Consumer Ideas Hatch for IPhone With AppIncubator

Startup MEDL Does the Research to See if Apps Can Make It in Outside World

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- After the founders of MEDL Mobile began developing and marketing mobile apps for brands last year, everywhere they went they were inundated with ideas from industry colleagues, friends and even parents of their children's' schoolmates, leading them to think there should be an app for that.

MEDL's Andrew Maltin (l.) and Dave Swartz
MEDL's Andrew Maltin (l.) and Dave Swartz
So MEDL co-founders Dave Swartz and Andrew Maltin came up with the AppIncubator. Via the system, potential app moguls download a free app to submit their ideas directly to MEDL. The team then reviews and tests the idea internally, and if accepted, begins the development process. (Ideas are also accepted on its website.) After the app breaks even on development costs, the idea originator gets 25% of the revenue.

According to analytics from Pinch Media, about 610 million of the more than 2 billion app downloads from Apple's App Store have been paid. The average paid app gets about 9,300 downloads (vs. 71,000 for free apps) and makes about $12,100 before Apple's 30% cut.

MEDL received 4,000 submissions in the first two weeks after launch in April, and a total of 25,000 to date. Meanwhile, it is also still doing branded apps for clients, such as the DerWiener app for the Wienerschnitzel fast-food chain which includes a way to turn a person's phone into a "coupon" to show at the cash register. "We're learning quickly what's working and what's not," Mr. Swartz said. "We've really built an incubator here."

AppIncubator's 25,000 ideas come from almost 10,000 people, but so far just 12 are up and running. Some 30 more are in various stages of development.

Hurdles
The 18-person startup is not only limited by staff, time and resources, but also sometimes by the ideas themselves. Some ideas have already been suggested or done; some ideas include trademarked property such as a movie or book; some proposed apps would interfere with Apple's technology inside the phone; and still others require data banks that would be difficult for MEDL to amass.

Such was the case with the TreeID app. Not long after AppIncubator launched, Mr. Swartz wrote a mass email to a group of submitters explaining that MEDL was turning down their ideas because they required large specialized databases. He chose one example from the group, explaining in the email that "An app that identifies every single tree in the U.S. is great, but unless you have a database of every single tree in the U.S., it can't be done." One man wrote back and said, "Wait, I do have a database of every single tree in the U.S." And so Jason Siniscalchi, a Ph.D. in forest resource science, got his app. For $3.99, TreeID app users can enter dozens of different characteristics such as leaf shape, size, bark appearance and type of fruit to determine what kind of tree they're looking at.

Like Mr. Siniscalchi, the dozen people chosen by MEDL so far have back stories as intriguing as their apps.

One such example is the app "Note to God." California teenager Allen Wright was one of the first submitters with a one-sentence idea: "I think that there should be an app so that when you don't have anyone to talk to, you can write a note to God."

The app was the first one developed by MEDL. The 99-cent non-denominational app (now free to download on weekends) encourages people to send an anonymous note to God. They can also read through other people's notes and prayers.

Another example is Rob Shoesmith's Problem Halved. Mr. Shoesmith, a trash collector from Coventry, England, submitted 37 ideas in the first two weeks of the AppIncubator, Mr. Swartz said, but he and Mr. Shoesmith were most interested in Problem Halved. The app allows people to post a problem to which anyone around the world can offer a response, with the idea that "A problem shared is a problem halved." After U.K. newspaper The Guardian wrote a large feature about Mr. Shoesmith, he became an overnight sensation in his country and Problem Halved became the No. 2 paid social-networking app there.

Marketing needed
Still, even great ideas and interesting back stories aren't enough to guarantee an app hit. That also requires marketing. And for those chosen, MEDL acts as marketing mentor and guide. Mr. Swartz, whose background is in the advertising agency world (he was most recently the creative director at DGWB Advertising and Communications in Santa Ana, Calif.) works on marketing and branding, while co-founder Mr. Maltin serves as lead on technology and development.

With each app selected, MEDL works with the creators to help them find communities, associations and influencers who might be interested, and advises and guides them on building those connections.

The core group of people with developed apps are also encouraged to cross-promote each other's apps with their Twitter followers or on Facebook. MEDL is working on a recommendation engine of its own to add to that, set for release next year.

And while only a few so far have been built out, the 10,000 idea submitters aren't just losers sent packing. To MEDL, they're a valuable community of potential supporters, fans, and return-idea generators.

One MEDL staffer whose sole role is to oversee what the company calls "Incubation Nation," keeps in touch with them, returning e-mails and answering questions.

"Three-fourths of this is crowd-sourcing application development," Mr. Swartz said. "But it was also with the understanding of relationship marketing and social media, and knowing that if we could build a company that people are vested in, it could create a pretty strong marketing tool."

MEDL's Dave Swartz offers five tips for evaluating an app

  • ORIGINALITY: Is it a new idea? A new spin on an old idea? An old spin on a new idea? Be sure to do your homework. We've had some great ideas that had to stop halfway because someone beat us to the punch.
  • FUNCTIONALITY: Does it take advantage of the unique functions of the iPhone? The accelerometer, the GPS finder, the built-in camera, etc.? Is it functional? Will people want to use it because it meets a need?
  • SIMPLICITY: Is it simple to use? Can people pick it up and start playing with it, working with it, using it right away -- intuitively? Apps don't perform many different functions. They perform one primary function well.
  • REVENUE OPPORTUNITY: Will people pay for it? Is this the kind of application that advertisers would pay to include their brand in? Will this application generate valuable data? Will it make money?
  • FUN: We put a premium on fun at MEDL. That's not to say that an application needs to be fun to make it through the filter. But it sure helps.
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