Building without Code

A question we get asked a lot is “do I have to be a developer to join the programme”? The answer is a definite NO. Around half of our portfolio companies have no technical co-founders and, while sometimes coding is required for a product, a majority of the time early customer validation and development can be done without any prior technical knowledge. In fact, we have had teams who have built an entire product and acquired paying customers without writing any code.

To give an insight into how to approach this I caught up with Ignite Alumni company Netminds to find out how, as a non-technical team, they have managed to build a product and get paying customers using off the shelf tools.

Cristian & Laura from Netminds

Ian:
Let’s start at the beginning. What is Netminds?

Cristian:
It’s a community management platform, optimised for people to share knowledge and help each other. The problem that we saw was that when you are in any community you can have hundreds or thousands of people in that community but you don’t really know who is in there or what skills they have. We enable skill sharing within a group of people. For example, we can help founders find mentors or indeed help mentors match their skills with a group of entrepreneurs to help them with their businesses.

Ian:
So it is like knowledge discovery and a skills marketplace. Much like airbnb where you can be a host or a guest, Netminds is a community where you can be both the giver and recipient of knowledge.

Laura:
Exactly. It is our goal to enable better and more relevant connections between all participants in a community. For example we work with Universities who are running startup programmes and connect them to their alumni to help. Or we can take co-working spaces and enable sharing between all the businesses which exist within the space, or even between co-working spaces. It’s a directory of talent.

Ian:
Amazing. And am I right that you have built a fully functional product and neither of you are developers?

Laura:
Yes, I know nothing about coding. Back in Colombia I was a radio host and worked on the business side of media which was all about relationships. Cristian was a little more technical but again didn’t know any coding.

Ian:
So why did you start building something without code?

Laura:
Honestly, we didn’t have any money!

Cristian:
Yes, we had no money and if we did we probably would have written a spec on what we wanted, given it to a developer or agency and then asked them to build it. I am so pleased we didn’t, it would have been a mistake. We would have built the wrong thing and wasted both time and money. Instead, we decided to run some tests.

Ian:
Excellent, so glad you have been listening to our sessions. We love the culture of experimentation. Talk me through it

Creating the Hypothesis

Laura:
Initially, we created a sort of hypothesis. We thought we had an idea about the problem but wanted to check if there was a market for it. So we created a survey in Google forms and sent it to who we thought was the prospective customers. It allowed us to understand exactly what the problem was. We got some surprising results. I could never develop a form but google forms made it easy and all the information went into a spreadsheet!

Ian:
Congratulations, you are officially a developer. Seriously though, that is great practice. If you are going to run experiments it is important to have a hypothesis, set the parameters of what makes it successful and then use data to validate your hypothesis. So where did you go from there?

Cristian:
We started with a landing page. We used Landen, a simple landing page builder, to get a single page website up and running. This allowed us to present our message to prospective customers. We linked in the google form and put everything live. It was amazing and easy to do. It allowed us to collect real evidence instantly.

Ian:
So when you had some sort of early validation, what did you do next?

Laura:
This is important. We started with a Jobs to be Done exercise you told us about. It helped us come up with a list of 20 or 30 features we thought would be interesting. However you can’t build them all so we worked out the 3 or 4 major pain points. Who is going to be the main customer and what can we help them with quickly.

Cristian:
That was the initial scope. Then we started experimenting with tools that might work for this. This is the difficult part. There are just so many tools available and each has their own learning curve so you need to make sure that they are the correct ones which match what your customers will want.

Ian:
Totally agree. Some off the shelf tools are great and easy to pick up but others you do need to invest a lot of time to become fully proficient. When I am helping founders build something with nocode tools I like to explain it in three parts. Firstly, you have the back end which is where the data is stored, then the front end which is what the user sees and then a connector in the middle which creates the logic of the application. Is this how you thought of it?

Webflow — a powerful yet simple to use front end design tool

Cristian:
Absolutely. We actually started with the front end. We wanted to make sure that what the user experienced was as good as possible. We looked at lots of tools like Wordpress, Landen, Glide and Webflow and we chose Webflow as the front end as it was the one I felt most comfortable with. It is back to the learning curve, with Wordpress you might have been able to do more but Webflow made the process so easy to create that it was good enough for our customers. We also looked at the number of other applications it could connect to, the integrations. This was really important. It gave us options.

Ian:
That’s great, you got the front end up and running but were still thinking about the next steps. Where the data is stored and how to access it.

