Book Review: How to Build a Billion Dollar App

June 3, 2016

There must be all number of companies — start-ups and established businesses alike — scrambling to develop an app which will be the Next Big Thing, with the hope of becoming the next WhatsApp or Facebook driving people to slave over their laptops late into the night. Perhaps this book is just what they need?

Well, perhaps.

The basic premise of the book is that, while previous authors have attempted to offer insight into business models behind creating successful apps, none have done so in a way which this present author considers remains relevant more than a few months later. Unlike its competitors, this book, the author states, is not based on theories or academic papers, and it is not a ‘collage of pithy business stories crafted by a journalist’: it is ‘practical, actionable advice’. You might see it as the textbook equivalent of HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’.

Let me start with what I thought was good.

What this book does particularly well, in my opinion, is to set out very clearly that simply having a brainwave for an app is not enough. Indeed, while having a working app is clearly a step in the right direction, even this is far from sufficient. It covers the need to think about financial implications, platform strategy, building a team, marketing, analytics and improvements, and the myriad other tasks which are likely to be needed to break out from the masses and develop something truly special.

Similarly, there is most definitely some good content in there. However, like most buffets, those choice morsels are delivered along with some less promising fare. The book is divided into sections, each of which focusses on a different phase of the app’s lifecycle — from idea conception and initial development through to audience testing and gaining traction, becoming popular, becoming really popular and finally to it hitting the goal of becoming a billion dollar app. At the beginning of each of these sections is a table, summarising what the CEO needs to consider at that stage of that journey. These are an effective summary of what is covered in the remainder of that section but, frankly, one combined table of those summaries would probably give you 75% of what you would learn from reading the whole book, and in a lot less time.

For those wondering about how it discusses legal issues, the answer is pretty much as one might expect: they come up, but discussion is limited, largely befitting the generalist nature of the book. The discussion which is there gives a reader without a legal background a decent overview of some of the key considerations and issues, although a particular omission to my mind was a lack of discussion about privacy in the context of analytics and advertising, especially when the book emphasises how analytics technology is now so sophisticated that individual users can be identified and targeted, and promotes an adbased approach as one of the established models for commercialisation.

In terms of what was less good, I felt it took quite a lot of words to deliver the information. Unless you have recently emerged from a decade of hibernation, for example, you could skip the first three chapters quite safely: the overall learning is that apps are popular. Similarly, the anecdotes about how one app company or another had done something started to wear on me after a while, and I found myself skipping over those — these business stories were, to my mind, the very things which I thought were going to be avoided in favour of hard facts and statistics, although I can see how some would regard them as adding colour and real-world validation.

The second thing — and probably one of the reasons why I am not in marketing — is that I found the title rather hyperbolic. Why?

‘This book is not a simple “how to” guide about building a billiondollar business. It would be naïve to think that you could encapsulate everything required to deliver such success in a single book’.

No, not my summary. The words of the author himself (at pp 110/111, if you are minded to check up). And, well, perhaps I am indeed naive, but could at least part of the reason why people might expect that the book will explain exactly how to build a billion dollar app be because it is entitled ‘How to Build a Billion Dollar App’?

On balance, however, these niggles do not undermine my general feeling about this book, which is that there is some useful content here, and it is a relatively brief (although could be even more so) guide to the kind of things which a new entrepreneur should be considering.

Would I recommend that you, as a lawyer, read this book? Yes, for two reasons. The first is that, irritants aside, if you do not already work with starts-up, it presents a good, broadbrush overview of different considerations, and so might help accelerate your learning in a new area, with strong commercial contextualisation. The second is that this is, by all accounts, a very popular book, and your clients and potential clients will probably have read it: an extra point of connection can be no bad thing, and you may even be able to explain why a good lawyer is far more than a necessary evil…

But there is one lingering question in my mind. The book, the author says, is ‘not just theory’ and is ‘based on hard data’. There is but one data point which I would very much like to see: precisely how many people have, as a result of reading this book, built a billion dollar app?

‘How to Build a Billion Dollar App: Discover the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time’ , by George Berkowski is published by Piatkus. ISBN-13: 978-0349401379

Neil Brown is the managing director of decoded:Legal (, a specialist English law firm advising Internet, telecoms, technology and healthcare start-ups and businesses.