Normally, an entrepreneur in that situation would need to spend money, and maybe even raise it, to hire developers. But Bell did something different: She bolted together software from various online services.
Bell used a point-and-click tool called Webflow to build her site and a client-management tool to let customers order services. Airtable, an online spreadsheet, let her store details about each job. And she glued many of these pieces together by cleverly using Zapier, a service that uses if-then logic to let one online app trigger another. (Whenever Bell creates a new task for one of her contractors, for example, Zapier automatically generates a Google doc for it, then pings her on Slack when the work is done.) Nineteen months later, her company—Scribly.io—had around 23 clients and was doing $25,000 a month in recurring business.
In essence, Bell built a startup without writing a line of code. She did it all herself, aided by advice from folks building the same scrappy systems. Sure, it's a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine. “They're a patchwork,” Bell admits. But overall, it's “good enough, and usually good enough is perfectly OK.” In the long run, she might get big enough to hire a coder to make a custom system. But, for now, it works.
Behold the trend known as “no code” (or “low code”). In the past few years there's been a flowering of tools like those Bell used, all aimed at the nonprogramming masses.
Nuts to that, say the proponents of no-code. “Coding sucks,” laughs Emmanuel Straschnov, cofounder of Bubble, a service that offers a suite of tools for nontechies to build apps. “I mean, I code. But it's tedious. I feel like it's not reasonable to expect, you know, the vast majority of the population to be careful with their commas.” Indeed, one measure of social progress is how well we automate complex skills for normies, he argues. We became competent photographers not by honing our skills at hand-developing film but by using iPhones with filters.
The emergence of no-code is, in a sense, the ur-pattern of software. We've been drifting this way for years. Websites at first were laboriously hand-coded, until blogging CMSs automated it—and blogging exploded. Putting video online was a gnarly affair until YouTube rendered it frictionless—and vlogging exploded. As no-code advances, “the amount of products is just going to skyrocket,” argues Nate Washington, an Atlanta entrepreneur who used the Bubble tool to help create the first version of Qoins, an app that helps people pay off debt by automatically rounding up on purchases and sending the money to creditors. Four years later, Qoins has helped users pay off $11 million in debt.
As with all plenitude, we'll get a flood of silly startup ideas and only a few great ones. But no-code could be an even bigger deal for more mature firms. For example, Eric Astor, founder of the vinyl-album-pressing company Furnace, has long run his business on FileMaker Pro (an early no-code tool, really). Lately he's started outfitting his presses with IoT sensors, then using a new low-code tool called Claris Connect to autoreport their conditions. “We're capturing data that only big companies used to be able to afford,” Astor tells me. “We're still a ragtag shop; we don't have the budget to go and hire consultants.”
One could criticize no-code for not offering the flexibility and nuance you can get by writing your own code, line by line. But the truth is, for all the hoopla about Silicon Valley's innovative genius, a huge number of apps don't do much more than awfully simple things. Seriously: Silicon Valley's main trick is just shoving things into a database and pulling them out again. I'm exaggerating, but only a bit.
The success of no-code startups may thus be a useful corrective to the cult of the Brilliant Tech Dude. If nearly anyone can do this, some of the magic dies. And some new magic, possibly, is born.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.