Hacking at Y-Combinator...without code

Hacking at Y-Combinator...without code

My Airdev cofounder and I competed in the YC Fall Hackathon using Bubble, a no-code platform

Twice each year, Y Combinator hosts a 24-hour hackathon, where top developers are given lots of caffeine and an open mandate to code something new and viable. The winning team is offered an interview for a spot in the upcoming cohort of the famed accelerator program, which has kicked-started successes like Airbnb and Dropbox.

The hackathon format has become commonplace in Silicon Valley, but for YC it aligns with its primary philosophy: “founders are most productive when they can spend most of their time hacking.” YC has a history of funding hacker-led companies, even when the business model is yet unproven.

The Trojan Horse(s)

For me and my Airdev cofounder, Vlad, the event served a very different purpose: a chance to put our code-free software development approach to the test against some of the world’s best traditional developers.

To explain: at AirDev, we build custom web applications for clients using Bubble, a powerful visual programming framework. We put this tool in the hands of smart generalists without any coding experience, and use automation and configurable templates to super-charge the process. The result is a custom app built 10x faster than conventional methods.

What the visual programming interface looks like to us

Vlad and I were accepted based on our previous products (e.g., Texted, Algo). We had never participated in a hackathon before, and felt equal parts excitement and trepidation in wandering into the coding den naked.

The Master Plan (Friday 4–5:30pm)

It was Fleet Week in San Francisco, and Vlad and I boarded the bus under the near-deafening practice runs of the Blue Angels. Riding with a mostly-young, mostly-male band of coders, we used the 90 minutes afforded to us by clogged Bay Area commute traffic to game-plan.

Our idea was to build a “warm-up” service for teams running email marketing campaigns. Spam filters are activated when a company sends too many emails out without enough replies in — this prevents messages from reaching potential customers. Most teams will “warm up” a new email address by sending non-marketing messages for a while to build credibility. We wanted to build a tool that would automate this warm-up process

Our most important breakthrough on the bus was a name: Mailmitten (“keeping your email warm”).

The Arrival (Friday 5:30–7pm)

At YC headquarters we basked in the orange glow of a large room with 30 long tables full of coders, several hundred in total. The room was abuzz as developers discussed ideas and formed teams. Some brought their own monitors; many more brought sleeping bags.

The first order of business was fuel, for body and mind. Catering arrived, and participants were invited to pitch ideas to solicit teammates. The range was vast: some anchored on a problem (using food stamps to shop online), others on a technology (augmented reality).

We spent some time getting to know the teams around us, and showing them how we make apps without code. We often face skepticism from traditional coders, but on this night it was “wow that’s pretty amazing, I need to try this out.”

The first crack (Friday 7–11pm)

After dinner, it was time to get started. Vlad and I are both over 30, so we had no plans to spend the night at our computers. We had to move fast.

I used our automated Canvas tool to create the basis for our application — this included a customizable homepage, signup/login flow, and set of visual styles right out of the gate. I decided to spend some time creating a custom interface for the main dashboard where a user would see the list of email addresses they had connected to warm up. This was a matter of taking one of our standard layouts and customizing the guts.

Managing your emails on Mailmitten

Meanwhile, Vlad was setting up the connection to Gmail using their API. Our users would need to give Mailmitten permission to send and receive emails on their behalf for the emails they registered, which required a custom integration between Bubble and Gmail.

Sleep (Friday 11pm–Saturday 11am)

With the visual and technical foundations in place, Vlad and I headed home for the night. We arrived the next morning to a room of bleary-eyed coders pushing against the wall of fatigue.

The final push (Saturday 11am–4pm)

On day 2, we set out to finish our respective areas and combine them into a single user experience.

Using the Gmail connection he had set up the previous night, Vlad created the logic for the emails sent and received by the system. Any connected email address would send 10 emails to other accounts in the system each day (with content from Bacon Ipsum), and each would be replied to automatically. Vlad built these instructions using “workflow” blocks within Bubble, calling on Gmail as needed.

A look at the logic workflows to send/receive emails

Meanwhile, I connected the interface from the night before to the dynamic data that would be pulling in from the system, such as a history of all emails sent and received from an account. I added a connection to Stripe for subscription payments from our users, from a widget we had pre-configured for this purpose. I also used our homepage editor to brand our service.

A familiar orange

The demo (Saturday 5–5:02pm)

Each team was given 2 minutes to demo their product to a panel of YC alums and staff. The criteria were simple:

  • Is this a viable (and fundable) business?
  • How much did you accomplish in 24 hours?

Mailmitten performed as advertised in the demonstration, and our judges were impressed with its technical sophistication. Then the inevitable question came: “what if Google decided to block your service for tricking its spam filters?”

The finalists (Saturday 7–9pm)

When the 10 finalist teams were announced, Mailmitten had not made the cut. Still, we had launched a fully-functional SaaS product in less than 12 hours of build time, without writing a single line of code.

As we sat back and enjoyed the finalist presentations, it was inspiring to see the breadth of ideas that had been hacked. As we rode the bus home Saturday evening, I was left with two reflections from the experience. First, that our code-free approach can indeed stand up to traditional methods in the vast majority of cases. And second, that the hackathon format is really all it’s cracked up to be — on a night, hundreds of young people forewent a night of video games or binge drinking to build something that had never been created before.

For more insights from the Airdev team, check out our blog. AirDev’s mission is to make custom software accessible to everyone. We offer fixed prices & timelines, money-back guarantees, and unparalleled speed and flexibility — all with the aim of bringing great ideas to life.