How to Build a Web App Fast

by / ⠀Startup Advice / April 14, 2012

When Bryan Helming and I were first starting Zapier, we’d conceptualized the idea of our app for months. When the weekend to build our prototype came, we already had the 10,000-foot questions answered.

While it may seem tough to design a great product in a short amount of time, you can provide a product that’s both usable and useful by following a few guidelines.

Two of the biggest mistakes developers – and non-developers – make is not building a product people want, or developing a lackluster product before knowing what’s needed. To figure out whether something is useful, you need to spend a lot of time talking with your customers and, even more importantly, potential customers.

Early on in our development, we did phone and web interviews with hundreds of people; we also gathered 10 times the data from surveys conducted by inserting a link to a Wufoo survey in our sign-up confirmation email. This helped us confirm our hunches – or tweak them to meet our clients’ demands.

After you know what’s useful, you need to make it usable. The easiest way to build on a shoestring budget is to build it yourself; however, for many of us, that’s not an option. If that’s the case, spend as much time as possible talking to potential users of your application; this information will be invaluable to the builders you end up selecting.

Picking the right tools helps if you want to give building yourself a go. There are lots of great, free open-source libraries and tools you can utilize to build complete features and functionality in very little time. Also, picking tools you know makes a big difference. It’s always good to learn new things, but if you want to build quickly, you should stick to what you know.

If your goal is to eventually charge for the app, get users to pay at the outset – this will prove that the project is worth your time to build.

It’s also important to build products in small chunks. Too many companies try to build full products before ever showing a prototype to a user. Instead, focus on the smallest usable feature and build that first. Once you have that right, you can keep adding further components, testing whether or not they’re useful along the way.

From there, spend time drawing interfaces and getting feedback from your users. Once you think you have the app completely spec’d out, it’s time to hire a developer. Depending on your app, you’ll probably need between $5,000 and $10,000 to get an initial version developed. Use your network of developers to find someone willing to build one. If you don’t have developers in your network, try scouring Django or Rails forums to find the top contributors, and send them an email with your offer.

Don’t ask them to do it for free or for equity. You’ll get mocked mercilessly – and deservedly. These are professionals – pay them as such, and you’ll get much better results.

Don’t cut corners. This will eventually come back to bite you. However, reducing the scope can save a lot of time. For instance, one of our features was causing our app to drastically slow down because we showed users all of their activity. Once we realized they only cared about recent activity, we cut the activity stream to the last 15 actions. The feature went from a 20-hour headache to a five-line code fix.

We continually spent a lot of time talking with users and watching them try out the app – this meant dozens of Skype screen-sharing sessions, support chats via Olark, and beer runs for our designer/UX friends. Scrimping on the time (and, potentially, financial) investment will result in an app nobody wants.

Most importantly, focus on function rather than flash. It’s easy to get caught up in some cool jQuery animation, but many times, the function is good enough and Flash can just get in the way for version one. If users still get value out of the basic app, then you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Put yourself in your customers’ and prospects’ shoes. What are you happily willing to fork over your hard-earned cash for? Like your clients, you’ll pay for apps that are useful and user-friendly. Ask what constitutes as useful, and work to make your product user-friendly through trial and error.

Working fast is a good way to extend your runway and try out more ideas before running out of cash.

Wade Foster is the co-founder of  Zapier is a simple way to push data between two web applications. Zapier gives you the opportunity to build unique integrations between your favorite web applications, without ever having to write a single line of code.

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.