Face-morphing and photo editing apps took the world by storm last year. In 2017, the number of entrepreneurs who want to replicate Instagram and MSQRD success is still growing.

In just three years there will be 6.1 billion smartphones worldwide. Considering the fact that every smartphone and tablet is now equipped with a high-resolution camera, building applications that enhance user photos remains a gold mine for app developers. The question is, how to create an app like Instagram and how much will it eventually cost you?

Instagram success story

Launched by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in 2010, Instagram is now operated by Facebook and boasts 700 million users around the globe. How did the app that took “8 weeks to build and ship” go from another App Store entry to #1 free photo editing app in mere hours?

  • Expertise. Both Systrom and Krieger had coding, design and marketing experience and therefore could build their business on a shoestring;
  • Trial and error approach to app development. Instagram was not the first application developed by Systrom and Keiger. Their journey to mass market success started with Burbn, an HTML5 app that largely mimicked Foursquare’s check-in concept. The project was funded by two venture capital firms ($500 thousand) and was likely to become a chart topper. However, the indie duo decided to be “good at one thing” and left out every Burbn feature except photo editing, likes and comments. That’s how Instagram was born;
  • Creativity. A catchy name, stylish square pics, filters which “took away imperfections and made photos look better,” the decision to go iOS-first – all of this propelled an unknown app to the top of the App Store charts;
  • Good timing. In 2010, smartphone cameras – even those of latest iPhones – were somewhat lackluster. With 300 thousand apps, the App Store was still in its infancy. Besides, Instagram caught Apple’s attention, was named App of the Week and got excessive press coverage from the leading tech websites (TechCrunch included). The moral of the story is: aspiring app entrepreneurs who dream of overnight success should understand that the so-called “virality” is either a happy coincidence or the result of the work of an experienced marketing team;
  • Evolution. Over the course of 7 years Instagram has enabled video content support, added new filters and introduced direct messaging, Boomerang videos and Stories. The Instagram team has gone the extra mile to deliver excellent user experience on mobile and desktop – and both ordinary users and businesses seem to appreciate their efforts! Even Instagram ads (which now perform better than promo posts on Facebook) look pretty natural and do not irritate users.

If Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom had outsourced mobile app development, design and QA (or employed an in-house team), how much would it have cost to create an outstanding app like Instagram?

Based on our mobile dev experience, the r-stylelab.com team sets the minimum threshold at $100 thousand for an iOS app and $ 130 thousand for its Android version. In a perfect world, your marketing expenses should account for 20% of your projected revenue (but $20 thousand will do for a start).

In the end, we’ve arrived at $250 thousand – and that’s too much for the average app start-up. Ways out? You should build an MVP first and try your luck with venture funding!

How to make a photo editing app like Instagram: core feature set

Minimum Viable Product (or MVP for short) is a stripped-down version of a mobile application which has the key features of a market-ready product. The MVP approach helps app entrepreneurs gather user feedback, make the necessary changes to the scope early on and… get funded (a clunky MVP is better than just an idea – even a brilliant one).

So, what are the key features of an Instagram-like app?

  • Account authorization (via an existing social media account, email or phone number);
  • User account. The feature enables users to manage personal data, add profile pictures and embed links to their websites and social network profiles. Instagram’s latest versions also support business accounts and allow users to switch between personal and corporate profiles without having to log in and out all the time;
  • Account management (a user should be able to restrict access to his private account, specify language preferences and enable/disable notifications);
  • Messaging. There’s more to Instagram than a bunch of custom photo filters: it is a social network, and live chat is a key feature of any social networking application;
  • Notifications. 25% of smartphone owners give up on a mobile application after only one use. UX and value aside, you should constantly remind users your app is still on their smartphones. According to Business Insider, push notifications do increase user retention by around 20%;
  • Image and video uploads (users should be able to upload videos and images from their photo stream or take pics from inside the app);
  • Social features (including tags, geolocation, comments, mentions, search and integration with major social networks);
  • UX/UI design (look how stylish and simple Instagram is!)
  • Photo editing (filters and image customization options including cropping, adjustment and rotating).

Obviously, it’s filters that made Instagram an instant hit. Back in 2010, the app offered only 11 filters (4 of those were available through in-app purchases) ranging from sepia-like Nashville to the dark Gotham.

If you want to succeed in the competitive photo editor app market, you should bring something new to the table – for example, borrow several features from Snapchat and Prism or craft an AI algorithm that is actually good at facial recognition and/or transformation.

The mobile dev part will take you up to 700 man-hours to complete. There’s also the back-end part (400 hours) which includes database development (PostgreSQL), operating system (Ubuntu Linux 11.04) and web server gateway interface (Gunicorn).

Multiply 1100 hours by the average mobile developer hourly rate ($ 150 in the USA, $ 70 in the UK and $ 35 in Eastern Europe), and you’ll get the average price of a viable Instagram clone for one mobile platform.

Now you can launch a Kickstarter campaign or approach angel investors! Provided your application delivers value to users (that actually goes beyond the wow-factor!), you’ll most likely find your niche and raise funding to proceed with software development.

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Andrew Klubnikin
Andrew Klubnikin is Senior Content Manager at R-Style Lab – a custom software development company (IoT, Web, Mobile) with a sales office in San Francisco, CA and dev center in Belarus, Europe. Andrew is a tech geek interested in everything about IoT, web and mobile development. He’s been a tech blogger since 2011. Follow @RStyleLab on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.

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