Realistic App Cost Estimates and Where to Find Them

Dariya Lopukhina
5 min readMay 29, 2017


Myths and Realities

A tremendous success of popular apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Pokémon GO tickles the entrepreneurial instinct of people who wish to start their own IT business. Snatches of stories about “the garage that birthed Google” or “Facebook that started as a dorm room project” easily stick in mind. As for the less exciting things about how much time, efforts and resources were involved into turning the idea initially born in a garage or dorm room into a thriving profitable business, these details quickly fade in our memory.

As a result, there is a myth that a sustainable application can be built quickly and cheaply. This myth is supported by misleading ads and how-to’s on how to create websites and apps at no cost at all. Some foxy developers also tend to promise whatever you want for whatever budget you have. However, this cheapness has its price. In a best-case scenario, some features that were “overlooked” in the initial estimate will one-by-one spring up in the course of development and the final cost will gradually come into line with the true cost. Or, in the worst case, you will get a buggy app that somehow works but hardly meets your expectations.

The fact that young IT companies, that have already rose to fame and believed to be quite successful, don’t simply rest on their laurels and continue investing huge amounts in their further development is also not paid much attention. Let’s take Snapchat. Even though Snap boosted its revenue nearly seven-fold between 2015 and 2016, the company is still losing money. In 2016, it lost $515 million and it was a sharp increase from what it had lost the previous year.


This is not to say that it’s not possible to make a good app or website without vast financial assets. However, all great apps started small and they didn’t even try to estimate the entire cost of building them from scratch to their current state and size.

So, if you want a realistic estimate, do not ask your app developers to calculate the exact cost of making a new Facebook or Snapchat with some additional features on top of them. Instead, think which features are distinguishing for your project and sufficient to battle-test the idea of your app and start from estimating them.

The Art of Fair Estimation

A perfect cost estimate is a hard thing to find in the app development world. Some people say that it doesn’t exist at all. Even with very careful approach, software estimations are subject to Murphy’s Law and they always rely on guesswork to some extent.

Luckily, it’s in the human nature that the unattainability of the ideal is not a reason to stop trying to achieve it. Here are a few things that will help you better understand how to actually get a realistic cost estimate for your project and how to treat it.

Documentation is never really complete. No matter how detailed your specs are, there is always something you keep in mind or something that will come to your mind later. Developers don’t know your thoughts and they fill these invisible gaps from their mind. Their past experience also have an effect on how they perceive your documentation. The more apps they developed the more variations of each feature they may know and they don’t necessarily choose the one that you are thinking of. So, the developer’s understanding of a “client portal” or “messaging” feature may differ from yours. Keep this in mind and try to be as clear with your requirements as you can.

Are you making a unique or typical app? If you want a Groupon clone, simple online shop or blog, there is a variety of website creation tools designed specifically for that. There is even drag-and-drop website builders that allow you to set up such a website without hiring developers at all. You still have to pay for things like hosting, domain and probably for a commercial design theme but these costs are much lower as compared to building your website from scratch. If your app idea doesn’t fit into the abilities of CMS platforms, it will require completely different time and budget.

Custom things are not always 100% predictable. Let’s use an analogy. Many millions years ago, some fishes decided to differentiate themselves and developed a “custom feature” — limb-like fins to be able to emerge onto land. The fact that they would also need lungs to breathe air was obvious but the ability to move their limbs fast enough to save them from all the dangers on the land was missing in the first versions of species that crawled out of the water. This improvement was added in the next “releases”. The same happens in custom app development. Developers can estimate a unique feature for your app but they can miss some related modifications or additional elements needed to make it work perfectly.

A good estimate is more than just numbers. An estimate that you can trust should be provided along with an explanation of how developers understand your requirements. It may contain a detailed breakdown of the estimated features and functionality, so that you could see how exactly the team is going to implement your ideas and which tasks take the most time. With such estimate, you will have a chance to discuss the options for simplifying some elements in order to decrease the cost and properly evaluate the priorities before starting the development. So, good estimate is also about exchanging opinions and communication with the developers.

The estimate is never 100% accurate. Developing a great app is a flexible process. When you see how one or the other feature works in practice you may want to change something on the go. These changes may seem insignificant and, as they seemingly do not contradict to your initial documentation, you believe that they won’t shift the cost. But they will! Besides, as we mentioned earlier it’s not possible to foresee everything when making custom things. If the development company guarantees that the cost will stay the same in such cases, it means that their estimation is initially overpriced or they are going to take some shortcuts. But the cheapest way is rarely the best! Therefore, the choice is often to either make an ideal app or stay within the budget.

As you can see, defining the true cost of app development is not as straightforward task as it may seem. At Anadea Inc., we dedicated a lot of efforts to working out the best approach to estimating IT projects. If you have faced the question of how much does it cost to create an app, we would love to hear from you!

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Dariya Lopukhina

Head of marketing at an IT company. Blogger, content enthusiast, beer lover and Siberian husky fan.