Guide
Starterpack: Database builders

Databases and no-code platforms go together very nicely. Dive in.

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Databases are at the heart of many businesses, but clunky, messy Excel spreadsheets are still rife. Using no-code database builders can supercharge the way you operate.

Databases give you a place to store, organise and track the info you need to run your business. They’re a step up from your basic spreadsheet: more powerful, flexible and also normally relational, meaning you can relate data to each other. That opens up all kinds of functionality for what you can do with your data.  

Pretty much all apps run off the back of some type of database. Think of something like Twitter: all the users go into a database, all the tweets go into a database and then you have a relationship between the users and their tweets. Alternatively, consider a CRM platform with all your customers’ info, or an inventory of your stock. Databases underpin it all. And database builders are an area where no-code tools really excel. But not Excel. We don’t like Excel.

Airtable – one of the best known database builders

1. The tools

  • Airtable – 4 stars. Best database builder.
  • Baserow – 4 stars. Best open-source database builder.
  • Ragic – 4 stars. Best for spreadsheet lovers.
  • Rows – 3 stars. Best for those uncertain about databases.
  • Stackby – 3 stars. Best for collaboration.

2. Why build a database for your business with no-code

Whether you’re looking to make more use of the data you already collect, or you’re seeking to supercharge your business by collating and analysing the data you intend on gathering, no-code database builders can help. 

It’s easy to do

It is possible to build a powerful, interrogatable database for your business without using no-code tools. You can hire a developer to build you an individual database specialised for your company – but it’ll cost you. The specially-created database is also likely to be proprietary, meaning the data within it could be inaccessible later down the line should you want to move to a different provider.

Anyone can learn and build

No-code database tools are designed to enable people to build powerful databases without specialist knowledge of coding. There are some low-code tools available, but they require a base level of programming knowledge.

It’s cheaper

While some of these no-code database builders have paid subscriptions, they are generally cheaper than hiring a developer or agency to build you a database from scratch. You can spend that money elsewhere in your business. 

3. Should you use a spreadsheet or a database?

Not every use case requires a fully-formed database, with all the functionalities it provides. Indeed, one common mistake for a business is to invest time, effort and money into building something too big and unwieldy to fit their needs and requirements. So here’s a little recap: 

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are useful for handling small amounts of data and are easier to pick up and use than many databases. They have more limited functionality when compared to databases, but are usually a tool that employees feel more comfortable using.

There are drawbacks to spreadsheets though. They’re often less collaborative than many no-code tools, which means that control of the data within them is concentrated within one or two people, rather than accessible to a broad group of staff. Likewise, spreadsheets can become unwieldy and slow at scale: no one wants to look through a 10,000 line spreadsheet.

Databases

Databases are, on the face of it, a slightly more challenging thing to get to grips with. They require a little more knowledge; though the no-code database solutions listed below are intended to be as user-friendly as possible. 

They’re far more collaborative and can be used by many users simultaneously. They’re able to more comfortably handle large volumes of data and can be interrogated in more ways than a simple spreadsheet. Their relational nature makes it easier to obtain insights about links between customer characteristics, or what products you’re selling with which.

Which is right for you?

If you have large volumes of data that need to be accessed by several staff members simultaneously, a database is more likely to be of use for your business. However, the risk of overestimating your tech requirements should not be ignored. Importing data into no-code database tools is relatively simple and intuitive, so it’s not too difficult to scale up from a spreadsheet to a database when the time comes.

Look at all that data

4. What to consider when choosing a no-code database builder

With so many options out there, it’s tough to know which is right for you. There are different price points, interfaces and features to consider. If you’re an established business, you’ll likely want to pick an option that is provided by a larger, well-known company so you can be assured of regular support should anything go wrong. A smaller startup may feel more comfortable picking a cheaper, open-source alternative. But it’s definitely worth thinking about a couple of key factors: 

• Data importing

Can your chosen tool incorporate your existing data? Many of the options on the market include simple import tools, but if you have to insert data by hand, that may be a reason not to pick a specific option.

• Maximum capacity

Some no-code database builders offer a limited number of rows or records for free or at an entry-level cost, before upselling users on more expensive packages. Considering what your needs are will help dictate which option to choose – this is an easy place to get caught out so beware!

