Appswell Tests the Crowdsourcing Model for iPhone Apps

10/14/09Follow @wroush

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every winning app will have a built-in base of likely purchasers: the people who voted for the idea. “I, Dan Sullivan, could go around knocking on 500 doors to tell people about my idea for an app, but the real test is whether this is something that people say they want,” he says.

Sullivan says he plans to trust the crowd’s selections when it comes time to pick a project for development—but there will be some limits. The company won’t build an app that’s too similar to an existing app, and it won’t build anything so complicated that it can’t be completed in three to four weeks or would require extensive licensing arrangements.

“If somebody wants us to build an app to stream NFL games, that’s probably not going to happen,” he says. “It’s got to be something technically feasible, not extraordinarily onerous, and it has to fit Apple’s standards,” which are of the PG-13 variety.

Appswell is a joint venture between Sullivan and Bit Group, a Cambridge-based interactive marketing agency where Sullivan himself led the emerging business practice for two-and-a-half years before launching his new venture. He’s running the business, while Bit Group provides the software development talent. Appswell is far from Sullivan’s first experience with online communities: he helped to launch a Facebook-like service called College Club back in 1999, went on to found a remote technical support company called Speak With a Geek, and spent several years at Dell working on a similar tech-support service, Dell on Call.

Sullivan has no idea what types of apps Appswell users will propose, but he thinks a lot of them may fit in the category of “socialware”—”things that are funny and engaging enough to share, where I’m in front of you with my phone and I can show you in 10 seconds and you know what it does.” But there might also be more serious ideas. Sullivan says one of his own concepts is for a flash-card game that would help aspiring business school students study for the GMAT exam.

“We plan on building useful, well-tested apps for which we’ve proven there is a market,” Sullivan says. “They will all be branded as Appswell apps, and we’ll engage our user base to build a market, spread the buzz, and lead our own marketing efforts.”

But why would someone give up the security of a job at a bustling Web company and risk his career on an unproven model for mobile software development? “This was something I felt really driven to do,” Sullivan answers. “The timing is never exactly right for a startup, but once I had the idea I was awake for a couple nights with it. You are always rolling the dice, but this is something I would regret not trying. If you can invite the wisdom of the crowd into a busy marketplace, and stay true to that and honor the crowd, there is the potential for success.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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