An Indie's Playbook to Validating your App Idea
This is part of the App Growth Engineering Guide
App Idea Validation (AIV) is the process of verifying an app’s likelihood to succeed.
Proper AIV can improve your chance for success and mitigate the cost of an app’s initial launch.
⚠️ Not following proper App Validation process can costs company thousands, potentially up to seven figures in wasted effort. Therefore, it’s an unskippable part of App Growth Engineering.
App Idea Validation has three major components. 👇
If we don’t know ahead of time what Success looks like, we’ll never know if an app idea has truly been validated.
Doing our due diligence can help us validate an app without creating a single thing.
- Gathering your Potential App Audience
- Keeping Track of your Potential Users
- Validating your Potential App Audience: The Simple Path
- Validating your Potential App Audience: The Advanced Path
If you can get a strong commitment users want to use your app, building a successful app becomes much easier.
A big part of AIV is creating sustainable App User Acquisition processes. We explore that here.
Your App Validation Criteria are benchmarks you set so that you don’t waste time chasing failed apps.
Our own biases will otherwise get in the way which will create waste.
We do this by creating two benchmarks:
- Your Potential App Audience Benchmark
- Your Accessible App Audience Benchmark
These will be our standard for success. If we aren’t hitting these benchmarks, we’ll know to try something different.
To know what our initial benchmarks will look like, we need to know what our end game is:
- Know how much 💰 money in annual revenue you’d like your app to make.
- Know how long ⏰ you’re willing to wait to make that much.
- Reverse Engineer ꩜ to find your Benchmarks
Using how much money you want and how long you’re willing to wait, we can work backwards to make an educated estimate on how much your first version should make.
Write a statement saying:
We/I want to earn $_____ ARR in [period of time] .
Example: I want to earn $30k Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) in 1 year.
We will now reverse engineer these numbers to see what our first months looks like.
We use the App Growth Rate Formula to help us understand what it will take to reach the revenue we seek in the time period we want:
x = numbers of initial paying customers
p = the net earnings per paying customer (after Apple/Google’s cut)
g = the growth rate.
➡ ❗️ The growth rate is very important. (Expand to see what a healthy growth rate looks like)
If you're a private company or bootstrapped entrepreneur, a good growth rate is between 3% - 5% per week. If you're a venture backed startup, you'll want to see 5%-8% per week, with rare cases being >=10%.
Make no mistake – your app will not have much potential if it can’t eventually achieve these numbers.
w = the amount of weeks your measuring
T = your Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) result
Let’s look at an example:
In this example:
x = 20 initial paying customers
p = $30 net earnings per customer
g = 3% growth rate (1.03 to represent it’s cumulative)
w = 52 weeks (1 year)
T = $2790 MRR, or ~$33k ARR
This number is strong enough to reach $30k ARR in a year as we stated above.
Therefore, we assume our first app needs around 20 paying customers to reach $30 ARR year 1. (Assuming a conservative growth rate)
➡️ Expand to understand the assumptions we made to get here
It helps to understand all the ways we could reach $30k ARR by tweaking our paying customers, net earnings per customer, and growth rate.
If our growth rate ends up being much faster, we could have much fewer users, so we use a conservative growth rate because a higher growth rate is a riskier assumption.
We also assume $30 per user, but we might try other numbers to see if we can get by with fewer users.
Take a look at the App Growth Funnel:
With our example, we can reverse engineer our funnel. We know paying customers should be ~20.
We’ll take the 20 initial paying customers and work upwards through the funnel by making educated assumptions about each part’s conversion rate from the previous point.
To get Initial App Audience:
20 / 7% = ~285 users
➡️ Expand to learn why 7%
Most users you get will remain free users (unless it’s a paid app, which I usually don’t recommend. You usually have more success offering free with subscriptions & In App Purchases).
In my experience 7% is a pretty standard conversion rate, with 9-10% being upper range and 4% being the lower range of an app that’s found Product/Market fit.
To get Accessible App Audience:
285 / 75% = 380 users
➡️ Expand to learn why 75%
Your Accessible App Audience, captured with SMS & Email, usually converts pretty well to app downloads since they’ve already expressed a strong level of interest.
⚠️ Reasons they might NOT convert well is if the period in which they were captured is too far away from when they committed, or if you don’t keep them engaged, or if the app is not what they expected.
To get Potential App Audience:
380 / 4% = 9,500 potential users
❗️ PAA conversion rate is highly variable, and 4% might be a risky assumption. Learn why
Converting users from Potential to Accessible is the hardest part of the funnel.
There are many assumptions & variables in this conversion that can affect the overall conversion rate. Read the section on Potential App Audience & Accessible App Audience below to learn more..
So in order to have a shot at 20 initial paying customers, Our Potential App Audience need to be AT LEAST 9500 initial users..
