How This Founder of a No-Code App Acquired Users with Zero Marketing Budget

Adalo CEO and founder

Jeremy Blalock

Jeremy Blalock is the founder and CEO of a tool called Adalo that lets you build an app without code (both mobile and web-based).

In this interview, Jeremy shares how he came across the idea of making a product for building apps without coding, how he acquired his first users without mass marketing and why he thinks the future of no-code is bright.

We have Jeremy here who is the founder of Adalo. Jeremy, what is Adalo?

Adalo is a no-code tool that allows anyone to build a fully functional app.

Why did you decide to build Adalo?

The original idea came when I was using prototyping tools like Invision and Figma. I saw that you could build some pretty realistic apps with these tools. But the problem was that you can not build actual functioning apps with them. So I thought – what if I just build prototypes that actually worked? That’s where it all started. 

What is your background? Were you always entrepreneurial?

I’m a designer as well as a developer, I did a lot of UI and UX design in my previous job. But I definitely knew that I wanted to start a company. And I built some design tools before. For example, I built this iOS app that was basically Sketch for iOS, that was before Canva was a thing. It was super basic, didn’t do that much, but I learned a little bit about building visual design tools.

What problem does Adalo solve?

A lot of my friends are startup founders who were trying to build products. I noticed a lot of them were frustrated by the process of app development. They were hiring teams from countries with a cheaper pay rate, like India or Ukraine. So they were still spending lots of money, but didn’t have the desired results. And I saw a good opportunity there for a tool that non-technical founders can use to build apps without code.

Who are your customers now?

I think it’s about 40% freelancers, 40% startup founders, and 20% full-time employees.

A lot of Adalo users are self-starters who are a little bit technical. So they’re either designers or product managers or they have a self starter attitude and can figure things out as they go.

Basically, if you know how to use PowerPoint and Excel, Adalo comes pretty easily. But you still have to know something about computers.

When I played around with Adalo, the interface is pretty intuitive. But the concept of databases and linking things together to build an app is new to me. 

Yeah you need to know how an app functions, with database and connections in order to build apps, even with no-code tools. So right now we are working on more content to educate our users. At Adalo we have tutorials that are very specific. But we need to make more videos for a high level overview of app development.

We know you launched on Product Hunt, can you describe how that launch went?

Actually, we didn’t launch Adalo on Product Hunt until this November (2019). We have seen how valuable it could be and we knew we wanted to launch there. We didn’t do it earlier because we felt like the problem wasn’t there yet.

So how did you launch? 

What I did is I just went out and found a couple of early users who were working from the same office as I was. At the time I was working from an incubator in Berkeley.  

My first user was a business student trying to build an app that would connect students on campus with different events. I taught him in an hour how to use the basics of it, and then he just went for it. I first saw that there was something there, when one night he spent 2 hours on the product and built a few screens and a bunch of functionality. After that I was like – wow, it actually works! And then I kept playing with it and building more functionality to try to do what he needed. 

2-3 months later, I got an intro email to another software team that was building something similar. They had an Android developer on the team who started using Adalo on his own, he signed up and built a contact management app with his brother. They only spent 2-3 hours and built something really cool. So I saw that there was potential, and then I kept just building and adding functionality.

And then somewhere after that I met my two co-founders, Ben and David, who are both non-technical. They had both experienced the same problem – they have been trying to find developers to help build a project that they were working on. So they decided to build a solution for non-technical people and when I met them, they were trying to find a technical team to help them build out this product. So that’s when I decided to bring them on as partners. We’ve been working together for a little over a year now, then we finally launched our beta in 2019.

Did you pivot from your original idea? 

When I started working on this project in 2017, everybody was building design tools. So I thought that the thing that I had to do was make a Sketch integration, Sketch is an editor graphic designers all around the world use. My idea was that you could drag your Sketch files and then they would auto create all the screens for you, and then you could look up the data. For the first 6 months I was basing Adalo around that concept. 

