Episode 16: Scratching your own itch and building a no code product
Nanxi is a successful entrepreneur who had an amazing exit. Her next step was to found a company that allows ANYONE at a company to build no code dashboards and visualize data. How do you come up with new ideas? How to launch a product? How to get your fist few clients? This, and MORE, on this episode.
Nanxi: What's so important when you're building a platform like this is the initial infrastructure, how do you set up the infrastructure? Because this sets, uh, the template and the premise, uh, and the interface of how all of our future advanced features, uh, get implemented by our users. And so as we're revisiting some of the old, no code tools that we tried a while ago, I wonder if they like improved that logic to make it easier.
And it's like, oh no, they can't. Because that's, that was really the foundation of how they built it.
Jesus: Hello, everyone, welcome again to the LowCode Podcast. Today, we have Nanxi Liu with us. She's a founder, she started grew in solar business, and now she's in the no-code or low-code space. The interesting thing about Nanxi is that she's not building apps using no-code tools, but actually building a no-code or low-code tool.
And that's why I wanna get her on this podcast and learn why she ended up in the no code space or low code space, uh, and what she's seeing as a founder, building a product for businesses to, to work better, probably. So, Nancy, thanks for joining us today.
Nanxi: Thanks so much for having me, jesus.
Jesus: So why don't you start joining us a little bit more about yourself, where you came from, like a little bit about the business that you grew and sold?
Nanxi: Yeah, sure. Uh, so I grew up in Colorado. I went to school at, at UC Berkeley. And when I was at Berkeley, I loved building all sorts of random stuff, whether it was apps or websites, uh, it was, you know, helping.
Jesus: What was your major? Computer science?
Nanxi: I, yeah, so I actually went and majoring, uh, intending to major in nuclear engineering.
Ultimately I actually double majored in business and political economy, uh, instead, uh, but had a lot of, you know, obviously took, uh, a lot of engineering classes, had a lot of fun building just random asset stuff to, you know, make money on the side. And so one of the, you know, apps I made, I, I joke with founders is, you know, you're not an entrepreneur until you start a failed dating app. And that's exactly what I did in college in college
Jesus: We built so many dating apps. Yeah. It's, it's crazy.
Nanxi: Yep, that's that's exactly right. Uh, and so right out of college, um, not even finishing college quite yet, a week of graduation I meet this guy who, uh, is this brilliant guy named David and he has this idea, for a smarter, interactive digital signage software. So basically, you know, screens that you can speak to and interact with. Um, and so he was like, Hey, I wanna build
Jesus: Was that an unique idea did that already exist in the market, and he saw the opportunity or it was an idea that he had.
Nanxi: That was prob, I mean, there's probably various forms of it, but he wanted to do it at scale.
And there's nobody that was doing that at scale. Um, and so he was like, Hey, I'm looking for a CEO and co-founder to go and build this. And I was like, all right, sure, why not? Um, and so, you know, his background was, he was a MIT dropout turned professional poker player. Um, and he made millions of dollars by the time he was 21 years old.
Uh, so I was very impressed with him. And so I was like, all right, let's, let's go build this thing. So that turned, uh, into Enplug. Ultimately we were not the ones that were putting up screens anywhere, we were actually just the underlying software for anyone that wanted, um, to have, uh, real time content showing on screens, dynamic content.
So when we sold the company last year, we were one of the largest companies in this space. We were certainly the innovator in this space and we powered screens in fortune 500 companies into all the way to elevators, manufacturing, facilities, banks, universities. You likely when you walked into any kind of, you know, major corporate office, we were probably powering a screen there.
Jesus: That's pretty cool. And how, why did you decide to join him, because of his prior record with his poker history or, uh, I mean, you, based on what you said earlier that you were building apps and websites, you always had this entrepreneurship, like blob inside of you, like you wanted to make a thing. You never envisioned like a traditional nine to five career.
Nanxi: I think I very much thought it was never going to be a nine to five career. I think I wanted some kind of career that was really intense and was making most use. Um, and so I had the opportunity, a lot of friends, uh, went to work full time in investment banking. That was sort of one of the highest paying jobs that you can get right outta college.
And so my summer internship was actually in investment banking at Goldman Sachs and all my friends thought I was really crazy that I wasn't going to go do that, instead I was going to take $0 and go start my own company. Uh, but I think at the time, I mean, I grew up not having a lot, and so for me, I didn't need money.
