The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0094

Apps Without Code

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We’re back from our August hiatus! To kick things off, we have a conversation with Tara Reed, the CEO of Apps Without Code. She started an online art advising business without knowing how to code, and that early success led to an entire company and educational program that teaches others how to do the same. Tara talks about her career, the tools she uses, and why she hates the term “non-technical founder.”


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:02] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:07] And I’m Shaun Hildner. We are back from hiatus. How has your month of August been?

Wailin: [00:00:12] Kind of the same as it was in June and July because time has collapsed on itself. I don’t know, ever, what day it is anymore. Every day I wake up and I have to lie in bed for a couple minutes and think about what day of the week it is. Including on the weekends.

Shaun: [00:00:28] Yeah, it’s tough. I took a little bit of a vacation, which means I sat at home for a week, and it’s the exact same boat.

Wailin: [00:00:37] What is time?

Shaun: [00:00:37] What is time?

Wailin: [00:00:39]You know what I have been doing, is watching Selling Sunset.

Shaun: [00:00:43] Ooh, what’s that?

Wailin: [00:00:43] It is a Netflix reality show about a luxury real estate office brokerage in LA and it’s from the same producer as The Hills, which you might know—

Shaun: [00:00:56] Oh, I know it.

Wailin: [00:00:57] —is my favorite reality show of all time.

Shaun: [00:00:59] I know it.

Wailin: [00:00:59] I think there was a BuzzFeed article that described this producer’s aesthetic as bland, pretty white women having very low stakes problems which is exactly my speed. Anyway, I recommend it. Although I find myself yelling at the TV: “Work is not your family!”

[00:01:21] Every time someone on this shows says, well, we’re a family here, I yell, “Work is not your family, Heather!”

[00:01:26] Have you been watching any TV?

Shaun: [00:01:28] No. I just—I only watch Columbo.

Wailin: [00:01:33] Wait, so can I ask you, so what streaming network is Columbo on?

Shaun: [00:01:37] It’s on Amazon Prime via IMDb TV or something.

Wailin: [00:01:41] What’s IMDb TV?

Shaun: [00:01:43] Who knows?

Wailin: [00:01:45] Is that it’s own streaming network?

Shaun: [00:01:46] It sounds like it, yeah.

Wailin: [00:01:47] Listen, this goes back. Do you remember months ago, I don’t remember what we were talking about but I was complaining about how difficult it is to figure out where to watch stuff when you just want to watch something and then you’re like, well what streaming service do I find it on and how do I put together a cord-cutting plan?

Shaun: [00:02:08] Yes.

Wailin: [00:02:08] Because it’s like, if I want to watch this show and that show but they’re on different networks, it’s like, how many things am I signing up for?

Shaun: [00:02:15] Yep.

Wailin: [00:02:15] And then remember I said, someone should just build an app or a website or something that you enter in what shows you want to watch and then it tells you—

Shaun: [00:02:24] It puts the package together.

Wailin: [00:02:25] Yeah, puts the package together and tells you how much it costs and all that stuff. And I was thinking about that again with our first guest out of hiatus, today, Tara Reed because she has a business and a whole movement called Apps Without Code, which is exactly what it sounds like. She figured out how to build really robust apps without using any code, because I felt like this project I had required a ton of code. And I was like, well, I’m never going to get there. But then, after talking to Tara, I was like, hmm. Maybe you could actually put something together.

Shaun: [00:03:01] Yeah, totally. I’ve been known to put things on hold or cancel projects completely because I figured I needed X, Y, and Z to do it properly. And it’s really great to be reminded that nothing has to be perfect from day one and no matter what you’re building, there’s probably some version of it that can be built with your current skillset. So here is Wailin’s conversation with Tara Reed.

[00:03:24] And I’d like to make a quick note: this interview was recorded a few months ago while we were still trying to figure out the whole remote podcasting thing, so apologies for the rough audio but I still think the conversation’s really important. It’s a fantastic lesson in just doing the damn thing.

[00:03:40] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Tara: [00:03:46] My name is Tara Reed, and I’m the CEO of Apps Without Code, and we teach people how to build their own apps without knowing how to write any code and then build businesses around those apps.

Wailin: [00:03:57] Tara caught the tech bug during a summer internship at Google while she was a junior in college.

