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Tracking the No-Code Revolution: IFTTT to AI-Powered Developers
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No-code. The term appears self-explanatory. But for the purpose of this essay, it's pretty important that we get a working definition in place.
What are "no-code" tools?
Do they really contain zero code?
How do we build applications without code?
If no code is as popular as you say it is, will software engineers be out of a job (asking' for a friend…)?
We're going to answer all those questions and more today with the help of my fellow American expat in Paris and author of the newsletter No-Code Startup Ideas, Christian Petroske. This remix blends together my passion for French Tech with Christian's domain expertise in the no-code ecosystem. Each essay contains a novel idea and the blueprint for piecing it together using no-code tools & tutorials. Check it out!
I assume most of my readers are old enough to appreciate today's cover image. If anything, it's a demographic (and cultural?) litmus test for my audience. Either way, the Wannabe music video is mandatory viewing to either (a) get in the spirit of Spice World or (b) educate yourself.
If U Can't Dance
So what is a no-code tool, exactly? My off-the-cuff answer would be something like this:
No code tools enable non-developers to create sophisticated workflows, prototypes and end-user applications through a declarative, point & click interface.
Chances are, you've used a no-code tool yourself in some capacity. It's also important to consider the no-code ecosystem exists on a spectrum, a fairly expansive one at that. We'll get into the history shortly, but generally speaking, these tools are designed to help individuals, teams and businesses build stuff faster without the know-how of a seasoned developer. Build a site without HTML, create a mobile app without ReactJS, create a marketplace business without hiring a CTO. The vast majority of tech companies have a CTO, Product Team and proprietary code-base. But that's changing. With a shortage of high quality engineers and a preponderance of ideas that require software development for product and distribution purposes, the democratization of coding will play a multitude of roles in the next wave of startups.
When you hear “no-code” being used today, it can refer to many things. There’s the broad sense, describing tools that let non-coders build just about anything without writing code. Then there’s the catch-all marketing term, used by SaaS marketers to get you to favorably compare the cost of their tool (cheap) against building it yourself or hiring a developer (expensive).
There’s “no-code” as in, “used to have to be done by a coder” which encompasses… pretty much everything we do online. From making a website (WordPress, Shopify), to starting a newsletter (Mailchimp, Substack), to creating a web form (Typeform, Wufoo).
Then there’s what I’ll call “pure no-code”, which lets you essentially do the job of a developer without coding – things like Bubble (for web apps), Zapier (for integrations), and Adalo (for mobile apps). Again, these would technically fall into the category of “used to have to be done by a coder” too, but, like… more recently.
If software is eating the world, then WYSIWYG is eating software. That’s no-code.
2 Become 1
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when word processing was exactly that. No frills, fancy typeface or color schemes. After getting your words on the page, you had to input special control codes to indicate to the printer or document program which words should be bolded or italicized (what is commonly referred to now as "markup language"). Xerox produced the first program to incorporate styling into document preparation; later on, the term what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) would become a household name with the release of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. WYSIWYG serves as a stand-in for abstracting away complexity, simplifying something that once was reserved to those closest to the hardware and software and making it usable by the masses. It's not hard to imagine how this trend evolved heretofore.
If the 90's expanded this concept for coders and computer hobbyists, the 2000's ignited a commercial explosion. Companies like Wordpress made drag and drop website templates the norm, MySpace allowed anyone to build a digital social profile, and Shopify brought eCommerce tooling to the masses. All three of these products fit within the no-code spectrum we outlined earlier, and each serves a slightly different purpose. As these platforms gained steam, the industry expanded in all directions. Direct-to-Consumer, Business-to-Business, purpose-specific and generalist no-code tools emerged to solve varying challenges in getting things built online. So naturally, we needed something to stitch them all together. The Application Programming Interface (API) economy was just getting started -- facilitating endpoint connections from one application to another. But it required a bit of coding knowledge to make it happen. Lo and behold, the no-code answer to APIs appeared with tools like If This, Then That (IFTTT) and Zapier gave your average layperson the power of a seasoned developer to integrate the systems that had proliferated over the past several years.