Money did really drive me because I had a very loving family, I was always able to just, you know, figure out how to make enough money that I could, uh, you know, have food, make shelter. And beyond that, I just wanna do what I love. And so I think meeting David and what spoke to me was really actually his entrepreneurial, uh, skills.
I thought the idea was really cool. Um, I had actually at the time already signed on to be essentially employee number one at the startup that one of my engineering, uh, TAs, uh, had started, they had gone through the Y Combinator. They had really fancy invest, actually worked there for one day, uh, and realized, you know, what?
I don't think, uh, this company is going to really work out. They ultimately didn't, but I just didn't think the space was exciting, okay. So I think I was looking almost for an excuse to jump on the next thing and, and, uh, for David to come in and say, Hey, here's, here's what it is. I was like, yes, absolutely.
But I was outta college, did no market research on the industry, uh, and just dive, you know, right in, which is very different than now starting Blaze, where we did lots of research. Were very thoughtful. Did tons of alpha customer interviews before building our product. I think I'm taking lots of learnings and mistakes that I made in my first company, um, into making sure that Blaze is successful and that we have very, you know, just right in even the early days that we can build a solid, uh, V1 product, but definitely took many years to, to get there.
Jesus: Right. And then at the previous company, you were the CEO, right? So were you mainly, I mean, you started the business, so probably you started doing a lot of things and eventually you hired people and had a larger team, but originally, what did you like the most? Did you like the selling part, the, building the product, the, let's say the financial admin stuff.
What is your favorite part of, uh, that first few months or years of being in business?
Nanxi: The first few months, we actually had a number of co-founders like right off the bat within a couple of months, our team size grew to 10 people. Mm-hmm . Uh, and I would say it was a lot of the excitement we were able to get in the tech community in Los Angeles.
We had just fantastic people, uh, joining us. Um, and my main responsibility was fundraising. It was all about how do we pay the bills? I had founder who was the CTO who was in charge of development. A co-founder who was in charge of design. I had a co-founder that was in charge of the underground operations getting, uh, customers, because at the time, you know, when you haven't built up, um, the reputation or the digital footprint, you don't have inbound leads.
Mm-hmm . And so we had to. So, you know, door to door, literally knocking on, right? The doors of businesses saying, Hey, would you like a screen to show, you know, digital menus? Or do you want a screen to show interactive social media where people are at your location, buying something and they post it and it'll automatically show up on the screen.
So that was the pitch. And then for me it was
Jesus: It wasn't something that existed already, right? You were like creating a new category, which is extremely hard.
Nanxi: We were, we were building the software from scratch. Now what did exist is the digital signage software industry. That was a very outdated, uh, industry where we looked at software that was in this industry.
We're like, oh my goodness, this is so old school, this is so difficult to use, you have to be an engineer to use something as simple as digital signage, just putting content on screens and managing lots of screens at one time. And we were all millennials, our expectation is that you have a device like an iPhone and you just know how to use it.
You don't need to have an instruction manual. And for digital signage, it was like lot instruction manuals and documentation. Uh, and so for us,
Jesus: It's funny that you mentioned that because I remember like years ago on, on Mexico city driving through, and this newish digital signs were broken and then you could see that they were running like windows 94 or something.
Right, and that was. I don't know, 2010, uh, and it was like, dude, why are you running like this outdated piece of software for this thing? And it's broken and you can see the windows page and you're no longer seeing the ad. So yeah, I mean, clearly it was like ready for disruption. Did your clients understand that right away?
Was it, was it a hard sale?
Nanxi: So in the early days, I would say a lot of the folks that we worked with were just installing screens and some of them, um, in 2012, 2013, we actually had to help them install wifi in their location. Like these were restaurants and retail stores that didn't have wifi now. It's like, wow.
Okay. We go anywhere and they absolutely have wifi, but believe it or not, 2012, 2013, that was not the case, so we had to even help them. Now as time moved on 2014, 2015, 2016, uh, we went and, uh, went into bigger and bigger companies. And so then we started replacing existing old school solutions, okay. At the end, you know, when we sold the company, it was, uh, a fortune 500 company would say, Hey, we have 10,000 screens, we wanna replace this software, uh, can you guys do that? And so that's then what was a lot more common or they're very familiar if they had done tons of research. I'll give the example, Kona, one of the largest elevator companies in the world, they spent two years researching all of the digital, uh, different digital signers software companies out there because they needed one digital signers software to actually power all the future elevator screens that they were manufacturing.
