How investors spot disruptive apps before they hit it big!

Coin-operated viewer at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Silicon Valley is a crowded place these days, with tens of thousands of iPhone and iPad app developers hustling shoulder-to-shoulder in search of the next Snapchat or Instagram. “Disruptive apps” like Uber have become the gold standard for the mobile industry — yet figuring out which startup or service has the potential to scale on a national level is a chaotic mix of art and science.

In spite of how difficult it can be to separate the unicorns from the horses, top-tier investors like Chris Sacca and Paul Graham routinely identify and invest in the big names early, scoring 100x returns that would make even hedge fund managers envious. How do they do it?

Even in the excitement of the mobile app gold rush, our advice at Dogtown Media has remained essentially the same since the first trickle of apps started hitting the Apple App Store: simply look for small, nagging problems — and the apps that solve those problems most effectively.

Identifying scalable app ideas

Airbnb started as a niche service temporarily renting extra space for conventions and events. Facebook began its journey as a glorified college directory. Slack, the darling of San Francisco iPhone app development companies, was once a video game venture.

All these pivots are seemingly random — yet they are, at the core, logical pursuits of their core problems. From keeping in touch with friends to the impossibility of “inbox zero,” each company found a nagging problem, thought it over, and created an app to solve the problem.

Creating incredible startup concepts

That’s all well and good, but how can iPhone app developers decide which problems are worth fixing — and create solutions that actually work? The answer, naturally, is complicated. Investor Paul Graham wrote that the way to have great app ideas is, frustrating though it may be, to “become the sort of person who has them.”

This may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but experienced iPhone app developers will see a hidden logic to it: most great ideas are some combination of a “prepared mind” (e.g. a mind with startup experience and exposure) and the right external forces.

From a historical standpoint, this tendency for great ideas to be a combination of chance and planning explains how big discoveries are often simultaneously made by separate teams at the same time. The Wright Brothers, for example, allegedly tied with a lesser-known team in New Zealand. Calculus was drafted by two separate mathematicians, who then fought over which of them was “first.” Proto-social-networks like Livejournal and Myspace hit the web at roughly the same time, taking advantage of similar technologies that made their world-changing innovations impossible only years before.

For iPhone app developers and startup founders, the path to great app ideas is simultaneously clear and vague: look for problems that can only be solved using the newest technology.

It’s not easy to recognize the disruptive potential of new tech, fresh ideas, and passionate people. But like all the best things in life, “you’ll know it when you see it.”

Author Bio: Marc Fischer is the founder and CEO of Dogtown Media, a mobile technology studio based in Santa Monica, California with offices in San Francisco and New York City. Marc has over a decade of experience designing, developing, and launching digital products for tech startups and multi-national organizations; including Lexus, Google, CitiBank, and the United Nations.

Marc is also a Professor at Santa Monica College where he teaches Mobile App Design to computer science and graphic design students. He is a mentor with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship as well as a board member of Beauty Earth, a non-profit focused on revitalizing urban areas thru local art initiatives.

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