As one of the folks on the Planet Argon team who handles project inquiries, I’ve often fielded the question, “What does a typical web application cost to develop?” from potential clients who contact us.
Like a good software engineer, my response to this question begins with, “it depends.”
The Short Answer to "What does it cost to build a custom web app?"
It costs $80,000 to $300,000 and up to design, develop, and deploy a custom web application in the form of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). But that's a pretty big range for software development, right? While the lower end might be in your budget, the upper end of the spectrum might be way more expensive than you had in mind for creating your custom app.
The Long Answer (and Real) Answer to ""What does it cost to build a custom web app?"
Custom software development is far from typical, which is why we use the word “custom.” There might be a handful of similarities between our projects…but each project is a unique little butterfly of ideas and business logic. Quite often, the only consistency between two custom applications is that some type of user can register, sign into an account, and “do stuff”. While I wish I could direct you to a handy dandy web application cost calculator or template, the actual process is based as much on our experience as our formulas. There is no canned, average cost of software development answer to give you.
And as much as I’d love to be able to respond to your question with a, "It depends, how much can you afford to invest in your web app?”…I understand that there is a reasonable chance that this is uncharted territory for you. It’s my responsibility to help folks like you understand the complexity involved in developing your application.
To help you understand where I’m coming from, let’s compare this process to a scenario where you were looking to build a house. We're not building you a model home, we’re embarking on the design and development of a custom house.
If you were to ask an architect to help you design a house—I am skeptical that you would be surprised if they asked, “What is your budget for this dream house?” Honestly, if an architect started working on blueprints before discussing your budget — I’d recommend that you find a different architect. If they started designing something that you could never afford — then you would have wasted both of your time and money. A budget affords the architect to think within a focused scope.
The same is true for building custom web applications.
How We Provide Ballpark Project Estimates
When an entrepreneur asks us for an estimate of how expensive their custom web application will be, we let them know that we can only provide a ballpark range for development up front. In order for us to determine this range, we run through a series of high-level conversations. These conversations allow us to discern each company's timeline, goals, and expectations. This allows our team to become acclimated with the goals of your project. Then we move onto developing cost estimations.
A personal approach that I’ve grown keen of is to try to get a feel for how big of a project it could be. Often, seemingly small projects involve several moving parts or layers of stakeholders, and seemingly big projects turn out to be simpler than expected (though that second one is much more rare!) Over the years, I’ve assembled a large spreadsheet that includes a wide range of past client projects with corresponding data that we’ve compiled – how long projects took, how many people were involved, and so on.
I then start asking myself a bunch of questions. For example:
Do any of these past projects feel similar in scope?
How many months did the previous project(s) take to develop?
How much capital did the client need to invest into an initial MVP?
How large of an organization were they? (bigger organizations often have more stakeholders, which takes longer for decisions to be made)
Were the past project(s) as complicated as this one?
Will we be able to leverage existing patterns to help this project move quicker?
Assuming that I’m able to align your project with a previous one, I then run through some calculations to determine a range of months and corresponding costs. We then turn these calculations into a SWAG, or Scientific Wild Assed Guess. You can read more about SWAG here.
Typically, I would then send you this SWAG in the form of, "Based on our experience, we believe that a project of this magnitude could take 4-5 months to develop and would require a budget of approximately $120-160k." From there, if this initial software cost estimation aligned with your business plans and budgets for the year, we can dive into the specifics of the project to refine it further – whether you'll need a retainer or iterative project structure, for example – and then dive into initial code audits and project roadmapping.
Since 2002, I have seen projects range as low as $40,000 all the way up to $650,000 USD get built. There are so many factors that come into play on custom software builds, which is why it's incredibly important to think critically before diving into a custom application, and make sure your business is set up to benefit from your investment. And of course, it's integral to partner with a team that communicates costs clearly and makes sure you're on the same page up front and every step of the way.
Editors Note: This post was originally published in April of 2014. It has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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