And so we became their partner, uh, where, uh, you know, the elevator, whatever floor you were on all the way to any emergency alert systems, all the way to the weather and other info content on the screen, we were powering that. Uh, and so those were ultimately the clients that we got, but in the early days it was, it was really boots on the ground.
Jesus: Right, right, right. That's cool. And then why did you end up selling or deciding to sell? Was it always the goal?
Nanxi: I think, um, you know, I, I would say vaguely, yes. It was like sort of, uh, this. Not super concrete, like, oh, that'd be cool if we got acquired mm-hmm but we were really not looking for it. Okay. I think by the time, um, I would say after 2015, we became cash flow positive, 2016, we became profitable.
And then every single year, since 2016, we grew double digit profitability and revenue, and so we became very profitable, we didn't raise a lot of money, in all we raised about $2 million for the business and then became profitable. Um, and most of, you know, the company was owned by insiders in the company. And so that makes us actually, um, very attractive target for private like that because they don't have to negotiate with VCs they're negotiating with the founders.
And so we would actually, I would say, um, probably every other week, at least we would get an inbound interest from a priority company that said, Hey, we wanna buy your company. Um, a lot of them were financial buyers, which means that they're buying you because they see you're very profitable. They can finance the acquisition through debt and you can service that debt, uh, really well while fueling, you know, service the debt, but also fuel growth at the same time with your own cash flow.
And so we obviously recognize this and we're like, well, we can just do this ourselves. We don't, we don't need to mm-hmm, we can continue growing ourselves faster. And so the multiples they were giving us on the business just wasn't that interesting for us. But then, um, there was a company that came in, send me a text, one of the VPs there, send me a text message that was,
hey, give me five minutes. I'll make it worth your time. And you know what? He did worth our time. And they came in nice offer, frankly, that was just, um, higher than any that we had received. And, um, they said, Hey, we're going to move really quickly, uh, we really want you, and, uh, we are going to be having your software power, all the existing screens.
So they actually had already tons of screens. They had acquired a lot of companies in our space and they're like, we wanna actually replace all of that with yours. And that was super exciting for us to build something that we now know is so going to now 10 X joining, uh, this company. So, uh, now, uh, Enplug the software we created uh, I think is one of the most, if not the most popularly, uh, used digital sided software.
And so we're really proud of that as a team, and it was a great return for our investors, our, our angel investors who were the first ones, they got a 250 X return, like our angel investor, if you invested 20 K with us, um, then you got back 5 million.
Jesus: Wow. That's amazing. That's so cool. Cool. So this is great stuff.
Nanxi: And so, cause of, you know, we had this one, we're like, okay, now we know now we're going to do research. So my same co-founder and I, uh, we said, all right, we're going to start the next company together as well, because we love working with each other and we know each other really well.
Jesus: So now with Blaze it's only the two of you.
Nanxi: Uh, it's three of us, uh, three co-founders, but we already have a team of 13. Uh, also just going very, uh, quickly. Um, and a lot of the folks, uh, who we had from our last company, they were, you know, our top engineers. And I joke you don't really know if you are a good leader until you start the next company and see if people will still join you from the last company.
And so, uh, we were
Jesus: They followed, which is good, right?
Nanxi: Yes. It's good.
Jesus: And then, okay, so you come from this, I mean that you added technology to an industry, right. But now you end up in, in no code. So tell us a little bit more about what is Blaze, who is it built for, and especially how you came up with, with building this product, like coming from where, where you're coming from.
Nanxi: Yeah. So, um, for blaze.tech, it was a product that we always wanted to have at our last company at our last company. Ultimately, I mean, we had teammates all over the world, offices, all over the world, a lot of folks in sales, customer support, product managers, marketing managers. Now these are all. Super talented people.
And there's always an internal tool that they wanted, but our engineers, they were always focused on building the core product. We just didn't have the time, um, to allocate to building these internal tools. Even we, even though we know it's super important, uh, for example, you know, our customer support person would say, I know exactly the tool I need.
