What if you could build your own software without any programming skills?
Or make a prototype without writing a single line of code? As in, zip, nada, zilch, code.
With no-code tools, these aren’t pipe dream questions; they’re reality for a growing number of non-technical founders with a great idea and no programming knowledge.
But like any reality, this one has caveats. No-code isn’t painless and it does have limitations.
Here’s what’s in store for you:
- What on earth is no-code?
- Is it even a new idea?
- Will no-code replace developers?
- Where does low-code fit in?
- Real life products built with no-code
- 5 big benefits of no-code
- 5 drawbacks you should definitely know about
- What to do when you need more than no-code
- Our key takeaways
No-code, low-code, and the movement opening doors for non-technical founders
Okay, so first, let’s get a few definitions straight. You’ll sometimes see the terms low-code and no-code used interchangeably. They can work together, but there’s a pretty big difference between the two—especially if you’re non-technical. No-code is revolutionary for non-technical creators, whereas low-code is most useful for developers.
👉Already know the difference? Word. Skip down to what you can do with no-code. Or go down even further to benefits & drawbacks.
What is no-code software?
No-code software helps non-technical makers complete technical projects that would otherwise require developers. Projects such as building a website, creating a newsletter, or creating a web app.
No-code software solves the problem of a creator needing to be, or afford, a programmer to produce a technical product.
But no-code isn’t only for non-technical folks. It’s also for technical creators who want a faster way to start and test ideas. Instead of beginning with code, programmers can quickly create a basic landing page or product to test their idea’s merit. (Which, by the way, we strongly recommend.)
This is powerful because, whether you’re a programmer or not, code takes time. And time is money—especially when you’re testing risky ideas.
“Whether you’re a programmer or not, code takes time. And time is money—especially when you’re testing risky ideas.”
Is no-code a new idea?
Not especially. Popular tools like Google Docs and the WordPress editor are no-code tools that replace programmer-friendly alternatives. Even many of the ways we use our computers are no-code. Early personal computers required all sorts of programming to manipulate. Today we point, click, drag, and drop
This is lightyears ahead of the dial-up desktop that hunkered over my Dad’s study.
No-code isn’t new in areas outside of web and product-building either. Video, music, and other creative industries heavily rely on graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to do all sorts of complex tasks. GUIs are how you navigate most of your computer and phone—through icons, images, and a pointer.
So why is no-code suddenly showing promise in the product world?
Better visual programming is one reason. Visual programming lets you build software, websites, or apps by moving things around on a screen. A new suite of tools makes this type of building easier and faster than a decade ago. Picture dragging and dropping a form, changing a color’s intensity with a slider, and moving a piece of text from left to right by flicking your wrist.
Thunkable’s building blocks are a good example of visual programming. To make an app do something, you drag and drop different types of functionality onto the screen.
No-code cools, and the visual programming they provide, unlock doors that were previously slammed shut for anyone who couldn’t code. (People like me.) Building websites, landing pages, web apps, and basic native apps are now projects anyone with a computer, regardless of technical ability, can explore. Case and point: I've built website, a prototype, and am building a landing page!
"No-code tools unlock doors that were previously slammed shut for anyone who couldn’t code."
Do no-code tools make developers and agencies (like us) obsolete?
Nope. This is a fear I’ve seen on Twitter, but it’s not true. No-code lowers the bar for creators who want to make websites and apps. But developers are still a requirement for:
- Building, maintaining, and improving no-code tools
- Implementing complex or custom ideas that are only feasible through programming
Which is why we embrace the no-code movement, instead of resist it. Our ideal client is someone who has already prototyped their idea with no-code tools. (A lot of times, they’ve used something as basic as Excel!) They’ve validated their concept and worked out some of the kinks. Now, they need something more custom to get to reach the next level or do a better job serving their customers.
“Our ideal customer is someone who has already prototyped their idea with no-code tools.”
Henning Leutz, a developer and founder, came up with a pretty great car analogy that helps illustrate the balance between no-code and programming here.
No-code isn’t for every person, and it doesn’t solve every problem. What it does do is allow a wider range of people to bring their ideas to life. After working with a wide range of professions, technical abilities, and ideas, we’re big fans of more access.
What about low-code software?
No-code empowers non-technical makers to create websites and apps without programming. Low-code empowers technical makers to complete software projects faster and easier.
Low-code solves the problem of developers starting from scratch whenever they begin a project. Writing and testing software is a skilled and time-consuming process. Low-code provides reusable building blocks and processes that expedite a developer’s labor.
It’s especially popular and profitable in the enterprise sector, where low-code tools help developers create and deploy apps for non-technical branches of the enterprise. OutSystems is one example of low-code software. In 2018, they raised $360M in investments, driving the company’s valuation to over $1B.
We’re most interested in non-technical individuals and small teams, so the rest of the article will deal with no-code.
What can you do with no-code? Real-life examples
No-code makes big promises. But those promises are hard to grasp—not to mention believe—unless you’ve tried the tools or explored real-life scenarios.
We dove into what some of these tools are like in a previous post. Below is a closer look at what others founders have built with no-code.
