Emmanuel Straschnov is founder of Bubble. Bubble is a visual programming software that makes programming as easy as pointing and clicking. Bubble counts 200,000 users today; people have used it to start companies without technical resources, and got into YCombinator, 500 Startups or raised multi-million dollar rounds. Born in Paris, Emmanuel studied computer science and mathematics at Ecole Polytechnique and received his MBA from Harvard Business School. Prior to starting Bubble, he was a management consultant in China. He’s now based in New York.
It’s a fairly indirect story. It took me some time to get back into technology. As a kid, I spent hundreds of hours coding apps for MS-DOS and Windows, but after college I decided to get into business and moved to China to work as a consultant. After three years in Shanghai, I applied to business school and got admitted to Harvard. While in business school, I had to do a summer internship, and decided to go to luxury and fashion, and interned at Prada in New York. While I had a great time there, I felt that for a permanent job after graduation, something more entrepreneurial would be more fun than a big fashion house. When you’re not a designer, an entrepreneurial endeavor in luxury is going to be tech-driven. As I was thinking about ideas in this space, I realized quickly I was much more into the technical space than the luxury one, and decided to look for opportunities in software.
That’s when a mutual friend introduced me to Josh Haas, who was looking for a cofounder for his venture. It wasn’t called Bubble at the time, but the idea was to enable anyone to build sophisticated applications without having to write code. We met in New York and decided to partner on our first coffee! I had found a job at a funded started and the offer was expiring the following day of our coffee, so we had to move fast! 6 years later, we’re still working on Bubble!
I am obviously biased as this is related to what I’m working on, but I see the democratization of software creation as one of the key forces in the tech space right now, which has implications on how people work. In other words, software creation is going to be less and less for engineers and people with a BS in Computer Science, but more and more a skill like using Microsoft Office.
To be honest, it’s not a new trend; everything in in software over the last 30 years has gone from being for specialists to being for everyone. That’s the key driving force behind MacIntosh or Windows, when they replaced the command line to use computers. Strangely enough, this trend has been forgotten over the last 10 years, and today it’s all about learning how to use the command line, writing code, etc. We think this is an accident in history and that the long term trend will emerge again. That’s our goal with Bubble.
This trend leads to an exceptional opportunity. If everyone can create technology, god knows what innovation will bring in the coming decades. This will lead to much more people being able to start and run tech companies, startups, individuals being able to develop products that actually fits their needs, as they don’t need to rely on a few people to build them, or even worse, outsourcing. 2018 has shown some defiance toward Silicon Valley and engineers, that’s why we think it’s critical to empower more people to build the tools they use, so that it’s just a small fraction of the population that creates the tools that we all use.
Down the line, what this will change is how companies work. Instead of relying on a IT department to build what you need, business teams will be able to develop their own tools. And this is critical: as time goes, it’s getting harder and harder for non-tech larger organizations to hire good web engineers. That led to some issues like healthcare.gov when they first released their site. The solution here is not to teach everyone how to code, this is tedious, but instead to reinvent how software is built, and make it easy and accessible.
Josh came up with this idea through a combination of two main factors:
• He was in New York, and everyone, literally everyone, was asking him to be their tech co-founder to start a business.
• He had used SharePoint while at a corporate job and created something that non-technical employees could use to build custom software. Watching them build things was very rewarding to him, and he felt he could do this at a larger scale for general-purpose programming.
We were fairly confident from the beginning that if we had the right product that actually made it easy to program without code, it would sell! So we didn’t really try to validate the idea or the concept, but instead started building the product right away.
Our goal is to make of Bubble the next programming standard. Our vision is that everyone should be able to build software, and engineers, the ones that code, will work on extending the system via plugins. That’s a much more efficient way to do things, as we’re not bottlenecked anymore by the shortage of people able to write good code, and these people will actually focus on new, interesting problems, and not reinvent the wheel as they often do today.
What that means for us is keep pushing on our current market, small businesses, startups and education, and then go for larger corporations. This is the focus for 2018 and 2019.
I would say three things made us successful in the early days and got us this far, while a lot of attempts to solve the problem we’re tacking have stopped quite early in the process.
First, we decided from the very beginning to bootstrap the company. Bootstrapping enabled us to focus on the product and the users and nurture the community without having to worry too much about benchmarks and KPIs at first. In fact, we were worrying about different KPIs, like how advanced apps built on Bubble were (which is hard to quantify), or how happy our few users were. Not having the time pressure was very valuable.
The second thing we did was to decide to empower users to build exactly what they needed (of course, without typing code). In other words, we kept adding features that were needed by our users, instead of only focusing on easing the onboarding flow at first. We did that after. Our goal was to show you could build anything with Bubble, and I think it was necessary to do it that way. Very practically, that meant no template, but instead more freedom.
Lastly, we decided very early on to focus on non-technical people, instead of developers. At first, most people saw this choice as a mistake, but it turned out that technical people don’t see the empowerment with a tool like Bubble, they start by seeing the limitations, while non-technical people are amazed about what they can do, even if it’s limited at first. That’s how we grew an engaged and loyal user base (check our forum!). Today, things are different, as the platform is ready for developers (you can use the API, code plugins, etc.).
The toughest thing we had to handle at first was the pressure from a few big users that were relying on the platform to run their businesses. They had raised millions, and had a lot of pressure from their investors. And to be honest, at this time, our platform wasn’t as stable as it is today. So making sure things were fine for them was an incredible amount of work, and sometime quite scary.
What did we learn? I guess how to handle the pressure that comes with the business we’re in. While the platform is now stable, the pressure is even bigger.
The ideal experience is a self-served experience. Our users come to the platform, the lessons and documentations are engaging enough so that they can learn the tool themselves. If they have questions, they ask for help on the forum or reach out to us, but that should be for specific things, hopefully they feel empowered enough with the platform.
Once we’re there (we’re close but still have some work to do), we’ll have truly opened web development to everyone!
My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: while you should immediately go to market to get early users, wait as long as you can before promoting yourself and trying to be visible. Most people do this too soon. And don’t try to find the perfect solution to get started, there are plenty of tools out there to help you get early feedback from the market and keep iterating!