- Potential App Audience Benchmark: 9500 users
- Accessible App Audience Benchmark: 380 users
⚠️ Understand: Our goal was to get a general feel for what success looks like. Achieving these numbers is the hard part.
The Riskiest assumption is that your app has found Product Market Fit, or App/Market Fit.
If you have NOT reached App/Market fit, your funnel won’t consistently convert paying customers at all, and your growth rate will be really low or nonexistent.
This is why we go through this process – if we can’t build our funnel early, we can invalidate faster.
Potential App Audience (PAA) is a researched estimate of users you could reach and convert to active users.
We do this by investigating all the channels and resources we have available to us to reach those potential people then comparing the Potential App Audience Benchmark.
✅ Successful PAA Validation: Your PAA Benchmark >= Actual PAA
Create a spreadsheet, maybe just using Google Sheet or Airtable, and set it up to look like this:
This google sheet will be our guide to validation. We can continue to piece together Potential App Audiences until we hit our validation numbers.
The most important column is tracking your “Monthly Audience”. This is the PAA benchmark total we’ll be looking to hit.
Monthly Audience >= Potential App Audience Benchmark, then move to Accessible App Audience.
The shortest path to researching validation is:
- Google Search traffic
- Checking other apps & keywords in App/Google Play Store
- Leverage your existing audiences
Google Keyword planner has two paths, and we’ll get the best details using “Discover new Keywords”.
Generate a list of all potential searches 📝 someone might use to search for your potential app. I would try to get at least 10 different combinations.
🤔 Keep in mind: People might not have searched for “cars” in the early 1900s, but instead “fastest horse”, “fastest way to get to New York from Philly” or similar.
Think about the problem when generating searches, not just the solution.
A quick shortcut is to ask Why? Why would people want cars? Why do they want to go faster? Why do they want to make their life easier?
One note ❗️: The higher level the keyword, the more work it will take to rank for or convince users your app is the solution.
Sharing Gifs to Instagram might “Get more followers on Instagram”, but since its not a direct solution, you’ll be fighting more competition and having to spend more time persuading.
One other tip: check typos & accidental autocorrect keywords of other keywords.
When you search using Discover New Keywords, you’ll also get other recommendations that might be helpful.
Take this information and log the monthly hits, the competition and the ad costs into your sheet of the best keywords.
🤓 For further insight, take each keyword and enter it into Google Trends.
You can then know if a keyword is trending upward (big opportunity) or is dying (meaning it might not be worth it).
Once you’ve gathered and measured all keywords you found relevant, you can start to get a sense of your Potential App Audience by adding up all the traffic per month.
If our example, needing 9500 users, if we were building an app to post Gifs to Instagram, we’d have more than enough, validating JUST using google search.
Unfortunately, App and Google Play stores don’t give us good data on each keyword.
The best thing we can do is investigate our competitors to see how they are doing, and to get keyword comparisons.
Go to Sensor Tower and type your competitors into the search.
You’ll get estimates on the amount of downloads they get monthly, the keywords they are using, and their estimated revenue.
Click on their app icon to get more detailed information (and take note of which store they’re showing, you can search for the app in the other store too.)
Your goal is to leverage your google sheet. Record the app’s:
- Monthly downloads as the Monthly Audience
- Their keywords
- Any notes you have on them (like value you can add that they don’t).
In our case of needing 9,500 potential users, seeing 100k downloads here is promising!
Keep in mind: You’ll need to think about your Unique Value Propsition here – if a competitor is getting that much downloads, how will you offer something they are not?
Download and use the product yourself to find inefficiencies, and read the reviews to see what others are complaining about.
If you were building a Gif app, imagine if you built a blog on how to grow an Instagram following from scratch, or had a meme instagram account with thousands of followers already!
Existing Audiences, once built, are a really good way to get users to your app.
If you have relevant followers, meaning your followers are following you for something highly related to your app idea, then you can add these users to your total in your spreadsheet.
These type of users are an Owned Audience: people who have already subscribed to give you their recurring attention.
If we needed 9,500 users, and we had a Instagram meme account with a blog teaching other users how to grow their accounts, and we had a total of 15,000 people you could reach between your Instagram and email list, things are looking good!
Read more about how to build Owned Audiences below
These are the simplest ways to validate your app. Below is a more technical analysis of how you might generally approach validation.
While Google Search, App Store search and existing audience are the most common, users are found all over the place.
The places we can go to find potential users is a channel.
A channel is a place where your potential customers visit or where you access a collective group of people’s attention.
Examples of common channels:
- Google Search
- Twitter Followers
- App Store Search
- Coffeeshop Flyer Billboard
- Email list
- Instagram ads
- Existing apps you own
- Google Adwords
- Facebook groups
- Meetup & club attendees
Your goal is to take inventory of the channels that you think make the most sense for your app then investigate the real quantity of potential users.
