Thanks to I Built a Much-Needed “App” in One Night

Also, a short story about a keeping a small, growing business on track with good systems.

Timothy Kiefer
Feb 17, 2019 · 5 min read
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My “doc”.

This is a short review, not a comprehensive guide, about a wonderful new service I learned about this week. It is going to take weeks to fully understand what I can do with this product. Until then, I’m delighted to give a quick share about this much-needed solution to a current problem.

As I’ve been careening through coding the past several years, I’ve earned a bit of a reputation for getting technical things done with computers using low- or no-code. Thursday, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a few months. He was elated to tell me about, and though he tried he could not express what it does. We even sat down as he bounced around this “doc” he made for project management and showed me how he could update it through a mobile app. I had no idea what was going on, but I love automation and integration and just from his countenance I could tell this was a big deal, so I bookmarked it.

Amazingly, not even an entire day went by before I had a perfect use for Coda.

Yesterday, our first “Compost Courier” started helping us. She drives around, picking up folks’ compostables to bring back to the Soil Farm. This has been my wife’s job for the past year, but we are starting the market gardens and she needs all her time to get that perfect. Beth’s routine is setting up a Google Sheet in the morning. A color-coded system tells her specifics for each of her stops and designates when a swap has been completed. She scrolls around for notes, addresses, and phone numbers if she needs to text someone.

The true test of having a business instead of a job is if someone else can successfully fill the position(s) you’ve created. An entrepreneur can grow into a system, or more accurately sometimes that system grows around them, as they fight to get all the work done everyday. If you don’t keep your purpose in perspective you may get stuck in the weeds. Your systems or lack thereof become a form of Stockholm Syndrome, holding you hostage and keeping you from accomplishing your real mission. This funky Sheets system was a little bit like that. The few times I helped out on pickups it absolutely drove me nuts. I would offer suggestions like “we need these columns switched” or “this information isn’t important”, but the format itself was the real problem.

Back to the story: yesterday our first outsider left the farm equipped with toters, clean buckets, a checklist, and her Google Sheet. A couple hours in, Beth becomes frantic — I have no idea how there have already been 15 buckets not set out! We divvy up tasks to keep things from melting down and hit the road. I grab some buckets while Beth wraps up work at home. Then, she audits the unsuccessful pickups and takes the last remaining stops, while I meet Becca, our Bucket Bandit, back at the farm. Meanwhile, snow is accumulating and St. Louisans on the main streets stop driving altogether. We’re lucky our new teammate is such a good sport, because that was a rough first day…

Later at home, Beth and I are walking through all that happened like crime scene investigators. Were there notes on doors that buckets weren’t swapped? Oh man, four rows of the sheet were accidentally deleted… She did this stop, but forgot to change the row color. Much of the forensics we turned up led back to pinching and dragging through the Google Sheet, and the wackiness of relying on this mobile view. Wait! I just saw something way better than this, thanks Michael!

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I couldn’t find a gif resizer that didn’t destroy the quality…

Enter Overwhelming at first, it looks sort of like a Google Doc. However, you can add all sorts of integrations and automations, and with some clicks data you enter transforms into limitless views. I didn’t even know where to begin.

So, I started with what I had to work with, and pasted a bit of the Sheet for the day’s route. Poking through the tutorials and templates, it did not take long before I had a status update selector for each row. With a little conditional formatting, updating status changed the row’s color.

My next step and main goal was getting this to work on a phone. This was as simple as adding another column with a button to modify that status column. This is all it took to create a simple, app-like experience for our Compost Courier(s) to keep track of swaps.

One of the “packs” available is Twilio. Instead of needing to have our couriers share our Google Voice account, I was able to add a button to send a message. Members who forgot to leave their bucket out, receive a friendly, paperless message with a click of a button. There was a little hangup here — after an hour of playing with it, I couldn’t figure out a way to have this “send text” button also update that row. For now, the two steps are two separate buttons. Combining those are on the to do list.
(Update 2/17: The Coda team is awesome. Not only were they super-enthused to see and share how they helped us, within hours Matt Hudson commented below how fix this by making a button push multiple buttons. It took all of a minute to make happen.)

I’m excited to see this in action Monday. I only scratched the surface of what we can do. I plan to add a real-time earnings calculator and a progress bar, possibly before it’s put into action for the first time. We could have the earnings add to another table, and give a year-to-date summary for tax purposes. There could be tables for couriers to keep track of mileage and other expenses… Oh the possibilities!

I hope this was helpful and maybe even inspiring. I’d love to hear if you have any troublesome tasks you can organize and automate with Coda, or any other services. This is my jam!

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“Oh my God, it’s way better!” — Becca was ecstatic to see on her second day the Google Sheet was dead. The doc/app created with was exactly the hard system we needed to make this position work for her. Thanks, Coda!

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