and costs much more.
The price range for a custom build varies wildly depending on the functionality and complexity of the app, the number of platforms the app will be designed for and the size of the development company. Entry level custom apps typically start at around $15,000 for basic builds while middle-of-the-road apps range between $30,000 and $150,000, and complex apps can cost upwards of half a million dollars. Asking for price quotes from a few companies (of varying sizes) is the best way to get an idea of how much your app will cost.
Hiring an individual developer, on either a contract or full-time basis, is a viable option for some SMBs. Advantages to having your own in-house developer or contractor include the ability to tweak your app at will and roll out updates as needed. However, hiring developers is extremely expensive. Unless you're investing in a team of app development professionals, it will take a long time to complete projects in house. Hiring individual developers is best left to companies that plan on building out a full tech team, particularly since salaries for app developers with just three to five years of experience are typically in the low-to-mid six figures
Ongoing app maintenance
One important aspect of app development is long-term maintenance. App marketplaces are consistently updating their guidelines for submission and acceptance, and as operating systems evolve, your app will has to evolve with them. It's also likely that you'll need to update the content on your app at some point as your business changes and grows.
Robert Grossberg, the CEO of TreSensa, a mobile game development company, has some insight for businesses that want to invest in apps, "Don't underestimate the ongoing maintenance. Constantly engage with the app, and as you're planning it in the first place, think about what you want to add over time."
He also thinks a slow and steady approach to development is wise for newcomers to the app world. He explained that when businesses create an app for only iOS or Android, they miss half the market, but building an app on both major platforms requires two different sets of skills and double the future maintenance. "There are a lot of different solutions [for app development]," Grossberg said. "Keep it simple and work on it in quick, bite-size chunks."
App creator recommendations for different business needs
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing an app creation service, but these are a few of our recommendations based on common use cases.
While you can use nearly any app creation service to make an app for your retail shop or restaurant, these app creation companies offer some appealing templates and features specifically for stores and restaurants.
AppyPie is an app creation service that offers template-style building tools as well as some custom development services. Free and paid plans are available, as well as 24/7 live chat, phone and email support, and reseller programs.
Bizness Apps is a template app creator that’s suitable for almost any type of small business, including restaurants, bands, sports, real estate, legal services, nonprofits and even religious organizations. Bizness Apps also offers a comprehensive reseller program as well as many online resources for app creation and mobile marketing.
Hyperlink InfoSystem is an established custom app development company with a broad range of services for businesses wanting top-of-the-line customer-facing apps. Hyperlink InfoSystem also has partnerships with multiple ecommerce solutions such as Magento, Ubercart, Prestashop, CS Cart, VirtueMart and Big Commerce for seamless fluidity from your retail website to your store's app.
Shoutem is a no-code app platform that makes creating a truly native retail or restaurant app for iOS and Android simple. Shoutem claims it takes just three steps to create an app with their template-style builder, and apps made with their service include valuable analytics, the ability to create loyalty programs, share sales and deals, and more.
Shopgate is a retail-focused app creation company that allows users to turn their online stores into web applications. The service supports more than 60 ecommerce platforms and payment service, and comes with dozens of professional looking templates and branding options.
Our top choices for game app creation include drag-and-drop options, hybrid services and custom developers.
GameSalad claims it allows users to create native games in one hour. GameSalad users can create free apps with in-game purchasing options or paid-only games for iOS, Android, Kindle, Amazon, or Windows.
Chupamobile is a template-based DIY app creation service that specializes in games. The easy-to-use app building tools have made it popular with people who don't want to code and want to create games as quickly as possible.
Zco corporation is a top-rated custom app development company that creates game and non-game apps for businesses and individuals. Zco builds native and hybrid apps that feature 2D and 3D animation and augmented reality content.
Hyperlink InfoSystem offers development for ecommerce apps and provides comprehensive custom game building for mobile devices. In addition to 2D and 3D animation, Hyperlink InfoSystem can help you create a game using augmented reality and virtual reality.
Custom business applications can improve efficiency and communication across your business. Some employee-facing apps, including white label apps, are accessible through standard app stores, while others can be specifically designed to live on private app stores that only your employees have access to, although that option is far more expensive.
Intellectsoft offers full-cycle mobile app development with a low coding platform and in-house developers. While Intellectsoft builds customer-facing apps, they also create business solutions for employee use.
Staffbase makes creating a branded app for internal use simple with their menu of features to choose from and their focus on security and user management. Staffbase focuses on integration with existing channels by using its SharePoint Add-in, LDAP synchronization and plugin API for integrating with existing applications.
Fast Field Mobile Forms is a customizable app that allows you to create and access secure customized forms, aggregate data from those forms, track workflows and more. At just $20 a month per user, and discounts starting at just 50-plus users, it's relatively affordable and functional. Fast Field Mobile Forms offers the option of white labeling, offline access and synchronization with single sign-ons.
Zoho Creator employs tools, such as automated workflows, with an intuitive drag-and-drop interface to simplify the app-making process. Users can easily add customer relationship management capabilities into their apps and integrate third-party app services, such as PayPal, to start selling products and accepting mobile payments, which makes Zoho Creator a great choice for employee-facing apps as well as customer-facing apps.
App features to consider
All app creation services are different, in terms of what they specialize in and which features they offer users. Before you make a final decision on the type of app creation service you use, make sure you know which features are important to you.
Application privacy and security: While it's not a concern for all business app creation, internal applications often require unique privacy and security options. If there are any compliance issues specific to your business, discuss them with potential app creator's representative.
