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How to Create an App as a Side Gig or Main Gig

Our reliance on our mobile devices is increasing daily, and it seems there’s an app for basically everything these days. It follows that the mobile app industry has been booming. Technology and the ease in access to global talent are making it easier and more affordable than ever for entrepreneurs to launch their own apps and tech startups. This presents a great opportunity for physician entrepreneurs who have an idea for an app that they want to create. We’ve seen many questions come up within our physician communities on how to develop an app as a side gig. While there are many routes to transforming this idea into reality, we’ll give you a basic overview of the process, including building out a product idea, researching and designing a prototype, and going to market. Each of these steps could be an article in and of itself, so use it as a way to decide if you’re interested, and then dive deeper through your networks and more reading!

Creating an app, step by step

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Challenges of Creating an App

Before we get too far into the weeds, we should point out the relative challenges of this side gig as opposed to some of the most popular side gigs that we discuss more frequently. This is not to discourage anyone, but rather to make sure you understand what you are signing up for. This is not a passive side gig, at least at first. 

Upfront Commitment Requirements

There is a very real upfront commitment of both time and money in building an app. While there are platforms that allow you to create an app overnight, most of the apps you likely use and love on a daily basis are quite complicated on the backend.

Creating an app could require raising outside capital and hiring developers. Software engineers are in high demand and can be quite expensive.

Even if you have the skills to do this yourself, you will put in a lot of time upfront without a guaranteed reward at the end.

Ongoing Maintenance

Apps require not only a significant amount of capital to develop, but also to maintain. You will have to stay up to date with software updates, upgrade functionality to keep up with your competitors, and respond to user feedback and iterate.

In more involved apps, this may require having a technical team that works around the clock. Even basic applications will have to stay compatible with iOS upgrades and privacy regulations.


This is a competitive space, and there are likely many people with the same idea as you building similar apps. Even if you are the first to market, you could be quickly replaced. You may not know that a major corporate entity is investing many millions of dollars to build out a sexier product (but then again, you could build something with great product market fit and gain a steady userbase, and get bought out by one of those companies!).

A quick industry like tech requires you to move fast. The most successful physician entrepreneurs in this space usually give up clinical time to concentrate on this endeavor, if not leave their physician jobs entirely. Of course, the scale of what you are building will determine how necessary this is. If you’re developing a very niche product for a market you have unique access to, you may have the luxury of taking your time.

No Guaranteed Success

There is not a tried and true pathway to success here. Unlike becoming a doctor, where you become a physician after a series of required experiences and exams, your success here depends on many variables, many of which are beyond your control. These include:

  • the strength and vulnerabilities of the technology you choose

  • the market appetite and competition for your product (which could change in the interim from ideation to creation)

  • your success in marketing your product

You could develop a great app and then realize that technology has moved past this or somebody else has built a competitor product that for whatever reason has more scalability, more marketability, or the ability to offer what you do at a lower price point. 

The challenges of creating an app

All in all, this is definitely one of the riskier side gigs. We’ve seen many physicians venture into this space and then cease operations. Remember that the majority of startups fail, and health tech and digital health products are being heavily invested in across the globe, so this can be a go big or go home type endeavor.

The Pros of Creating an App

Now, the positive. Who would have ever guessed that Facebook would’ve turned into what it did? 

If you are successful, apps can be wildly successful, with widespread adaptation, a huge profit upside, and an immense opportunity for impact. The ability to scale your business becomes almost infinite if you are able to develop a product that people enjoy.

The opportunities to monetize a successful app are pretty extensive, with abilities to sell add on products or services, upgrades, or more. And of course, the personal satisfaction of knowing that you built something that others find useful and helpful on a daily basis is priceless.

Additionally, there are opportunities for large exits. Your business could be purchased by someone who sees what you’ve built and wants to bring it to their platform, or invested in by a venture capital company who sees its potential and wants to infuse more money into it to make it even better.

The Beginning Stages of Creating an App

Okay, so if you’ve decided you want to embark on this journey, where do you start?

The App Idea

Every side gig starts with an idea that an entrepreneur thinks they can address in a meaningful and/or unique way. App development is no different. However, given the number of apps out there and the number of things competing for attention on a person’s phone, as well as the expenses associated with creating an application, it’s especially important to have a well thought out plan for both how your product adds value amongst the competition and how you plan on marketing it such that you set it up for success.

To be successful, you’ll want your app to solve a problem that you know a significant enough number of people have that you can make a business out of it. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a niche industry that the app industry hasn’t addressed yet?