Just create something simple, uh, to pull all of our HubSpot, you know, customer data so that when I'm responding to a support ticket from the customer, I can have a little bit of background. I just want that tool, you know, but that takes engineering resources. Another example is, you know, we wanted just a nice client portal that could be easily put together just to, uh, track, you know, customers can go into track where their shipments are coming in.
Um, and when they're going to, you know, receive the media player, that was, that had the Enplug software on it. And so all, there's just this whole list of our sales team wanted just an easy dashboard to see the leads and how they compare to other sales folks. Um, and you know, for HubSpot and Salesforce, there's a lot going on and they just wanted a very simple dashboard.
That's very custom to what we need. And so
Jesus: for these dashboards that they wanted, the data was coming just from one source or multiple sources?
Nanxi: Multiple sources. And so, places that they wanted to track, you know, uh, for example, we use HubSpot as in our CRM, but it didn't capture all the different information.
And so we wanted something that's really custom to us. Like almost even one company dashboard that had all the major teams KPIs shared in one, even things like that, again takes engineers. And so for Blaze, when we started Blaze, it, we wanna solve all of that. We want to enable all of those folks to be able to build these tools without writing any code.
And so we set out, uh, to truly make it an interface that if you are this entrepreneurial person, whether you are the entrepreneurial yourself, or you have an entrepreneurial spirit and you work out a company and you can describe, or you can even like, sort of sketch out the tool that you want, we want you to be able to build that in Blaze.
Jesus: And when you had that idea, I mean, that. Started when you were, when you were still at the old company, uh, were you aware of no code tools let's say Zapier or any other tools out there, or you came up with the idea and later on found the no code space?
Absolutely, okay, and so I think we, uh, saw these.
Jesus: So you, you thought that there was a gap or, or they, there was a need that wasn't met by current tools.
Nanxi: Yes. And so like for example, our customers, a lot of them are coming in where, you know, Zapier is, if you wanted to connect two existing applications together, right.
You're not creating a new application or a new interface. And so if you wanted to create a, a client portal, your own custom inventory management system, something that's a bit more complex. Uh, you generally go use a developer. And so, uh, even if you wanted to really customize, like I know there's no code tools out there where yeah, it's great.
If you want something, uh, very templated great, but for Blaze it's that, if you want to very much to customize the look and feel and match your branding and build, um, essentially giving you all the tools that it developer would have to build application, that's what we are capable of doing, because yeah, there's plenty of no code tools.
It's like, if you do customer onboarding there's, you know, plenty of no cook tools that do that. If you climb for certainly there are different options, but if you truly wanted all the custom capabilities as if you're like working with a developer, then that's where, uh, Blaze shines, right?
Jesus: How do you decide?
I think something for no-code tools like Blaze and, and Bubble, whatever. There's a fine line between functionality and power. And making it simple for non-technical people to use it and build on top of it. And I've seen that in, in a bunch of tools that the more powerful they get, the more complex it is to build powerful things.
How do you figure out that line? Uh, like you wanna make something extremely robust, but anyone can use it. How do you figure that out?
Nanxi: Yeah, I think that is where the magic is. That's really, I think the strength of our product is making such that you can do lots of advanced things while making it super, super simple, because we tried, uh, Bubble and I think they're amazing company.
Uh, but there's a huge, learning's curve but that's why a lot of folks will go hire somebody. Um, to go build something for them in Bubble, right. And so we actually have a bunch of folks that are like, well, our clients, I can't tell them to go. I want to give them a client portal that they can go and edit themselves.
And, uh, and Bubble, I can't really do that. And so, um, we'll have folks that, you know, we will instead go build it on Blaze because it is so much simpler. It's the difference between, I think, you know, You have the WordPress and the Squarespace of the world where it's just, anyone can use it, right, super simple drag and drop. Taking all of that and distilling all of the logic and the advanced functionality into that kind of interface.
And we tried lots of no code and low code tools out there, plenty of them. And it was, it was fun because, um, this is again, you know, both before we started Blaze and then, uh, during to see, you know, if they've changed and, and I think what's so important when you're building a platform like this is the initial infrastructure, how do you set up the infrastructure?
