How Tara Reed Built a Million Dollar Startup Without Code – And is Teaching Others How To Do the Same!
Tara Reed is a true tech rebel. She’s a Black founder who travels the world working from her laptop, building tech companies and teaching others how they can do the same. Tara runs a multi-million dollar school teaching people how to build apps, without needing to know how to code. Her TED talk went viral, inspiring unlikely entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses. We had the opportunity to speak with Tara about her entrepreneurial journey, Apps Without Code, and her advice to other founders.
This interview was edited for clarity
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am the founder of a company called Apps Without Code. We are an online school teaching people how to build their own apps without having any coding background, knowing how to code or going to school for computer science. The majority of the folks we work with are women and people of color, which is interesting because I help other non-technical entrepreneurs launch their ideas and get their businesses out there. It’s incredibly rewarding.
How did you get the idea to launch Apps Without Code?
Starting Apps Without Code was unintentional, to begin with. I was running an art startup called Kollecto, an algorithm I built that matched people to artwork based on their preferences. I had done this without writing any code. When I was blogging about my journey and how I built an app without code, all of a sudden other non-tech entrepreneurs who had ideas of their own for apps were emailing me for advice.
They asked, ‘I’ve never seen a woman with locks doing this before. Can you show me?‘ So I decided to help five people on the side. I called it the Apps Without Code Bootcamp.
In this bootcamp, I helped 5 people launch their apps. After the initial round, I increased the price and opened it up again. 70 people signed up next. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be something big’.
What does Apps Without Code look like now?
Fast forward to now, our school (we have a free class that’s open to the public) and that free class has had over 150,000 people come through it in three years is wild.
We have students in 14 different countries, and we have our more intensive program, which is eight weeks. We have a more intensive program, and around 250 people start that program every month. We work more hands-on, students learn all of our methodologies around launching an app and getting your first paying customers!
You said, ‘I’m a first time entrepreneur who swore I’d never become an entrepreneur’ What do you mean by that?
I branched out as an entrepreneur, but I began in tech as a Marketer. I worked at Google, Foursquare and then Microsoft. So while I had a solid background in tech, I wasn’t doing any coding, but more on the business side. I embraced art while working at Microsoft, and I began to collect artwork.
A friend of mine introduced me to Gary Chow, who had just left the VC firm, Union Square Ventures. He rented Kickstarter’s old office and started a program called ‘Side Project Accelerator’ to help folks launch their side projects.
When trying to launch a business, I was trying to balance the fact that the culture at my job was very bureaucratic and my desire to have more creative control in my role.
After launching my side project, Kollecto, through the Side Project Accelerator Program, I started to generate revenue with the system that I had built. I ended up raising funds for that and going down the route of entrepreneurship like, ‘Okay, now I’m building a business.’
After the side projector accelerator, how did you meet the financial challenge of growing and scaling your business?
We raised under half a million for Kollecto, but I wasn’t interested in going that route. It took away a lot of my options. When you raise money from venture style investors, you are promising that you’re going to get the company as big, as fast as possible so that you can sell or go public as fast as possible.
When I launched Apps Without Code, I knew I didn’t want to go down the VC route or at least I wanted to wait as long as possible. To this day, I’ve been really intentional with the business. We haven’t raised any external funding. We are entirely bootstrapped.
Bootstrapping worked for Apps Without Code, but what are your thoughts on getting VC investment?
Bootstrapping was the right way to go for me. I’m not saying Apps Without Code won’t ever take on money, but now we have the leverage and the ability to wait. I still own 100% of the business, and we’re at $5 million a year. This allows me to negotiate a lot more and get the terms and then a deal that makes sense for us.
We have a culture in startups and tech that you should mold your whole business around what an investor wants you to do. My advice would be to think about it differently. An investor has an opportunity to make a bunch of money off you. You, as the founder, should be selective of who you give that privilege. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of a power dynamic.
How does bootstrapping affect a business model?
If you’re going to bootstrap or if you decided to wait a little longer for outside investment so that you have leverage, it means you don’t get to choose a particular business model where you are offering a free service for all of your customers. You have to think about generating revenue now.
There’s a myth that if you’re starting out building an app or a software business that you have to offer it free or .99 cents a month. The challenge with this is that you need a ton of customers to make that work. You’re going to have to bust your butt on marketing and advertising. This is why one of the things I teach is ‘white labelling’ because it’s more lucrative and a better financial solution.
Can you tell us more about how white labelling works?
White labelling is a business model where you start by asking yourself what kinds of companies or organizations would benefit from having their own version of your app or your product. Once you identify those, you make a copy of your app for them. You take your logo off, you put theirs on, and then you charge a company to take credit for that app. You can do this for an unlimited number of customers.
With white labelling, your pricing can start at $3,000 a year and upwards. Why would someone pay $3,000 a year for access to your app? Because they’re getting an app that has their own branding/logo and business attached to it. Their alternative is to hire a software developer, and that could cost them $20K. So the rights to use your app as theirs is an awesome deal.
How important is it for founders to evaluate their business model from the beginning?
It’s crucial to review your business model and get into the mindset of how your business can be profitable tomorrow/as early as possible. Founders often look at how their product/service can be profitable 5 years from now. When you take this approach, it means that you’ll need money right away now. Likely you need someone else’s money now to make your business work.
The best thing to do is figure out how your product can make money today, so you don’t need any investors out the gate. But as founders, it’s important to keep your options open. do You can say to potential investors, ‘I like you as investors, but let’s circle back next year.’ There’s nothing that makes an investor want to work with you more than saying no. It’s like dating.
Any other advice to other entrepreneurs?
Put yourself around people who are doing what you want to be doing. That makes a huge difference. Reach out to those people, offer value, and see what you can learn from each other. Not everybody will say yes, and it will require you to get out of your own way and shake off the imposter syndrome. Reach out to folks, write the message, and send! Good things are sure to follow!