  • What hole do you see in the marketplace that other apps do not currently address?

  • How will your app help improve the lives of its users?

  • How can your app do something better than existing apps in the same field?

Also think about where your app adds value to people’s lives. Think about the apps you open up the most on your phone. What keeps you coming back to them? Does your app similarly make something easy enough that others will wade through the apps on their phone to find yours?

Assess the Competition

While apps have to be developed at a relatively fast speed, don’t skimp on the research. Know the current market and your competitors. The worst thing you can do is spend months (or years) developing an app, just to find someone has already done it well and the market is hard to penetrate. As much as possible, you’ll also want to know what is in the pipeline, so you understand how quickly you need to be moving and how to develop something better than your competition.

In addition to scoping out what else is out there and how much they charge for it, assess the competition along the following lines:

  • What do you love about their app?

  • What do you hate?

  • What can you do to improve upon it?

  • What key features are missing?

  • How would you make it easier to use?

This research will also help you price your app in the next stage of the process.

Check the Market Feasibility

Once you have an idea for an app that you believe offers a clear value proposition over existing options, you want to make sure it’s a viable potential business plan before expending the time and money you will need to get your app off the ground.

The sleekest, fastest app in the world with the most unique features won’t sell if there isn’t anyone to buy it. You need to make sure that people will want it once it launches, and that you have a plan for getting to those people. Some things to consider:

  • What is the total addressable market for the problem you are trying to solve (i.e. how many potential users do you have?)

  • Ask friends and colleagues who you think would benefit from it what they would pay for this, if anything.

  • If this is a free app, what ways can it be monetized via secondary revenue streams such as advertising or related product sales?

  • Use the free Google Keyword Planner tool to see how many people are searching for topics relating to your app idea

  • Visit related industry conferences and/or events and see how your idea fits in with other successful products that have achieved product market fit. Are there opportunities for collaboration, or would your product better fit their target audiences?

  • What kind of brand do you need to build in order to get the right customers?

Focus point: Is the need profitable?

While the need may be real for the problem your app will solve, there may be a reason others haven’t capitalized on the idea yet.

Check competitors and see how much they charge. Compare what they have versus what you hope to do to get an idea of what you might be able to price your app.

Keep the amount this in mind when it’s time to prototype and go to market. You want to make sure there’s a large enough profit margin to make money. Otherwise, you don’t have a side gig, you have an expensive hobby.

If you plan to offer the app for free, how will you monetize that app? Will you offer additional upgrades above the baseline product? Will you partner with marketers to place ads within your app? Do such partners exist in the marketplace?

If you plan to charge for your app, think carefully about what value it will provide to entice people to purchase it instead of using a free alternative (if one exists).

Designing Your App

Once you’re ready to move from idea to design, start with a two-dimensional sketch of your app vision (sometimes referred to as a wireframe).

Your design can be as simple as pencil and paper sketches, though several programs of varying complexity exist to help you design and visualize your app, making it easier to explain to trusted colleagues for feedback and to your programmer for implementation.

Consider in this phase:

  • how you want the app to flow between screens

  • what features you want incorporated

  • the overall interface and corresponding key elements

  • where you want content placed (text, images, media, etc.)

  • interaction points (buttons, links, and other interactive components) for your users

Once you know what you want your app to be able to do and how it will flow, design how you want it to look (called the user interface, or UI).This is what your users will see when they interact with your app.

Keep it simple, focusing on the niche you developed for your app idea. While extra features can be nice, the more complicated you make your app:

  • The longer it will take to design

  • The more expensive it will be

  • The longer it will take to have a prototype built

  • The longer testing will take to work out bugs

  • The more maintenance it will require

You can always release updates to add new features at a later date once you’ve gone to market and have additional cashflow to iterate your product and take it to the next level, so don’t feel pressured to have everything all at once. Focus on the core of the value proposition and get a proof of concept there first.

Get Feedback from Potential Customers

You don’t have to wait until you have an app in the store to get feedback. In fact, letting internet reviews from strangers be your first feedback is a huge gamble.

A simple way to get started is to build a simple landing page online where interested parties can sign up for alerts. You can use sites such as Upwork and Fiverr (affiliate links) to find freelance work to help get a website landing page set up with a hosting provider.

Continue to use your network for feedback as well through the development phase. All the way, note down ideas for how to network with potential users and ideas for future iterations to make the app even better..

There are prototyping tools such as InVision that can help you demonstrate the app’s future functionality to a test group to get feedback before you spend the money to hire a programmer to make the actual app.