Reseller options: If you're designing a game or white label app with the intention of reselling it, make sure the creation service you use has reseller options. Not all apps created with DIY templates or by third-party developers can be resold, and companies that offer reseller programs often bundle in additional features, like free design tools and websites specifically for resellers.
Push notifications: Push notifications make it easy to engage with customers, plus it notifies them about promotional events, sales and new products or services. Most app creation services allow for push notifications.
Customer discounts or loyalty programs: Product-driven businesses often offer customers access to loyalty programs and new client discounts, and many app creation services allow you to integrate those programs into your app. This integration makes it easier to track customer involvement in loyalty programs and easier for customers to take advantage of those programs.
Instant messaging capabilities: Not all app creation services offer instant messaging capabilities, so if that's an important feature for your business, make sure the developer or DIY company you work with offers that option.
Geotargeting: Geotargeting is a valuable feature if you have a business with multiple locations or customers across different regions. Geotargeting allows you to communicate with your clients based on their location, so you can tailor your message to different segments with ease.
Social Media Integration: Most app creators can integrate with such social platforms as Instagram and Facebook, making it easier for potential clients to find and download your app. It's also great for distributing marketing material to your existing clients.
Third-party app integration: While social media integration is a form of third-party app integration, many apps that are created for internal business use require additional integration with proprietary apps as well as business-focused apps. If you are designing an app for internal business use make sure you have the option for future integration. Or if you want to include Google Maps or other Google services in your app, you'll need to make sure that is supported.
Analytics and reporting: Most app creation platforms (and many services) offer analytics and reporting features. Accessing reports can help you gain insight on your customer base and reach them more effectively. If analytics are important to you, make sure you know which types of reports are included in your subscription fee.
Admin controls: Administrative controls are vital for internal employee applications. It's important to understand how admin controls will be accessed and which options will be built in. Being able to control permissions based on groups and individuals is ideal.
Customer service: Before selecting one app creation company over another, you should consider the level of customer service each option offers, not only in terms of quality but in terms of the mode of communication. Some companies offer 24/7 chat services as well as phone and email support while others are more limited in their scope. More is always better when it comes to getting help.
Other app makers to consider
While we have not individually reviewed every app maker or service on this list, these are some of the other major players in the DIY app creation and custom development world.
AppBuilderOnline.com – AppBuilderOnline.com aims to make mobile app development easy and affordable. It also does all the legwork when it comes to submitting apps to app stores and comes with full customer support, regardless of your subscription plan. appbuilderonline.com
AppInstitute – AppInstitute is a free iOS and Android app builder designed specifically for busy small business owners. It offers an easy-to-use drag-and-drop platform, so there's no need for any coding or technical skills. appinstitute.com
Appery.io – Appery.io is a drag-and-drop cloud-based platform with visual development tools and integrated back-end services. The builder runs completely in the cloud, so there is nothing to install or download, which makes it easy to build and launch your app. Appery.io also comes with advanced features for developers. appery.io
AppMachine – There are three ways to build an app using AppMachine. The fast and easy way is to scan your current website and import content into an iOS, Android and Windows Phone app. You can also start from scratch using the platform's precoded "building blocks," or have AppMachine's developer build an app for you. appmachine.com
Appsnado – Appsnado offers comprehensive custom app development for game and nongame apps. Appsnado developers can create everything from 2D and 3D games to MPG, first-person games, isometric games, hybrid games, audio-based games and more. Appsnado
Canvas – Canvas Business Apps & Forms lets businesses convert forms into mobile-ready digital formats. Using Canvas, businesses build their own apps that can perform all types of time-saving tasks, such as workflow automation, estimates and purchase-order calculation, product tracking (via GPS), and confirmation or authorization via signature capturing. gocanvas.com
GoodBarber – GoodBarber offers an easy-to-use DIY app maker and access to developer tools. This includes source code, API and plugins to customize your app. GoodBarber comes with customer support and a comprehensive library of self-help resources. GoodBarber
Mobile Roadie – Mobile Roadie makes it simple to create consumer-facing business apps. It offers time-limited apps for one-off events such as conferences, concerts, promotional events and expos. It also comes with advanced analytics tools. mobileroadie.com
Salesforce1 Platform – Salesforce1 Platform makes it simple for businesses to create tailor-made apps internal and external use. This business-focused app builder integrates back-office tools, offers options for syncing data from legacy systems, and offers API options and services. salesforce.com/platform/overview
Softeq – Softeq offers full stack mobile development for internal and external business apps. While its primary target is enterprise-level corporate ecosystems, Softeq's holistic approach to portal integration and commitment to workflow efficiency landed it a place on our list. Softeq
Swiftic – Swiftic makes it easy to build professional-looking apps using a DIY template interface. It also allows users to set up in-app mobile payments via MyCheck, in-app orders with online ordering, and customer delivery tracking with Bringg. In addition, Swiftic offers various distribution and promotion services to market your app. swiftic.com
Taplytics – Taplytics helps businesses optimize their apps and retain customers. It is a native mobile A/B testing solution that offers the ability for entire teams – from product managers to designers and developers – to update apps without the use of code or the need for approvals, enabling businesses to focus on their core jobs in a streamlined platform. Taplytics is designed to provide instant app updates using the web-based Visual App Editor. taplytics.com
Zengine – Keeping databases using spreadsheets or clunky software can be a pain for small businesses. Instead, Zengine's cloud-based platform lets businesses create custom apps that simplify database management. With Zengine, you can build online database apps that work for your business, minimizing human error and time wasted due to confusing interfaces and manually entering and searching for data. zenginehq.com
Additional reporting by Sara Angeles.