Tara: [00:04:03] I ended up joining a team at Google called Google Offers. Essentially what happened was Google tried to buy Groupon and that deal didn’t go through, so they were like, we’re going to build our own. Mainly what I was doing, was I was creating these forecasting and projection dashboards and I was doing them using Excel and learning really great Excel skills. And what’s interesting about Excel is that there’s logic, right? There’s kind of if this, then that. That’s the same logic that the no code app building tools use that I teach now. It’s kind of like, if the user clicks the button, then log them in. If the user clicks the button and the password doesn’t match their password, then show the pop-up that says, “That’s not your password.”

[00:04:47] So if you can think through the logic, you can build apps these days. You don’t need code, anymore. And so that was really where I started building those skill sets.

Wailin: [00:04:55] After graduating, Tara worked at Foursquare and Microsoft. It was during her stint at Microsoft that she started a side project around her interest in fine art. She called the app Kollecto.

Tara: [00:05:06] At the time, I was starting a modest art collection and I was realizing that in order to have somebody help me find artwork for my home, I would need a $10,000 or above budget because art advisors work kind of like real estate agents so they make a commission. So the art purchase has to be big enough for that commission to be worthwhile. So I started with this idea of how do I take art advisory and this kind of concept of having a personal stylist for your walls, how do I make that accessible to people?

[00:05:40] So that was the very first idea that I had.

Wailin: [00:05:41] And how did you get into art and collecting art?

Tara: [00:05:43] I was a young professional starting, having my own space, and thinking about how I wanted to live in that space. And also, frankly, what—the conversation starters I wanted to have on my walls when friends came over and said, oh what’s that? And it really sparked a conversation. I was thinking about those things at the time.

Wailin: [00:06:02] Yeah, I love how this story, so far, has dealt with these areas of life and culture that are gatekept to the extreme, like tech, coding, fine art.

Tara: [00:06:15] Yeah. I’ave always been a contrarian in some ways. So for this concept of making art affordable is interesting to me. This concept of making coding accessible to people who don’t code is interesting to me. I think that that’s a theme that always plays throughout the the things that I’m interested in and I think you’re totally right on that.

Wailin: [00:06:36] And so, when you started down the road of building out this art advising idea that you had, what roadblocks did you run into and what are some of your favorite stories of interesting ways that you were able to work within those constraints and find software tools to kind of cobble it together?

Tara: [00:06:54] I ended up using a tool called Strikingly to build my website and the reason I chose Strikingly is because it had fewer of the bells and whistles of the other website builders that I had played around with. It was like, I just want to get straight to the point and there are fewer distractions for me.

[00:07:12] So by Wednesday, I had launched a website. And I really had just dragged and dropped things around. I didn’t have a product yet, or I didn’t have anything, necessarily to sell yet, but what I put on the website, I think it said, “Become an art collector, get a personal stylist for your walls.” And then I wrote myself an email, and I sent that email to myself, and it was like an email from an art advisor, saying, hey, I’ve got some artwork for you, here’s a link. So I sent that email to myself and screenshotted it, and put it on the page to give people a sense of what the experience was going to be like.

[00:07:43] So I’m kind of in Powerpoint laying the phone frame on top of the actual screenshot that I took and then putting that onto my website. So I’m cobbling just the website together to begin with.

[00:07:56] And then started posting what I was doing on a couple different sites. So on Product Hunt and BetaList.com, and a couple different sites where you could post early stage products. I also went on LinkedIn, and you know how on LinkedIn at the bottom of people’s profiles you can see their special or extracurricular interests?

Wailin: [00:08:16] Yeah.

Tara: [00:08:17] So, I was looking for—I searched for people who had art or art museums or art collecting in their special interests and reached out to them. Just messaged strangers. So I was doing a lot of this, trying to see if anyone was interested and I did all of this before I built anything. Then, once I started getting people interested, I started putting together a product. And what I did—the first version of the product, I actually used a survey. And surveys have show/hide logic. So, for example, you can show different questions and hide different questions based on what someone said.

[00:08:53] A question in the survey was, what’s your favorite color? And someone clicked purple. Then the next question would say, “Great! Why do you like purple?” And it would show the purple follow up question and hide the red follow up question. So a lot of survey tools have this logic. So what I did with that was I put in all of my art recommendations for clients with a bunch of artwork in there. And then, if someone said that they liked photography, the survey showed all the photography, but hid everything else. Or if they said that they liked photography and had a budget under $500 dollars and black and white, then it showed the $500 black and white photography and hid everything else.

[00:09:31] And so people would message me, and say, oh my gosh, I love your app, it’s so great. And little did they know that I had spent maybe $19 a month on my SurveyGizmo subscription to cobble this together and I created that product. And that first survey product that I put together made us our first $35,000. And then also, we took it to 500 Startups, which is an accelerator in Silicon Valley, and they made a $100,000 investment from that survey that I hacked together.

