Appswell Tests the Crowdsourcing Model for iPhone Apps

10/14/09Follow @wroush

Last time I checked, there were 85,000 iPhone applications in Apple’s iTunes App Store, a number that seems to grow by thousands every week. But most of those apps were dreamed up by developers, not by average users. Now there’s a way for anyone with a bright idea for an iPhone app to submit it—and, if other people like the idea enough, to see it get made.

It’s called Appswell, and it launched yesterday. The idea behind the Cambridge, MA-based startup, the brainchild of a young serial Web entrepreneur named Dan Sullivan, is to take advantage of the collective creativity of iPhone users to come up with the next great money-making app, and give everyone a chance to share in the proceeds.

Anyone with an iPhone can submit an idea to Appswell or vote on other users’ ideas. Each month, the company will turn the most popular idea into an app, and reward the creator with a $1,000 cash prize and a stake in future sales.

“Rather than a bunch of developers putting 20 things on a whiteboard, we think we have a method of engaging thousands of people,” says Sullivan. “For the consumer who has a great idea in his head but isn’t a developer and will never build it, we are narrowing the gap for getting that idea tested and vetted and turning it into reality.”

Appropriately, there’s just one way to submit an idea for an app: through Appswell’s own free iPhone app. (The app, and the company itself, were ready to launch back in mid-September, when I first met Sullivan. But like so many other companies, Appswell had to wait for weeks while the still-mysterious iTunes App Store approval process inched forward. Sullivan finally got the okay last night.)

Appswel ScreenshotThe app itself couldn’t be simpler. To submit an idea, users simply create an account, click “Add your idea,” and enter a name, a category, and a short text description. Users can also browse ideas submitted by others by category, popularity, or recentness. If you see an app idea you like, you can vote for it, comment on it, or share it via e-mail or Twitter.

At the end of each month, Sullivan says, the company will hold a week-long, American Idol-style showdown between the five most popular app ideas. The winning idea will be turned into an actual app by Appswell’s developers—assuming that it’s pitched at general consumers, can be sold for $1 to $2, and meets Apple’s standards. The winner gets the cash prize plus 10 percent of future proceeds from the app.

The Appswell app is so new that users have submitted only a couple dozen ideas so far, some of which were seeded by beta testers, according to Sullivan. The most popular idea, as of this morning, was for a “sound board maker” that would let users make short sound recordings and edit them into comical audio clips.

Sullivan says he believes Appswell is the first company to try the crowdsourcing model in the iPhone app arena. But he thinks the experiences of companies in other markets—he points to Threadless‘s T-shirts and Local Motors‘ car design competitions—bode well for his startup. The beauty of Appswell’s model, he says, is that 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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