Build Interactive Web Sites as Easily as Spreadsheet Formulas?

"Man is a tool-using animal… Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all."     – Thomas Carlyle, 1834

I’m rarely effusive in my praise for a new tool, but I can hardly overstate my excitement about Bubble, a web programming system. The basic concept: Draw the web app you want, using standard components like text boxes, images, and buttons. Create "thing" objects to hold the app’s data, specifying the characteristics (fields) of each thing and the way one type of object relates to another. Then add flowchart-style "workflow" procedures to explain what happens when. Amazingly, this process yields a multiuser interactive web app that works as you instructed and as you’d expect.

Use Cases

Bubble is a particularly clear fit for entrepreneurs whose business concepts call for custom web apps. Suppose you have an idea for an online service—maybe you’ll match dog-walkers with dog-owners needing assistance, or you’ll help annoyed motorists report commercial drivers parked illegally. For such a project, you might hire a developer through a service like Upwork. But an outsourced developer carries some important problems. For one, the developer might not see the vision you have in mind, despite your best efforts to explain the features desired. (That’s all the tougher because many entrepreneurs don’t have experience writing specifications or providing precise requests.) In all likelihood, you’ll want some adjustments based on tests with early customers and a better understanding of their needs. Even if things go perfectly, you’ll often end up beholden to the developer for future changes; switching developers often entails prohibitive delay and expense given the difficulty of editing other people’s code. Meanwhile, developers also worry about creeping project scope, unclear requirements, and payment disputes—so they end up having to quote high fees in anticipation of these predictable problems. Entrepreneurs often accept these tradeoffs for lack of alternatives. But Bubble offers another way—letting a diligent entrepreneur build a working prototype without an outside technical specialist. Doing the work yourself, there’s no risk of communication breakdown, and changes entail effort but not out-of-pocket expenditure. A surprisingly committed community of other Bubble users provides assistance with anything unexpected.

In fact, Bubble should be equally useful in established organizations. Most companies have centralized software for their core processes, but often ad hoc solutions around the edges. Software for submitting expense reports, requesting a loaner laptop, or signing up for the company softball team? These are usually ad hoc, making do with Dropbox or Google Docs or a piece of paper on a clipboard. Furthermore, as a company’s core business changes, some features end up missing from the company’s main software systems. Often tools are carryovers from decades past—making it difficult to add modern improvements. One might hope that well-run companies would prioritize their requirements for robust implementation by centralized IT staff. But finding development resources can be surprisingly difficult, with constant pressure from excess requests. Here too, Bubble offers a promising alternative, allowing the end users who best know a situation to write the software that will make them more efficient. Savvy end-users have been building this kind of thing for years, all the way back to the PC revolution. But with Bubble, it’s modern, web-enabled, and API-connected.

Bubble in Context

It’s natural to compare Bubble to Visual Basic, the Microsoft programming environment that made programming accessible to a generation of self-taught enthusiasts (myself included). But where VB ultimately requires developers to write code (albeit in a relatively intuitive language), Bubble does not. Instead, Bubble’s workflow instructions are graphical, composed of actions like "make changes to a thing" or "go to page," each chosen from a menu. Then there’s no frightening blank screen confronting a new developer, and no magic syntax to learn.

In some respects, Bubble is closest to worksheet functions, widely used in Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, and Google Sheets. One might also compare Bubble programming to macros in Microsoft Access or scripts in FileMaker Pro. In each of these environments, as in Bubble, designers use a series of predefined functions, chosen from an on-screen menu, to create software logic. But Bubble’s apps can do notably more. For example, compared with Excel, Bubble boasts a full relational database with custom types a user creates. And where Excel files usually reside on a user’s hard drive, Bubble apps run in the cloud—naturally combining data from multiple users with full interactivity. Running in the cloud, Bubble can easily interact with other services—show a Google Map, charge a user’s credit card, add an email to a mailing list.

Bubble is arguably closest to Microsoft Visual Studio LightSwitch, which similarly helps casual developers build web forms to access server-side data, automating low-value "plumbing" tasks. Indeed, I’m a big fan of LightSwitch. But LightSwitch comes with some baggage from its Microsoft roots. The paid license isn’t a showstopper for serious users, and these days LightSwitch can build standard HTML apps usable on any platform and in any browser. Ultimately, most LightSwitch apps require that users write some code, creating a steeper learning curve and excluding a fair number of users who can make good use of Bubble.

One might also compare Bubble to the various web site templates. Two decades ago, GeoCities made it easy to make and host a web site with no code required—but Bubble is quite different, building interactive database-backed applications , not just static web pages. Some modern template-based tools allow limited interactivity such as shopping carts and signup pages. With these tools, users are stuck with the logic that a designer anticipated; it’s usually possible to hide unwanted options or add extra pages, but not to change the underlying concept or workflow. In contrast, Bubble lets a designer build an arbitrary site and with a novel structure.

