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Appsmith Is Lowering The Barrier Of Entry For App Builds


Guest: Arpit Mohan
Company: Appsmith
Show: Let’s Talk

Arpit Mohan, co-founder and CTO of Appsmith, originally built a mobile quiz show application that went viral. After garnering a million downloads on the Google Play Store within a span of three months, they had over 120,000 users playing their game at any point of time during the day. That app was being managed by only four people.

Because the product scaled so rapidly, and the need to build admin panels and dashboards for support engineers, it was a challenge to keep the lights on. After that game, Arpit (and his co-founder Abhishek) realized they had to build all of these internal tools to keep things working smoothly. To that end, they wound up shutting down the game to focus on Appsmith.

According to Mohan, Appsmith helps developers quickly build CRUD apps and dashboards. Mohan himself has been a backend developer for years, but “centering something vertically and horizontally on the screen is beyond my pay grade. I do not enjoy it. I do not enjoy mucking around with HTML, with CSS. It’s just not my cup of tea.” Mohan adds, “That’s why the idea of Appsmith came up, to allow all developers, backend and frontend, to be able to build dashboards by literally spinning up one Docker instance.” Appsmith then makes it possible to drag and drop elements onto a screen, connecting them to multiple databases and any API.

How is Appsmith different from its competitors? 

To that, Mohan says, “Appsmith is open source because we want companies, developers, and engineers to be able to build software as per their own workflows, and as per their processes.” As to the second difference, Mohan intimates that collaboration is key to helping companies move faster. When companies remain in silos, they will build slower.

With regards to technical debt and tribal knowledge, Mohan makes it clear that with Appsmith, every piece of software is built on the same set of fundamental blocks, so users will have the same drop-downs, input boxes, buttons, and API calls.  Appsmith does a lot of the heavy lifting for developers, so the amount of technical debt generated is very little.

To avoid tribal knowledge, Appsmith allows developers to export their applications and store them in their own repositories, so they can be version controlled. Developers can add read-me files and documentation (as they would with code). This means the longevity of the tools surpasses the individual.

Appsmith is also working to ensure companies can easily use their solutions without having to invest too much in a full tech stack. Being low-code, it lowers the barriers to entry for building any app or tool. Appsmith requires only a very basic knowledge of JavaScript and SQL. The company has even automated the entire workflow of “Where should my table go? Where should I show my data? Where should I include a form? Where should my button go?” Appsmith automatically generates an entire CRUD dashboard or CRUD app out of the box, which (according to Mohan), “will have a page where you can view your data. It’ll come with forms that will allow you to create, insert data, or update data that lies inside your data.

The summary of the show is written by Jack Wallen

Here is the rough, unedited transcript of the show…

Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, I’m your host, Swapnil Bhartiya, and welcome to TFiR Let’s Talk. Appsmith is a startup that enables backend engineers to build internal web apps quickly with a low-code approach. The company recently launched a new feature to create CRUD applications in minutes. To learn more about this new feature and more importantly about the company itself, today we have with us Arpit Mohan, co-founder and CTO of Appsmith. Arpit, it’s great to have you on the show.

Arpit Mohan: Hi, Swapnil, fantastic to be here. Thank you for having us.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Let’s start with the story of Appsmith, because you are also co-founder. Tell me what problem you saw in the space, that you co-founded the company?

Arpit Mohan: Okay, so a little bit of background. So I’ve been, me and [Abhishek 00:00:48], we’ve done multiple startups over the last 10 years. So Appsmith is actually our third venture. And our previous venture, we were doing a mobile game. It was a quiz show that we were doing on mobile, and coincidentally, we ended up going viral. So we had a million downloads on the Play Store within a span of three months. We had 120,000 users playing our game at any point of time during the day. All of this was being managed by four engineers. That was our team back then.

Just keeping the lights on was so hard, because the product is scaling so rapidly. On top of that, we also had to then start building admin panels and dashboards for our support engineers, for our production engineers, et cetera. That’s where the idea formulated very strongly. And through a lot of these startups, we’ve also had to build a lot of internal tools, a lot of internal dashboards. But when we were doing our previous mobile game, that’s when it really hit home that, “Hey, it’s 2018, every company requires a customer support dashboard. Every company requires a growth management system, an HR system, et cetera. Why is it that it is so hard to build a custom tool that is serving your own process flows? Why is it so hard?” That’s why we ended up shutting down that game, and we decided to focus on Appsmith full time. We said, “Let’s make the building of internal tools a lot simpler.”

Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you tell me exactly how Appsmith [inaudible 00:02:28], from what I do understand, you do make it easy for developers to write applications, but let’s just get to some, specific let’s get into the weeds, how it works?

