Yes yes! This is the spicy part of Excel, right here.

Somebody’s out there in the world with an idea or a need for an app that will make them richer, more accurate, happier, smarter or all of those. In many instances an app is as close as a search in Bing, Yahoo! or Google. Submit your query and results will pour out.


All of this already exists in the world. So why spend time and money fiddling around with Excel?


Excel is everywhere. No matter how basic the skill level, we’ve all got some access to Excel and can at least create a list or basic formulas. Also, Excel’s flexible grid structure is a huge headstart with development. Bring those together and anyone can at least ponder: can this be done in Excel? We don’t have to figure out (initially) if a task needs to be done with

PHP, WordPress, Ruby on Rails, R,, Python, JavaScript, Parallax, Oracle

Depending on the objective, we might rightfully end up at one of those … AND … it’s no longer an everyman’s game when that happens. Traditional development is an expensive, time-consuming developers’ game. And that’s just the reality depending on the requirements of the project. But when a project is in Excel, it’s understandable to far more people than if we’re looking at PHP code.


Compared to traditional app development, Excel development isn’t as expensive and is quicker. The trade-off is that an Excel app is tied to Excel, with Excel’s weaknesses. Still, there are very good reasons to develop in Excel … and I’m getting to that … trust me! But there’s one last point to make.

Excel development may be cheaper than development in PHP or building a mobile app but it’s still not for skinflints. This can be shocking. When someone sees Excel as an admin tool for lists and simple calculations, they aren’t prepared to hear that a custom Excel app may start at $800. But when you enter the world of custom development, development is still development no matter the platform. They all include:

  • Front-end design
  • Back-end functionality
  • Long phone calls
  • Testing
  • Validation
  • Meetings
  • Revisions
  • Support
Excel development is often cheaper and much quicker than traditional development but it still costs real money and take time. For reference, check out Carter Thomas’ article on “How Much Does it Cost to Build an App?” He says that a database-driven app for an iPhone starts at $8000.

Now! Let’s look at 5 reasons to develop an app in Excel

1.  Existing Solutions Failed: Customize Exactly What You Want & Be Involved In The Development


Angry and exhausted, someone will call and ask, “Oz, I need something that will ________ . Can Excel do that?” (100% of the time the answer has been ‘yes.’)

Many paths lead to that phone call. Usually they’ve tried something that exists already but:

  • They never got an online app to work during the 30-day trial.
  • They need 2 basic features but everything they find has a billion features buried in sub-sub menus.
  • Features that they need are spread across multiple existing apps, but not together in a single app.
  • It worked on the PC but not the Mac.
  • If any tweaks are needed, this is someone else’s proprietary product that can’t be modified by the client.
  • They found exactly what they need but there’s no tech support at their level.
  • The app is under an unknown brand that doesn’t look like it’ll be around much longer.
  • “What if I get this configured, load all my data into it and find out I don’t like it?”
  • There’s a byzantine pricing menu that warns of unpleasant surprises.
Finally, the business owner shouts “AWW! To hell with this!” and turns to Excel to see what’s possible. And when the need is strong enough a person will gladly absorb the expense of custom development to end their frustration.

I worked with a photographer who could have spent $90 on a software designed for photographers but, the interface looked like something for managing a small nation. He just needed a calculator. Period! He was getting burned A LOT by mis-guessing and then honoring his quotes that were way too low.

For $375 we developed a calculator that would accept inputs designated by him, and the output was exactly how he needed it. The result was an end to the headaches, guessing and lost money.

2.  Build a Prototype To See How It Works

owl and arm

Is this a good idea?
What details are needed?
Am I forgetting anything?
What are the must-haves vs. the nice-to-haves?

You’ve got an idea with the intention of making it a phone app or web-based app. Why not make a prototype in Excel? Excel is nimble, and can be modified easily.

You don’t want to get in deep with expensive developers and uncover something you wish you would have known earlier:

  • A “clear form” button would be helpful
  • Users will need to be trained intensely or a ton of money will need to be spent on extreme automation
  • The Excel solution is perfect and there’s no need for a stand-alone app
  • Your great idea is really 2 ideas that would be better as 2 different apps
  • In order to do it right, it’s getting ridiculously complicated and not worth pursuing

Develop first in Excel. Learn, test, explore. Save yourself some money and heartache.

3.  Let’s Get Something That Works. NOW!

need it now

One client was informed of a  6-month project that was starting in one week, and he’d been volunteered as project manager—whether he was ready or not. Ok … this wasn’t the time to start shopping around for the ideal project management tool, learn it, get it configured and start loading data into it. There were other things to prepare regarding personnel, schedules and other projects.

For the project management tool, he had a clear sense of what he needed for it to do and we built it in Excel in 3 days. BOOYAH, sukkaz! Ready to kick off the project, with confidence.

Other scenarios are when traditional stand-alone apps can’t be built fast enough. Let’s say a month is going to be the earliest you’ll see the results of your custom stand-alone app. Meanwhile, go to Excel, build the critical pieces in a few days and relax while the final product is being built.

4.  Build A Prototype To Show Software Developers the Beauty That’s In Your Head

Idea Machine

“If you build something in Excel can developers use that code to make a stand-alone app?”

I was asked that question and turned to my friend Shira Hammann.  She’s a software development manager with Protiviti where they make enterprise-level software solutions. Shira explained that anything in Excel would be throw-away.


She continued, “something built in Excel can give developers an idea of what a client wants the app to do.” She’s speaking to the toughest part of custom development: making reality of something that’s in another person’s head.

Someone from the client side of the equation also spoke to this.  Explaining why he has an Excel prototype made before turning things over to his in-house team of developers:

“I don’t speak their language, I can’t read their code. But I know enough Excel to guide development in Excel and get all the calculations right. And know that they’re right. Then, the developers can work from the Excel prototype rather than me trying to explain every detail.”

 5. Apps Built In Excel Kick Much Ass!

do not keep calm, kick ass

 Hey! There’s no 2 ways about it. Getting an app working, delivering on a client’s vision, easing a headache, accessing the heretofore inaccessible, and leaving someone in a better place than they were … That’s not time to maintain decorum or be cool. It’s time to let out a victorious scream because someone’s life is better. When an Excel app causes a client’s payroll processing to go from 6 hours per week to 90 minutes per week, that’s unabashedly badass.

Excel is an entirely legitimate tool for building apps, as long as it’s strengths and weaknesses are acknowledged.

Here are a few examples of Excel apps:

Input Form & Birthday Alert (video)
Request For Proposal Assessment Tool
Inventory Control System (video)
Stock Quote Retrieval & Fee Calculation Tool (video)


Custom development is a special world where the focus is on getting what you want and, as Shira Hammann said in a recent conversation, custom development isn’t a place for saving money or getting things done in a hurry. Custom development is for when you have a need and it’s got to be done right.

I urge you to consider Excel as a tool in your custom development process. It can be a huge help in getting what you want and getting it done right.

Please comment below. Share any thoughts, stories, or questions. It’d be great to hear from you.

owl photo credit: Srta.Gómez via photopin cc
drawing photo credit: KROMKRATHOG via FreeDigitalPhotos

idea machine photo credit: kratmember via FreeDigitalPhotos