No-code product development

Anyone familiar with product development should recognise the image below. It’s a schematic for a start-up idea I was working on several years ago – for an employee engagement, reward and recognition app. It was the result of a number of workshops with a digital agency covering problem statements, user scenarios, workflow solutions, personas, UX/UI design and back-end architecture frameworks.

At the time, the cost quoted to build the MVP was easily 5-6 figures – and even to get to that point still required a load of work on story boards, wire frames and clickable prototypes….

Now, I would expect the developers to use something like a combination of open-source and low-cost software applications to manage the middle-ware functions, dial-up a basic cloud server to host the database and connect to external APIs, and commission a web designer to build a dedicated front-end. (I’m not a developer, programmer or coder, so apologies for any glaring errors in my assumptions…)

The growth in self-serve SaaS platforms, public APIs and low-cost hosting solutions (plus the plethora of design marketplaces) should mean that a developer can build an MVP for a tenth of the cost we were quoted.

Hence the interest in “low-code/no-code” product development, and the use of modular components or stack to build a range of repetitive, automated and small scale applications. (For a dev’s perspective check out Martin Slaney’s article, and for a list of useful resources see Ellen Merryweather’s post from earlier this year.)

There are obvious limitations to this approach: anything too complex, too custom, or which needs to scale quickly may break the model. Equally, stringing together a set of black boxes/off-the-shelf solutions might not work, if there are unforeseen incompatibilities or programming conflicts – especially if one component is upgraded, and there are unknown inter-dependencies that impact the other links in the chain. Which means the product development process will need to ensure a layer of code audits and test environments before deploying into production.

I was reflecting on the benefits and challenges of hermetically sealed operating systems and software programs over the weekend. In trying to downgrade my operating system (so that I could run some legacy third-party applications that no longer work thanks to some recent systems and software “upgrades”), I encountered various challenges, and it took several attempts and a couple of workarounds. The biggest problem was the lack of anything to guide me in advance – that by making certain changes to the system settings, or configuring the software a certain way, either this app or that function wouldn’t work. Also, because each component (the operating system, the software program and the third party applications) wants to defend its own turf within my device, they don’t always play nicely together in a way that the end user wants to deploy them in a single environment.

App interoperability is something that continues to frustrate when it comes to so-called systems or software upgrades. It feels like there needs to be a specialist area of product development that can better identify, mitigate and resolve potential tech debt, as well as navigate the product development maintenance schedule in anticipation of future upgrades and their likely impact, or understand the opportunities for retrofitting and keeping legacy apps current. I see too many app developers abandoning their projects because it’s just too hard to reconfigure for the latest system changes.

Next week: Telstar!




Focus, Focus, Focus: from great idea to MVP in one (not so) easy lesson

Last week’s Lean Startup Melbourne session explored what it takes to turn your great startup idea into a minimum viable product (MVP) before launching in the market. And as the entrepreneurs pitching their product ideas soon found out, it’s all about focus: on the problem you are solving, on the solution you are offering, and on connecting with your target customer.


The evening’s event was once again hosted by Inspire9, and generously sponsored by BlueChilli, and the ever-entertaining and animated Kussowski Brothers, along with newcomers Startup Victoria and Xero.

As well as a panel comprising 4 of Melbourne’s leading startup experts, there were a couple of lightning talks from Sidekicker and Attendly on how to find a tech co-founder, and how to identify your customer respectively.

On to the evening’s brave pitchers:

First up was ClassWired, a platform for helping ESL classes go digital. Building on personal and professional experience, the product aims to make ESL lesson content more social and the student experience more personal. The challenge is that the ESL market is divided between a handful of major players (who are easy to identify, but could leverage their scale to deploy their own solutions), and a large pool of independent teachers (who are harder to reach). While a need may exist for more interactive ESL content, the panel felt the revenue model lacked clarity, and as yet there was no compelling reason for customer adoption. ClassWired could establish some differentiation through superior instructional design, or by building content development tools for use by tutors.

Next came a presentation by Reflow, which entertained and baffled in equal measure. The product is designed to handle high-volume messaging traffic, from sensory, mobile and web sources across logistics, apps and environmental monitoring. Although the pitch was deep on technical domain knowledge, and again drew heavily on personal and professional experience, the panel was unclear as to the precise problem being addressed, and the solution being offered. Talk of “virtual hair dryers” and “sensory message overload” only helped to confuse the audience. Maybe there are opportunities in outsourcing, or in data analytics – but with cheap and plentiful hosting capacity out there, Reflow needs to find some focus.

Changing tone and gears came StillReel, which streams digital art to an LCD monitor near you. With the idea of bringing limited-edition digital artworks to a wider audience, StillReel offers a monthly subscription model, and is exploring the consumer, commercial and corporate markets. Leaving aside the concept of scarcity value in digital art, the overall feedback suggested that the market needs to be clearly defined, and the offering made more explicit. Is it simply art? Is it entertainment? Is it pandering to the elite? From my perspective, Brian Eno has created a different model via 77 Million Paintings, and no doubt social media is already “liberating” digital art and video from the galleries and museums.

Curated shopping service, YourGrocer offered the best and most succinct presentation on the night, and told a great story about how the experience of “validation in Brunswick” has helped them build a viable business connecting local grocery outlets with time-poor customers. With several options for revenue streams, supplier partnerships and even a franchise model, YourGrocer could be spoilt for choice – but like everyone else, they need to focus (and decide whether they are a community service, a social enterprise or a commercial venture).

Finally, MeetLinkShare offers virtual data rooms – a service somewhat clumsily describing itself as “The Swiss Army Knife of Mobile Collaboration”. Having built a proven platform for secure team-based document and content sharing (including annotations, tags, custom fields, multimedia and version control etc.) the team is now contemplating two significant (but quite separate) market segments: 1) Virtual Data Rooms for SME’s and 2) Private Tutors. They are also seeking a new round of funding. Again, the panel’s recommendation was to find their customer focus, although with some smart and distinct branding, it’s possible that MeetLinkShare could service both markets.


Having a great idea is not enough – as I learned very early on in product development, there may be an opportunity in the market, but is there a market in the opportunity? A couple of things missing from most of these presentations were:

  • a clear definition of both the upstream and downstream markets;
  • an understanding of the customer value chain (and how to monetize it); and
  • the specific contribution that each product, service or solution brings to their chosen domain.

It was also apparent that each of the pitches have opportunities across indirect applications, or within adjacent markets – so part of the challenge is knowing how to gain sufficient traction in one segment that will provide momentum (and relevance) to move into the next growth phase.

Disclosure: The author is not affiliated with any of the businesses mentioned in this blog, although he does acknowledge the receipt of 2 free beers and a couple of slices of pizza from the organisers.