Using our example, our goal for validation then would be try to find a combination of Channels where we reach 9,500 users every month.
For each channel: keep track of the total potential customers per month per channel you can get maximum.
The number of people we can potentially acquire per channel summed together will give us out Potential App Audience.
If you’re familiar with the different types of Media, these will look familiar with a slight tweak.
Other than Owned Audiences which we covered, there are:
1. Owned Audience Covered briefly above, these are users which already trust you and give you their attention.
2. Searched Audience: users who find you through search. This can overlap with owned audience
3 Paid Audience: users we pay to attract their attention.
4 Earned Audience:: users we get from others bringing attention to us
✅ Owned Audiences may take a lot of work to build, but might be the most valuable
resource you have for growing your app.
Common ways to capture Owned Audience:
- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram or TikTok Followers
- Building a following on a relevant Forum
- Email Lists
- Existing customers from another app or business
- Members of a club you run
➡️ Expand to the Opportunities & Risks of Owned Audience
Opportunities of Owned Audiences:
✅ the upfront effort to reach them is LOW if you already have them
✅ they’ll be more likely to be app evangelists (inviting all their friends)
✅ owned Audiences have higher potential to convert VERY WELL (especially email lists)
Risks of Owned Audience:
🛑 if you don’t have big Owned Audience, it will be awhile to build
🛑 you’ll have to tailor your app ideas to things they need
🛑 certain channels can convert poorly like Facebook friends
Traditional Marketing does not distinguish between Owned & Searched Audiences because once you rank highly in search, technically, you “own” that audience.
But I think for the purposes of reaching your app users, it’s healthy to think about these two separately.
The reason is when searching something, you can sometimes leverage SOMEONE ELSES owned search Audience to download your app.
Examples of different Searches people make:
- Google Search
- Reddit Search
- Instagram Search
- Youtube Search
- Twitter Search
- LinkedIn Search
- Bing Search
- DuckDuckGo Search
- Pinterest Search
➡ Expand to the Opportunities & Risks of Searched Audience
Imagine that we’re building our Gif maker app for Instagram and you see this in Google Search: [image of google search ]
You could go through the TOP results which is a Youtube video and leave a comment linking to your app.
You could go to any blog and drop a comment saying this app achieves this result easier.
We could do this for ANY search. Drop comments in Instagram posts, reply to Twitter threads, post a comment in a LinkedIn group that ranks for search.
Opportunities of Search Audiences:
✅ users who find you here are VERY LIKELY to download your app
✅ if you get ranked in search, you’ll consistently get new users from it
✅ searches give you great insight to the EXACT PROBLEMS people care about
Risks of Search Audiences:
🛑 they can take A LOT of time to optimize for and you might fail
🛑 leveraging other people’s content to rank in search means those people can delete or filter your comments
🛑 you’ll still need to find ways to convert these users to Owned Audience
The biggest risk of Paid Audiences is in the name: you’re going to have to make more money from the users than you’re paying for.
Common examples of Paid Audiences:
- App Store Ads
- Google Ads
- Pinterest Ads
- Instagram Ads
- Promoted Tweets
- Reddit Ads
- Tumblr Ads
➡️ Expand to the Opportunities & Risks of an Owned Audience
Opportunities of Paid Audiences:
✅ you can instantly rank at the top of relevant searches
✅ you can get attention from people searching for competitors
✅ you can get rapid feedback on interest for your app
Risks of Paid Audiences:
🛑 obviously, it cost money.
🛑 ads require heavy management – what works now will change fast
🛑 the cost of acquiring users through ads will have to be covered by paying customers
An Earned Audience captures attention from other people sharing your app or app idea.
Common examples of Earned Audience:
- Word of mouth
- A blog reviewing your app
- Techcrunch featuring your business
- Getting highly upvoted on ProductHunt
- Getting your app featured on the App Store
⚠️ Some Earned Audiences are strong validation while others are VERY WEAK validation.
➡️ Expand to the Opportunities & Risks of an Earned Audience
Opportunities of Earned Audiences:
✅ word of mouth is the strongest form of validation you can get
✅ you can growth your app very fast by leveraging targeted earned audiences
✅ the work of marketing is done for you
Risks of Earned Audiences:
🛑 PR from Techcrunch of Featured on App Store can convert EXTREMELY poor to paying customers
🛑 Sometimes people share your app ideas for reasons other than its viability (such as the app idea being funny, unique, the app icon being cool, etc)
🛑 it’s very hard to “plan” for success of earned audiences
Accessible App Audience (AAA) are the users, converted from your Potential App Audience, who’ve made a strong commitment to using your app.
⚠️ Make no mistake: this is usually hard. Your PAA is nice, but actually converting PAA to users willing to use your app requires serious work.
