How long does it take to develop a startup?

By Shaun Symm, April 20, 2016
Clock spinning indicating time moving quickly

In my last blog post I wrote about what it costs to develop a startup. The next question startup founders usually ask after determining costs is also an interesting one to cover. How long does it take to develop a startup?

This post is written for non-technical founders who are embarking on their first startup and assumes that the founder is outsourcing the development of their startup to startup web and/or app developers.

Development timelines for startup applications

Work on a tech startup is never done. You’re either fixing bugs, adding new features, improving the user experience or working on scaling your application. With that in mind, lets focus on the length of time it will take to develop the first version of your product.

In the ‘costs’ post mentioned above, I used figures from a US based marketplace startup to give examples of web design and application development costs. This marketplace helps founders find startup application developers. Here’s what their website says about timelines:

  • Social Network with medium complexity: 4 months (web app); 4 months (iOS app); (4 months Android app)
  • 2-sided marketplace with medium complexity: 4.5 months (web app); 4.5 months (iOS app); (4.5 months Android app)
  • Photo Sharing Social Network: 5 months (web app); 5 months (iOS app); (5 months Android app)

For ‘high complexity’ the timelines almost double.

In our experience developing startups, these timelines are just about right. This timeline, considering you know what you want to develop, will usually include:

  • Wireframes
  • Design
  • Front-end development
  • Backend development
  • Server infrastructure and devops with staging and production environments

There’s also a popular infographic that has done the rounds on the internet which outlines how long it takes to develop a mobile app (spoiler: 18 weeks, which matches with the examples above):

How long does it take to make a mobile app?

[ Unfortunately this infographic is no longer available ]

Fixed deadlines and being flexible

Here’s the bad news and the reality of software development projects … deadlines are tricky to determine on startup projects. Software development timelines in general are difficult to estimate in terms of time and money. There will be an approval process at every stage and there is a high chance of multiple changes being required. Things also don’t always go as planned in development.

Take for example the ninety-ninety rule in software development:

The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.
Tom Cargill

Wait, that adds up to 180% of the estimated timeline!

How to stick to a timeline

Ok, so the 180% may be excessive in most cases but it can happen. To give you a better chance of completing version 1 of your product on time there are a few things you, as the startup founder, can do:

  • Think lean. Cut out all unnecessary and nice-to-have features and focus on the core features of your products. These are the features that solve the users problem. Your products raison d’être.
  • Avoid scope creep. This means sticking to the specification that was agreed to at the start of the project. Changes and enhancements can be done for version 2 after you’ve received feedback from your audience. After all, the enhancements you were planning might not be what users want or need.
  • Take time to read specification documents and view wireframes before development kicks off. These documents form the roadmap for the project. If they aren’t 100% correct and changes are required you will experience time delays.
It isn’t wasted time

A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) can take anywhere from a few weeks to 6 months to develop depending on the product and the complexities thereof. If you are outsourcing the design and development of your startup there is a lot you can do during this time:

  • Start identifying distribution channels. These could be via partnerships, blogging, guest blogging, social media, advertising etc. Start thinking about how you will find users.
  • Build a pre-launch database. Ask your developers to create a landing page for you that can be used during development and start driving traffic to it. You can start testing headlines here to determine what text converts the best. You then have a better idea of what works when you go live.
  • Write a press release. If you are bootstrapping your startup you probably can’t afford a PR company so you’ll need to do it yourself. There are loads of guides online on how to write a press release and how to distribute it. Start learning!
  • Prepare a pitch deck. Most startups need to pitch. They’re either asking for money, advice, or help of a different kind. You’ll need to do the same. Start preparing your pitch now so you can refine and perfect it over the coming months.
  • Make a sale. You don’t have to wait until you have a product to make a sale. Go out and speak to people and try and get a commitment from them that they will sign up as soon as the product is ready.
  • Learn, especially if you are entering the world of startups for the first time. There are so many free resources for founders to learn from now. There are daily videos (Snapstorms) on Snapchat by people like Justin Kan (YCombinator, Angel investor, Founder) and Mark Suster (VC), there are meetups, there are leading startup marketing blogs and many other resources

Don't sit back and wait for your product to launch.

The Final Word

Your first objective as a startup founder should be to get the first version of your product to market as quickly, and as cost effectively, as you can. You can then start to learn from your customers and iterate accordingly.

Make sure you have a clear vision and only build what is 100% necessary for the first version of your application.

Remember, focus! Get to market quickly, Learn, always.

Launch Lab is a startup web development company in Sydney and Canberra. We help non-technical startup founders with web design, web development, app development, startup marketing and startup consulting services.
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