Wailin: [00:09:59] How did you source the artwork that would eventually make it to your customers?

Tara: [00:10:04] We just found it on public sites on the internet and then when we had a buyer, we just contacted them and said hey, we already have a buyer, we want to buy this. And so people were, an artists and galleries were really excited because we were already bringing them the buyer.

Wailin: [00:10:16] And you’re using the plural first person, but was it really just you?

Tara: [00:10:20] First few weeks, it was just me. And then I went on LinkedIn and I searched for “art advisor” because my background is not in art, and I found a bunch of art advisors that I thought would be interesting to help me with this. And then I went to coffee with a handful of them and I picked one, her name was Emily Havens, and she came on as our chief art advisor so at that point there were two of us. And then as we grew, we added more people to be pulling artwork from different sources on the internet and then as we iterated on that later on, we then found an automated way to do that through webscraping of public artwork on sites. But it was a progression to get there.

Wailin: [00:10:59] Yeah, and how did you evolve the site you built up, because obviously this is so dependent on the visuals and having the art being very beautifully presented so people get excited about buying it, right? And exploring the art that you have. What tools did you find to help you get form Powerpoint and screenshots to a layout that would be really appealing and that you could keep improving on?

Tara: [00:11:22] Six to eight months in, we moved over to a platform called Bubble, and so that allowed us a lot more flexibility later on than in the beginning. We just used the constraints of the survey tool. I think one of the things, when people are thinking about a product that they want to bring to life, I think they often, early stage, get really stuck on what exactly the product’s going to look at and what pixel’s going to go where and exactly how it’s going to be laid out. And I think for the most part, your early customers don’t really care about that. As long as it’s easy to use, you just want to get something out there quickly, and then shortly after, you can start refinine the design.

Wailin: [00:11:57] Did you have a process for vetting the apps that you were thinking about using? These different tools. Like, trying to get a sense of whether they would play nicely together or is this company legit, or how long are they going to be around? What if they get acquired and then they shut down, that kind of thing.

Tara: [00:12:13] My process for vetting the tools was literally, sign up for a trial account and try it. That was the process, because if you look at documentation or the website of a lot of software tools, it’s kind of still hard to imagine if you can get that tool to work exactly the way that you want it to. Like, I find a lot of people—actually, I have this conversation with my mother because she was looking for a tool. I can’t remember what it was for, but she was looking on the website, trying to read their features to see if it had exactly what she needed and it turned out that the tool did have what she needed, it just wasn’t listed exactly the way that she wanted it in one of the bullet points on the features.

[00:12:51] And so for me, I found that this experimental playfulness was so critical for being scrappy with creating a product and being scrappy with choosing what tools I was going to use. It was like, sign up for a trial account, try it out, don’t spend too long trying it out, but try it out and see if you can make it work. And at the early stage, it was a lot of like, connecting this tool to Zapier, connecting Zapier to Mailchimp and connecting a bunch of different tools together and playing around with it.

Wailin: [00:13:21] when you were talking about this project with advisors and you took it to 500 Startups and you would be telling technical people about it. How much feedback did you get that was like, oh, you should find a technical cofounder and have them do this and that and build out proprietary tech for you? Did you get that feedback a lot? And how did you push back against it?

Tara: [00:13:43] So I actually did not get that feedback a lot and I think maybe this was due to who I was working with. But I distinctly remember the interview that I had at 500 Startups and it was myself, it was just me that was there, as the founder. And there were three folks from 500 Startups, a partner and two other people on the team. And we got to the part of what I had done thus far in the business, where we were talking about the technology. And to this time, I still had the survey pieced together, right? And so, we got to that point, and they asked me, well how did you build the tech this far? Do you have a CTO, what have you been doing? And I explained to them exactly what I did. I told them I took a survey tool and I used the show/hide logic to put it together and we’ve made $35,000 from it thus far.

[00:14:36] And they each paused and looked at each other and kind of nodded their heads because it was clear that this person was going to figure this thing out no matter what. We can help her with all the rest of it, but she’s going to be scrappy and she’s going to figure it out. And I think it actually, in multiple scenarios, worked to my advantage. Now part of that is because I was able to explain why it was to my advantage but I think it showed scrappiness, I think it showed resourcefulness, and I think that today, there’s still lots of people, lots of investors, lots of advisors, who are not open to non-technical entrepreneurs and non-technical founders building, creating things. But I think now that there’s so many more tools that you just want to find people who are aligned to that and who know that that’s an option. And I think you’ll find support that way, if you’re partnering with the right people.