When Ben and David joined, that’s where it changed. I already saw that people were being more effective just building things within our product. The direction we started going in was design systems. So rather than importing from Sketch, you would just use the pre-built components. What you see today is a lot of higher level components. Instead of basic stuff like rectangles and texts and circles, now it is things like buttons and lists and chats. So that was one of the biggest direction shifts. 

Ben and David also brought a little bit more perspective that was helpful for non-technical users. They told me that we should make it simpler. For example, we need to keep everything contained on the left side as opposed to having a bunch of different panels. They also they increased my font size by, like, 3 points. {laughs}

Was there any user feedback that influenced your direction with Adalo?

When I built Adalo, I was originally leaning towards a slightly more technical audience. Not developers, but people who are really deep in the design world. 

But as we got more user feedback, I learned is that UI or UX designers were actually not the ideal audience for Adalo. They weren’t motivated enough to actually use a product like this. Even though they created the design, the developer is the one that actually builds the app, so there was a disconnect there.

The people who are our ideal audience are not necessarily designers, it’s people who want to build products, self starters, makers. And that’s why we pivoted.

You mentioned you just recently launched on Product Hunt, what marketing strategies did you utilize before that?

We started with direct sales and also did marketing through MakerPad. So we got introduced to the founder of MakerPad and got featured in their directory, and that paid off super well. That is how we got a lot of really hardcore early users, from MakerPad, they were very committed to the cause of no-code apps. 

We also went to a lot of entrepreneurship events, pitch competitions and those kinds of things, both pitching our product and then also talking to everybody else who was pitching and didn’t have a team yet.

So we got our first 20 or so paying customers just by going to events, meeting people, getting introductions to our friends who have friends who are building things. Then talking to them, and getting referrals from some of our other customers. So we really didn’t do any mass marketing prior to that.

But then in October, we knew it was time to launch because we got our first couple of paid customers we had never talked to before. That was a big turning point where we were like – okay, people are actually signing up and paying without talking to us first. 

And then when we launched on Product Hunt, that doubled our signups within a month. 

I think we had about 30 paying customers at the beginning of November, and now we have about 120 so it’s been a big jump since then. We’re still trying to grow, obviously.

One of the things someone mentioned when you launched on Product Hunt is that even though you have a free plan, the price for the middle plan is quite steep [$50/month], can you explain why you decided on that pricing?

We did that for a couple of reasons. Obviously $50 is a higher price to start, but we wanted to get the people who were really hardcore and motivated to work on it. 

We also saw that we’re in a place where nobody is really doing what we’re doing at the level that we are yet. And so we had an opportunity to take advantage of that. 

And if you’re going to pay a developer $20,000 for an app, then paying $50 a month for a software that helps you build your app without code is fair, we think. 

But in the future, we may launch a cheaper plan for more limited functionality or just for getting started. You can definitely get started for free with our product though. 

Most of the people who are paying $50 are doing that because they want to publish their product to iOS and Android, or they want to publish a website with a custom domain. They’re usually getting started in building for a month or so without paying anything, just learning about the product and using it. And then after they have something that is ready to publish, they’re starting to pay. And at that point, if you’re publishing an app, you’re going to be paying the $99 Apple fee or the $30 Android fee and various other fees, so it’s more palatable to most people. 

Most people who are paying customers of Adalo are doing this if not full time then at least during a big portion of their day or week.

That must be a good customer base!

Yes, it’s been great. We also have a Slack community where now are a lot of our customers are helping each other. Anybody who uses Adalo can get access to that, and that’s how a lot of our free customers convert into paying customers as well.

That’s interesting! How did you grow that community?

We saw how forums worked with Adobe products back in the 2000s and we wanted to replicate that. The idea was to create a community where people can help each other and help Adalo grow as a result. 

We had this Slack channel for a while, but nobody was posting in the channels, they were only doing DMs. So in order to grow it, we decided to utilize the general channel. What we would do is we would post something in the channel, and then whenever somebody replied, we would respond right away.

