New tools empower non-techies to build variety of digital apps

When something is called a movement, you know it’s big.

That’s exactly the case with the no-code/low-code movement, which allows non-technical entrepreneurs and marketers more access to and control over the digital realm in which their companies increasingly exist.

With no-code/low-code tools, people with little to no programming experience create websites and digital apps, sometimes in just hours or days.

While the movement has been growing for at least five years, the pandemic has accelerated its spread, especially among customer-facing workers who suddenly became separated from their information technology departments just when they needed to change their business strategies quickly.

“The emergence of no-code and low-code apps has created a revolution,” said Ryan Greives, director of

Greives

brand and communications at Fishers-based Formstack.

It’s a game-changer not just for existing companies and entrepreneurs but also for people who have an idea and are dreaming of becoming an entrepreneur.

“This has created a creator’s economy,” Greives said. “I see this 100% increasing the number of startups. Now there’s an explosion of solo entrepreneurs that are creating businesses by using no-code and low-code tools to get their business off the ground.”

The movement closes the gap between the ever-growing demand for digital products and the limited number of software developers available to build them.

And while it’s helpful for small companies with limited budgets for software engineering and coding, it’s “also finding a home with some very sizable companies and organizations,” Greives said.

No-code tools allow users to create apps or other software quickly and easily, largely through drag-and-drop templates. If customization options are available, they’re automated. Low-code tools also use templates but allow those with some coding expertise to do more customization.

Low-code/no-code is not good for every project. But traditional software development involves exhaustive timelines, steep price tags and the complexity of managing a sizable project team.

Gartner, a global research firm based in Stamford, Connecticut, estimates the global no-code/low-code market will grow to $11.3 billion this year. And that, by 2023, 50% of all medium-size and large companies will use no-code or low-code platforms.

“The rise of digital business is driving ever-increasing demand for software creation to automate new and existing processes, in new contexts, and often in rapidly changing situations,” Gartner said in a recent forecast. “These demands put enormous pressure on IT leaders to dramatically increase application delivery speed and time to value.”

Companies in a number of industries are using no-code and low-code tools to build a variety of inventory-management platforms: forms to support patient registration, marketing campaigns and call-center callback lists and mapping; and way-finding apps to help customers navigate a store or visitors navigate a hospital.

“Typically, low-code tools for me have been the most efficient simply because the time to development is so much faster,” said Mike Barnes, director of Salesforce.com administration at Orlando-based GolfNow, a Formstack customer.

“And it doesn’t require getting external expertise, doesn’t require me pulling valuable developers into projects,” he said. “It’s better for them to be out developing proprietary technology, and let me handle the business technology in a low-code way where I can.”

Legos and funnels

About 100 North American companies provide no-code and low-code tools, according to Gartner; a handful of them are in Indiana.

Cox

Founded in 2015, Carmel tech firm Lumavate created one of the first low-code mobile-app platforms especially for marketers. Stephanie Cox, Lumavate’s vice president of sales and marketing, compares the low-code/no-code movement to building with Legos.

Constructing apps using low-code and no-code tools is like having the Legos—or building blocks—provided for you, Cox explained. Computer programming or coding is the process of designing and constructing the building blocks and then assembling them into a structure.

With no-code, she explained, the provided building blocks have to be used as is. In low-code, those building blocks can be modified slightly.

“We give our customers the Legos, and they can put them together any way they want,” Cox said. “The building blocks can be put together for simple apps or very complicated ones.”

Greives used a different visual to emphasize the need for no-code and low-code apps. Many companies are pouring a ton of software-design work into a funnel with a huge mouth but a tiny spout, he said, asking their small IT staffs to process far more requests than they can handle.

“All modern companies run on software, and that entire workload is being tasked by only a tiny fraction of people who can write code,” Greives said. “That scenario can really hamper a company’s ability to serve its customers and dramatically slow its own growth and that of its customers.”

