Low code renaissance — Mapping the tools enabling citizen developer era

Today I speak with 2–5 low code projects in various verticals and industries in an average week. Low code has become a lot more popular in the last couple of years. And actually, it’s a pretty hot sector right now 🔥. Look at the last YC batch. And I understand why: we (ordinary users) prefer a higher level of abstraction, so operating in a drag and drop environment is much easier and more convenient for us.

‘No-code/low-code’ is a huge part of modern software development. Many people misinterpret its meaning, but the importance of democratizing software development is understood widely. We are no longer dealing with 0’s and 1’s or any other programming language paradigm. Low-code is the next abstraction layer that unlocks the potential for everyone to build anything on the internet.

Despite the hype for low code in recent times, it is not something new, and in many industries, low code tools have already existed for a long period. For example, I used LabVIEW in university 10 years ago. It is a visual programming language tool based on language ‘G’ from National Instruments for virtual device creation for signal processing. Even today, most students who took a stat course will have to face SPSS, which is a no-code tool based on Java.

But there is still a problem because, despite the growing popularity of low code tools we still need to wait for a long time until a mass adoption. Most of the tools still require developers’ communities which help to build platforms using low code and no-code approaches.

Market

Different estimation gives us a sense of how big it could really be in a couple of years:

Forrester Research expects the market for low-code and no-code development platforms to reach c.$20bn by 2022. Some of the researchers are more bullish in terms of the size and growth rate, e.g. Markets and Markets predicts that the low-code development platform market will be worth $45.5bn by 2025

Gartner forecasts that low-code application platforms will account for 65 percent of all app development by 2024. This means the majority of apps created in 2024 will be developed using platforms and tools that provide turnkey ways to a program.

Goldman Sachs is more bullish and estimates LCNC TAM c. $70bn.

And a recent market research report pegs the global low-code development platform market at more than $10bn and suggests it could rise to $187bn by 2030

Several trends catalyze low code tools development and penetration:

  • Cloud mass adoption. Cloud did a big shift in the recent decade. According to the Right Scale’s annual State of the Cloud Report for 2019, 91% of businesses used the public cloud.
  • Developer shortage: Despite the fact that there are 5,5 million developers in Europe, the European Union countries are still estimated to suffer a shortage of 500,000 software engineers (2020). And the shortage could be much bigger in emerging spaces like data science. Based on current demand and supply dynamics, the United States alone is projected to face a shortfall of 250,000 data scientists by 2024. Hiring and retaining engineers is expensive as labor costs rise. Still, the bigger problem for many firms is also that there isn’t enough talent out there to help companies navigate new technologies. This scarcity means that the biggest and best-capitalized companies are winning the talent war since they can pay above-market pricing for top engineering talents.
  • The popularity of Distributed Work Organizations’ app ecosystems is growing increasingly, the workforce that’s using those apps is becoming more decentralized. The remote workforce needs simpler solutions which they should adopt faster and low/no code perfectly fits these criteria.
  • Successful pioneers: The first wave of tools has emerged in the past decade tackling key pain points in most internet products (WIX for a website, Shopify for e-commerce, etc).

So due to the big shift in technology and shortage of developers, we will see a growing amount of vertical and horizontal low-code tools.

Sectors and verticals

I personally break down low code by following buckets: Web Sites, Pages, and Newsletters; Web and Mobile app; Design; BI and Data science; FinTech; Developers tools; Automation. Of course, that doesn’t cover a variety of no-code products and I probably will need to make an extension for this article.

Web Sites, Pages, and Newsletters

It is one of the most developed spaces in low-code. Microsoft FrontPage was an early player in this market but we can say the true mass adoption started from WIX. It was a blockbuster product for SMB: it was relatively cheap and you could build a working website without hiring a developer. Sometime later we saw a new generation of website builders, like Webflow for example which further improved CX for site creation.

