A cardboard sign and chartered plane doesn’t make an airlines, nor a video and signup form an app. But neither does a full-fledged airlines—complete with check-in counters, planes, pilots, and safety videos—guarantee success, nor the most polished app in the App Store.
“Ideas are worth nothing unless executed,” says CD Baby founder Derek Sivers. “They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.”
All execution isn’t equal, though, and you don’t want to throw good money and time after bad. Thus the fabled MVP, a minimum viable product that’s just enough to see if an idea works. Instead of starting an airlines, you charter a plane and sell seats at cost from a cardboard sign (as Richard Benson did, inspiring him to join a fledgling airline effort and turn it into Virgin Atlantic a few years later). Instead of an app, you build a video and landing page that describes your idea, and see if people sign up (as Dropbox founder Drew Houston did after his inspiration of replacing USB drives with an app). Or instead of searching for a new tool that fits your team’s needs, you hack one together from existing apps—and build software without coding.
MVPs that turn into companies get all the attention, but they’re not the only way ideas can turn into minimal products. If anything, they’re the exception that proves the value of testing ideas and turning them into minimal products—and sometimes, minimal products on their own are enough.
HyperCard: The app that could be anything you dreamed.
Three years after Steve Jobs unveiled the original Macintosh, a new bundled app captured the imagination: HyperCard. It made software development something anyone could do, as a as “a personal toolkit for managing information.” Original personal computers required typing code or commands for everything; you started with a text prompt, and early software was often hand-entered as code.
The Macintosh promised a new future where computers were easier to use, and HyperCard ensured that in this brave new future, coding would be more accessible, too. HyperCard offered “programming for the rest of us,” as Apple programmer and developer's association chief David Lingwood described. “The beauty of HyperCard is that it lets people program without having to learn how to write code.”
HyperCard started with a card, a blank space to build an app from text, fields, and buttons. New cards held additional screens for your basic app, linked together with then-new hyperlinks for the hyper part of its name (what we’d simply call links in a website today). Tying those cards together were a flat database to save text entered into cards, and simple code for logic if needed (say, to build a simple calculator app).
With a bit of experimentation, HyperCard was the incubator for countless apps that typified early computing: A choose-your-own-adventure game, a science and history app that in some ways foreshadowed the 1990’s Encarta and the 2000’s Wikipedia, and a digital version of the Whole Earth Catalogue as part digital magazine, part Amazon. HyperCard was so popular at the CERN laboratory that it helped inspire Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. Even the original version of adventure game Myst was built in HyperCard.
Myst was proof that simple tools are enough to build software, that MVPs can turn into real commercial successes. But HyperCard’s best legacy were the countless tiny apps built with it, apps that continued to be useful on their own for years after their inception. And when it was sunset, HyperCard pwered, among other things, auto company Renault’s inventory system and the lighting system in Malaysia’s Petronas Towers.
Microsoft Access filled similar low code development needs the following decade, as a way to build form-and-database powered apps that countless businesses relied on—including the point of sales system at a local store I frequented as a kid. Excel and other spreadsheets let everyone do basic coding, powering enough mission-critical processes that entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie declared “Every spreadsheet shared in a business is an angel announcing another SaaS app still needs to be built.” Where there are ideas and flexible software, someone will find a way to build something new, it seems.
The original Dropbox landing page.
Yet every idea doesn’t require an app to prove its worth. When Drew Houston came up with the idea to build a folder that would automatically sync any files saved in it, to replace USB drives, the first thing he shipped wasn't a working beta of Dropbox. Instead, he built a basic landing page that said “We're an easier and better way of securely backing up, synchronizing, and sharing your important files,” and invited visitors to sign up for an invite. That was soon joined by a video that brought the concept to life—and got 75,000 people to sign up for the Dropbox beta.
In the decades after HyperCard launched and faded from view, a simpler version of an MVP took shape. You might not need to build a product. Sometimes you simply need to sell the idea.
A simple landing page website and video are minimal, far from a viable product. Instead, they're a way to prove interest in an idea, to show that you're on the right path and people do want what you're building. If you have a hunch that people would like a new product, that your team should put some effort into something new, start by explaining it. Tell people about your idea, and see what they think. If people are excited, you’ll have an audience ready to buy once you’ve actually built something; if not, it’s back to the drawing board with little lost.