These advances had two profound implications that together seem almost paradoxical. Developers can now focus on the highest-order activities, yet the democratization of code pointed towards a world where anyone could design, build, integrate and produce applications at scale without developers.
Think about it this way: Every no-code tool is now a lego block that other tools can build on, work with, and extend. What started with hub-and-spoke ecosystems like WordPress and Shopify, with their thousands of plugins, has culminated in the (sometimes) chaotic modern no-code stack.
Before around 5 years ago, you could never connect 5+ different SaaS products to create your own product with a single, seamless experience, all without touching a line of code. Now you can build your website on Webflow or Carrd, connect it to a Typeform, which leads to a Bubble app, which talks to Zendesk via Zapier, which talks to a Xano database, and on and on.
It all started back in 2011 with Zapier’s founders realizing the big opportunity to connect the world’s SaaS platforms by creating the world’s first “integrations as a service” product. By then, AWS had made it possible for loads of new SaaS companies to start and scale with more and more niche products. Now users faced a problem – there was no way to connect Mailchimp and Hubspot (or whatever) without hiring a developer. Enter Zapier.
With the integration problem solved, there was now more incentive for SaaS founders to make their niches even nichier. Vertical SaaS for everything has exploded, and shows no signs of stopping. Every tiny audience and use-case can now have a product build specifically for it. And the bottleneck has shifted to… whether someone can actually build it.
That’s where the more advanced tools like Bubble and Adalo come in. Now non-developers can build more than just static websites – they can build vertical SaaS products, too. There is definitely still a learning curve, but it’s much lower than before. Which means a whole tranche of new opportunities get unlocked, and a new group of founders can use no-code platforms to build new no-code platforms. (See: Building a Shopify clone on Bubble.)
Who Do You Think You Are
My regular readers might be wondering at this point: am I missing something, how does French Tech fit into this picture? The historical context provided above really culminates in the most recent (and topical) incarnation of the no-code scene: the no-code platform. In the perpetual fluctuation between all-encompassing platforms and the decentralized web, the former appears to be making a comeback. In a sense, we armed the rebels with a million, distinct no-code solutions who are themselves rebelling by flocking to unified, all-in-one platforms. One of the front-runners in this space is Bubble, whose founder & Co-CEO, Emmanuel Straschnov, is French.
The sweet spot for no-code tools was somewhere between internal business process automation and rapid prototyping, but rarely would you encounter a serious startup founder who planned to build their entire product on a 3rd party platform. That's exactly what Bubble wants to do. In fact, it's their vision for the future, one without CTO's. Bubble's technology is wide and deep, enabling complex products to be created on top of it with no developer on staff. Now, of course, there is a learning curve. That's the trade-off you make when going with the most robust no-code platform in the market. But by most indicators, the up-front training proves valuable in the long run.
They were founded in 2012, when the term "no-code" had hardly been coined. They bootstrapped until just recently when they raised a modest Seed Round in 2019 followed by a massive 100M Series A in 2021 led by Insight Ventures. They have plans to expand training resources to flatten the aforementioned learning curve and to significantly bolster infrastructure around security and scalability. As their customer base grows, so will end users on the applications built on Bubble. And if all goes to plan, the next major software companies will be sitting on their infrastructure. In fact, French freelance marketplace Comet is built 100% on Bubble. They raised €11M from leading VCs proving possibility in the prototype to production pipeline and the implicit value of a no-code backend.
Let’s look more deeply at Comet, a French marketplace for data & tech freelancers that built their first version on Bubble and one year later had scaled up to €600k revenue per month before releasing a “with-code” version of their platform. Here’s how it went down.
Comet’s three founders each put €300 into the business at the start. They built the first version on Bubble and took to the phones, calling hundreds of freelancers and companies. Within a month, revenue was starting to come in. Not long afterward, they raised a couple million from VCs and eventually hired a CTO (finally).
A few years earlier, Comet would have needed a team of developers, several months, and a few thousand dollars (at least) to get off the ground. With Bubble, a few non-technical founders could get the product out fast, start bringing in revenue, and hire a tech team later.