But there is usually no need for complex websites. In many cases, a simple one-page website is all you need (like a personal page for example). Creators could use tools like Linktree Taplink, or flooz.link to manage their website, analytics, recurring subscriptions, email list, security, and so on. Newsletter authors could use Substack — a publishing platform used to publish materials and generate money from subscriptions. We have also started to see quazi websites based on Notion which is facilitated by platforms like Super.

Mobile and Web app

Mobile and Web apps became essential parts of our lives and nowadays you are able to create one yourself using low code tools. This segment is getting crowded with well-established players like Adalo, Glide, Appy Pie, Appian, and Google-owned AppSheet.

There are also a couple of vertical players: Bravo targets designers, Open As App focuses on business teams in large companies, Siemens-owned Mendix is mostly dedicated to the industrial sector. Also, big tech would like to participate in this race: AWS just launched a no-code mobile and web app builder, Microsoft is developing their power apps which have synergy with their cloud businesses.

In today’s world web apps are becoming more and more popular. They are a good fit for the situation when you need active communication with users. From time to time you need to transform internal data into an app for customers visibility. Communication can take any shape, like submitting a form, customer portals, or other internal tools. For example, Stacker can pull data from various sources to create a sophisticated business application. Noloco helps to create an app around existing business data in spreadsheets and other software tools. Softr.io could be used for both website and web application creation.

Design

Low code could be also helpful in design hacking. With the rise of no-code tools, designers got empowered to create functioning prototypes and live sites without writing a single line of code.

Canva is one of the blockbuster products in the space of design. They created a truly simple user interface, where folks can simply drag and drop components into their designs without excessive customization. The tool allows anyone with no specific skills to design presentations, t-shirts, brochures, flyers, etc. The company is now thinking about the next products, like video editing and website builder. Webflow is another design tool and probably the most sophisticated low code website-making platform on the market. Webflow doesn’t rely on templates, but rather allows any kind of professional website to be designed from the ground up. Noodl operates in a similar domain and helps to create web apps using pre-built blocks. Most of the websites are still static but a new generation of tools like Rive could solve the problem. The platform lets designers and illustrators create sophisticated interactions and animations without writing a code.

Fragmentation is a huge problem for designing. The work on design, content, and coding is still separate. Figma made the first attempt to eliminate hands-off and generate code but still didn’t replicate good developers. Framer is described as a “fully integrated design, prototyping and developer handoff tool. Relate from Israel, an early player in this field, is trying to fully eliminate hands-off and create a unified environment for designers that is powered by code . Or another Israeli company Anima, which turns design prototypes into code. The platform allows designers in Figma, Sketch, and Adobe XD to translate their designs into HTML code. Ireland company Modulz is building a visual code editor that allows teams to develop, document, and deploy a design system, without writing a code.

BI and data science

Data management and analysis have become drastically important nowadays. It is essential to have data visibility to run a successful business. But due to a shortage of tech seavy analysts, it gets difficult. New emerging low-code tools could help to solve this problem. The analyst operates in an intuitive visual environment which decreases the requirement for tech skills and increases the speed. For example, Gyana platform helps aggregate many data sources, build a dashboard and help make analyses with no coding experience. Obviously.ai is a startup that enables users to run complex predictions and analytics on data, by asking questions in natural language.

Abacus helps companies to embed deep learning models into their processes. Users pick a use case and point to their data, after that Abacus engine creates an AI system that can be used to make and share predictions. Noogata platform offers a set of pre-built AI building blocks that enterprises can connect to 3rd party tools like their data warehouse, Salesforce, and other data sources. Enso is open-source automation for data-driven processes for data analysts and data scientists. The company helps to build a visual code tree workflow for data science projects. Retable is a creating AI-augmented data transformation tool for analysts and data scientists. Retable empowers data analysts with AI co-pilot to automate reports, build ML and BI pipelines.

In these times, it has become difficult to track information spread across business apps. Whaly integrates with third-party tools as well as popular databases to help centralize, model and build analytics and reporting for teams and customers. Graphy helps teams create, share and collaborate on dashboards.