Arpit Mohan: So Appsmith helps, like you said, developers build CRUD apps and dashboards really quickly. The reason that we started out with it, was because, so personally I am a backend developer. I’ve coded on the servers and managed databases all my life. And centering something vertically and horizontally on the screen is beyond my pay grade. I do not enjoy it. I do not enjoy mucking around with HTML, with CSS. It’s just not my cup of tea. That’s why the idea of Appsmith came up, is that why can’t we allow all developers. Backend and frontend, to be able to build dashboards by literally spinning up one Docker instance. Just install Appsmith via Docker container, have it up and running.

Then you can just drag and drop UI elements onto a screen. Connect them to any database, any API, multiple databases as well in the same app, and just display your, and create an operational dashboard out of it. So just being able to do that, so a flexible UI builder, along with the ability to join data from multiple data sources, that is actually one of the reasons why we started building Appsmith, and that’s why I’m super excited about this product.

Swapnil Bhartiya: But if you do look at back office operations, there are already a lot of apps. There are companies who offer the whole suite. So what is the new that you are bringing to the table?

Arpit Mohan: There’s actually a couple of things. The first is, if you look at any SaaS product, you have Zendesk for support ticket management. You have Google, which provides an entire suite of products. Zoho does the same, and they’re fantastic tools. They’re fantastic pieces of software. And you should use them if that’s what you … But as a company starts to grow, once you go out of the startup zone, and you start scaling, what you really want is you want the software and the tools to bend towards your processes. You want your software and your tools to work as your processes would, instead of changing your processes in order to suit a tool. So that is where, that is why, if you look at are a lot of success, a lot of large companies, they all, they don’t rely on just pure SaaS products.

They have a lot of custom software that they build internally, because they have a lot of custom processes that they want to follow. Every company has the option of you applying for leaves, but in every company that process is just a little bit different, because it just works for them. And so with Appsmith, one, is that is why we are open source, is because we want companies to be able to, developers and engineers, to be able to build software as per their own workflows, and as per their processes. And secondly, a lot of these other SaaS tools, they’re built in silos. So there is no collaboration when the tool is actually being built.

So for example, again, let’s say you’re building a support, ticket management system for your support folks. Now, while the engineer is actually building the tool or we are evaluating Zendesk, it’s the support engineers and the support staff who actually end up using the software. Now, so getting this feedback and building something collaboratively is where the power is. That is why collaborative tools like Slack, like Figma, they’re the ones that are actually helping companies and teams move faster. While anything that is being built in a silo, will always we build a little slower.

Swapnil Bhartiya: If I ask, as you give example that there are some companies that can also offer you the services, who are your typical clients?

Arpit Mohan: So we have a lot of clients such as Swiggy in India, which is a unicorn food delivery giant in India. We have teams inside IBM, inside Adobe using us as well. We have PharmEasy, which is a online drug delivery company, and Dunzo, which does point-to-point pick up and drop off of items. So we have a lot of these large unicorns in India, and as well as in the us are using us. The most common use cases that people end up using Appsmith for, is for building wherever there are operational dashboards that need to be built. Any operational-heavy company, for example, will invariably have a lot of internal applications.

So a lot of KYC-management, know-your-customer user management systems get built on us. Customer support dashboards get built on us. Account reconciliation systems have been built. In fact, a team inside IBM has been using us to manage their entire test suite for all their products. So, which platforms it’s running, what are regression results, et cetera. So the use cases are very varied, and it all originates from the need that, “Oh, if only I had an admin panel to manage this one thing.” And so that’s why we cover a very wide [inaudible 00:08:18] from small startups to large unicorns.

Swapnil Bhartiya: When you do build custom tools, you also inherit or create a lot of technical debt, because you have built internally. Second problem is tribal knowledge, the team, or the guy, as you said, in your case, there are four folks. And sometimes people move on, they burnout, so what happened, that knowledge move away with them. But when you use a standard SaaS kind of approach, then it doesn’t matter which teams comes and take over these standards. So how do you ensure to overcome these two challenges as well?

Arpit Mohan: That’s actually a great question, it’s very pertinent, and that is something that all engineers sort of struggle with. So when we talk about technical debt, so with Appsmith, because there are some very defined, every software is built on the same set of fundamental blocks. You have the same dropdown, an input box, a button, and API call. The fundamentals of any app, however complicated it might be, the fundamentals are the same. So what Appsmith does, is it does a lot of the heavy lifting for the developer. So the amount of technical debt that is being generated on behalf of the team, or the developer is actually very little. All that they are doing, is they’re writing literally five lines or 10 lines of JavaScript to customize a little bit of their workflow, and able to move forward. Because of large chunk of, 90% of the heavy lifting is actually done by Appsmith, because we give prebuilt UI components.