Website builds: a global tech community and training company
One of my favorite no-code success stories is Hustle Crew. The founder, Abadesi Osunsade (one of our must-follows for non-technical founders), is passionate about diversity in the tech landscape.
After getting fed up with a previous startup role, she wrote a career advice book for millenial women, encapsulating all the lessons she’d learned since graduation. To help underrepresented women apply these lessons, she launched career workshops. These caught on so well, Abadesi decided to create Hustle Crew, a platform for women who want to connect, share advice, and keep building their careers. Which is totally badass.
Using the following tools, Abadesi built and ran an entire membership platform, without writing any code:
- Squarespace for site design and architecture
- GoPayWall to turn Squarespace into a membership site
- Buffer for publishing and managing social content
- Mailchimp as a CRM
What’s even cooler is her impact. As she explains on Medium, she’s “helped hundreds of women break into tech through education and networking, plus further their careers and entrepreneurial ambitions by connecting them to mentors.” She’s also helped hundreds of undergrads find exciting job roles and advised tech companies on creating more inclusive cultures—the kind that attract a more diverse applicant base.
And the real kicker? Abadesi did all of this back in 2016. No-code tools have become even more robust, powerful, and flexible in the three years since.
Hustle Crew isn’t an anomaly. If you want even more inspiration, check out these other sites built using no-code tools:
- Scribly: unlimited copywriting to scale startups (these tools)
- Tools for Makers: an extensive tech tool directory for makers (Table2site)
- Sail: a list of UK incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces and other programs (Airtable, Carrd)
- Teacher Finder: find a language teacher in your city (WordPress, Zapier, Bubble)
- Humaans: mix and match people illustrations (Webflow, Dropbox)
- Budget Meal Planner: full 7-day meal plans for eating on roughly $5/day...I’m totally signed up for this (Wix)
- Hey Marketers: a job board for marketers that’s bringing in a bit of profit for Corey Haines, Head of Growth at Baremetrics (Webflow, Typeform, Google Sheets)
Product builds: quirky and useful examples
There are loads of websites and landing pages built without code, but usable apps are more rare.
One of the more popular examples is NotRealTwitter, a Twitter clone created in 4 days by Vladmir Leytus. Vlad used Bubble and has made most of his build public, if you’re interested in how he did it.
My favorite no-code product is Kollecto. Nowadays, Tara Reed is the CEO of Apps Without Code. But back in 2015, she created Kollecto using Bubble and a variety of other tools. At one point, she had over 1,400 monthly active users and was driving many more thousands in art sales.
What’s interesting about this product is it wasn’t a weekend experiment. Reed made real money and served thousands of real customers using no-code tools and her no-code app.
👉More examples over at NuCode’s product gallery and Bubble’s showcase. If you want some help choosing an app builder, dive into my recent experience going from idea to prototype.
Have an app idea and no programming skills? Start with a no-code prototype
If you’ve moved past the daydream phase and are ready to get your hands dirty (#proud), check out MakerPad, Create Without Code, NoCode, NuCode, and NoCode Hub for inspiration and tips. Several of those sites are building communities too, if you want to connect with other folks.
And keep in mind starting no-code puts you in some stellar company. Product Hunt, a daily routine for thousands of founders and investors, started with Ryan Hunt posting about his idea. It took him 20 minutes and he gathered an email list of 170 interested people in two weeks. And Scott’s Cheap Flights? Yeah, that started as an email list too. It originally went out to about 25 people. Now he has over 1.5 million members around the world, and is making even more millions in annual revenue.
What’s to love, and not to love, about no-code
The 5 big benefits of no-code software
1. Shorter learning curve
To leverage the no-code ecosystem, you’ll need to learn various tools and processes. And if you’re starting from scratch, don’t expect to learn everything over your lunch break.
Even so, figuring out these tools is faster than figuring out programming. Whereas learning code takes months or years, learning no-code tools takes days or weeks. As we mentioned earlier, time is money when you’re trying to get your business up.
“Whereas learning code takes months or years, learning no-code tools takes days or weeks.”
2. Community support
As more creators use no-code tools, the community around them grows stronger. Folks are branding themselves as no-code makers on Twitter and sharing a wealth of related knowledge there. And hubs like MakerPad and NuCode are fostering helpful and supportive communities.
Popular tools, such as Bubble, even have tool-specific communities numbering into hundreds of thousands. They supply advice, templates, and tutorials/courses for newbies.
3. Complete autonomy
When you create a tool yourself, you know it inside and out. Within the limits of the tool, you have autonomy to adjust appearance and functionality to your heart’s content.
Many no-code tools are free or offer free tiers. If you’re a non-technical entrepreneur, this means you can test your ideas without raising any capital. Well, as long as you’re willing to sink in your own time and effort anyways.
5. Rapid iteration
It’s crazy fast to update a tool you control. You don’t need to compile your thoughts, communicate them to a developer, wait for them to program the change, review it, and update the product. (Whew.) You can make the change yourself. That’s especially powerful when you’re looking to validate your idea.
“It’s crazy fast to update a tool you control.”
