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Companies help nontechies create killer apps for iPhones

Would-be entrepreneurs supply the ideas, and the firms supply the programmers and the marketing.

June 23, 2010|By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times

Peter Deliso has never written a computer program in his life.

But after a brainstorming session last year with his son and two daughters, ages 11, 9 and 5, respectively, he came up with the idea for an iPhone application that would turn the phone into a virtual blender. Users could pick a fruit like strawberries, watch the phone's screen appear to fill up with milk, and witness the ingredients get pureed into a smoothie.

Armed with the idea for iFruity, Deliso contacted A-1 Technology Inc., an app design firm based in New York. The company, which relies mainly on programmers it employs overseas, agreed to build Deliso's app for about $5,000.

A couple of months later, the app was ready. And with hardly any marketing efforts on his part, he said, iFruity has sold more than 5,500 copies. A year after its release, the 99-cent app still sells about 200 copies a month on Apple Inc.'s iTunes store. Apple takes a 30% cut of the revenue, leaving Deliso and his children with a nice little bit of pocket money.

"At this point, it pays for my family's constant downloads from the iTunes store," the Oak Hill, Va., lawyer said.

The firm Deliso used is one of scores of new companies that are catering to the demands of armchair software designers looking to invent the next killer app. Many of these would-be entrepreneurs have heard yarns about programmers locking themselves in a room for a weekend with a bright idea and emerging with a clever iPhone app that made them millions. 

"It's kind of like the gold rush," said Jennifer Noonan, co-founder of Appsnminded, a three-mom app development company based in Calabasas. Appsnminded has developed 30 of its own apps, including the My Make Up dress-up app for young girls, which Noonan said had earned $100,000.

Having discovered a successful formula for building apps — including outsourcing the actual programming to workers in China, Ukraine and New Zealand — Noonan, Cara Hall and Jesse Douglas are looking to help other aspiring micro-entrepreneurs spin their app ideas into reality. "We get probably 10 people a day e-mailing or calling saying, 'I have an idea for an app. Can you help me?' " Noonan said.

Since Apple and later Google Inc. began allowing developers to create apps for their smart phones in 2008, eager developers have churned out more than 250,000 of the small programs. Mobile app producers will make nearly $7 billion in revenue this year, and double that in 2011, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc.

But most people don't know how to write computer code, and that's where companies like Appsnminded come in.  For a few thousand dollars, the companies will take your idea and turn it into a working application in a matter of weeks.

And if you don't have the cash upfront? Not to worry, arrangements can be made.

If executives at Austin, Texas-based Chaotic Moon Studios like your idea, they'll build it into a full-fledged app without charging you a cent. They handle the marketing too.

The cost comes only if the app starts to sell — if it sells. After Apple takes its cut, the company keeps 75% of the remaining proceeds, with the idea person taking the rest.

Richard Goodman, a product marketing manager in Austin, brought Chaotic Moon his idea for an iPhone app that converts photos into printable beading patterns — his 9-year-old daughter likes to bead. Goodman said it took Chaotic Moon just under two weeks to turn his idea into "beadit!"

Goodman said he's already gotten a couple of small checks from Chaotic Moon. "I won't be going out and buying a new car quite yet," he said. "Maybe a Matchbox car for now."

But having made any revenue at all means Goodman is one of the lucky ones, Gartner mobile analyst William Clark said. The huge majority of mobile applications are still amateurish rush jobs, he said. "They're hacked together and don't really have a lot of teeth when it comes to making money."

In addition to being realistic about the possibilities of cashing in, prospective buyers may want to do their homework before entrusting their idea to a company they're not familiar with.

In a recent meeting of iPhone developers in the Miracle Mile area, Britt Benston gave a presentation about his ill-fated decision to hire a company to build his dream app: iScreenWriter, which would enable Hollywoodniks to write screenplays on their iPhones.

With his wife's blessing, Benston found a company online that agreed to develop his app at the rate of $4,000 a month.

Benston's application is in essence a portable word processor but with many more moving parts, and before long he began to get indications that the process might be more complicated than he'd expected.

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