So you can drag and drop any UI widget anywhere you want on the screen. We have connectors to REST APIs, databases like Postgres, MySQL, et cetera. Native integrations to Zendesk, to other SaaS products as well. So you can pull in data from Zendesk, you can pull in ticket information, pull in your order information from say, Salesforce, combine them into … So the pulling of data, all that is done by Appsmith, and all that the developer is doing is, “Oh, I have this order information. I have the ticket information. How do I just merge it together to show it onto the UI?” So the amount of technical debt that is being generated, is actually very little. So it ensures longevity of the product, of the tools itself.

The second bit that you talked about tribal knowledge, and this tends to happen. So Appsmith also allows developers to export their applications and store them in [inaudible 00:11:06]. So you can version control your apps, add a read me-file, add documentation as you would with code. So that the longevity, the tool surpasses the individual. Because a very core philosophy that we’ve had, and we’ve had from the beginning is software is built by teams. The history of software is the history of teams. So it is imperative for every software tool and every engineer to build tools that outlast them in the company. We’ve done everything, and everything around Appsmith, everything in Appsmith is around this philosophy.

Swapnil Bhartiya: When we do look at a lot of startups, of course there are tech startups like yourself, but then there are a lot of companies who have nothing to do with technology, but in today’s world, you will not survive as a company if you don’t have a digital or cloud strategy in place. Which also means they do not have all the technical know-how, that’s why Low Code and No Code is becoming more popular. So how does Appsmith also enable these teams, or these companies so first of all, they lower their overhead costs? And then also sometimes finding developers who know all these latest technologies, is also hard. So there are so many barriers that they have to overcome. So how do you help them to not only being able to at least develop that application, maintain it? Developing an application is the easiest part? Maintain and updating it, keep it running is the challenging part. But also move faster, so they don’t have to spend one year or two year to build the whole thing? So talk about that aspect also?

Arpit Mohan: So the whole Low Code, so Appsmith is a Low Code tool and it, as you said, it lowers the barrier to entry in building any app or any internal tool. For a lot of non-tech clients, like if you were a pure MBA grad who’s just come out from Harvard and you have this great business idea, and you just want to do it, in that case, Appsmith requires a very basic knowledge of JavaScript and SQL. So if you know a very little bit of SQL or JavaScript, you should be good to go within Appsmith.

Apart from that, we also have a lot of consulting companies, a lot of service companies who actually build on top of Appsmith on behalf of their non-tech clients. So for the non-tech, for the business user or business client, a project that you would have taken maybe six months, now gets over in like a week. So it’s a win-win for everybody involved. The consulting company, they are able to provide value to their customers, to their clients really quickly. They can charge a higher hourly rate because of this. So it creates an entire win-win in the ecosystem. But with respect to Appsmith, I would say that we require a little bit of JavaScript and a little bit of SQL knowledge. Without that, it’ll get a little hard.

Swapnil Bhartiya: If I’m not wrong, you folks are also announcing or launching a new feature, which helps create CRUD apps very quickly. So talk a bit about that feature? And also if you can also give a comparison that how long it takes to build the same app traditionally versus now, that would be great as well?

Arpit Mohan: One of the biggest problems when engineers start building an app is doing all the dog work of figuring out, “Where should my table go? Where should I show my data? Where should I include a form? Where should my button go?” So on and so forth. So what we’ve done, is we’ve automated this entire flow out. If a developer or a user connects Appsmith to their Postgres or database, or Google Sheets, or Firestore, any data store that they’re connecting to, Appsmith automatically generates an entire CRUD dashboard, an entire CRUD app automatically out of the box. Which will have a page where you can view your data. It’ll come with forms that will allow you to create, insert data, or update data that lies inside your data store.

If you look at traditional apps, how this was done traditionally, if I was using React JS or Vue.js, or some framework like that, a dashboard like this would probably take anywhere between two to three weeks. And all of this now has been automated and compressed down to literally three clicks, which takes about 30 seconds of decision-making. So it actually, it accelerates the first thing that a user sees and experiences by miles. So for a developer, they can get up and running with Appsmith really quickly. They are able to then take this template and then just modify little details here and there. So the modification becomes a lot faster, a lot easier, because we’ve already taken them 90% of the way.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Arpit, thank you so much for taking time out today and talk about not only the company Appsmith, but also the problem, the challenge that you are solving for both large enterprises, and startups. So thank for sharing your story, and I would love to have you folks back on the show, thank you.

Arpit Mohan: Thank you so much, Swapnil. It was an absolute pleasure.