Writing a Web App: Do Your Research

I still remember many a lunch spent with work colleagues during the early days of widespread internet adoption where we’d brain-storm a great new internet-related idea that would make us all millionaires. We’d come rushing back to our desks after lunch and immediately search to see if anybody had beaten us to the idea.

Invariably they had. At which point we would abandon the idea.

But a couple of years ago I took an interesting course at BCIT on web application development and business. The tutor talked about various ideas that he’d had and projects that he’d built on-line. His approach was the exact opposite of ours. He said that if he can’t find someone that’s already implemented something similar to his idea then he walks away. His rationale being that its presence validates his idea… someone’s out there making money from the idea. If there’s NOBODY out there offering the service then this shows him that there’s no money to be made from it.

Of course this isn’t always the case… every big idea has someone who does it first and definitely not every website out there is profitable. But if you’re just looking for a web app that you can turn out and make a little money on, seeing an existing market is a good indicator as to the idea’s validity.

Having identified an existing implementation, you shouldn’t simply offer the same thing… your implementation has to differ in some important aspect – something that would make someone choose your site rather than another one. If the competitor’s site is full-featured and complex then make your site simple and easy-to-use. If their site is simple and rigid then make yours flexible and customizable. If they don’t offer a mobile version then make sure you offer one. If they offer subscription levels for 2, 10, 100 (users, accounts, MB – depending on your business model) then you offer subscriptions at 5, 20, 50.

So, in our case, is someone already offering an online vehicle fuel economy tracker? A quick web search shows that yes there are several out there – there’s definitely interest in the service we’re planning. Some sites are definitely better than others but amongst the collection that I investigated, I found some nice simple interfaces, some mobile sites, some good data output and graphs – however not necessarily all on the same site.

One cool feature I had already thought of but was suprised to find implemented was “text message fillups” – register your cellphone and you can send in a text message to record a fillup. Not sure I can implement that without spending money – maybe a later addition!

Amongst the flaws I noticed:

  • use of Flash for graphics. Definitely have to make sure that’s avoided
  • SEO on all these sites appears to be very spotty. Depending on exactly how you word your search for a fuel economy tracking website, you get wildly different results with sites that might have been top of the list for one search vanishing entirely from the front page for another search

In summary, yes, there appears to be a market for this application. I’m not sure that I’ve identified a unique niche at this point but we’ve definitely found an idea that people want to use.

Our next stage is to think about the application design…

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