Founded in 2006, Formstack helps organizations streamline digital work through no-code online forms, documents and signatures. The company has grown its customer base to more than 27,000, including the Cleveland Clinic, National Hockey League, Netflix and Twitter.

Formstack’s growth is indicative of the explosion of the no-code/low-code movement. From 2017 to 2019, the developer reported revenue growth of 151%—to $33 million. Revenue grew another 30% in 2020, company officials said.

Lumavate, too, is experiencing tremendous growth. The number of published apps built on its platform increased 335% last year, company officials said. They declined to disclose revenue or company growth rate.

Big-time cost savings

No-code and low-code advocates say it’s easy to see why the trend is accelerating so quickly.

“The pandemic caused the need to spin up a lot of applications,” Greives said. “For example, a lot of organizations had to spin up apps for COVID-screening processes.

“There are thousands and thousands of use cases where companies had to pivot to create new digital workflows in hours and days, and not months, and they didn’t have the IT people to solve those problems. So they turned to no-code applications to solve the problems on the fly.”

Two marketing employees of one of Lumavate’s customers created more than 100 apps using no-code tools in three days, Cox said.

“It’s very possible to build an app from scratch in an hour” with Lumavate’s no-code tools, she said. “With a native app [one coded in-house], that sounds crazy. With a native app, it can take six to nine months. That’s the kind of stuff people are seeing now.”

Now that so many people have realized the value of no-code tools, Greives said, he expects they’ll continue using them after the pandemic subsides.

No-code and low-code tools also level the playing field. Companies with more resources no longer have an automatic edge. And ideas that previously might not have been developed because of a lack of technical knowledge or personnel can now be given a chance to find an audience.

Also, building apps with no-code and low-code platforms is substantially cheaper than using programmers. And many no-code and low-code platforms are purchased on a subscription basis, which can make budgeting for them more digestible for small and midsize companies.

“Users can get no-code/low-code tools for as cheap as $20 to $50 per month,” Greives said, although there are much more expensive options, provided by companies like Microsoft. “But compared to hiring a mobile-app developer for hours or weeks or months to build that out, it’s much less expensive.”

Training non-technical people to use no-code tools is easy, Cox said. The tools are so simple to use, she objects to a common term, “citizen developer,” used in no-code and low-code circles.

“The phrase low-code, as well as citizen developer, sends the wrong message,” Cox said. “It implies you have to be a developer and have a baseline understanding of how to write code. No-code is about empowering all people to create and manage digital experiences.

“Our goal is that, if you can use any web-based technology like Mail Chimp or you can build a website using a platform like Wix, you can use our platform,” she said. “We’re taking all the complexity out of it.”

Lumavate can train many non-technical workers in 20 minutes to use no-code tools, Cox said. “The hardest part is having the idea and knowing what you want to build.”

While some have feared that the movement could put computer programmers and software developers out of work, Cox doesn’t think that will happen.

“Developers are 100% necessary in this movement in two different ways,” she said. No-code and low-code tools “will give IT personnel more time to focus on the big picture—on things like system architecture.”

Plus, she added, programmers are needed in growing numbers to create the building blocks for low-code/no-code products. “I don’t see this as a loss of developer jobs at all.”

Financial backing

The movement has caught the eye of investors in a big way. Lumavate, for instance, has raised more than $10 million in capital in its first four years.

Webflow, a San Francisco software company that helps businesses build no-code websites, in January announced it has raised $140 million. The round, led by returning investors Accel and Silversmith, comes after the startup raised $72 million in August 2019.

Airtable, which makes and markets a no-code spreadsheet with the power of a database, in September raised $185 million and this month announced another $270 million in capital. Airtable investors included Thrive Capital, Benchmark Capital, Coatue, CRV, Caffeinated Capital and D1 Capital Partners.

Big players like Microsoft, Amazon and Google have also recently entered the no-code/low-code realm.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for growth in this space,” Greives said. “With all the resources pouring in, and the realization of what these tools can do continuing to grow, it doesn’t look like this trend is going to slow anytime soon.”•

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