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How to Come Up With Killer App Ideas Series - Part 2 - Improve on an Existing Idea

How to Come Up With KILLER App Ideas Series – Part 2 – Improve on an Existing Idea

improveHave you ever had an app idea so EPIC that you could practically see that million dollar check in your hands already?  You’re so excited about the idea that you just can’t help but telling your friends and family members about the success you are about to experience!  But then the bad news came – maybe it was a friend that told you or maybe you were just browsing the app store when you found out…your million-dollar app idea already exists!

After getting your hopes up and being so excited about “your” app idea, this might be a huge blow to your moral.  I’ve had this happen to me quite a few times.  I’ve had great app ideas pop into my head and I would be on Cloud 9 until I got home, opened up iTunes, searched for my app idea, and found out it already existed.

This exact same scenario still happens to me, except one thing has changed.  Now, instead of being crushed when I find out that my genius app idea already exists, I just get more excited about it!  That probably sounds crazy to you!  What is there to get excited about?

I feel excited and really lucky when this happens for this reason: the developers of the app is literally paying hundreds to thousands of dollars to do market research for me – and they don’t even know it!  Having an app on the market already that is similar to your idea is like having a personal fortune teller!  You can predict, based on the number of reviews the app has and it’s ranking history, roughly how much money the app is making.  And guess what?  If it looks like it’s making a good amount of money, I’m still going to think about turning this idea into an app!

Now I’m sure that there are going to be some critics out there that will say that copying someone’s app idea is immoral and wrong – and I would agree!  However, my plan is NOT to copy the app idea, but to IMPROVE on it!  If the app is selling great as it is, imagine how well my app will sell if it’s better!  All I need to do is figure out what I’m going to improve about the app so that potential customers will pick my app over the existing app.  Here are just a few of the things I look for:

Bad Design

Design is a huge aspect of what makes an app successful or unsuccessful.  However, there are some apps out there who still manage to sell well despite looking like crap.  If people are willing to download and use this app even though it looks like it was designed by a drunk man with his eyes closed, it must mean that the app idea itself has a lot of potential!

Doesn’t Function Properly / Has Many Bugs

Who wants to use an app that doesn’t work right?  Believe it or not, there are a lot of apps out there that run really slow, randomly crash often, and/or have tons of bugs in them – and the developers don’t do anything about it!  This screams opportunity to me – people want the app, but they can’t use it properly.  Why not give them an app that simply works?

Missing Features

Have you ever looked at the reviews of an app in the app store?  A lot of the time, there are people who say something like “I like this app but I really wish…” – BOOM!  Sounds like opportunity to me!  One of the biggest mistakes that app developers make is that they don’t listen to the number one rule of business: listen to the market and give it what it wants!  People are literally telling you how to improve the app – and a lot of the time, developers don’t listen or don’t care!  So, if they’re not going to give the market what it wants, why shouldn’t you?

Price is Too High

This is by far the simplest thing you can improve on an exiting app idea.  People are cheap by nature.  If two products are very similar and one costs less than the other, the vast majority of people will buy the less expensive one.  So, give people what they want for less money!  However, I wouldn’t recommend only improving on price as the existing app’s developer could just lower his price as well.  This is best used in combination with another improvement on the app.

What’s the Catch?

This sounds great and all, but I’m sure you’re wondering what the catch is?  How can you know for sure that it’s really possible to make money by simply improving on an existing app idea?  Well, don’t take my word for it – meet Benny Hsu!

Benny is an iPhone app developer, an entrepreneur, and a blogger over at www.GetBusyLivingBlog.com (very inspiring blog – definitely go and check it out!).  His first iPhone app Photo 365 made him over $30,000 in the first 30 days of it being for sale.  Benny had this to say about his app in his interview with Pat Flynn from www.SmartPassiveIncome.com:

“I had been using an app similar to the one I designed. It’s also about saving a photo a day. I started using it in April 2010 and used it for a few months. However the app was very basic. No graphics. White background with boxes and a number for the date. You could tell it was created by someone who knew how to code and did a great job but it didn’t look polished.”

“What I did was I looked through the reviews and looked at the average or bad reviews. I read their feedback. I took notes.”

“I just took an existing idea and improved on it.”

(To read the full interview click here.)

Benny is just one great example of someone finding an existing app idea!  There are tons of other apps out there have simply improved upon an existing app.  And guess what?  Most of them are outselling the original app they improved upon!

The concept of creating something new by improving on an existing idea is definitely not limited to mobile apps either – think about some of the most successful businesses and products out on the market:

AltaVista existed before Google…

Folgers existed before Starbucks…

Budweiser existed before Sam Adams…

MySpace existed before Facebook…

Rio MP3 players existed before iPods…

Where would we be if WE LISTENED to all the naysayers who said:

“Why bother?  Somebody’s already doing it!”

It’s ALWAYS being done…

You can do it BETTER.

(Thanks to MJ DeMarco from TheMillionaireFastlane.com for originally sharing that.  And if you have’t read MJ’s book, The Millionaire Fastlane, I highly recommend it!)

So next time you have a great app idea but you find out that it already exists – don’t be disappointed, be excited!  If the existing app isn’t selling well you just saved yourself hundreds to thousands of dollars in development costs!  If it is selling well and you can find ways to improve upon it (not simply make a copy of it) you have a good chance of success!