Because this sets, uh, the template and the premise, uh, and the interface of how all of our future advanced features, uh, get implemented by our users. And so as we're revisiting some of the old, no code tools that we try, we're like, oh, I wonder if they've like improved that logic to make it easier. And it's like, oh no, they can't because that's, that was really the foundation of how they built it.
Right. They were like, that is really complicated of like basically these charts and lines and it, it was, for us, um, like confusing even for our engineers and for myself, I'm actually the non-technical person on the team. So I am the perfect tester for Blaze, and so I, if I can't build in blaze, I immediately share right back with our engineers.
So because that my co-founder is a engineer, so we definitely have that balance where she's like, oh, well, you know what that means is it just is pulling that ID from, uh, that API. And I was, nope, you have to say it in a different way and make the interface so much simpler for me, mm-hmm so that I know how to grab certain elements from that, that API, uh, because I am not a, a programmer.
Jesus: I know what you're talking about.
Yeah, I think it's funny that you mentioned that I was, were speaking with hopefully client and we were checking out a bunch of different low code tools, like robust tools, like Webflow and others. Um, and there were some, let's say basic things that you would think that pretty much any software would be able to do and were like, oh, we cannot do that in Bubble yet.
Like users, you can have a user's database in, in, in the Webflow today. They announced it in November, they haven't launched it yet. And you're like, how is it impossible that today? And especially after they've raised so much money we still don't have users on Webflow, right. And it's probably related to the way it was built originally.
And now they have, takes a lot of time and effort on engineering hours to now build that functionality, that sounds basic, and that pretty much every single app has. So it's, it's, yeah, I mean, you're on the right track. Like it's important to think, and especially now that you can compare your idea to all of these other no code and low code platforms and see where the opportunities are in the space.
Nanxi: It definitely helps to not be the first mover in so that we could see, you know, here's why it doesn't work. Here's why our team couldn't use, uh, Bubble. And again, I think Bubble's great company, there's a lot of fantastic, uh, things, uh, things that can be built on Bubble. Uh, but similarly, like the first things that we needed was to be able to allow our clients to create lots of different users and the different users having different permissions.
Cause they're creating lots of client portals, inventory management. Again, every single person needs to have different access levels, and that's built in into was literally in our MVP, the core product.
Jesus: Right, yeah. Something, something that comes to mind, uh, that I, I don't wanna say struggle, but it's always in my mind, is this thing about you, you mentioned it earlier, like doing want, like Bubble, you need to hire a developer freelancer agency to build something for you.
Which probably that's not how they started, they didn't want that to happen. But then that ended up happening, right, then with Glide and, and Webflow because their sales pitch is anyone can do it. But then in many cases, you end up powering a third party, uh, to build something for you, for your business in many cases, because you don't have time or the knowledge, but also in many cases, because it's just complex.
Do you think that Blaze will need that interface between the product and the end client as in an agency or a freelancer, or do you always like, are you trying to really get to the end user without having that intermediary helping the business to build a product.
Nanxi: So I am always a believer, even if something, I mean, people will still hire others to use Squarespace.
So I wanna make it so easy that agencies jump at the opportunity to build on Blaze, because I think there is something very special about having somebody who is that visual marketing branding, um, You know, genius to go and build something. I think that's always, and so we actually already work with lots of agencies who are like, ah, I'm just, it's, I'm spending too much time on Bubble trying to build it for the client, I want to use Blaze. And so I think there's always going to be that fantastic opportunity, and so I like that a lot. So for me, it's the wether it is the end user, or you're using an agency because I think there's, again, you know, lots of value that an agency can provide, uh, I, I want to make sure that Blaze stays really simple to use.
Um, and I think about it, like, you know, even like posting social media, people will hire agency to do that. Of course it's super easy to, you know, take photo and, you know, but there's a difference between, you know, something that looks mediocre at the end of the day. It's still that design and the content that you're putting out.
And so, um, I mean, we love working with, with agencies, so I don't think of it as, uh, or I think of it as an app. Okay, we like end users, and we like working with agencies,
Jesus: Right, Blaze is a product that's for internal apps, right. Or is, or will it ever become, or maybe it's now I dunno, a, it might be a client facing app or is it a B2C platform, like a platform to build B2C apps like native apps eventually?
