Oliver Littlejohn is Head of Community at CodeBase, a technology incubator, and founder of a startup called Sets which is a tool for people using Slack to connect with their communities. Oli is an advocate of No-code/Low-code and we spoke to him to find out more about why he feels so passionately about the opportunities the platform offers and his experiences using it.
Why are you an advocate of No-code/Low-code?
I started learning to code so many times, using different free, online resources but I never managed to create a proper project. When I heard about No-code around a year ago, I thought it sounded interesting and I thought I’d try and see if I could build something. I was blown away by how quickly I got results and it appealed to the way I work. I like the visual interface, dragging and dropping, the human language that is used, for example if X happens, then Y will happen. I felt empowered that I could start building products straight away. As a non-technical entrepreneur it’s frustrating when you have a good idea, you’ve validated your market and identified the opportunity, but you can’t actually build the product. Low-code enabled me to do that.
Please tell us about the product you built, Sets.
When I started using No-code, I needed a project to focus on. Tutorials are great but it’s only when you build something you find out what you can and can’t do. I started by building a community platform, my day job is running community groups and some of the platforms out there aren’t great, with many being overly complicated. I built Sets to be a minimalist platform and it really worked, and people started using it. I approached about 20 community managers that I know and they said it looked great but that they already use Slack to connect with their communities. But while Slack is great for providing a space for users to chat, it was clear to me that the free version of Slack is missing some of the functionality that Sets could provide, for example events listings and more extensive member profiles. Slack community users also have access to Wiki, a resource base that I couldn’t make available through Sets alone. So I set about attaching the Slack API to Sets, with permissioning that said if a user was a member of the Slack community they could also access the Sets portal. Sets became an add-on for Slack. So if you have a Slack community you can now have this extra space which allows information to be stored, signposting for events, and enhanced member profiles.
Can you tell us about the platform you used for the Sets Project?
There are loads of No-code/Low-code platforms out there, things like SquareSpace and Wix where you can build a website in minutes, using a visual editor to create the website with code generated behind the scenes. I stumbled across a blog post called ‘How to build Reddit using Bubble’, which is the tool that I used for Sets. I thought this sounded interesting, and wanted to learn how to build a complicated web app using just this tool? I went through it and thought I could see the possibilities. Bubble has lots of ‘How to’ guides, how to build Deliveroo, how to build Instagram etc. without writing any code. After only a two hour tutorial, I could understand the logic and see how I could build something. Bubble guides you through building a visual interface using drag and drop technology, but also has the logic behind the scenes. You can create a button for example, but it won’t be used for anything until you attach the appropriate logic to it. You can select from a series of workflows to decide what will happen if the button is clicked, which can be anything from navigating to a new page, initiating a sign up process for the user, changing their password, or sending them an email. And thanks to the plug-in ecosystem with Bubble, it can also talk to different apps, ie Twilio to send a text or Stripe to take a payment, offering endless possibilities, the same as you would have with code, but simplified into an interface that just works. The workflow uses human language so it’s easy to follow the logic and build your product.
What advice would you give to those wanting to try No-code/Low-code?
Because there are so many platforms out there and so many ways to get started, it can be quite daunting, but my advice would be to just build something. If you’re very new to building digital products I’d suggest starting with SquareSpace and try building a website, to introduce you to drag and drop interfaces. A little more advanced is Softr, which takes an airtable spreadsheet and turns it into an app, by creating a visual interface that interacts with the data, much as a real app would. Results are really fast, you can build an app in a few hours with Softr. The tool I prefer though, is Bubble, which is towards the more complicated end of the scale, affording more design freedom. A great example is a company who re-wrote Twitter in Bubble, the functionality is identical. The website has many ‘How to..’ guides which are brilliant, taking you through building your required product step by step. So my advice would be to just build something to get a feel for the platform.
What real difference can this technology make to startups?
It’s a game changer. For a long time we have seen that non-technical founders just haven’t been able to get ideas off the ground. Very early in the life of a business, building an MVP or prototype or even a fully functional app, unless you have investment to pay someone to do it for you, or you have a friend who is willing to do it for free or a co-founder who is technical, it’s impossible. Now someone who is non-technical can build the thing that they want to build themselves. For example, there is a company who specialise in promoting and arranging funding for solar panels, who built their customer facing interface using only Bubble. They have now processed over a billion dollars of loans using only their low-code platform. They have raised over $360 million investment capital, a level of investment normally reserved for traditional tech startups. So low code isn’t just for MVPs and prototypes anymore, it works for fully fledged products. So, these new platforms present a huge lowering of the barrier to entry for would-be entrepreneurs to build digital products.
Have you found any limitations with No-code/Low-code?
To be honest, whenever I’ve hit a brick wall, I’ve managed to find a way around it.There is a very supportive community around No-code with experts happy to answer questions and wanting people to succeed in their endeavours. With building my product, I have found one or two very niche things that I haven’t been able to get around, and the founders of Bubble have said they are very sorry but with the current architecture these features just can’t be achieved. Neither were mission critical so I got around them in other ways, but the main questions for me are around what this will look like as the product grows and people start using it and how the costs of Bubble will increase. Currently it’s very reasonable to get started but I’m not sure about scalability as I’m not there yet, but that is uncertain. Also, an important point to make is there is platform lock-in. Should I wish to move my app from Bubble at any time, I would have to rebuild it on another platform.
As an entrepreneur what advice would you give me around my platform choices?
It really depends on what you want to build. There is a fantastic mapping of the No-code ecosystem with what tools are out there. I knew I wanted to build quite a complex web app so I chose Bubble but if your requirements are simpler, and you just want a prototype or a POC, or a two sided marketplace for instance, you could probably build that in Softr, or even Webflow or Squarespace with a spreadsheet behind the scenes.There’s a whole world of different resources for building mobile apps, for example Glide and Adalo are the industry leaders. I would, however, recommend a website called NoCode.tech, which is the site that got me interested. It is a great place to start and has a lot of information aimed at demystifying the No-code/Low-code world.
Thank you so much Oli, do you have any final thoughts to share?
One thing that plays on my mind is that when I look at my website, it doesn’t look great. I think there is a huge opportunity for graphic designers to get involved with No-code/Low-code tools to help those, like me, to sharpen up the appearance of their websites or customer interfaces. Agencies are popping up around the world but not many here and I think there is a growing market for those skills within the No-code/Low-code community.
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