How to Make a Mobile App for Your Business for Free

Build a mobile app for your small business without any programming skills with one of these easy-to-use and inexpensive app builder tools.
Building an app for your small business can be inexpensive and easier than you think. (Photo: emojoez/Shutterstock)

In an age when old-fashioned web browsing looks a bit more archaic every day, the idea of building a custom mobile app for your business might seem attractive. These programs for smartphones and tablets function like a trimmed down, easier-to-use version of a company’s website.

But hiring a developer to create an app can be expensive. The alternative? Build it yourself.


Many small businesses spend money on building an app, only to find out that they don’t need one, according to Diane Hamilton, managing partner at Binary Formations. (Photo: Diane Hamilton)

A number of tools out there make it easy to do, even if you have no programming experience. There’s just one catch: You may not be paying designers and developers, but with a few free exceptions, you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription for the app builder tool.

Before you jump in, however, consider whether your business really needs an app. Most small businesses don’t.

As Diane Hamilton, managing partner at app developer Binary Formations explained, “too many small businesses spend money on having an app built only to find out after it was too late that the investment in the app was a total loss.”

Hamilton noted that apps have many hidden costs, such as getting the app into the app store, marketing the app and continuing to develop it after its initial release.

And except for a couple of free options, you still need pay an average of $15 to $50 a month to develop your app and “keep the lights on” for certain features like push notifications and messaging. You may also need to pay for a developer license to get the app into the Apple and Google app stores.

App builder essentials to look for


“You’d probably be surprised at some of the things you can do with app makers.” – Steve Lamattina (Photo: Steve Lamattina)

Most app makers differentiate themselves in a few common ways, so if you’re comparing tools, it pays to know what to look for.

For starters, keep an eye out for what kind of apps you can build with a given subscription plan. Native apps are the ones you’re most familiar with — customers install them from the iOS and Google Play app stores. But some tools offer “web apps,” which are really just thinly disguised web sites. They run in a mobile device’s browser and aren’t as sophisticated as native apps. You probably want to make sure you’re choosing to develop a native app.

And be aware that app building tools, by their nature, are less flexible than designing an app from scratch. Many tools specialize in creating apps that deliver content without offering the sorts of interactive features that will engage customers.

But there are diamonds in the rough. Steve Lamattina is owner of AppToolTester, a website that reviews app builder tools. He said, “You’d probably be surprised at some of the things you can do with app makers. For example you can actually create a reservation system for your restaurant. Adding an e-commerce section for take-away meals is even possible. However, tracking that order in real time would be too complicated for any of the app makers today.”

Another popular feature, especially for restaurants, is a loyalty card system. A handful of app builders support this as well.

Other things things to know are whether your app maker supports location-based features like maps and beacons. You might also need to pay extra depending upon how many push notifications your app sends to users. And you’ll want to get analytics reports to judge if your mobile app is effective, which might cost extra.

Some of your best options

If you are shopping for an app builder, you’ll see names like AppInstitute, AppMachine, AppMakr, AppyPie, GoodBarber and Mobincube. Any of these will let you cobble together a simple app for your business. They all work more or less the same way, relying on drag and drop functionality to let you create an app with literally no programming skills.

If you’re on a budget, you might be attracted to AppMakr, AppyPie or Mobincube. All three have a completely free pricing level. But beware: AppMakr lets you create only a web app for free. (Even at higher price levels, AppMakr is a challenge to use. The lack of templates makes it much harder to design an attractive app if you have no design chops.)

AppPie delivers a native app for free, along with a healthy dose of business features like e-commerce, appointment request forms and more. But there’s no push messaging; you need to buy a subscription for that. Mobincube gives you everything, including a native app and 500K push notifications, even at the free level.

Another tool to consider is AppInstitute. It offers a variety of pricing levels, from $6 a month to $39 a month, though the cheapest subscription allows you to create only an Android app; iOS starts at $27. This tool has pretty solid support for common small business features like appointment booking, e-commerce and even loyalty cards.

AppMachine is more expensive, starting at $49 month. But it offers a lot, with almost 100 templates that make creating an attractive app much simpler. It also includes features like e-commerce and loyalty cards that you can design with Lego-like simplicity. Literally, in fact — the interface uses Lego brick-like graphics to design your app.

Finally, GoodBarber starts at $16 a month and lets you develop native iOS and Android apps with 5000 push notifications a month. More sophisticated features, like geofencing, beacons, maps and ad integration are also available for a little more money. GoodBarber also simplifies app construction with a wide array of templates based on a specific kind of business and offers e-commerce capabilities including loyalty card support.

The bottom line: There are a wealth of options available for virtually every kind of small business and every sort of mobile app. If you believe you’d benefit from such an app, try your hand at making one yourself. You might be surprised at how sophisticated your app can be.

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