Family members, friends, and colleagues can be a great source of feedback, but make sure they are people who would actually use this app if you weren’t begging them to check it out to help your startup. You want relevant feedback from your target market audience.

Build and Test Your App

Once you’ve gotten your design down and have updated it with the feedback you received, it’s time to hire a programmer to help your app transition from an idea to a physical prototype.

Before hiring a programmer, consider which operating system you want to use, as this might dictate who you hire based on their skills and programming experience. You’ll want to make your app available to the masses for visibility without increasing your upfront investment costs, so target one of the major platforms (iOS, Google Play, etc.).

If you aren’t sure from your initial research where your market is and where your competitors are getting the most visibility, ask your potential customers. You can always add a second platform once you’re generating income. Many apps start out on iOS and then move to Android, or vice versa. There’s no point in investing into developing a product that runs on all platforms until you have proof of concept, although if your app takes off and goes viral, you may find yourself running to build out versions on other platforms to meet demand. That’s a good problem to have, and you’ll solve it when you come to it.

Find a Developer to Build Your App

Take your designs to multiple developers for quotes. Check if:

  • They’re responsive

  • They’re reliable

  • They have the skills to build the features you want

  • They can program in a language compatible with your desired operating system

  • Their quoted price aligns with your required profit margins, remembering you’ll also have expenses such as marketing, server hosting, etc. closer to launch

  • They can complete your app design within a reasonable time frame

Depending on the complexity of your app design, freelancers like Upwork and Fiverr (affiliate links) may not be the best choice for designing and programming your app. The cheapest option at first glance doesn’t always end up remaining so in the long run. If things have to be redone from scratch later, you’ve wasted a lot of money and perhaps more importantly, time.

You want someone who will be able to work with you throughout the developmental process, as different programmers use different languages and have different development styles. Having multiple primary developers throughout testing and up to your first sellable product can add additional costs and delays in your timeline.

One great approach is to take a look at things that they’ve programmed before, or if you don’t have access to programmers, finding an app that has an interface similar to what you want to build and then reaching out to that app’s founder to find out who did their backend. Of course, if they’re in a space that directly competes with you, they are unlikely to be forthcoming with this information, but provided that you exist in different spheres, you’ll find that entrepreneurs love helping other entrepreneurs, as they remember what a struggle these tasks were for them. 

Particularly with hiring, everyone knows good help is hard to find, so getting references is key, regardless of how you find a person.

Test Along the Way

As your developer designs the app, work on distributing test versions of the prototype to your test audience you built out during the design phase. They can provide real-use feedback to help work out all the bugs from the coding before doing a wide-release launch to the public.

While the urge may be to get the app out and start making money as fast as possible, you want to allot enough time in the testing phase. No one appreciates paying market price for a product only to discover they’ve got a beta version that still needs a lot of improvements until it provides the features you identified at the beginning of the process.

Offering a Beta Release

Some startups offer introductory pricing for beta testing, which allows them to bring in some cash flow to assist the developmental phase while also getting (paid) feedback on bugs to fix before heading to a wide release.

Develop an App Brand and Market Your App

Don’t wait until you have a product ready to sell before you start building your brand awareness. Get the word out as you design your idea and prototype. Social media, networking events, and even tech conferences are a great way to generate buzz.

As you get closer to launch, kit up your marketing game to get your app and brand awareness out there. Consider a heavy marketing push a month or two before your scheduled go-to-market date, including:

  • Contacting your list of potential customers from your landing page with updates

  • Building out a more robust website

  • Create branded social media and post updates and teasers

  • Alert the presses on Reddit, LinkedIn, and other tech-focused platforms

  • Pitch your product for consideration to app review websites and bloggers

Like website traffic with SEO, apps have ASO (app store optimization) that can help you optimize organize searches and downloads. ASO depends on many factors, including:

  • Relevant keywords

  • App name and logo/icon

  • Screenshots

  • Description

Upwork and Fiverr (affiliate links) can help you find freelancers to help optimize your app for launch within the app store.


Congratulations, you’re ready to go to market!

Offering a special introductory pricing or perk for earlier adopters can be a great way to generate buzz for your app, and gives you something to mention in your marketing push above.

As you launch, keep an eye on the reviews that come in on the app store and the review websites you reached out to above.

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning

Take their advice to heart. While you’ll never be able to please everyone, releasing updates quickly to fix issues people mention in reviews is a great way to help build your reputation and to foster a loyal customer base.

Additional Resources

Visit our events page to sign-up for our free entrepreneurship and health innovation educational series.

Learn more about topics referenced above in more detail:

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