If you missed the first post in this series, here it is:

Part 1 – Solve a Problem


  1. Great article Thomas! I always tell people to not reinvent the wheel with their first app. If they want to maximize their chance to make money they should find out what’s working in the app store and copy that idea. My next two apps are just taking existing apps and making them better.

    • Hey Benny – Exactly! It’s so much of an advantage to have someone else “test the waters” for you, but many new developers don’t realize that they can succeed with an app that is NOT completely unique. Looking forward to seeing how you do with your next two apps! Any timeline yet for when you might release them?

  2. Good post. There’s definitely a lot of opportunities in creating improved versions of existing app. And like you said, many ideas are already taken so it becomes harder and harder to create something truly unique anyway.

    • Hey Sylvain – Yes, with more and more apps being released everyday, it is definitely becoming harder to think of completely unique ideas! However, don’t get me wrong, there is still TONS of room for innovation in the app market! But like you said, there are also lots of opportunities to improve on existing apps and I think many new developers miss that.

  3. I agree – “The 7 Immutable Laws of Marketing” go into a lot of these aspects. Good stuff.

    My latest apps are along these lines to: Todo4Today is a todo list that does SO much more. OrderGuide is an inventory app that does what you really need (I developed this one based on how we do inventory at my cafe).

    If you can’t be first in an area, be better or start a new area. 😉

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. Nice sequel. Design is such an important aspect of the game that I wonder why more developers don’t pay
    attention to it.

    I see so many apps on the app store that seem pretty nifty but have horrendously bad app icons and screenshots.
    Such a pity I don’t have enough time to re-do each and every one of them!

    • Hey Shen – Yeah I totally agree – there are lots of horribly designed apps out there! I think the main reason for that is because a lot of these people are coders – that’s what they live and breathe. However, they make the mistake of trying to do the design work themselves instead of outsourcing this. Leaves a lot of opportunity for people like us though so I’m not complaining 😉

  5. Thomas,

    I had a cousin that just bought an app for $9.99 and it had 5 bugs just on the opening screen. The page would never load the same way each time and when he would try to use the app (it was a mobile finance app) it would restart.

    Some apps should just not be in the app store.


    • Hey Adam – Yeah that completely sucks when you get screwed like that. However, it does leave a ton of opportunity out there for people to come in and make an improved app that works. From a consumer stand point though, I wish that Apple would periodically go through the app store and weed out the apps that have obvious bugs like that one you are talking about and send a letter to the developers saying either fix the app or take it down.


  6. Krishna says:

    Altavista to Google,
    MySpace/Orkut/… to Facebook,

    and adding my own list

    Macintosh to IBM-PC in the 80s,
    IBM-PC to macs,
    Hard-cover Books to Kindle,
    Normal battery to rechargeable battery,

    non-computer business –

    small grocery store to Superstores like – Walmart,
    Superstore to Speciality stores like – Staples,
    Store delivery to online in-store delivery,

    The list is endless. I agree with your take completely. Why didn’t think in that way?
    In fact, I took the first approach, forgetting my idea, even today.
    I guess I have to create an Idea-pad to note down my ideas !!!

    While typing this, I have a very simple idea to create applications. Let me explore that and then will post my results.

  7. I’m building a site right now that will help in the research phase of app ideas. We will research the app markets and provide a freshness rating on your idea based on the results. Gives an understanding on the uniqueness of an app idea and a competitive breakdown.

    Can signup for the Beta release here:

    GOOD LUCK!!!

  8. Bill Brown says:

    Just the sort of article i was seeking as developers tend to quote every legal concern they can find from what i can see. My question is in relation to improving an existing app and making only minor modifications to the platform but adding quite a few desperately needed features that would greatly enhance the experience from a user perspective.

    ie. if words for friends had no chat feature or shuffle feature, would i be able to re do the app in a different manner design wise to a point and add these and more extra features without being sued.?

    • Hey Bill,

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Great question! If you find an app in the App Store which you feel additional features would provide a SIGNIFICANTLY BETTER USER EXPERIENCE (a great way to tell this is by looking at the reviews of the app and seeing if other people feel the same way) I would say go for it!

      Using your example of “Words with Friends”: If you made one or more changes to the gameplay in addition to minor functionality changes, design changes, etc. you should be relatively safe. However, don’t be stupid and make your App Title “Words with Buddies” 😉

      On a final note, even if the developer of Words with Friends had a problem with your app, you most likely wouldn’t be sued. They would either contact you and ask you to remove the app or ask Apple to do so. In that case you could add more differences between your app and “Words with Friends” and then re-submit your app.

      Hope that helps and let me know if you have any more questions!

  9. Bill Brown says:

    Thank you for that Thomas. It really is a fantastic place to get some information about this type of thing and for someone your age to set this up, im pretty sure your future as an app developer of note will be assured one way or the other. Plenty of people with money that would pay for your expertise you know.

    There does seem to be a lot of apps with the same or very similar basic platform but a very different user experience due to some very desirable features that the game is begging for. Everyone that is playing what i am looking at, even the reviewers, are wanting these features but they dont exist currently after many months.

    Guess id better do some reading of your free book and this wonderful site and find out what to do from here. Im alway a bit worried about randoms at elance, you should recommend someone that will do a good honest job and add 10% i reckon. Everyone wins!

    • Thanks for the kind words Bill! I’m glad you’re getting so much value from the blog! As for specific recommendations, I’ve been hesitant to recommend any developers until I’m 100% confident in them and would put my name on the line that their services will be top notch. When I do find developers I feel comfortable doing that for I will definitely share 🙂

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