How to Make an iPhone App When You Don’t Know How to Program

I’m not a programmer, but I still went from vague idea to my first app store sale in a matter of months. Since then I’ve made thousands of dollars over the past year with my debt snowball app, Pay Off Debt. Here’s a breakdown of the process.

Find a need in an area you know well

Since I’m a personal finance blogger, when I got my iPhone I began poking around the available Financial apps. I immediately noticed something missing: a debt snowball app. I also observed people trying to use a regular credit card app to track their debt snowball, and complaining that it wasn’t working. That’s actually when I got the idea to create an app, since it seemed there was a need.

Evaluate your skills and available time

It doesn’t matter if you’re non-techy and busy, as long as you are committed to getting the job done and willing to have others do the things you either don’t know how to do or don’t have time to do.

My programming ability was zero. I had also never designed software before or brought a product to market. Skills I did have? Knowledge of how a debt snowball worked, experience designing instructional materials, a little graphic design experience, and a decent amount of testing experience.

Make a plan

I started by determining what I would have other folks do (programming, beta testing) and what I would handle myself (minor graphics, writing the software spec, math, and detailed testing.) I began looking around at programmer rates on sites, and asked others for recommendations.

And then plan some more

(But do it quickly.) Once I had who would handle what planned out, I began laying out exactly what the app would do and how the user would interact with the app. I wrote the spec and began working on the graphics.

Hire folks

I hired a programmer on Elance (now known as Upwork) to build the app as work for hire, and got the math and graphics done. If I had needed more complicated graphics. I probably would have held a contest for them using 99designs. I also signed up for Apple’s Developer program, which has a $99 annual fee.

Once I received the first build, it was test, test, test, and then test some more. I had a couple of beta testers look at the app and provide feedback as well. We went through quite a few builds. While my goal was to submit the app without any bugs, I didn’t worry about it being completely perfect in other respects. I know perfection is an impossibility anyway; so my goal was just to get it out there as quickly as possible with what I thought were good features, and then adjust or add additional features based on user feedback.

Prepare to submit the app

While the programmers did the actual app submission for me, I still needed to prepare. I made a list of review sites to notify, and other places who might be interested in the app. I created a press release as well. Once Apple approved my app, I began notifying the review sites and sending out promo codes.

I suspect that most apps are not a home run. Mine has had decent sales, with a few peaks (for a time it was in the top 25 Financial apps) and valleys (usually right after another similar app comes out). In general though it’s been steady. The great thing is that once the app is out and generating income, it’s passive income — except for work on updates.


  • Great info. It’s always helpful when other people tell you how they went through something you want to try. I’m hoping to make an up one day.

  • Do the iphone apps also work on an ipad? I’m a blackberry user myself and not too crazy about the finance tracking app I bought for it. I would think you could use the same logic for a blackberry app, just different coding?

    I think it’s a great idea, and when I do my next get out of debt post, I’ll link to your stuff. Anything that makes tracking easier for people is a good thing.

    • Yup, they do work on the iPad. They all work by default (centered on the screen in the middle of the iPad). Then there are also apps that will also run natively on the iPad, so they use the iPad’s features and the entire screen.

      I had thought of maybe doing my app for BlackBerry too, but I’m not yet convinced there is enough of a market there to get a decent return on investment. (Even though you can use the same logic, it’s essentially an entirely new app with little quirks that are specific to the platform — as I discovered when I had the Android version done.)

      Thanks in advance for the upcoming link :)

  • Wow that is awesome. I’d be interested in learning more about the total time/financial commitment this endeavor has had. Passive income is becoming increasingly essential today.

    • Oh boy, you don’t want to know. Or rather, I hated to add it up. Not including the version that just came out, there’s been about 345 hours put in on the project (the original version, several updates, and an Android version). That includes development time + my time.

  • Dang lady, that’s a lot of time! I’m happy it worked out well for you though!

  • That is awesome…. I thought about releasing plugins and apps and things before but never fully realised it.

    I need an iPhone first before I think about an app but will def look into it when i get round to getting one :)

  • Jordan

    What were the names of the people that you outsourced your coding to, and how did you find them?

    • Jordan, they are folks from a company called Zennex in Russia (you can find them on Elance.) I originally got their name from another blogger who had used their services.