A cardboard sign worked for Virgin’s Branson; a paper sketch might work for physical products. For digital ideas, a landing page website is often the best place to start, as Dropbox did. Build a one-page website that describes your idea, with a signup form where visitors can enter their email so you can let them know when your idea ships. Those don’t take a HyperCard successor; any web builder is enough to share your idea.
These apps can help:
.carrd.comdomain; $9/year otherwise.
.wordpress.comdomain or on your server; from $5/month otherwise.
The .mail app concept made an idea feel so real, hundreds of people begged for it to be turned into an app.
Designer Tobias Van Schneider, like so many of us, found his email inbox uninspiring at best, maddening at worst. So he pulled out design tools to do something about it—albeit, only in concept. He mocked up his ideal email app, wrote up the ideas that made it work, and put them together in a website that made his .Mail app concept feel real.
The trick worked, enough that hundreds of people messaged overnight to ask when it would launch. All that for a theoretical concept with fake screenshots of an app.
.Mail didn’t ship, and Van Schneider shelved the concept after a few aborted partnership and bootstrapped attempts. But as an MVP of an idea, the fake screenshots caught people’s imagination and helped build his following. The detailed designs did far more than a landing page alone could. They made the idea feel real.
You, too, could capture people’s imagination and make your idea feel real with a fake product that doesn’t do anything other than look real. Instead of building the thing, see if people actually want what you’re building before you build it. It might be a clay model of a product, a rough sketch of a portrait or building design, or a 3D print of the widget you want to make. Or fake it with pictures, as .Mail did, and link them together into an an demo that feels real, that responds to button taps and menu selections like an app. It might be a demo to your boss or business partners for an internal tool or project idea even. It doesn’t have to be a brand new product to sell.
Build something minimal, a bit more than an outline of an idea—just not an actual viable product (that’s the next section). Here are some ways to build that for apps:
A custom CMS, built in Airtable by the Britannica team
Here there be dragons, and the gold those dragons protect. For building your idea into an actually working thing seems scary, a seemingly larger undertaking than selling and showing your idea. But if you do it, you just might have the app you always wanted without all that much investment. And it’s not much harder to do than the first two options, thanks to the rise in “code free” app development tools.
First, what type of app do you want to build? A wide variety of business tools—including apps for contacts, bookings, inventory management, accounting, notes, project management, and more—essentially include three things: A form to add data to the app, a database to store the data, and ways to view, sort, and search through the data.
If your app idea fits that general framework, good news: You can build a real, working version of your app with today’s takes on HyperCard and Access, apps like Airtable, Microsoft PowerApps, and more.
Every idea can’t be built without code. If you have an idea for the next hit game or a better video editing app, you might be better building a landing page or fake version of your app to test the idea. But a surprising number of ideas fit into what no-code apps let you build:
Odds are, with a bit of creativity you can build at least a minimal version of most app ideas—especially business and data focused apps.
Start by thinking through your app idea. Sketch out how a basic version would work. What data would you need to store, how would it be entered, and what would be the best way to display and organize the data? Do you need to do anything with the data once you have it?
Then think through what tools would be needed. You could start with a form app to collect data, and a spreadsheet or database to store the data. Built-in integrations or a tool like Zapier or IFTTT could connect the two. Or, you could use a tool like Airtable or Zoho Creator that includes forms and a database in one.
Then, what do you want to do with the data? With Google Sheets, say, you could embed a filtered spreadsheet into a website for an easy way to share the data. Or in Airtable, you could build kanban boards, calendars, and organized lists of the data. If you want to do more than just show it off, integration tools could come to the rescue again. Connect your spreadsheet or database to Twilio, say, to send SMS messages, or to Gmail and MailChimp to send emails. Treat apps like LEGO and pull them together, and you can bring your idea to life in an app built from apps.
Here are some tools to help start:
The next time a great app idea strikes you, you don’t have to let it linger. Today you can build a full-featured app that brings your idea to life without investing millions. You might not even need to invest anything more than your time.
If it works out, you might have something that fits your needs—or the momentum to turn your idea into a shipping product. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll have put far less effort into the idea than you would if you risked everything on a whim.
HyperCard isn’t with us, but the freedom to create anything you want is still alive and well today—even without coding.
Last week, Slack announced some new features, including a WYSIWYG rich text editor.
Along with the addition of this feature, they changed the Markdown functionality to render formatting in-line.
I've used Airtable extensively to build simple internal apps as minimal viable products, but would love to build something bigger without coding. What are your favorite tools to build MVPs?