📱If it’s thinkable, it’s Thunkable - Turning a research project into the largest no-code app dev platform

In a way, Thunkable was built from the ground up, without having to build it from the ground up. As time progressed, they were able to fix some of the major issues that existed.
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Priyanshu Anand
April 12, 2022

What the fork?

Two MITians walk into a bar.

“Why are we here?” said the first one.

“I don’t know, the writer doesn’t seem to know what MITians do when they’re not studying.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t seem to know how we talk either.”

“This is a dead joke, really.”

The second one, breaking the fourth wall, “Man, just start with the case study at this point.”

Unlike the seemingly unnecessary, bizarre, awkward beginning to this case study, the start of Thunkable was anything but. The only relevant thing we’ve covered upto this point are the two MITians - Arun Saigal (CEO) and WeiHua Li (CTO). While at MIT, both of them were involved with the MIT App Inventor project which is essentially an intuitive, visual programming drag-and-drop environment that allows users to build fully functional apps in less than 30 minutes.

Founders WeiHua Li (Left) and Arun Saigal (Right)

Today, the MIT App Inventor has over 1.2 million monthly active users (MAU), 4.9 million registered users, and over 67.8 million apps built on the platform. At the time when the MIT duo started working on the App Inventor, the primary goal was to target the education sector to teach enthusiasts how to code by reducing the strain of programming. But the universe had other plans - in the process of alleviating the burden of coding, the team was essentially building a no-code platform. What started as an educational tool eventually started making noise outside of the education sector.

Well, if the platform was getting so successful, why did they fork out into creating a commercial business model around it?

Before they could even realize how vastly the platform was being utilized, the small team of MIT grads was dealing with thousands of feature requests from users. When the product’s growth reached almost 300,000 MAUs, the team stopped to take a look at the user base and understand what they were doing with the platform. After an extensive run of surveys, they found that most of the users were not educators, but in fact, a wide range of people from individuals who were using it for solving household problems to enterprises who were leveraging the platform for commercial use.

We saw that there was this huge range and actually, a majority of our users were not in education. And our users started sending us ‘hey can you build this?’, ‘can you build that?’ — obvious things, monetization or the ability to add in Google Maps or something like that. And these weren’t features that were ever within the scope of App Inventor. - Arun Saigal (source - TechCrunch)

A realization struck - what started as an educational platform now has the scope of becoming a full-fledged business model. And given the extensive use of the platform, the demand was obvious. But what was to become of it wasn’t under the scope of a bunch of MIT grads running it from a computer lab. App Inventor had evolved into the largest app creation tool for non-programmers to ever exist.

0 to 1 was done.

Going from 1 to 💯

The no-code/low-code revolution has been dominating the tech space for the better part of the last decade. 26% of the executives named no-code platforms as the most important automation investment which has almost doubled since the pandemic. Gartner predicts that 65% of all app activity will be from no-code development and 75% of large enterprises will be using at least 4 no-code or at least low-code development tools by 2024.

Thunkable was established keeping in mind two things: 1) a no-code drag-and-drop product that expands the growth probability to unimaginable heights by making it easier to use specifically for the non-technical crowd (which is the majority) and 2) anyone with a computer should be able to build an app while sitting at home despite not having even the slightest of prior knowledge on building anything whatsoever.

They got into the YCombinator 2016 Winter Batch and didn’t have any trouble doing it because, within a month of officially launching Thunkable as a free platform, they had over 50,000 sign-ups. That was enough for the founders to prove to the investors how potent their idea of building a no-code web development platform really was. In March 2016, they raised their first funding from YC for merely $120,000 which, as the founder pointed out, was enough to last them for a while.

Within a year of being an independent name, Thunkable was more than just the ‘new’ App Inventor. One of the major challenges they had to resolve was moving away from their parent open source project at MIT. In a way, Thunkable was built from the ground up, without having to build it from the ground up. As time progressed, they were able to fix some of the major issues that existed in the original project, add more sample apps and templates; support for Google Maps, and Androids material design features. Support for iOS was also in the works and although they were able to create a prototype that year, the feature wasn’t launched officially until 2018.

Fast-forward to April of this year, Thunkable raised their Series B for $30 million of funding in a round led by Owl Ventures. This funding marks the beginning of a new era for Thunkable and the team, but more on that later.

How to make a no-code product 101

There were two sides to Thunkable’s platform - one side of the spectrum caters to the completely non-developer audience, and the other side incorporates advanced developers who want to take the easy route and build something faster.

The designer part of the tool - is basically the face of Thunkable and features the primary drag-and-drop interface with app samples and templates for beginners and even kids to use. It’s as simple as saying that you need a button, or a form, or even simple graphics, and the product just does it for you.

Thunkable app builder - source

The more ‘back-end’ part of the tool - runs on something known as the blocks programming language. Fun fact: This language was invented/developed by the founders and their team back at MIT. The basic premise of the language is that each block represents an element or a design that is essentially more of a logical ‘builder’ than is a programming language.