Handholding for those who need it

Many advanced users can reasonably follow Bubble’s online training, then design their own apps. Indeed, that’s how I learned Bubble. The company’s interactive lessons show key tasks.

A set of consultant-advisors now offer another way. Broadly, these vendors use Bubble to write apps more quickly and at lower cost than typical consultancies, passing much of the savings back to customers. And if customers later want to make modifications of their own, they can learn a bit of Bubble in order to do so at zero out-of-pocket cost.

I’m most familiar with AirDev, a design shop where business-oriented generalists build Bubble apps to suit customer requirements. A few months ago, AirDev added a "sprint" option with flat pricing and an amazing five day turnaround for scope and build. They offered me a free test, building a custom scheduling app to my specifications. I told them what I wanted; they came back with reasonable clarifying questions; and a week later I had an app. I sent a few adjustment requests, which they quickly implemented. And when I had subsequent ideas for further improvement, I used the standard Bubble development environment to make changes. I’m now using the tool with students, to rave reviews.


When I first tried Bubble a few years ago, I found some significant limitations—difficulty getting data in and out, limitations on what APIs were supported, sluggish pages. Those challenges all seem to be in the past. Meanwhile, a lively forum of Bubble enthusiasts helps to vet and prioritize feature requests, accelerating improvements.

My relationship with Bubble

I wrote this post on my own, not at the request of Bubble or AirDev. I’m a big fan of their approach but have no economic relationship with either company. AirDev’s generous offer of a free "sprint" came out-of-the-blue and with no strings attached, not contingent on my writing about it; I elected to do that on my own because I was so impressed with their offering.

Bubble was founded in 2012 by Josh Haas and Emmanuel Straschnov. Though Emmanuel was not my student during his time at HBS, he has been kind to the school, including assisting numerous "FIELD 3" student teams working on rapid-turnaround microbusinesses, as well as guest-teaching in my class as part of my efforts to help business students strengthen their software engineering skills.

AirDev came in part from one of my former students, Andrew Haller, who joined with Vlad Leytus based on their shared experience wanting to make it easier to build online services. As I mentioned above, AirDev offered me a free "sprint," but this article was at my own initiative.

Spontaneous Deregulation: How to Compete with Platforms That Ignore the Rules

Edelman, Benjamin, and Damien Geradin. “Spontaneous Deregulation: How to Compete with Platforms That Ignore the Rules.” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 4 (April 2016): 80-87.

Many successful platform businesses–think Airbnb, Uber, and YouTube–ignore laws and regulations that appear to preclude their approach. The rule-flouting phenomenon is something we call “spontaneous private deregulation,” and it is not new. Benign or otherwise, spontaneous deregulation is happening increasingly rapidly and in ever more industries. This article surveys incumbents’ vulnerabilities and identifies possible responses.

Mission Impossible? Yummy77 Delivers Groceries within the Hour (teaching materials)

Edelman, Benjamin. “Mission Impossible? Yummy77 Delivers Groceries within the Hour.” Harvard Business School Case 916-025, November 2015. (Revised June 2017.) (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

Yummy77 considers alternative operational models to reduce cost, improve speed, and increase appeal. Can one of these approaches succeed where others have failed?


Mission Impossible? Yummy77 Delivers Groceries within the Hour – Powerpoint Supplement (HBP 916703)

Teaching Materials:

Mission Impossible? Yummy77 Delivers Groceries within the Hour – Teaching Plan (HBP 916051)

Resuscitating Monitter (teaching materials) with Wei Sun

Edelman, Benjamin, and Wei Sun. “Resuscitating Monitter.” Harvard Business School Case 915-027, April 2015. (Revised December 2015.) (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

After a Twitter API change and policy change block his fledgling startup, solo entrepreneur Alex Holt evaluates his options. Should he double-down with a major investment in new servers, rewriting his app from scratch, and charging users for a service that he had prided himself on offering free? Or give up and admit defeat? Was there any middle ground?


Resuscitating Monitter – PowerPoint Supplement (HBP 916701)

Teaching Materials:

Resuscitating Monitter – Teaching Note (HBP 916007)

How to Launch Your Digital Platform: A Playbook for Strategists

Edelman, Benjamin. “How to Launch Your Digital Platform: A Playbook for Strategists.” Harvard Business Review 93, no. 4 (April 2015): 90-97. (Reprinted in Launch a Start-Up That Lasts, Harvard Business Review OnPoint, Winter 2016.)

