Who Would Have Thought A Research Project Could Become A Great Startup?
I recently had the chance to speak with Arun Saigal, co-founder and CEO of Thunkable, about what it takes to take an undergraduate research project and turn it into a full-fledged commercial venture. Thunkable is the platform where anyone can build their own mobile apps via a drag-and-drop interface and is available on both iOS and Android. Instead of having to tediously code or used pre-made app templates, a user will drag components of their app and connect them with visual blocks. For those who have no coding experience, Thunkable gives them to tools to build the apps they’ve always wanted. Arun graduated from MIT with a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Computer Science and is a 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree in Consumer Technology.
His startup, Thunkable, was incubated at Google and MIT, and now has 500K users and more than 16M monthly active users (MAUs) of apps built on the platform.
Frederick Daso: We know that your startup was originally a research project. When did you realize this Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) project could be so much more?
Arun Saigal: When we were working on MIT App Inventor, the project had 4.3 million users around the world who had built more than 13 million apps. One day we were looking at the user data and saw that a significant number of these people were trying to build commercial-level apps. We knew that if we really wanted to enable the next level of app building and grow the platform, we had to take the project out of the classroom.
Daso: I see. What were your initial impressions of App Inventor?
Saigal: My initial impression was that App Inventor was an amazing platform. It was empowering people around the world — including many students and children — to become active creators of their own mobile technology. This showed us that there was no shortage of good ideas for apps or businesses, but there was a shortage of tools to help people pursue their ideas.
It’s incredible to see the apps that people are building around the world. In some cases, users are creating entirely new markets and business opportunities. A Thunkable user in Yemen built an app that has helped hundreds and thousands of people harness solar power and control solar panels through their mobile devices. We also had two teenage users in Oregon who built a dice throwing app that has been downloaded over 500K times on the Google Play Store. Thunkable is creating a new wave of mobile entrepreneurship.
Daso: That’s incredible. What was the process of taking this technology you developed at MIT and bring it outside of the school? I’m sure there were hoops to jump through.
Saigal: Because we were collaborating with Google and MIT initially, a lot of what we worked on was open source. Once we took it out of MIT, we realized there were many things that we weren’t doing initially that we wanted to do. One of the biggest things, which we ended up launching yesterday, which was folks wanted an iOS version of this. If you have an Android version, it would be even cooler if I could build an app and deploy it automatically to the Apple App Store as well as the Google Play Store.
Initially, we worked from our MIT open source project, but what we’ve built since that was a reimagining of our product entirely from the ground up. Yesterday, which our launch of Thunkable X, we launched a product built on a new, completely modern technology framework that doesn’t share code with our original MIT App Inventor. However, I think a lot of the lessons we took from that were invaluable as we thought about ten years later if we were to reimagine this product, what would it look like today?
Daso: Those past experiences seemed to inform your current development of Thunkable. What were some of those lessons from working on App Inventor?
Saigal: Some of them were particular things, like around how to design the best interface. One excellent thing we learned was how people logically approach building a new piece of software or new app, especially if you don’t have a coding background. Specifically, how do people think computationally? One of the things that set us apart from many people is we’ve put plenty of research into how do people think computationally and approach building a new piece of software when they’ve never written a line of code before. In our new product, we focused a lot on design. How do you make something beautiful and powerful at the same time? We want to empower people not only to create something functional but super beautiful in a straightforward way.
Daso: How did you know that your solution needed to be visual-based for individuals with zero coding knowledge? Why couldn’t you have stuck to a visual template?
Saigal: I think what’s so cool about Thunkable is that, with these templates, you might able to make a beautiful app, but your functionality and customization are insufficient. Template-based app building tools are useful for building very generic apps that you do not have much control over. It doesn’t work a lot for what people are trying to do.
Coding was too hard for people who didn’t have the background, and template solutions didn’t build the unique product you wanted.
Being able to build advanced functionality required you to know how to code, and templates can’t offer that. With blocks, it’s effortless to build precisely what you want and customize it.
And the cool part about our users, is that they come to create something new.
Daso: I’m amazed at what has resulted from you all at Thunkable providing people with the tools to create new apps for themselves. What are some of the unexpected things that you’ve seen as you’ve developed Thunkable and releasing the newest additions to customers?
Saigal: In general, we’ve seen this concept of app fatigue — that there’s an app for everything. We’ve found out there isn’t an app for everything. Not only is there not an app for everything, but there are also so many things that could benefit from app-based or mobile services.
Daso: Last question: what do you want people to see Thunkable as?
Saigal: Most importantly, people still aren’t aware of Thunkable as a fundamental service. Thunkable is a platform, where anyone can build their apps for Android or iOS. There could be a greater awareness of what we do as a company. We want someone to know you can start your business, and you can build that app idea you’ve always been thinking of.
One more point: even if your not interested in starting your own business or pursuing a personal idea, if you’re at a company that doesn’t have the developer resources, say a project manager, product manager, or designer, Thunkable is a fantastic and easy-to-use prototyping tool internally. If you’re at a massive company that lacks the dev resources, you can use Thunkable as a prototyping tool which is cool.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
This work was first published in Forbes.