Their secret was that they nailed their niche: Data & tech recruitment. Their product is different from Upwork in that they intensively vet profiles beforehand, so they can present only the top candidates to clients. This solves a massive pain for clients, who otherwise had to sift through hundreds of profiles themselves. Now Comet has it all automated: Linkedin and Github scraping, sending emails to former employers for referrals, etc. But it started with the founders doing it all manually.
What’s more, they knew they could offer a compelling proposition to freelancers: With Comet, they could earn a lot more money. So freelancers flocked to Comet in droves.
Comet takes a 10% fee from clients whenever they hire someone through the platform. This functionality is very possible to build in Bubble. Check out this tutorial on how to do it.
So okay, Bubble can be used to build marketplaces, even managed marketplaces. But what about SaaS? Check out how these two guys built the fintech app Qoins in a week, raised $1.5m, and went on to help users save $15m of debt (and counting).
Qoins is a consumer financial app that helps users pay back their debt through goals, automated transfers, and progress tracking. It’s a full-on SaaS product. The first version was built on Bubble. And guess what? You can invest in them now too, through equity crowdfunding site Republic.
So if anyone can build marketplaces and SaaS companies with no-code, what’s stopping every single niche from being filled?
Say You'll Be There
Around the middle of last year, much was made of GPT-3 AI coding bots that can take a short description and generate the code for you. These are just starting to turn into useful products, mostly to help developers code faster through autocomplete. This hasn’t made it to non-technical users yet… but it might just be a matter of time..
Mostly, there are two main bottlenecks to no-code’s continued growth. On the one hand, non-technical folks don’t really know how they want their product to behave. On the other hand, no-code tools like Bubble still require a considerable amount of technical knowledge to use.
As new products focus into smaller and smaller niches, there will be opportunities for “all in one” tools to arise. You can hook up 5 different SaaS tools with Zapier, for example, or you can do the same job with Outseta right out of the box. So vertical SaaS isn’t going away, but it’s led to new opportunities for “business-in-a-box” software – which you can now increasingly build with no-code tools, too.
The cutting edge of software will always outpace the cutting edge of what you can do with no-code tools. This makes sense: You need to be able to create a website in the first place before you can make it point-and-click. No-code tools are still built with code.
But there are more and more opportunities to build new platforms using platforms like Bubble. Bubble is one of the first platforms that gives you the same infinite possibilities as code, without code. The problem is, you’ve still got to learn the concepts.
For this reason, I think we’ll see a lot more purpose-built, all-in-one platforms like Outseta that abstract away the complex stuff. We’ll also see a lot more “building blocks” products, which make it easier to create these “all-in-one” products. And so on, in a self-reinforcing loop, until there’s an all-in-one software for everything and a pre-made building block for every aspect of it. Maybe that’s when GPT-3 will really become useful.
Another issue is that all these “building blocks” are proprietary, with their own APIs you have to learn plus the ever-present risk of being cut off or charged for access. Zapier helps, but it’s not all-powerful. There’s opportunity here too (cough cough, Web 3??).
I find it quite a bit easier to analyze the past than to predict the future. But the trendline here is pretty clear, so let's go ahead and extrapolate. Centralized WYSIWYG led to the democratization of no-code platforms and integration tools; an oversaturated no-code ecosystem gave rise to powerful, new platforms harnessing the diverse advancements in declarative programming into a unified tool. The upcoming phase in no-code will undoubtedly incorporate artificial intelligence and voice recognition -- imagine describing your app with words and watching it appear in front of you, ready to test. Following consolidation, we're in for a period of decentralization. With incredibly low barriers to entry for very robust app development tooling sans code, I can imagine a world with disposable apps. Spin something up that's purpose/event specific with little to no up-front costs. Focus on distribution and product market fit instead of specifications and sprint planning. Build ephemeral yet useful products on the fly like magic. For now, it looks like Bubble is the next best thing.
Something Kinda Funny
All subtitles are song titles from the Spice Girls debut album: Spice. Including this one ^ 😉
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