Laura:
Yes, it made it easier. We then looked at the integrations and it was clear that we can use Airtable and Zapier for the other parts.

Ian:
Tell me more

Laura:
Zapier is amazing. It allows someone like me, with literally no knowledge of tech stuff, to connect a website with a database. I can easily add automations that respond to what a user does on the website. It’s so easy.

Ian:
Yes, I am a huge fan of Zapier. There are others of course, Integromat, IFTTT etc.

Cristian:
Yes, but again it came down to integrations. Zapier was the tool that had the most integrations. Also a personal choice as Integromat I felt was too technical and IFTTT didn’t give us enough flexibility.

Ian:
I like your thought process, thinking about which tools you are comfortable using but also what will give you the most optionality as you grow. Talk about the data and how it is stored and managed

Cristian:
We used Airtable. Its kind of a spreadsheet and database in one. It allows us a lot of flexibility and we can see what users are doing and what messages we need to send them. That’s another thing, we simply connect our Gmail and use that for the messaging. People don’t think that Gmail is a nocode tool but it is, it takes away the need to write your own emailing. It’s super easy.

Ian:
So you connected Webflow, Airtable, Gmail and Zapier together and were able to build a fully functional product?

Laura:
Yes! It was amazing. Something we could actually use and sell to customers. It’s like I didn’t write any code for this, and all of a sudden I’m getting user information, automatically. Matching it with what they need and then sending them messages. It’s like, whoa okay, now I can build stuff.

The Netminds webapp, fully built with no coding required

Ian:
Always feels pretty good to ship a product. Do you find the tools restrictive?

Cristian:
Sometimes but usually it’s just about making sure you plan out what features and services you want to add and making sure that you can piece it together. I guess eventually, if we continue to grow, we will need to add some development in. Actually, we got an Innovation Grant from Invest NI which allowed us to spend a small amount of money on coding a matching algorithm. That was really helpful. It is a single piece of code we can plug into our application. We can probably keep doing small things like that for quite a while, even to thousands of users.

Ian:
So cool, its like piecing together blocks of Lego so you have the fully functional product. I find it quite useful to visualise all of this. Drawing all the integrations, messaging and connections together so you know you what is happening and where.

Laura:
That’s a good idea because it would help when something goes wrong. We had a problem with one thing and couldn’t exactly work out where it was breaking. We had to go through the different connections and work it out.

Ian:
Like debugging code:

Cristian:
Exactly. It’s debugging nodcode.

Ian:
So you built something, you got a paying customer. Going to keep building the product using off the shelf tools? What’s next for Netminds?

Laura:
More paying customers! We are already talking to another 3 or 4 prospective customers who love what we did and I am hopeful they will convert in the short term.

Cristian:
Yes. with a product built and working we can focus on sales but the product itself will keep expanding. We are integrating more tools to improve user functionality like Memberstack and Hubspot, our CRM system. The only issue that we have is cost. With nocode tools, as you start to grow you move up their bundle size so more users equals more cost. Hopefully though more users also means more revenue so it should be fine.

Ian:
I have always wondered when and if there is a ceiling on nocode scalability. Hopefully you can test where that ceiling is and report back. I think it’s an amazing story, congrats to you both. Have you any words of advice for entrepreneurs who are thinking about building something but they don’t have any technical ability?

Cristian:
Just try it. Most of the tools we talk about and use have a free tier. That means you can test things out with no cost but your own time. We just had an idea and no way to explore it. The nocode tools really opened our eyes and we built something from nothing really. There is a learning curve but you will find which tools you are comfortable so use those and keep building. The functionality of your build may not be perfect, but it will be good enough to tell you if your idea is worth exploring.

Laura:
Yes. Absolutely. Just try it. You got us started when you came to Newcastle and did the build a business in a day session. It was so brilliant and from then we knew that we could test our ideas super quickly. If I can use tools to build a product, anyone can.

Ian:
As always, I am so impressed with both of you not only for the way that you have built something from nothing but the attitude you bring to it. If people are interested, where can they contact you?

Cristian:
Just go to the website, built in Webflow, and you can contact Laura and I directly on Twitter or LinkedIn. We’d love to chat.

Ian:
Thanks so much to you both, it’s such a great story and I wish you both luck. I think Netminds has a really interesting future.

Gmail is a nocode tool!

If you want to explore it yourself, some of the tools used by the Netminds team are Airtable, Webflow, Zapier, Memberstack, Gmail and Circle

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