You don’t have to be a techie to create an app, here’s how to do it

Jackson Lefebvre is not a software engineer or computer programmer, nor can he develop websites.

Yet he is the CEO and founder of Parkpoolr, a reservation and payment processing app for parking at commercial properties.

His app, which he started four years ago as a junior at the University of Minnesota, manages parking on properties in 18 states. More than 100,000 cars have been parked using the platform since it was launched, Lefebvre said.

Anyone can take their app idea and turn it into a business. Advances in technology and open source software systems designed specifically to be accessible to the public have allowed anyone with a creative mind to channel it into an app. And at a fraction of what it cost a decade ago.

“I still don’t really know what I’m doing,” Lefebvre said. “I’m just tripping over it, but every day I’m working on it and talking to people. Regardless, I feel like I’m heading in the right direction just by talking to clients.”

Here are some steps to follow to help you develop your app:

Time to brainstorm

First, you have to actually ideate. The easiest way is to dig deeper into a passion, hobby, or problem you know about, said Zack Steven, chief executive officer of Cloudburst, a custom software developer in Minneapolis.

Lefebvre said his idea was born during the construction of Allianz Field, Minnesota United FC’s St. Paul soccer stadium. He read an article about the lack of designated parking for fans. Using Google Maps, he noticed a large number of businesses and restaurants around the stadium.

“I thought, ‘Well, maybe these people could sell their private parking spaces to these stadium-going fans,'” he said.

Once you have an idea, talk to the people who are most likely to use the app. Lefebvre went to neighborhoods in St. Paul to see how residents and business owners were feeling.

“See if it’s beneficial to them,” she said. “I was in the field, knocking on doors.”

Find your software partner

Twin Cities entrepreneur Charles Tchuinkwa founded Postpal, a peer-to-peer app where people who need to ship items long distances can search for travelers who are already heading that way and avoid shipping costs. shipping. Lui designed the first iteration of the lui app in 2015 using Wix, a system for easily building websites without coding.

If you’re somewhat comfortable with computers but no savvy coding, there are plenty of useful programs to meet you halfway. You won’t get as much customization, since these programs sort of act like templates to fill out, but your app will still have a polished, professional look.

For something more aesthetically pleasing, Tchuinkwa switched to the no-code resource FlutterFlow. No-code refers to an approach to building apps without having to create custom software code.

Kris Eul and her business partners used, another no-code platform, to build Kinetic, a social networking app for connecting professionals with similar interests. They started building on Bubble in April 2020. In June, they launched the MVP version.

“We were capable of [launch] in days and weeks, instead of months and quarters,” Eul said.

Eul used Kinetic’s design to help create the Minnesota Exchange, a free online platform launched in partnership with the state’s Department of Economic Development for Minnesotans starting businesses looking to connect with experts, mentors and investors.

“[Bubble] has done a great job of providing different widgets and plugins that allow us to add features and functionality,” said Eul.

After the murder of George Floyd, Steven used Glide to build a map of murals honoring Floyd.

“He didn’t have a business model and he wasn’t bad,” Steven said. “[Glide] it was a great solution because it had the level of functionality I needed.”

Erin Wagner used Appgyver and Xano to build her own app, Gomigo, a scheduling and logistics app for hanging out with friends.

Other Resources: WebFlow, a provider of free website templates, and Airtable, for people who want to customize databases and data items.

There are online training camps where people can learn how to use no-code platforms or communities that teach such skills, like MakerPad. There are also free video tutorials on YouTube.

Costs for those no-code platforms range from $45 to $130 a month, the founders said. Don’t just pick the cheapest platform, Steven said. Do your research to find out which one works for you.

Pair up with a technician

For those who can’t quite understand the drag-and-drop process of app design on no-code platforms, asking a tech-savvy friend or family member for help is better than paying thousands of dollars to a third-party software company for it. create a custom app, entrepreneurs said.

Lefebvre built the first version of Parkpoolr with a friend. It wasn’t visually appealing, but it worked.

Before graduating from college, Lefebvre entered the Minnesota Cup, a statewide innovation competition organized by the university, and won the $30,000 student division prize. He used part of this to hire a software development agency, a company formed by some of his friends and other recent graduates.

“I was lucky,” Lefebvre said. “I’ve heard horror stories about working with software development agencies overseas. And if you were looking to work with a US-based software development agency, it would cost you at least six figures.”

At Cloudburst, consultants walk non-technical founders through the process of launching an app, from identifying the customer base they want to serve to the real-world problems the app will solve.

Be wary

There is genuine concern among non-technical founders that development agencies or contractors will take advantage of this. Some may take your money to build your app without telling you they don’t think it will be successful. Others may over-promise their technical skills, since you don’t have the experience to test them.

Wagner lived through startup fatigue for about five years. With his previous three startup ventures, two of them didn’t get very far and one was eventually sold. But as the non-technical founder of all three projects, she couldn’t interpret what the more technical co-founder was saying about her progress.

For one of the companies that never launched, it remained in the dark for almost two years.

“I was so naïve about the technical process, I didn’t even know it was a red flag that he still doesn’t have something to show us,” he said.

Those years of feeling at the mercy of someone else’s technical ability or incapacity made Wagner determined not to have a technical co-founder anymore.

Wagner started building Gomigo from scratch in November 2020. She spent seven months teaching herself how to design apps and hopes to launch Gomigo this year.

A constant process

While being in control of the app development process is valuable for a non-technical founder, it is time consuming. To learn the code-free system, Wagner recommends setting aside an entire summer or blocking out the evening hours.

Even no-code platforms have their limitations. As his business progressed, Tchuinkwa moved on to building a custom app on top of Flutter, a more advanced version of FlutterFlow, to improve the visuals. For the operation of the Postpal system and database, he switched to Google Firebase.

If a person is exploiting a third-party source or data, there is also vulnerability in the hypothetical moment, if the no-code platform were to change or shut down. As a precaution, Steven advised keeping some budget to react to upgrades, repairs, and other adjustments.

Play to your strengths

Business minded people should stick to what they know when it comes to their apps, like sales or marketing. Use it to gain access to app stores and attract users.

Apple has a portal for submitting apps for listing on the App Store, and Google offers instructions on how to upload apps to Google Play.

Tchuinkwa launched the beta version of its app in January, initially as a marketing tool to enroll users. Early feedback convinced him to add more features and functionality.

If he had to control both the operations and technology sides of the company, he would have been overwhelmed.

“I recognized that there are a lot of operational activities that need to take place,” he said, “and need to be done effectively outside of the development side.”

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