Bram Kanstein, a Dutch early-stage startup expert, recalls how he once met a founder who had spent $100,000 on a startup idea before earning a single dollar in revenue. “That’s just crazy, but sadly not too uncommon,” Kanstein says. It was that exchange that drove Kanstein toward tools aimed at making the initial journey of startup founders just that little bit easier.
Around the world, many founders have an idea for a website, app or digital product but get stuck on the technical aspects. Traditionally, building your own digital product was a hassle. You had to learn how to code, build a mobile app and often host your product on servers — or hire others with that expertise or those resources. That costs money. Unsurprisingly, many founder teams have had at least one member who is a programmer, and technical CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dominate in Silicon Valley.
Now a growing range of no-code tools is changing that. These are online tools that allow budding founders to build a quick version of their idea without writing a single line of code. Services now exist supporting everything from websites to e-commerce platforms and even wholesale apps. And they’re rapidly gaining traction. Airtable, an online alternative for Excel with more advanced features that mimics a basic database, is valued at $1.1 billion. Sheet2Site converts a Google Sheet into a website. Bubble, which describes itself as a code-free programming language that allows you to build and host web applications, has more than 340,000 users.
They lower the threshold to starting your own business.
Bram Kanstein, early-state startup expert
There’s also Carrd, a minimalist website-building service that, because of its ease of use, has emerged as a favorite in the no-code community. For example, it’s easy to set up an initial website for your startup or to couple Carrd to other services and transform it into everything from a membership site to an online marketplace. The person who runs Carrd goes only by the name AJ and says that over 500,000 websites run on the platform. None of these platforms existed at the start of the previous decade. They’re paving the way for more and more nontechnical entrepreneurs to get their feet in the door of digital startups.
“The main advantage of these tools is that they show you don’t need to be technical to be a founder,” says Kanstein, who currently runs an online course that teaches people how to better use no-code tools. “Everyone, from a businessperson to a stay-at-home mom, can start developing ideas with these tools. They lower the threshold to starting your own business.”
To be sure, the roots of no-code tools go back many years. “It’s been around for a long while,” says Bob Reselman, a veteran coder who regularly writes about advances in programming. For instance, Dan Bricklin, the original developer behind VisiCalc — the first spreadsheet — also developed a program that allowed users to easily prototype computer programs, in the 1980s. More recently, services like WordPress have catered to nontechnical people who want to open up their own sites, generally blogs. Canadian firm Shopify, launched in 2004, allows you to build your e-commerce shop from scratch.
But what were isolated efforts have given way to a new wave that’s offering more tools than ever before and leading to the emergence of an entire no-code community. They meet on digital forums, online courses like Kanstein’s and also at places like Product Hunt, a community for people building digital products. “Everyone has ideas but not necessarily the time or desire to learn how to code or the resources to hire a developer,” says AJ, who asked to remain anonymous. “So to now have tools that let them bring those ideas into the real world all by themselves, that’s huge on many levels.”
And even Reselman admits that the recent wave of services could very well stimulate more digital entrepreneurship by allowing people on the business side to quickly prototype and automate processes. The need for successful founders to quickly develop their idea into a basic product that they can then test with users — and based on feedback, adapt — makes no-code tools that much more important. “A lot of people have ideas,” Kanstein says. “But most of them fail because they don’t solve a real problem for users. So you need to try out your product as fast as possible to see whether people really want it.”
But where does this leave programmers? If their highly specialized skills are replaced by a drag-and-drop website, then what remains of their competitive position in the job market?
“Businesses don’t want to pay premium salaries for low-level work, so that work will be displaced in time,” Reselman says. Yet whenever things get complicated, programmers will still need to be called. No-code tools might be useful for validating an idea, but at a certain point every startup needs coders. “If you reach a point where you cannot grow anymore without technical support, then, of course, you need to bring in coders,” says Kanstein. “No-code tools are mainly fit for the early stages of a startup, and afterward you often still need to build a custom product.”
Still, proponents of no-code tools look forward to a bright future. “Not only will they stimulate more businesses in the digital space,” says Carrd’s AJ, “they have the potential to bring in ideas, perspectives and solutions from people” outside of the formal tech sector, which is needed more than ever. And most importantly, these tools certainly won’t require you to shell out $100,000 for a failed startup idea.