“Then the second part is the blocks language. This is a programming language that our group invented — it is a programming language in the sense that if you click a button you have to drag the ‘when button.click’ block. So there is a programming language there but at the end of the day it’s meant to be for people who don’t necessarily know how to code but have a sense of logic,” says WeiHua Li, CTO at Thunkable.

The blocks are also grammar error-free so even if you make typos, all you really have to do is piece the blocks together into one. If the block fits, it compiles, and it builds. Really that’s all there is to it. Back when the product came out, they were also rocking a side-by-side visual builder which allows you to view your app as you’re building it. Although this is standard practice today, back then, it was kind of a big deal.

The logical app builder is based on the block programming language -  source

Additionally, the platform is native, which means that users can work on web apps in their local environment even when they’re offline. Integrations with some of the most widely used public products like Airtable, Firebase, Webflow, APIs, Figma, and more. Handcrafted plans across various sectors including start-ups, education, IoT, and even agencies, among others.

And the platform has, more than once, proven to be a light in the darkness for a lot of people. One such story is about a guy in Yemen who built an app that helps hundreds of thousands of people better use solar energy to power their daily lives. The app uses the phone’s gyroscope to calculate the tilt of the panel and help adjust it to get the maximum sunlight. The essence of building impactful products eventually is all about people. If you’re able to influence a community and aid in their humane efforts to solve social problems, then that’s all you need and all you’ll ever need.

Today, Thunkable has surpassed 3 million users and has over 6 million apps developed on the platform.

The Thunkable Community

Community plays an integral role in Thunkable’s success. Going from a research project to a  startup undoubtedly raised the probability of broad-scale commercial success, and at the core of it lies the power community. When it started, a large group of people are already dedicated users of App Inventor, and reiterating that into a robust, tangible business model, gave Thunkable a starting point. Thunkable became everything that its predecessor was not, so that became an incentive for enterprises and businesses to switch to this new and improved platform.

The secret behind such a small project handling a 4 million user base for App Inventor was, you guessed it, community. Very early on the Thunkable duo had figured out how to leverage communities for all the right things. Lesson learned - when you don’t have a hefty team of customer support professionals, build a community and let people help each other. This went on to solidify itself into the primary reason for people to consider Thunkable. And with no more than $120,000 in funds, they didn’t have the resources to build a thriving team. So, what did they do? Scale community.

Community.thunkable.com

Thunkable’s primary community is a platform hosted on Discourse with over 1 million members. This community is a goldmine for app builders where they can find the most wonderful group of ‘Thunkers’ dedicated to building apps, sharing them, and helping others do the same. The forum empowers people to build the apps they’ve always wanted to build. It’s always buzzing with discussions, events, stories, and so much more.

Thunkable’s community on Discourse

The forum is further divided into categories, each representing a part of the community while keeping the platform systematic and easy to navigate even for new users.

  • Community Guidelines Category - The fundamentals of the community. Apart from just the guidelines, this category also consists of important FAQs, SAQs (Seasonally Asked Questions), how to write posts, maintain your profile, understand the community, and even a post that shows keyboard shortcuts to navigate the community better. Isn’t that something?

A post highlighting the navigation shortcuts

  • Announcements Category - As the name suggests, this category is particular to updates from Thunkable about features, upcoming events, bug fixes, and more.
  • Thunkable Discuss Category - This is a place for the community to ask questions, support with answers, or just have discussions in general.
  • Thunkable Tutorials Category - A category that is specific to video and written tutorials shared by Thunkable or by the community.
  • Creator Lounge Category - A place for sharing tips and tricks for building better apps. This category is neither restricted to discussions only on building apps nor Thunkable. If you’re a creator of any sort - a photoshop master, a video editing wizard, or even a photographer - you can share it here.

A community member organizing a virtual meetup event

  • Share your Projects Category - This is the place for the community to share their work for the world to see and maybe learn from it. The core premise of this category was to enable first-time developers and non-coders to be able to build better apps by learning from how others have done it. And if you’re projects are worth turning heads, the Thunkable team shares those stories as blogs for a wider audience.
  • Made with Thunkable Category - Not to be confused with the previous category, this one is where you share your final product. Give Google Play or App Store links for people to explore and experience the completion of your work.
  • Off-Topic Category - Anything really, and it needn’t be specific to Thunkable either. But within the confines of the community’s guidelines.
  • Feedback Category - If your app is a work-in-progress, this is the place to share it and get newer perspectives.
  • Teachers’ Lounge Category - This is truly something unique that you don’t quite get to see very often. This category is dedicated to the teachers who use Thunkable in the classroom and can share here the lesson plans, lecture resources, and anything that serves an educational purpose.
  • ClassicExtensions Category - Extension is a feature that allows users to add additional functionality to their apps beyond what is already build-in. This place is for sharing some of the coolest extensions the users have used in their apps.

Thunkable X

The app builder is called Thunkable X. It’s a place where you can design, develop, and deploy native apps without writing a single line of code! This platform features a Public Gallery of projects completed and deployed on the platform. You can view the work of all the creators on the platform and how they’ve done what they’ve done. Highly recommended for a dose of inspiration.

Not only can you interact with the apps, but also create a duplicate project and play around with it, add your own creativity, or just learn how the platform works.