• Intuitive interfaces

You want to pick a tool that has an intuitive, easy to understand design and interface so that all your team can use it. Different tools have different levels of complexity when it comes to user interfaces, so pick the right one for you and your team.

5. The best no-code database builders

Airtable

Airtable in action

Airtable is one of the best-known names in the space and has become an industry standard. It doesn’t look intimidating to the average user and can be used by multiple people simultaneously – making it great for collaboration.

The tool also has built-in integrations for more than 1,000 popular websites and apps, from Gmail to Slack, from Zendesk to Miro. 

Pros

  • Industry standard
  • Airtable’s Interface Designer allows you to create intuitive interfaces from your database really easily 
  • Simple layout
  • Easy learning curve

Cons

  • Very quickly becomes expensive as you scale
  • Perhaps too simple for some needs

It’s best for…

Those entering the world of databases.

Baserow

No-code tool Baserow

An open-source alternative to Airtable, Dutch company Baserow has much the same functionality as Airtable, enabling users to build databases within a web browser. Load it up and it looks conveniently similar to the market leader. Baserow also supports third-party plugins. 

Pros

  • An open-source alternative
  • Similar, familiar layout to Airtable
  • Plenty of customisable templates 

Cons

  • Still relatively low capacity in how much data it can hold
  • Has the same drawbacks as Airtable

It’s best for…

Those entering the world of databases – who want to support open-source.

Ragic

Build your database with Ragic

Ragic is a much-beloved tool and is used by companies including Amazon, Intel, Diageo and Ogilvy. It’s a step up from the entry-level tools like Airtable for users, but with that complexity comes more powerful potential. Chock-full of templates, Ragic can be tuneable to whatever needs your business has.

Pros

  • More powerful than Airtable
  • Used and supported by big businesses
  • Easy, customisable templates 

Cons

  • More complicated than others
  • Too many tiers
  • Low record limit on free version

It’s best for…

Those looking to ramp up their databases from the standard offering.

Rows

A step up from Excel

Far more user-friendly than most, Rows’ clean design extends from its website to the actual database tool itself. It works to mask the fact that you’re handling complex databases – making it a good choice for those who are wary of looking at data. It’s used by a bunch of startups and calls itself a spreadsheet editor, rather than a database tool.

Pros

  • Looks beautiful
  • Simple onboarding and support
  • A strong community 

Cons

  • Perhaps too simplistic for some
  • More spreadsheet than database
  • Costly

It’s best for…

Those who aren’t sure they need full database functionality yet, but want to take a step up from Excel.

Stackby

Here comes Stackby

Promising to help users get started within minutes, Stackby claims to be “more than just a spreadsheet”. It combines the flexibility of spreadsheets and the rigour of databases but its major benefit is how well-integrated it is with 3rd party services.  

Pros

  • Simple interface
  • Powerful range of tools
  • Fantastic range of integrations
  • Low-cost tiered pricing

Cons

  • Some tools are unnecessary
  • Acts as both a spreadsheet and database
  • Most tiers include very low row count

It’s best for…

Those on a budget, with smaller data needs.

6. FAQs

When do you realise you have to step up from a spreadsheet to a database?

There are three things to consider when making the move. First: can you safely collaborate in real-time? Secondly: do you need a rigid structure that doesn’t enable people to add new, random fields that can confuse your system? And lastly, do you need to ensure you’re GDPR compliant? If you feel you can’t safely collaborate with a spreadsheet, move to a database. If you need to add firm structures, move to a database. And if you need to be compliant with data regulations, move to a database.

Aren’t I better off just using a developer?

If you’re not a developer yourself, running your own database can be a bit like throwing money into a giant pit. You don’t know how to scope or scale the project and cost it appropriately. No-code solutions keep costs down while also ensuring you keep control of your data in non-proprietary systems.

What should I look to avoid?

Ensure you carefully scope out what each tool offers, and if it meets your needs, before making the commitment. Many of them offer graded scales of service, and it can be easy to get the wrong one – either too big or too small.

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About the Author
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris is a journalist and author who writes about tech, business and the digital economy, with previous bylines for The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED and the BBC.

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