No Code? No Problem.

by Stew Bradley July 30th, 2020

Growing a company is hard. That isn't going to change. The myriad of challenges on the path to success requires tenacity, intelligence, and no small amount of luck to navigate. For many aspiring founders, just getting launched can be a major sticking point. Access to capital, technical know-how, recruiting a team, and up-front costs are only a few of the barriers founders must overcome to start building. Fortunately, a growing number of products and services are helping founders get out of the starting blocks. A group of these products collectively referred to as 'no-code' is a vital driver of this trend. But what are no-code tools, and how are they helping businesses?

In simple terms, no-code applications allow people to build software without having to write code—enabling non-technical users to create software solutions for their business. The potential impact of no-code is massive and harks back to an innovation from the 1960s: the 'graphical user interface' or GUI. The GUI is what allows you to 'click' something on a screen to initiate an action. Before GUI, using a computer meant entering commands via text, which was only manageable because anyone using a computer back then was de facto a programmer. GUI changed that. Combined with less expensive hardware and a growing suite of software products, GUI made computing approachable to a much broader audience. It was the first step on a democratization path that no-code is helping us continue down today.

Over the past fifty years, faster, cheaper, easier-to-use products combined with the connectivity of the internet to push technology into every corner of our economy. This pervasiveness is blurring the line between what is and is not a technology business, and is fueling the rapid adoption of no-code. Building websites, accepting online payments, connecting to APIs, and setting up data analytics are no longer things technology businesses do; they are things all businesses do. What makes no-code compelling is not just that it facilitates access for more users, but that it enables more users to build. It's an important distinction. More approachable building tools will help diversify who becomes a builder and the knock-on effects of that change are exciting.

Early adopters of no-code often see benefits from the technology their competitors have yet to tap into. Website development cleanly illustrates the point. In the mid-2000s, as internet usage was skyrocketing, tools like Wix and Squarespace allowed businesses without any web development skills to build cheap, decent-looking websites without having to learn HTML or CSS. The lowering of the knowledge bar for website creation meant that any business, even those staunchly on the laggard side of the adoption curve could build a web presence. Early adopters of these solutions benefitted from the increased exposure of being on the internet and the learnings of how to integrate the web into their business operations.

No-code has come along way from website development. Today, even highly complex tasks—like augmented reality e-commerce experiences—can be built with no-code. This expanding tool-set is an unlock for all young businesses. But for non-technical founders, who have unique business insights, but lack the know-how or budget to build everything from scratch, these tools can be game-changers.

Even for founders who have the resources to build from scratch, the case for adopting no-code tools is a strong one. No-code solutions are cheaper to stand up, faster to deploy, and easier to maintain. No matter the business; cheaper, faster, easier are attractive adjectives. And similar to the cloud, as no-code tools continue to sprout up, the above attributes will only get more compelling. We often see technical teams opting to use as much no-code as possible, preferring to focus the bulk of their technical expertise on the 15-20% of their product that is truly differentiated. These technical teams are approaching software and no-code in much the same way they approach hardware and the cloud.

While the potential impact of no-code is gigantic, these tools are not a panacea. Access to tools alone isn't enough to ensure a business will be successful. Open source projects are a good proxy here. While anyone with a GitHub account can access them, their utility is highly dependent on users' understanding of what they do. It's not about the number of tools you have, it's how you use the ones you've got that counts.

I've had several friends joke that no-code tools are the first step towards realizing the future parodied in Mike Judge's cult comedy Idiocracy. In the film, a soldier of very average intelligence is put into hibernation as part of a military experiment. There is a mix-up and he is forgotten for 500 years. During his hibernation, technology continues to simplify humans' daily lives to such a degree that the intelligence of the human race craters. When the solider awakes, he emerges as far and away the world's smartest person. The film is hilarious and prophetic on many levels, but I disagree with the view that no-code tools are accelerating us toward that future. If anything, no-code tools have the potential to push us in the opposite direction. By flattening the learning curve for building software products, no-code tools make the systems and logic underlying the products more accessible. AirTable has made relational databases easier to grasp. Zapier has made APIs comprehensible for the uninitiated. Lobe has made deep-learning more approachable. For the driven entrepreneur, I expect these tools will be the breadcrumbs that lead them deeper into the forest. I'm excited to see where it takes them.

@stewbradley