The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Michael Skelly, chief executive officer and co-founder of Stacker, a UK-based company that has created a digital platform to allow business users to quickly develop applications to better engage with their customers. Skelly discussed how tools like Stacker allow businesses to create applications with their data without needing software engineers.
Eline Chivot: What has led you to create Stacker?
Michael Skelly: Back in 2017, I had been running the engineering departments in several marketplace-type startups in a row. All of these startups were doing quite similar things—bringing a digital version of a service to customers via the web and mobile—and none of them were solving any really hard technical problems. In fact, most of what we were doing was very similar to what most companies building digital products were doing—linking a database to a user interface and adding some business rules.
That’s why I was amazed at how slow and expensive it was to build anything. This wasn’t a people problem: My teams of developers were some of the best I’d worked with. The problem seemed to be the way in which we were building these apps.
I had met my co-founder Sam many years before, working on an IT project in a finance company. We were stripping out all the old business systems and replacing them with something customized we were creating on the Salesforce platform. Back then, we were blown away by how quickly we could create these business systems without having to write a line of code.
It seemed clear to us that there must be a way to build consumer-quality products quickly and cheaply without writing code, in a similar way to how we were able to build these internal systems.
Chivot: What sort of things are people building using Stacker?
Skelly: We’ve just been blown away by the variety of businesses that are building apps on Stacker, and also by what they’re doing! Our first two customers couldn’t have been further apart—one was a collaboration platform for journalists to fight fake news, and the other was a social network for fashion!
Since then, we’ve seen all sorts—a small business offering trips in the Amazon, a startup drone photography, all the way up to Fortune 500 companies. We’re seeing businesses creating portals for their customers, internal products for their employees and partners, and even entrepreneurs building their entire products on Stacker.
We’ve now seen so many of these different businesses doing so many different things, that two things have become clear.
Firstly, it’s clear that companies of all shapes and sizes, across almost every industry, are finding that they need to create software to interact with their customers, engage their partners, and empower their employees.
Secondly, it just doesn’t make sense that all these companies should become software companies in order to make this happen!
Chivot: What does the user experience look like, and how do you see your customers successfully interact with Stacker?
Skelly: We’re really focused on making the experience of creating an app on Stacker as easy as using Legos.
Customers start by connecting to their existing data. Every company has data that they’re using to run their business, and we use that data as the foundation for their app. It’s great, because it makes the app meaningful and relevant to them immediately, and it releases all the value that’s been locked away in that database, but with no way to access it.
They then piece their app by choosing the features they want. We’ve taken apart the fundamental bits common across all apps—the ones that teams of developers across the world are re-creating again and again—and packaged them up so that they can be used in any app.
Finally, they can customize their logo and colors. It’s so important that everything that gets made in Stacker looks and feels as if it has been made just for that company by a professional designer.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the journey. The real value is in being able to quickly change and iterate an app as the business changes and responds to new opportunities and challenges. I think that’s really where innovation happens.
Chivot: With Stacker, anyone could build an app without knowing how to code. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother training people with digital skills?
Skelly: We will always need software engineers who push the boundaries of what’s technically possible. But I don’t think everybody should need to become a software engineer in order to change the way they live and work through creating software tools to help them.
Just like desktop publishing allowed people without huge printing presses to produce professional printed materials, the same is happening with software. Nowadays, you can already create and publish a website with tools like Squarespace and Wix. The same is happening for apps—and we’re driving that!
I definitely think that we should be training people with digital skills, but they should be higher-level ones, like how to think about data flow and application structure, rather than ones tied to particular technologies. If you want a beautiful city, train a lot of architects, not bricklayers.
Chivot: How do you envisage to further develop and improve Stacker?
Skelly: There are so many new products and services out there. I think people are embracing the fact that they don’t need to find the one vendor that does everything they need, and instead choosing lots of different ones that work for them. We’d like to be able to be a hub that integrates with whichever other systems they’re using, so that they can give their customers, partners and employees a great unified experience.
In the longer term, we see a new model emerging, both for software creation and ownership.
While there’s some software, like Word Processors for example, that any organization can use as it is, there’s a big gap between that and the really custom apps that businesses are creating today. Lots of these businesses are building completely custom apps, not because what they need is really unique and out-there, but because they need something that perfectly fits their business.
I think there’ll be a rise in what we’re calling “flexible software.” This is software that someone else has created to solve your problem, but they’ve created it in a way that you can modify every part of it to work how you want. When that happens, the line between “owner” and “creator” blurs, as people start customizing and combining the tools they buy to create something totally new.
As that model becomes more prevalent, we’ll need new tools and distribution methods, and we’re already starting work on how Stacker can help facilitate that.