Wailin: [00:15:27] Yeah, and what did you get out of the 500 Startups experience?

Tara: [00:15:30] I learned a lot about what the traditional startup path looks like. What the path, of like, raising funds and going the VC funded route looks like. And more than anything, I learned that I did not want to go down that path.

Wailin: [00:15:44] And why is that?

Tara: [00:15:44] I think that there’s a particular way that you’re life looks as the founder of a company that is VC-backed. You’re saying, I’m going to do everything in my power to build this company such that I can take it public. Or I can sell it for the highest amount as is—and get you your money back as quickly as possible. And for me, that wasn’t quite the kind of company that I wanted to build. I wanted to build a business where my team got to have phenomenal lifestyles. That was really important to me. I wanted to prioritize my customers, I wanted to prioritize my employees, and so I really got a sense of what I wanted and didn’t want in terms of paths. And I think that when we talk about tech, in particular, we very rarely talk about this option to bootstrap your company. We very rarely talk about the option of figuring out a way to, instead of making it free, or 99 cents, or a really low price point, to charge premium price points so you have a business model that supports you bootstrapping. We very rarely talk about these things, but that was really what I got interested in, in this esteem of a contrarian way that we’ve been talking about. That was what 500 Startups really showed me.

Wailin: [00:17:01] Tara had been documenting her process of building apps without code and her blogging helped her land a TEDx Detroit talk in 2015. After giving her talk, she started getting contacted by people who wanted to do the same thing she did.

Tara: [00:17:17] After more and more emails came in, I decided, okay, I’m going to help five people. And so I put a price point on it, I completely made it up. And I was like, I’m going to help five people build their app. I immediately sold out of those five slots. And then I opened it up again, and I had 70 people. And I thought, oh wait a minute, this might be a business on its own. And there was a point where the Apps Without Code business was really, really growing and I moved over to spend a lot more of my time on that and helping people launch their app ideas, which is really fun for me.

[00:17:47] There’s a tool called Glide, GlideApps.com, and Glide allows you to take a spreadsheet and instantly turn it into an app. So that’s one of the tools that we teach. We also teach a tool called Mighty Networks, MightyNetworks.com and that tool allows you to create your own social network app. We also teach a tool called Sharetribe. Sharetribe.com. And Sharetribe allows you to create your own marketplace app. So think, like, AirBnB where people can buy and sell from each other. You can take a percentage of that sale. So I teach Sharetribe.

[00:18:20] We also teach a tool called Thinkific, which for people who are creating education apps and platforms, licensing them to schools or individuals, we teach that education platform. And then fifth, we’ve actually built our own tool in house called CloudMatch. CloudMatchApp.com. And CloudMatch allows you to create recommendation apps.

[00:18:42] So based on what you are trying to build, we point you to one of those five tools and then we teach you how to build their app using those tools, and then all the marketing principles that come with getting customers to come to that app and validating that app idea.

Wailin: [00:18:57] So then, how did you get the idea to build your own app, and did you build that app without code? We’re now way deep into the spiral, here.

Tara: [00:19:07] Oh, so you’re asking about the app that I built to help people build apps without code?

Wailin: [00:19:13] Yeah.

Tara: [00:19:14] We’ve gotten meta here, okay. Got it, yes. So the reason I built that app, CloudMatch, was because I saw a gap in what it was easy to do without code. I had a lot of folks who were coming to our program saying that they wanted to do some kind of recommendation engine. And recommendation engines were near to my heart, because Kollecto, my first company, was an art recommendation engine. And so, we had built, eventually we had built this algorithm that matched people to artwork based on their taste and we had done that without code. And so I wanted to make it easier for people to build matching algorithms, whether it’s like a dating app all the way to you want to match mentors and mentees and you want to take that app and bring it to schools for their mentorship programs, to get them at school to use that.

[00:20:01] So that’s where that came from was seeing people struggling with that particular type of app. And also I knew a lot about that case because that’s what I built originally.

Wailin: [00:20:09] Oh, and then, is that app built without code, as well?

Tara: [00:20:12] Yes. So I built CloudMatch, the tool that lets you build your app without code, without writing any code.

Wailin: [00:20:18] Okay.

