To Code or Not to Code; A Guide to Digital DIY

17/05/2013 14:34 BST | Updated 17/07/2013 10:12 BST
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A couple of my more enterprising friends have recently asked me about how to build websites and mobile apps for their fledgling businesses. Only a few years ago the answer would have been to find a decent web developer, perhaps in Vietnam, and try to get it done as cheaply as possible. However, today's world of simple web development tools and the drive towards code literacy have led to a shift towards digital DIY. To illustrate this shift and help aspiring digital entrepreneurs, here's a little guide to "doing it yourself" the digital way.

To code or not to code

The first decision that any aspiring digital entrepreneur will have to make is whether to use non-coding production tools or to build from scratch by learning to code. There are arguments on both sides. As a non-technical founder, using a non-coding production tool will save you a vast amount of time at the early stages of product development. You may be able to get to market faster or at least create a prototype to demonstrate proof of concept. Non-coding tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and going forward one can envisage a world where digital creators can make highly complex products without being able to read a line of code. On top of this, as the founder of a digital company, you are likely to need to hire "techies" to manage the later full build while you focus on the dynamics of the business itself.

However, as Steve Jobs said, "I think everybody... should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think." Learning to code has both practical and financial benefits for a digital entrepreneur. On the practical front, no one understands your product as well as you, and creating it through code will give you ultimate control. Even if you don't end up coding your product, you are going to be at a severe disadvantage if you cannot speak the coding language of your developers. On the financial front, understanding how to code will improve your technical hiring decisions and stop you from falling foul of grossly inflated development fees. Ultimately, there's nothing quite like doing it yourself. For free.

Tools for non-coders

In terms of building websites, there are a vast number of online tools that you could use as a non-coder. If you want to blog, then you'll need a blogging platform like Wordpress or Tumblr. If you want to build a professional looking corporate website, you'd be better off with Webs or Plebu. And if you want something that allows you to incorporate more advanced functionality, like a webshop, you could go with services like Moonfruit or Wix. All of these services run a fremium model, with users having the ability to build a basic website for free. There are then premium add-ons, with the pricing tiered according to how sophisticated you want your functionality to be. Prices range from £5-£15 a month and most of the premium services include a free web domain.

As for mobile apps, easy app creation (without touching code) is the frontier of the digital DIY movement. There are some niche app creation tools such as Appy Couple, a make your own app for weddings, and Yapp, for creating apps orientated around events. Then at the more sophisticated end of things are Kleverbeast, AppMachine, Mobile Roadie and Shoutem. These services help you create all sorts of apps, and tend to charge either a monthly fee or a one off cost for "publishing" the app into an app store.

One service that I've been particularly impressed with is App Architect. This provides a drag-and-drop interface for creating iPhone and iPad apps and is extremely flexible. While there are templates available, users have the ability to start from scratch should you be feeling particularly creative.

Learning to code

I would strongly encourage everyone to learn to code, especially people thinking about launching their own digital businesses. With a focused hour a day of coding, you should be in a position to start building basic websites and apps within a month or so. And 6 months of regular immersion in the world of code should have you talking sense to a developer team.

Codecademy is a great place to start. It provides free tutorials covering everything from HTML and CSS (web development) to Python and Ruby (good for app development). Another free resource is Khan Academy, which provides the basics for a range of programming languages. On the pay side of things Treehouse has a large range of online courses and costs $25 a month, while Skillshare has courses available on a pay per course basis.

So there it is. Sod Vietnam and do it yourself.