Features projects by the community

Thunkable also features its own templates that can be used directly instead of creating a new project. Use these templates as a launchpad.

Here’s an example of a Book review app and a guide to working with the template 👇

Webinars

Occasional Webinars are hosted featuring success stories of startups, businesses, and even individuals who not only talk about app-building but the fundamentals of everything that come with it.

The most recent webinar featured Katherine Nameth, who is the Co-Founder of a startup called Wave, which is trying to make emotional healthcare services accessible to the masses.

A webinar being announced in the community.

Thunkable Academy

With the launch of Thunkable Academy, the app-building platform has put together in-depth tutorials, organized concepts, and examples to use as a guiding light. Most of the tutorials contain project links to test out the real deal instead of just reading through. And then there’s also a community discussion for some of these projects where you can take part, ask questions, and see what people are saying about it.

Thunkable Academy

Thunkable Documentation

End-to-end documentation including necessary API integration docs to help app-builders define a blueprint to start or expand on their journey.

Thunkable app documentation

Weekend Design Challenge (WDC)

WDCs are announced every Friday for the community to work on and share. Fun and trendy challenges could be about creating anything from a music player app to a Wordle app!

Thunkable’s Community is a Nutshell

There’s so much more that goes on within the community. Like the Thunkable App of the Year awards which honors the best apps created that year to support creators in their work. Or whether it’s about supporting the communities in their missions to move mountains - like their support for Technovation Girls, an organization that trains, helps, and equips young women with the recipes to become tech leaders and entrepreneurs. All of the proceeds from personal licenses sold on November 30th were given in support of this cause.

Cassandra Tang's post encouraging people to share their projects for App of the Year

Whether it’s AMA’s, or Hackathons, or just any other friendly community events - Thunkable encourages everyone alike to the idea of creating something from scratch, without having to worry about where to start. It reminds us that with the power of no-code, nothing is unattainable.

The future of no-code app development

When announcing their $30 million Series B, Thunkable also took to their blog to talk about where are they headed. With an ambitious plan to make app development easier and more accessible to everyone, their goal is to make Thunkable a household name. Not because they see a unicorn status in the distance, but because they want the world to know that the good ideas aren’t meant to be tucked away after midnight but instead are supposed to be the thing that keeps you up at night, working. They want to make you realize that the only thing keeping you from making the world a better place is just the decision, and not the coding skills.

With the funding they are going to continue investing, along with time and efforts, in three primary areas of focus:

  • Team - The people who make Thunkable what it is.
  • Capabilities - Expanding the horizons of Thunkable’s reach as a product. Better features, more dynamic capabilities, and easier development.
  • Community - The Thunkable Academy is a brand new addition to a cohort of Thinkable’s offerings. They aim to construct this into a certification and training program, enabling app builders to professionally learn and grow with Thunkable. Another great addition to the Community is the Thunkable Freelancer Network -  the budding talent in the community of highly capable developers deserves to be shared with the World. With this program, organizations around the world can hire a freelance Thunkable developer to assist in their project.

The community continues to be a big part of Thunkable’s growth and as they pioneer no-code mobile app development into the future, the community-led growth keeps touching never seen before heights.

If it’s thinkable, it’s Thunkable 🚀


To Summarize

What the fork?

  • A pointless joke.
  • Arun and Li, working together as teammates on a research project at MIT called App Inventor.
  • Boom! The platform becomes wildly successful.
  • The lack of proper resources makes them wonder - what if we create a business model around this? Most of their customers were enterprises and businesses anyway.
  • Thunkable is launched.

Going from 1 to 💯

  • the rise and scope for no-code/low-code in the times to come.
  • Thunkable’s ambitions as a pioneer in no-code mobile app development.
  • YC winter batch 2016 and raising $120,000 in funding.
  • Raising $30 million as Series B.

How to make a no-code product 101

  • The two sides of Thunkable.
  • The design friendly drag-and-drop interface for completely non-tech audiences.
  • A slightly logical interface powered by something called the block programming language which was created by them during their time at MIT.
  • What Thunkable means and has done for the people.

The Thunkable Community

  • The importance of community at Thunkable, especially in their early stages.
  • Community.thunkable.com - A forum hosted on Discourse with over 1 million users. the different categories that together power the community.
  • Thunkable X - The app builder featuring a public gallery of apps built by a community of Thunkers and helpful templates.
  • Webinars - Fun interactive events hosted to highlight and share growth stories of apps built on the platform.
  • Thunkable Academy - Guide to working with and building apps on Thunkable.
  • Thunkable Documentation - The necessary docs to create and deploy an app.
  • Weekend Design Challenge (WDC) - A fun challenge each Friday to encourage app-building and creativity.

Thunkable’s community in a nutshell

  • Other things that Thunkable does to foster value within the community.
  • Awards, contributions, AMAs, hackathons, and more.

The future of no-code app development

  • With a Series B comes a lot more investment in growth pillars - team, capabilities, and community.
  • Introducing certifications and training to the Thunkable Academy initiative.
  • The Freelancer initiative helps the organization find the talent in assisting with their work.
  • A bright future.


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