Official abstract:

The ubiquity of Internet access has caused a sharp rise in the number of businesses offering platforms that connect users for communication or commerce. Entrepreneurs are particularly drawn to these platforms because they create significant value and have modest operating costs, and network effects protect their position once established–users rarely leave a vibrant platform. But these businesses also raise significant start-up challenges. Every platform starts out empty. Platforms need to immediately attract not only many users but also multiple types of users. For example, it’s not enough that many customers want to book taxis by smartphone. Drivers must also be willing to accept smartphone bookings. Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman has been studying the dynamics of platform businesses and the strategies for launching them for 10 years. In this article he draws on research on dozens of platform sites and products to offer a framework for building a successful platform business. It involves asking five basic questions: (1) Can I attract a large group of users at once? (2) Can I offer stand-alone value to users? (3) How can I build credibility with customers? (4) How should I charge users? (5) Should my platform be compatible with legacy systems?

Informal introduction:

For online platform businesses, customer mobilization challenges loom large. The most successful platforms connect two or more types of users—buyers and sellers on a shopping portal, travelers and hotel operators on a booking service—and a strong launch usually requires convincing early users to join even before the platform reaches scale. Customers find Skype worth installing only if there are people on the platform to talk to. Who would join PayPal if there were no one to pay? Every platform starts out empty, making these worries particularly acute. For multisided platforms, which need not only many users, but many users of different types, the risk is even greater. It’s not enough for a car-dispatch platform to have a large base of customers who want to book rides by smartphone. It also needs drivers willing to accept those bookings.

Often, a platform’s designer has a workable plan once it achieves an early critical mass of users. If a service had drivers, it could attract passengers, or vice versa. And when we look at the myriad platforms that have overcome these hurdles, it can be easy to assume solutions will present themselves. In fact success is far from guaranteed, and many startups fail at this crucial stage. In an article in next month’s Harvard Business Review, I offer strategies to guide entrepreneurs through this challenge.

Pivots and Incentives at LevelUp (teaching materials) with Karen Webster

Edelman, Benjamin, and Karen Webster. “Pivots and Incentives at LevelUp.” Harvard Business School Case 915-001, August 2014. (Revised March 2015.) (educator access at HBP. request courtesy copy.)

LevelUp’s mobile payments service lets users scan a smartphone barcode rather than swipe a credit card. Will consumers embrace the service? Will merchants? LevelUp considers adjustments to make the service attractive to both consumers and merchants, while trying to accelerate deployment at reasonable cost.

Teaching Materials:

Pivots and Incentives at LevelUp – Teaching Note (HBP 915015)

Mastering the Intermediaries: Strategies for Dealing with the Likes of Google, Amazon, and Kayak

Edelman, Benjamin. “Mastering the Intermediaries: Strategies for Dealing with the Likes of Google, Amazon, and Kayak.” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 6 (June 2014): 86-92.

Many companies depend on powerful platforms which distinctively influence buyers’ purchasing. (Consider, Google, Amazon, and myriad others in their respective spheres.) I consider implications of these platforms’ market power, then suggest strategies to help companies recapture value or at least protect themselves from abuse.

Mobilizing an Online Business (teaching materials) with Peter Coles

Coles, Peter, and Benjamin Edelman. “Mobilizing an Online Business.” Harvard Business School Background Note 913-061, June 2013. (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

Entrepreneurs starting online businesses often need to mobilize multiple sets of users or customers, each of whom hesitates to participate unless others join also. This case presents several challenges with similar structure.


Mobilizing an Online Business — slide supplement – PowerPoint Supplement (HBP 913702)

Mobilizing an Online Business — slide supplement (widescreen) – PowerPoint Supplement (HBP 914053)

Teaching Materials:

Mobilizing an Online Business – Teaching Note (HBP 913062)

Attack of the Clones: Birchbox Defends Against Copycat Competitors (teaching materials) with Peter Coles

Coles, Peter A., and Benjamin Edelman. “Attack of the Clones: Birchbox Defends Against Copycat Competitors.” Harvard Business School Case 912-010, November 2011. (Revised October 2014.) ( educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

Birchbox offers trial-sized beauty products delivered monthly by mail—attracting rave reviews. Seeing the success of this model, numerous “copycat” clones seek to offer the same service. Many of these copycats focus on non-U.S. countries, but others are challenging Birchbox on its home territory. Can Birchbox defend its position? How?

The Online Economy: Strategy and Entrepreneurship — Course Architecture Note (teaching materials) with Peter Coles

Coles, Peter, and Benjamin Edelman. “The Online Economy: Strategy and Entrepreneurship — Course Architecture Note.” Harvard Business School Course Overview Note 911-069, April 2011. (Revised February 2015.) (educator access at HBP. request a courtesy copy.)

This note provides an overview of the Harvard Business School course “The Online Economy: Strategy and Entrepreneurship.” It covers the framework for the course, key principles within each course module, and a synopsis of each case, along with the lessons the case is meant to convey.