Tara: [00:20:19] I don’t write code at all. The most I can do is change my HTML hex code color. That’s my max. And it’s funny because I’ve always been open to learning how to code, I’ve always been like, okay, maybe one day I’ll go do a coding bootcamp, or go do a program like that. But I’ve always, my methodology has always been: let me push it as far as I can without code, and then if I hit a wall, I can go get some additional skills. And there’s been very, very, very little that I’ve not been able to, not been able to find a tool for without code, and so I haven’t learned how to code. I’m open to it, but I haven’t really needed it.

[00:21:01] There’s so many tools. Even Facebook came out with a tool called Spark AR to create augmented reality without code. We’re definitely headed in this direction. There’s so many tools.

[00:21:13] And it’s kind of a fun case study for people who feel limited. They have an interest in technology, they feel limited because they don’t know how to code. It’s kind of like I’m using myself as a case study of how far we can take this with just the knowledge that you already have.

Wailin: [00:21:29] Yeah. Do you like the term non-technical founder or do you think about the language of how we talk about people who know how to code versus people who don’t know how to code and do you have some aspirations around how you’d like to see that language be different?

Tara: [00:21:45] Yeah, I hate that term. Because it describes someone based on what they’re not. We have the same debate in the no code space. Should we call it no code, defining it based on what it’s not. However, I don’t even know that it’s a good use of time trying to wordsmith it to get a better term at this point. Because I think that we’ll get to a point in the near future where it’s like, of course you were able to do something without code. Just like where we are with websites right now. Right? I do think that there are some people who still don’t know that you can build a website without code but with Squarespace and WordPress and all these tools, you really can. And so people aren’t really saying as much, I built my website without code. They’re kind of just saying, I built a website. I used this tool.

[00:22:35] So I think that we’ll get there more with non-technical entrepreneurs. I don’t have a good replacement word for us right now, though. But we’re definitely seeing a lot more people looking to create. I would just say, looking to create, period. I would even take it for a moment outside of just creating a product and creating an app. I think that people are being creative in general right now, because we have some more time at home to be working on projects.

[00:23:00] But I would say that the people I’m working with who, by the way, are not what I’d call tech insiders, they’re not coming from a long career in Silicon Valley, usually. They work in education or they work in manufacturing, or they work in health care. And they see a big gap in their industry that they think technology could fill.

[00:23:22] For those folks, people are building one of two things. They’re either directly building a COVID-19-related product so that they can use it to help people. That’s actually a really small, a smaller percentage of folks. The majority of people are just building tools to help people survive and thrive in this digital age. So they’re building tools to help, for example, I have one student who’s building a tool for entertainment venues and nightclubs and dance parties and those sorts of organizations to be able to have virtual experiences and to be able to host them in their app. So that’s a really big trend I’m seeing right now in terms of what people are building. And of course, when you do it with no code, you can have something up and running in a few weeks and actually have revenue in the door with that product in a few weeks as opposed to months and months.

[00:24:17] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:24:18] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:24:31] If you want to learn more about Apps Without Code, Tara offers a free class that you can sign up for at AppsWithoutCode.com. She also does an eight-week bootcamp for folks who want to go deeper. Again, that’s at AppsWithoutCode.com, and Tara is on Twitter at @TaraReed_.

Shaun: [00:24:49] We’ll provide links to these resources in the show notes for this episode, which you can find at Rework.fm along with episode transcripts. We are on Twitter at @reworkpodcast and if you have an idea for a topic you want us to tackle on the show, you can email us at hello@rework.fm.

[00:25:06] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:25:16] Feel like a rough reentry, Shaun.

Shaun: [00:25:17] Hey, you know what? Sometimes you don’t pull up in time. You Jek Porkins, crashing into the side of the Death Star.

Wailin: [00:25:26] That’s right, his name was Jack Porkins.

Shaun: [00:25:28] Yeah, rough, right?

Wailin: [00:25:29] That’s like a rude. Rude name. Rude name. I like to really think of myself as more of a Wedge Antilles.

Shaun: [00:25:37] Well, we all think we’re Wedge until we find out we’re all Porkins.

Wailin: [00:25:39] We’re Jack Porkins.

Shaun: [00:25:42] Although I don’t want people writing into us. I know it is Jek Porkins, not Jack Porkins.

Wailin: [00:25:47] Jek. I have to say that Star Wars, and maybe this, I don’t know. Is this like, universal across a lot of scifi fantasy franchises. I don’t like this thing where you take a name that’s traditional and you just change one vowel to make it kind of weird.

Shaun: [00:26:03] It’s awful. Like the entire Game of Thrones character list.

Wailin: [00:26:07] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:26:06] Yeah.

Wailin: [00:26:06] Exactly. I’m not a fan. I’m not a fan.

Shaun: [00:26:10] No.