Small business owners with limited IT skills are using drag-and-drop visual programming approaches to bridge the tech divide and build custom solutions that can keep pace with their growth. Meet the vanguard of small-biz citizen developers who are blazing a trail.
Remember the days when your tech solutions were Microsoft Office, email, and a calendar app? Technology has advanced massively in the last few years, fueled by the transition from desktop to cloud and SaaS and accelerated by mobile devices. These changes are subtle but significant. Maybe you bought an Alexa. Maybe you started storing files in the cloud. Maybe your office switched from a shared network drive to Google Drive. However mundane they felt, these small changes are symptoms of massive technological shifts. And they’re not slowing down; every year we’re all confronted with a new tool or platform that promises to improve collaboration and boost productivity.
This patchwork quilt of IT solutions is the new normal for many small businesses. They absorb the costs for these subscriptions and cobble together workflows that address their teams’ needs. Certainly, custom IT solutions could solve their specific workflow challenges, but most companies don’t have an in-house IT team that can develop custom software—and paying for external consultants is costly. What if you, a non-technical person, could bridge the gap between the demand for software and the ability to build it? What if you could build your own software to address your team’s unique needs?
Forget about writing code—you already have the necessary skills
With the advent of visual programming, you have the capability to rebuild, restructure, and reorganize all of those processes yourself. Visual programming tools don’t fill your screen with lines of code text. Instead, the user interface is, as the name suggests, visual. Even if you don’t realize it, you’ve probably done some visual programming before; it consists of dragging and dropping graphics, just like you do in many of your favorite consumer websites, social media tools, and apps. Small-business owners with zero IT training can use visual programming platforms to address specific needs or even run their entire business.
Take for example the situation of Michael Callahan, whose CPA business is based in Winchester, Virginia. In 2013, Michael Callahan and Associates consisted of three employees managing 12 clients. Like most CPAs, Michael was using Microsoft Office to run his firm because most tasks could be accomplished with a mix of Word, Excel, and Outlook. For the rest, Callahan used OneNote. But the firm was growing fast, and it became clear that this approach was running out of runway.
“When you have just three employees, OneNote is a great way to capture ideas and organize different information for new business, clients, employees, and so on. But as our client base grew from 12 to 75, it became clear that this approach was no way to run a business,” Callahan explains.
The hunt was on for a better approach that could expand as the firm grew. Certainly, there are numerous custom IT solutions available for accounting firms, but Callahan found that the inexpensive applications just didn’t meet all his needs and would require additional point solutions. Surprisingly, even the expensive packages still fell short.
Instead, Callahan investigated a custom approach that would address all his requirements and would not require IT skills to implement. He’d heard about visual programming solutions for people with minimal IT skills and took a look at one platform that was optimized for the needs of small businesses.
“It did seem daunting at the beginning, but I figured that investing my own time would pay off as I’d save money on IT staffing,” recalls Callahan. “I pretty much just jumped in and started experimenting. What made it easy is the platform provided easy on-ramps from our existing spreadsheets and offered a range of add-on modules and templates designed for specific departments.”
Callahan started by automating lead management, taking advantage of the built-in forms and workflow capabilities that automate sending follow-up letters and emails. From there, he added business processes such as contract approvals and digital signatures.
“The best thing about visual programming is that I can build on my current skills to expand the range of capabilities of the platform. Just by connecting different modules, I was able to automate other tasks such as staffing, employee onboarding and training, timekeeping, and performance management,” says Callahan. “In many ways, this platform has become our home-grown ERP.”
Visual programming platforms can solve complex workflow challenges
Another example of how business applications built with visual programming solved a tricky workflow problem is McCormick Distilling Company, located in historic Weston, Missouri. Betsey Thurlo, Network Administrator, wanted to accelerate a classic HR workflow.
“When onboarding new employees, HR was often too swamped to email us to let us know a new employee was starting and what equipment or setup they would need,” she said. “This covered everything from securing new computers to granting system access. There was so much back-and-forth communication, and the vast majority of it was offline. Employee onboarding paperwork even had to be filed away once all the boxes were checked. So not only was HR too busy, but the process simply wasn’t efficient to begin with.”
Thurlo was able to create a simple on-boarding app that lists all the new hire’s needs, training components, and necessary safety equipment. These are all captured, then printed and filed in employee records. By organizing several steps into one portal, McCormick not only streamlined the onboarding process, but improved interdepartmental communication as well.
With that win under her belt, she applied the same approach to expense reports. Using the same visual application builder, the process is now simplified, allowing bills and receipts to be attached to the report, and with one click, the manager approves it and sends it off to accounting—no more running around looking for the right person to sign off.
How to get started building your own solutions
1. For your first app, tackle a simple problem with definable outcomes
What problems do you want to solve with a custom solution? Initially, focus on a small, contained problem you can solve within a couple of weeks. Maybe there’s a spreadsheet process that’s been annoying you that you want to improve. Maybe there’s a simple team dashboard you’ve been wanting to build. Starting with small ideas will help you build confidence as you work your way towards solving bigger problems.
2. Make the most of the free trials and build your prototype
Next, it’s time to start prototyping. Visual programming tools are great for rapid prototyping because they let you experiment freely without fear of breaking anything. You can quickly assemble a data model, interface, dashboards, and custom processes—all with drag and drop. Often, you can sign up for a free trial and start playing around.
3. Leverage product support and user communities
To support you, there are tons of online resources to help you learn such as training videos, webinars, an online community, and user conferences where you can learn new skills. Be sure to watch those training videos as you build out your first app—they’ll be a huge help. And when you have questions, tap the vendor community for answers. One of the most important tools for a budding visual programmer is connecting with birds of a feather—these online communities are full of companies, non-profits, and individuals who have built amazing applications and love to share how they did it. Don’t hesitate to get in the mix.
Above all, go easy on yourself and enjoy the process. Initially, developing a custom application is a process of trial and error. Build a prototype, show it to your team, and then improve it bit by bit. Making these tools the way you want takes time—but the best way to start is simply to start, and tweak along the way. And pretty soon? You’ll be saying “I’m a citizen developer now.” Just like the rest of us.
Dave Landa is the CEO of Kintone Corporation, which provides a teamwork platform with a visual application builder that empowers individuals, teams and organizations to effectively manage their data and workflow for better collaboration. Since 2004, Dave has been on the forefront of the cloud revolution, driving strategic business development on the executive teams of leading SaaS application providers.