FinTech

Banks are struggling to keep pace with the current turbulent time. Also, it is difficult for financial institutions to hire enough skilled developers due to competition with the tech sector. Low code in this condition could become the right choice — It can produce fast results with trained technicians who are not necessarily developers or programmers. This led to the appearance of a new generation of tools that facilitate the building of financial instruments without coding.

FintechOS has built a low-code platform that helps large banking and insurance companies to build new services and analytics on top of their existing infrastructure using pre-built functionality and low-code frameworks. The company allows creating onboarding flows, credit cards, loan products, savings and mortgage products. Genesis helps financial companies build applications to monitor and manage real-time risk, high-frequency traders, and other activities using pre-built blocks. Insurance is also a good space where low code tolls could be applicable. Aventus Platform is the plug-in-play solution that allows insurers to create policies and automatically give quotes by asking just a few questions. Its low-code development features allow operators to add tailored features to the platform providing functionality to process midterm adjustments, cancellations, billings, and renewals.

KYC is a very important part of customer onboarding. Danish startup HelloFlow provides a no-code platform for client onboarding and identity verification in the financial industry which integrates with ID authentication services in local markets. Primer helps merchants consolidate their payments stack and easily support new payment methods in the future. The company aims to reduce friction when adopting new payment methods as they come to market and be able to provide better insights into things like how well each checkout option is performing. Even trading strategies could be automated with lode code — Israeli Capitalise is developing a code-free trading automation tool.

Developers tools

Low-code DevOps tools become more popular due to the reason that not all technical teams can afford a professional DevOps engineer. But still, I need to handle many tasks related to code release and update. There are several players that provide a low code interface for this task, e.g. Israel based Kaholo that lets developers easily and quickly build automation workflows for CI/СD or Estonian Nevercode which does the same for mobile apps. Supabase offers developers an open-source alternative to Google’s Firebase and similar platforms — it helps to build databases and authentication tools.

One of the chief value propositions of low code tools is their promise to increase the speed with which applications can be operationalized, so developers also could be active users of low code tools. Drag-and-drop code builders Retool and Internal, for instance, allow developers to build internal apps up to 40 times faster than if they were writing the code from scratch. Forest Admin helps developers to create internal tools which aggregate different data sources, analyze, and visualize.

One of the advantages of low code is prebuilt ready-made templates that allow anyone to quickly create and automate complex workflows. Arengu helps compose advanced sign-up forms on top of your current API or identity provider. The software allows companies to create and control online forms on any device, improving user experience and optimizing the onboarding flow from that point on.

Spreadsheets

The most efficient way to store complex numerical information is through spreadsheets. MS Excel is one of the most popular tools for storing data. But nowadays we see more companies creating more complicated tools, like spreadsheets on steroids, e.g Airtable which transformed a simple spreadsheet into a no-code relational database with sophisticated prebuild functionality. Casual focused on simplifying excel and making it collaborative. Sheetgo is a cloud-based, no-code automation tool for spreadsheets that help collect, manage and share data.

We also see the next generation of tools that create web apps for convenient review of spreadsheet data. Accidentally, all the following companies are from Europe. Grid provides an easy visualization for spreadsheets and opportunities to change and track how the inputs affect the outcomes. Rows is a low-code platform that lets people analyze web apps using just a spreadsheet interface. Pigment replaces spreadsheets for more sophisticated business planning. And Layer adds collaboration and workflow features on top of the spreadsheets.

Automation

One consequence of the consumerization of enterprise software leads to the mass adoption of gazillion new tools. At the end of 2018, an average enterprise organization (2,000+ employees) used approximately 129 apps — a 68% increase over four years — while smaller organizations used in average 73 apps. A major part of these apps still requires manual inputs and data transmission between them is also a problem.