Commitment is usually measured by collecting users emails or phone numbers from a landing page.
Your AAA members are likely to:
- Provide you with feedback for your MVP
- Use your beta app
- Download your first live App
IF You’re AAA Benchmark >= Actual AAA THEN You’re ready to move toward building your app.
⌛️ This will take some time. I would consider allocating about HALF of your time alloted for the app validation to this stage.
That means, if you want to see the success of your app in a year, putting 6 months into getting users to commit to you is a big part of it.
Based on the research you’ve done, you’ve now got your app idea, and how you might reach people who would want your app.
Use a service like Convertkit to create a very fast landing page and requires zero upfront investment other than time.
I recommend making it as simple as possible. We don’t know much about what potential users are looking for, so we can’t make too much assumptions.
This means you probably want:
- A title explaining the benefit
- A subtitle describing how that benefit improves a person’s life
- An app icon or fake image of the app
- A call to action email form (or sms form)
Example Landing Page Copy:
Painlessly Share any Gif To Instagram (Benefit)
To Grow Your Following (Why the Benefit matters)
Download for Free (Email CTA)
Alternatively, instead of providing an email form, you can add a fake “download” button, then if they click it, you THEN ask them to provide their email.
You won’t be able to do this with Convertkit, so if you want stronger customization for deeper validation, I recommend Instapage.
Open up PhotoPea (Online photoshop-like image editor).
Select File > New, and select about 1000x by 1000x size (bigger or smaller won’t matter much).
Select the rectangle object, and up top, give it a corner radius of around 100px.
Choose a color for your app. Don’t overthink it - we’ll change it later if needed.
Then choose the first letter of your app idea’s name. If you haven’t come up with a name yet, don’t think about it too hard – just pick something.
Then select a standard, pretty font (I generally use Open Sans) and use the first letter from the name. Give the text a complimentary color or just use a neutral like white.
Done. I created this in less than 10 minutes (it’s not great nor does it need to be):
An app screenshot is not much different – you’ll need to find a commercially free image to use that could be what your app looks like, then pull it in to Photopea with any changes to color you’d like to use.
In some cases, we might feel we’ll need to make the first impression pop more and want to hire someone to do this.
Go to Hatchwise and run their cheapest competition ($89). Their design competition allows designers to submit designs, which you then can leave feedback for.
Take advantage of this and move them in the direction you want the design to look like, then at the end, pick your favorite design.
Look through the spreadsheet of all the Potential App Audience you’ve found.
🤔 Ask yourself: What are the highest leverage moves I can make that are most likely to attract the most quality users to my app?
Begin brainstorming experiments on how to convert Potential App Audience to Accessible Audience without filtering yourself.
- Share my app idea landing page to my Twitter Followers
- Post a link to my landing page in searches seeking a solution to my apps problem
- Create a content piece about “The best way to stand out on Instagram” and link my app in it
- Answer relevant Quora questions with a link to my app.
- Promote my app on a specific podcast that many users would likely download from
- Run Instagram ads targeting people trying to build funny/meme accounts
- Build a forum following on how I grew an instagram account using these apps
Take your list and sort by audience you think:
- have the best opportunities to convert
- will take the least effort to reach
- will be a sustainable longterm strategy
Once you’ve sorted your list, have a friend or family member or two organize the experiments in a way they think would work best to get some extra perspective.
⚠️ Keep in mind: If your list looks like it will take a long time to get the users you want (more time that you’d like to commit), that is validation in itself.
Sometimes invalidating an idea is not that the idea won’t work, it’s that it will take too long to meaningfully compete given the time we want to spend.
If you’re willing to spend a long time for results, it’s often better to attack bigger ideas since the payoff will be greater for the same amount of work.
Go through each experiment, and attach a reasonable expectation to:
- how long you think it will take and
- how many users you’d like to capture on your landing page
This stage is very educational – you may notice certain trends or gain certain insights that may leave you wanting to return to the previous steps.
That’s normal. Revisit your experiment list and generate new ideas based on the insights you’ve learned here.
If you’ve run the highest leverage experiments and none of them are working, you’ve either invalidated your app idea or need to revisit how long you’re willing to wait.
You might also end up tweaking your app idea based on the research and insights you’ve run across and given yourself new strategies to tackle.
- People can’t accurately describe the problem you’re solving (do you think people were looking for Tik Tok before using??)
- Part of your validation requires the actual keyword rankings on the Google Play/App Stores
- Part of your validation requires running ads on the App Stores.
- Your app acts as a growth engine itself and dramatically increases the access to new users
If you need to build your app before full validation, it will need a well thought our MVP.
The next section of the App Growth Engineering guide will be on Building an effective Minimum Viable App. Sign up here for updates.