Nanxi: So I would say we're really good at internal applications and tools, but we definitely have folks that are building products on our site that are the actual product they'll give to, to clients, for example,
Jesus: Like user facing, right?
Nanxi: Yeah, it's very much user facing. I mean, we have one where, um, they are a company that enriches LinkedIn data.
So you basically, um, input all the different, uh, people's LinkedIn profile URLs, and then it spits out all the additional details about that person with their email, their primary email, their, uh, personal email, where they worked on before data that you otherwise couldn't see, unless you had like a first or second degree connection with them.
So that's like a tool and it's all built up you know, um, in Blaze, the interface is on Blaze. Of course they've created APIs that call different things, but they use Blaze to then connect all the information together and have basically the, the actual tool, the only tool that the customer really sees. And so we definitely have that, although we were not intending, but I would say that's a testament to the capability of Blaze.
Uh, our focus still is, you know, the admin panels for people to use, be able to augment their Sales Force or Marketo or MailChimp information into custom dashboards.
Jesus: Right, and how do you do your, your, uh, coach market strategy? Because something, at least that we struggle at the agency is that unlike software or a specific tool. I mean, people look for, uh, like an email client, let's say, I mean, probably nobody looks for client email anymore, an email client anymore, but in your case when you're building or when you can build very custom solutions to your platform, how do you get users? Right, because at least we have clients, let's say the healthcare industry and they're looking for a very custom solution for an internal, uh, let's say an internal, app that manages their billing right, at, at a small healthcare facility. So there is not a software that does that. So the, the, the, like, it's hard to do SEO for these topics when they're very generic, they just want to build something custom for themselves. There's nothing to compare it with. How do you get clients?
Are you going, are you doing direct sales or are you, uh, leveraging SEO? What do you think works best?
Nanxi: Yeah. So right now you're looking at the only salesperson in the company. And even for me, um, I'm not doing any outbound sales, it's actually all been inbound. Um, and I think we have just some fantastic, um, organic, uh, leads come in.
And so how are they discovering us? And so I, you know, will post, uh, things on my LinkedIn. I, I did one LinkedIn post when we launched our product, and we just got so many signups and I think a lot of word of mouth, um, just, uh, both on, you know, Reddit and there was a TikTok video that talked about us and that kind of went, you know, a little viral.
And so that generated a lot of interest. And I think what's special about Blaze is you can create tools that sometimes are almost like so basic that there's no standalone company that can survive on just like doing a no code of that, and Blaze is sort of like perfect. And at the same time, um, there, uh, Blaze is this perfect one where if you have a use case that's so specific to you, it's hard to find one that also fulfills.
And so I think we get, uh, a lot of these types of use cases where it's the well, I'm trying to combine billing with, uh, having a client portal that shows all the strategy with a task manager that our, uh, clients can go in and they can even edit, you know, the tasks and see which account managers are on them, you know, edit, if they need to add notes to the task, um, and so that's been super popular, which is, you know, taking air table, like right now, a lot of task management's tracked and air table, and then putting it in a nice professional web application with your company's branding that, you know, shows and allows the client to edit all this information.
Um, and you can make sure that the client only sees theirs while on the backend for air table, you can see all the clients and you don't have to change your workflow. It's just giving the clients this nicer interface. And so that's been also pretty popular.
Jesus: Yeah, we've seen actually we've seen clients who their employees just hate working on spreadsheets, either Airtable, Google, whatever, but then you have the same data on a nice looking app, and then everybody comes in and works, because they, at least they just see the data that they're supposed to. And just a nicer interface, we are so used to using good looking apps that when it comes to work and you have to work in a spreadsheet, people are like, Ugh, this doesn't look nice.
I'm I'm, it's overwhelming. Maybe then they build these apps on top of traditional databases, spreadsheets, and just the, the, the district experience is so much better and people work better.
Nanxi: Exactly. And so for, um, these applications, we've definitely just seen, uh, for our clients engagement with, uh, their own clients, it has just increased because of it, right.
Jesus: Cool. So where can you, where can people learn more about place? Apart from LinkedIn,
Nanxi: The best place is to go to www.blaze.tech, and then sign up and try Blaze.
Jesus: Cool. Excellent.
Nancy, thank you so much for being with us.
Nanxi: Jesus. Thanks so much for having me. This was fun.
Jesus: Thank you.