RPA — robotic process automation tools, like UiPath, have become extremely popular in recent times. They mostly help with reading forms and doing a lot of data entry. But there are many other transactions and activities within specific apps where RPA is typically not applicable. Zappier was one of the early pioneers who helped to automate workflows.

Next-generation solutions understand that if they went vertical they could develop more sophisticated tools. For example, Bryter — a no-code platform based in Berlin lets workers in departments like accounting, legal, compliance, and marketing (who do not have any special technical or developer skills) automate processes. Or a low-code platform n8n, also a Berlin-based company that has built a “fair code” workflow automation platform to let developers quickly integrate any of the apps that they use to work together automatically. Another no-code Australia-based software platform Josef enables legal professionals to automate common tasks. A low-code platform Creatio helps other companies automate business processes in the CRM space — like marketing and sales-related tasks. Leapwork’s completely visual, no-code automation platform makes it easy for business and IT users to automate repetitive processes. EasySend replace paper-based forms and helps to automate customer-facing data collections workflows

Tonkean is an orchestration platform that helps to connect different apps and services. Tonkean is an interesting mix of business process automation, no-code, and humans. The company allows different functions: ops groups — sales ops, marketing ops, etc. — to set up automated business logic across applications that can include human-in-the-loop elements. And Tonkean built its system to be IT-friendly, allowing it to support enterprise-scale customers

Some other vertical and horizontal tools

There are a lot of players that concentrate on a particular use case — a one-stop-shop with a specific industrial or functional focus. This type of tool is very convenient for customers because they could use a single out-of-the-box solution and do not spend any time on the integration and orchestration of different platforms. For example, Shopify is a leader in the eCommerce space, the platform helps many small merchants to manage their online shop operation. Sharetribe helps to test the hypothesis or run a simple marketplace. A solution like Flipdish lets restaurants easily manage their online presence. Amenitiz helps to combine the back end (PMS, Booking, Channel management, etc) and front end (Web-site) for small hotels.

There are currently plenty of third-party no-code tools which offer you prebuilt functionality. You can add logins & payments functionality on your website using MemberStack or enable real-time search and filtering via Jetboost.

Pitfalls to low-code mass adoption

Despite euphoria around low/no code, there are still a lot of pitfalls for further low code penetration. Of course, in the case of low code, expectation matters — customers usually overestimate value from LCNC. Customization is understandably limited when code is prebuilt, so low-code should not be seen as a replacement for traditional programming but rather as a method that maximizes developer productivity.

Technical debt is one of the negative pitfalls behind LCNC. When you choose easy-to-implement visual code in the short run instead of applying the best (and sometimes more difficult) solution it could lead to potential future problems. Many organizations are mired in technical debt due to short-term thinking, changing requirements, and a lack of a systematic approach. But there is a big chance that in the future LCNC tools will solve this problem.

Conclusion

While LCNC remains an emerging market space that continues to evolve, many analysts see it crossing into the mainstream as more enterprises become comfortable with the low-code instruments. As a result, there is an acceleration of penetration of low-code solutions into a broad spectrum of applications, e.g. sales, marketing, and business process management platforms, as well as solutions for data integration, data science, content management, analytics, robotic and process automation, along with many others.

Key low code trends:

Still, the big problem of low code is that it usually requires people who can debug, people who can think in abstractions, and, above all, people who know how to glue the right tools together in the right way to produce business value. But we already see new players which are widely adopted by ordinary users. So basically the trend of simplification of software and programming experience will continue.

Thanks for feedback, inputs and comments: Simon Curran, Tami Bronner, James Haliburton, Hjalmar Gislason, Andrei Akimov, Tal Daskal, Alexandre Guinefolleau, Eden Vidal, Sagi Shorrer, Levy Raiz, and Emilien Sanchez

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If you are building something in this space (or thinking about it) please let me know on Linkedin and I appreciate any feedback!

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Early-stage VC with focus on B2B software and Fintech

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Denis Kuznetsov

Denis Kuznetsov

Early-stage VC with focus on B2B software and Fintech

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