Not so fast: 5 biggest limitations of no-code software
1. Platform dependency
A major limitation of no-code software is dependency. You’re tied to whatever tool you use. If they sink, you sink too.
As Anne-Laure Le Cunff points out over at MakerMag, “...you are at the whim of the companies providing these no-code products, many of them are fast-moving startups themselves. Should they decide to change the way their solution works, or their pricing, or to be acquired or shut down, you may have to change the fundamental structure of how your product works.”
“You’re tied to whatever tools you use. If they sink, you sink too.”
2. Knowledge Requirements
As I figured out in my own journey building a prototype, using no-code tools is easier if you’re familiar with tech jargon. And if you want to build a full-fledged app or site, it’s especially helpful to know UI, UX, and design basics. Few, if any, no-code tools have advanced far enough to present complex functions and building blocks without jargon-ridden labels and tutorials.
Tools like Webflow are powerful, but tricky for people who don’t know tech vocabulary, UX/UI, and basic design principles. “Hey Google, what's margin…?”
3. IP claims
The value of your startup in the early days won’t depend on unique technology. But as your grow, you’ll need to develop robust competitive advantages. You’ll need to find edges your competitors can’t mimic with a few hours of effort. That’s difficult to do with no-code technology. By nature, it’s easy to engineer and reverse-engineer things built with no-code software. And that makes it difficult to claim IP when just about any one can build your product with the same suite of free tools.
4. Speed and Scalability
Platforms that let you to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink usually have speed issues. In order for these platforms to provide so many options, and allow so many things, they run a huge number of scripts behind the scenes. Something similar can happen when you connect a whole bunch of different services together to automate a process. While we totally advocate trying things that don’t scale—especially when you start out—this raises speed and scalability concerns if you stay no-code down the road.
5. Limited functionality
No-code tools are great at displaying data, organizing content, and connecting APIs. They’re less ideal if you need to:
- Leverage custom layouts and illustrations
- Customize out-of-the-box functionality
- Create robust native apps
- Manage complex calculations
- Oversee a ton of data
- Prioritize speed and scalability
Which is why you currently see more no-code prototypes than products. Especially on the mobile app front, no-code tools have a long way to go before making a robust, non-cookie-cutter MVP is possible.
When you need help moving beyond your no-code prototype
Once you’ve taken your no-code prototype to the limits, you have several options for moving forward. Your main ones are contracting a freelancer, hiring an employee, or partnering with an agency. Any one of these can be good, depending on your situation.
Contract a freelancer
Freelancers are usually cheaper than agencies, and many of them are extremely talented. If you have a specific idea around what you want to build and are flexible about when it’s built, they’re a great option.
But many apps need more than a developer. Complex apps usually require an expert in design, plus experts in different types of development. Especially large projects require a project manager. And if you’re someone who needs multiple experts, it's difficult to find a freelancer who has deep knowledge in many areas or will manage a team for you.
👉If you’re looking for help with no-code in particular, make sure you check out MakerPad’s Hire an Expert section.
Hire an employee
Interviewing individual developers and assembling an in-house team is a huge undertaking. For starters, what if you make a bad hire? And even if it works out perfectly, you have to juggle multiple contracts, ensure that everyone is working well together, and face turnover. In true in-house teams (W-2 employees), you have to worry about the cost of benefits, human resources issues, and minimizing downtime. Whew.
In-house teams are also expensive. Senior level software developers can cost upwards of $120,000 per year, plus benefits and equity incentives. By comparison, outsourcing development—to freelancers or an agency—is more affordable and less challenging.
👉 We haven’t mentioned it in a while, but we’re still working on the Technical Hiring Handbook. If an in-house team makes sense for your startup stage, and you want to learn how to hire technical support without learning code, sign up for handbook updates.
Partner with a trustworthy agency
If your project is ambitious enough to merit a project manager, UI/UX expert, and/or a designer, consider an agency. Having a whole team of professionals at your disposal is a big benefit.
But keep in mind hiring an agency is rarely a good first step. We strongly recommend you build a no-code prototype before contracting an agency—including us!—for a more robust MVP (which we call MLPs...Minimum Loveable Products).
This is exactly what B3i, one of our most successful clients, did before working with us. The founder, Steve Shulman, created a spreadsheet model to test and improve his idea. Once he reached an inflection point, he worked with us to build out a robust B2B SaaS product. Today, his customers include major research universities such as Yale and Dartmouth!
Our key takeaways from the no-code movement
- No-code is most revolutionary for a non-technical audience. Low-code is best suited for a technical audience.
- No-code does not make developers, or a need for them, obsolete.
- No-code is an approachable, fast, and low-risk way to test your initial idea.
- Current limitations make no-code best suited for rapid prototyping or building robust websites. This is especially true if you’re non-technical.
- Particularly on the app side of no-code, the main group of people making money seem to be tool providers.
- When you’re pushing the limits of no-code, you have three options: hire a freelancer, hire an employee, work with an agency.
- For most early startups, the freelancer or agency route is the best fit.
Have you spent some time building a prototype and audience? Want to chat through your next steps? Book a free call with Andrew. He’s friendly, I promise. And if we’re not a great fit for you, he’ll be the first to tell you.