We talked to Mark Piller of Backendless about its visual app development platform and COVID-19.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mark Piller: As well as everyone else, trying to stay safe, wearing a mask, washing hands for 20 seconds, and avoiding crowded spaces.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Backendless.
Mark Piller: I came to the U.S. as a refugee from the former Soviet Union in the early 90s. Over the years, I worked in a variety of corporate roles in organizations ranging from tiny startups to Fortune 100 companies. Eventually, I formed a company called Midnight Coders (it was just me, but the plural made it seem bigger for attracting clients!) and in 2012, launched what would become Backendless as you see it today. I am the sole founder and have bootstrapped the business to this point, which gives us a great amount of flexibility to innovate without any private interests. While the initial vision was to create a complete application development platform, we started with the universal back-end system first. It is the hardest and the most important component. After all, if your back-end fails, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the UI is – its value is reduced to zero. Fast forward to 2020, and now we are looking to really embrace the no-code space and expand our business to the millions of small businesses and entrepreneurs looking to bring their app idea to life.
How does Backendless innovate?
Mark Piller: We look at every new feature we develop with a mindset of “how can we make app development easier for our users?” This is how we became one of the first platforms to embrace low-code and no-code solutions for both the front and back end. It is also what drove us to create our own visual frontend tool called UI Builder, our own gamified tutorial system called Backendless Missions, and many of the other new features we’ve added this year. With each addition, we want to make it easier and easier for citizen NoCoders and developers to embrace and build their own ideas rather than relying on outside developers. At the same time, we want to ensure that our platform remains on the cutting edge of back-end technology. Even experienced developers will choose us to save themselves time without sacrificing performance. It’s a delicate balance that requires a great deal of planning because, as stated before, being a bootstrapped company means we have limited resources compared to VC-backed competitors. That also means that we have to be laser-focused, but we can be much more agile than those with many more stakeholders with varying visions.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business, and how are you coping?
Mark Piller: Being a software-based business, we were able to adjust better than most. Much of our team either worked remotely prior to the pandemic or was able to transition to remote work seamlessly. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t challenges. Perhaps the greatest hindrance has been travel restrictions. With our development team based outside of the U.S., I have been limited in my ability to travel and personally meet with and oversee some of the projects we’re working on. While so much can be done online, there are still many instances where being present in person can make a big difference. Another obstacle was that part of our marketing strategy for 2020 was to attend tech conferences and give talks promoting our business. With the pandemic either cancelling or forcing these events online, it changed our approach. Some opportunities went away, while others presented themselves for events that might have been difficult to attend in person.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mark Piller: Our philosophy all year has been to keep moving forward. In spite of the challenges, we have continued to grow and expand. In some ways, the pandemic presented opportunities for us as people are more reliant on their phones and apps now than ever before. Businesses all over the world have gone from “an app would be nice” to “we need an app now.” On top of that, a lot of people found themselves stuck at home with nothing to do and a lot of time on their hands – time they could use to learn a skill (like coding/building with no-code) or build an app.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project Yourself and Backendless in the future?
Mark Piller: There is no universal cure for stress relief; everyone needs to adapt and accommodate based on their interests and hobbies, energy level, and possible weaknesses. Some people opt to eat ice cream, while others go shoot guns. I do both! However, regular workouts and a healthy eating regimen make you feel better as the starting point. The most important thing to remember is that you must truly believe in what you’re doing. Of course, there will be moments when you feel down or stressed out, especially if you are an entrepreneur. However, when you believe that what your company does is needed, that it provides value, it will help you get out of any downturn.
I see Backendless flourishing in the years to come. It will be a de facto standard for how apps are built – fast, reliable, inexpensive, highly scalable with a beautiful UI/UX.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mark Piller: now, our competitors are frankly too many to name. Being in a budding industry as no-code development is, there are many small players (and a few big ones like Google’s Firebase and even Amazon’s AWS, to a lesser extent) and a lot of fragmentation. I certainly expect to see consolidation and implosion in the coming years as the cream rises to the top, and our goal is to be not only among the last standing but running ahead of the remaining pack. Our technology – particularly in terms of back-end services – is on the industry’s leading-edge, and we just entered the frontend space. We have tons of cool ideas and features in development that will make us the complete no-code app-building solution out there. We’re just getting started!
Your final thoughts?
Mark Piller: Building apps without a technical background is becoming easier and easier, but many other platforms lack much flexibility. We are building a platform that will be the one-stop-shop for no-code makers. Rather than piecing together four or more separate services, we want you to be able to do everything in one place. While the pandemic may have forced us to shift some things around process-wise, it hasn’t changed our vision or our target whatsoever. We will keep moving forward, on to whatever the future holds.