Adventures in building a no-code SaaS app — Part 1

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

I have a business idea for a new SaaS application, but I’m a busy mom with a full time job as a Senior Product Manager at a well-known Silicon Valley SaaS company. While I have a tech background, I haven’t coded full-time in years. Rather than dusting off my Rails environment and cursing at hosting providers because I’ve always been terrible at getting anything physically into production, I decided to see what this no-code bandwagon is all about. TL;DR: Good Software Engineers won’t be out of a job any time soon.

The basic problem

For my simple SaaS app, I want users to be able to authenticate and build an inventory of supplies that they own. Once that inventory is built, they’ll get project ideas using the supplies in their stash. If you’re familiar with ravelry.com, I’d like to do something very similar but in a very different domain.

Having no experience with No-code platforms other than automating a few work things with Zapier and Workato, I decided to start this application the same way I would if I were building from scratch — a basic login experience. Unfortunately, things got hairy pretty darn quickly.

My first attempt — Claris FileMaker

I began with Claris FileMaker because of its glowing review from the first Medium article in Google’s “How to get started with No-Code” search results. I was drawn to the tool because of its longevity, built in databases, 45-day free trial and affordable hosting options if I ever get anything up and running.

The Claris FileMaker Pro start up screen

Unlike all of the other tools I tried, Claris FileMaker is an application you install on your local machine. When you boot it up, you’re prompted with the one-screen wizard above to get started. I chose “Inventory” because I thought it would fit my needs of individual users tracking the supplies they own.

Claris FileMaker’s Inventory Template

This default template fired up a robustly populated schema for a pretty typical inventory management system. Unfortunately, I didn’t need any of these kinds of details for the very simple inventory I was trying to build, and Claris provides no additional walk through or tutorial to get you started building within it. I’d watched literally 3 minutes of a tutorial before deciding to attempt using this tool, so I was able to find where to manage my database and start setting up Supply Types and Supplies tables. Supplies belong to Users, and this is where my journey with FileMaker ended.

FileMaker’s Manage Security Screen

FileMaker doesn’t seem to have any default way to allow users of the application you’re building to sign up and sign in. Individual users must be added directly via the Manage Security screen and their details are saved as a part of the File you’re creating that is your application. While FileMaker does allow you connect to external authentication servers, this was more than I wanted to try and figure out how to configure, and after not finding anything that did what I wanted in a cursory glance of FileMaker’s marketplace, I moved on.

Next Up: AirTable + WebFlows

Next, I stumbled upon this article on how to create a No-Code Job Board with AirTable and Webflows. I was intrigued because my first impression was that a job board would likely want to save a user profile, and possibly have different roles for an employer and a job seeker. I dramatically overestimated the functionality of the simple job board the tutorial created. Having not seen any mention of log in during the tutorial, I nonetheless gave AirTable and webflow a shot.

AirTable, a web app database that looks and feels like a spreadsheet, has a lovely onboarding experience and a free trial, so there was no risk to get started other than the inevitable floodgates of marketing material I’m sure to get soon. Like FileMaker, AirTable had a predefined set of templates to choose from to get you started. All of them were process-oriented, not fit for developing a new product against. And again, when I attempted to set up a user database, I quickly was concerned about the ability for my users to log in securely. There was no UUID or password field types as options, so I quickly gave up on trying to store any kind of user information within the system.

Having only spent about 30 minutes on AirTable, I decided to fire up webflow to see how far I could get with it. All of webflow’s marketing material was clearly geared toward a Marketing or Designer persona, and once inside the application it was pretty clear that Product Development was not going to be the system’s strong suit. Of all the tools I demoed, WebFlows had the best tutorial by far. The content was tailored to my comfort level with CSS, and gave a great walkthrough of how to set styles and responsive breakpoints. Despite picking a template that had a “Sign in” and “Sign up” button though, there was again no customer authentication functionality. If I were willing to drop the authentication requirement from the first version of my application, I’d consider coming back to this tool. The feature set looked robust and the UI intuitive, but it’s for building marketing sites, not SaaS products, and long term any prototype built on it is going to be completely wasted effort for my use case.

My Next Steps — Frontegg and Bubble

Having struck out twice but learning a lot more about what I need to look for in a no-code platform, I went back into research mode. The article Low-Code Solutions for Building Basic SaaS Features specifically called out the problem of user authentication. Yay! A compatriot! Oyetoke’s recommendation for low-code authentication was Frontegg. After reading through the documentation, it does look incredibly powerful and promising. Unfortunately, it only has well-documented integrations for React, Vue and Angular. I didn’t want to set up any servers myself, and was quite certain it wouldn’t just play nicely with either of the other tools I found, so I kept looking.

Last but not least, I found Bubble.io and its community-created Multi Provider SSO Login Plugin. I’m pretty stoked about what I’m seeing in the documentation, and think I may have found a winner. I experimented with Bubble.io next and wrote about it in Part 2 of my No Code series: Authenticating a SaaS App with Bubble.io.

Do you have other suggestions for getting started with no-code? Did I miss anything important in my cursory reviews of these first few tools? Hit me up in the comments. I’d love to learn more.

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Abby Allen

Abby Allen

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Abby Allen is a user-focused product manager, engineer, entrepreneur, and mom based in Minneapolis, MN.