We realized that in order for us to grow the Slack community, people have to think that that’s the fastest way to get our response. For example, you post something in the general channel, we would respond in 5 minutes. But if you DM us, we might not respond until 30 minutes or so later. Then when you post in the general channel and all the other people see you doing that, it creates a chain effect and all the other people start replying, so it becomes active. It took some time, but once that started, it definitely kicked off. 

What do you think the future is going to look like for app building?

I think a lot of it will be no-code. With websites it’s already pretty much the de facto – with tools like Webflow, Squarespace or Carrd. I think that app development is going to get there as well. It’s still early, for example, we just launched two months ago. And, obviously, there are a lot of tools in our space that haven’t even launched yet. 

I think for apps that don’t require a lot of logic or complex functionality no-code is the way to go. You can build, launch and get feedback from users in a fraction of the time. If you build the traditional way, it will take longer to get a product that you can test with real users. 

I think no-code goes really well with the Agile mentality. That way of thinking “I want to build just the bare minimum and get it out there. Test it with the users, build a little more. And then keep iterating and changing things.” That’s super compatible with how we think people should be building apps. 

Obviously, there’s still got a long way to go before you can build everything with no-code tools. But we’re getting there.

Why are you focusing on apps, whereas all the other no-code tools are focusing on web?

We also have web apps and we’re working on building out better functionality around that. 

Right now you can build a progressive web app on Adalo for free and launch it to as many users as you want.

But for iOS, if you only do web apps and not a native iOS app, some features are missing. For example, there are no notifications, no location services. So we’re waiting to see what happens with Apple. There’s a couple of lawsuits currently in process that we’re hoping will get resolved, so Apple has to open this up a little more.

What are some of the coolest apps you have seen built with Adalo?

There are a lot of apps that I think are cool. Like this food ordering app where you can order food and then show up and eat it in the restaurant. So it’s a mix of a reservation and order-ahead app.

There’s also a university that used Adalo to build an app for their students. In the app, they can check their grades and track courses they’re taking. 

I probably shouldn’t tell you the ideas because the makers will be mad at me. But there’s a lot of productivity apps and social networks. As well as personal CRM type of apps where you’re setting reminders for yourself or storing your contacts.

What is your vision of no-code?

I think that in the future no-coders will be part of the workforce. They will be working at companies doing this as a full time job. Not just as freelancers or startup founders. So building that new way of working is what we’re really focused on. 

You know what’s super exciting to me? Unlocking the creative potential of all those people who didn’t have an ability to build software before. I think a lot of people who have good or unique ideas don’t have development backgrounds. And enabling them to build a product is something we want to help with.

So somebody who wants to solve a certain problem, can use Adalo or another tool to build a solution themselves. As opposed to having to translate that to a developer or work with a technical team. Before it was very different. You needed to know somebody or have the capital to hire a developer. Now you can just build and test it.

Definitely! It’s exciting, because a lot of new startups are coming to the market, created by people who are not developers. 

Another interesting thing I have seen is that a lot of our users are not from the Bay area anymore. We have people from Europe, Australia, Middle East, and all of these other places where traditionally there aren’t a lot of developers. 

Even though our product is in English and we haven’t translated it yet, our users all around the world. So our user base is not primarily from these tech hubs or cities where technology has typically been a thing. We still have some users from the Bay area of course. But it’s not focused there anymore, like the previous tech movements were.

What are the things that are on your roadmap? Are you working on some new features or maybe a new startup?

Definitely not launching another startup! {laughs} We’re very focused on Adalo at the moment. Right now we have a team of 7 people. We are trying to build out the functionality and make the product work as well as it can. 

As we got more users, we also got more feedback from them about the things they need. Things like internationalization or support for different fonts, functionality like maps and videos.

We have a page where users can vote on the features we’re going to build next. So really anyone can contribute to the discussion. But really it’s just about building out Adalo more and more.

Thank you for being here! Where can our readers learn more about you and Adalo?

Tools and resources mentioned:

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