Retool expands its low-code platform for creating internal apps to support external apps, too

Tolani Alvita
6 Min Read

Since launching in 2017, Retool has made a name for itself as one of the premier low-code tools for building browser-based internal line-of-business applications. The well-funded startup’s service is now used at thousands of companies, including Amazon, OpenAI, Pinterest, Plaid, Snowflake, Taco Bell and Volvo. Now, it’s expanding its focus from internal apps to also include external apps. Aptly named “Retool for External Apps,” this new service is now generally available and aims to make it easy for any business to quickly and efficiently build secure and performant apps for a far wider audience than before.

As Retool CEO and co-founder David Hsu told me, quite a few companies already started using External during its preview phase. Among those are quite a few larger businesses like Orangetheory, for example, which provided a Retool app to over 1,600 of its studio managers, as well as quite a few startups that are using the service to build MVPs while trying to find product/market fit.

For the most part, we’re not talking about consumer applications. While it’s possible to build these — and some people are — Retool’s focus is on business apps, not the next social network.

“The core idea behind Retool is basically that all internal tools have the same building blocks. They all are made up of buttons, forms, tables — stuff like that. Basically, the really cool thing that we’ve learned about applying Retool to external business software is that actually, external business software is also remarkably similar, especially the more operational external software,” Hsu said.

Most of the software written for business users today, whether internal or external, are basic CRUD apps that read and write to a database. They may differ in how they present data, but the overall functionality doesn’t vary all that much between apps. However, the vast majority of the world’s developers work on building exactly these kinds of apps from the same building blocks.

“What’s really remarkable is that, just like for internal tools, the way that people build these CRUD apps today is so primitive,” Hsu said. “You basically use React and you build it from scratch. It’s kind of shocking that people are doing this day in and day out. … We’ve realized that a lot of the learnings that we have for internal software also apply to external software.”

Building for an external audience is a bit different, though, in that things like branding, performance and the overall look and feel matter quite a bit more. But there, too, users of internal apps now expect those apps to work just like consumer apps, even if there’s still a bit more leeway there to prioritize function over form.

What you definitely can’t ignore when building external apps is security. For this, Retool added the necessary building blocks to provide authentication and authorization features. Hsu also noted that for external apps, most developers tend to use more APIs than databases, maybe in part because that gives them more control over how data is accessed.

It’s worth noting that Retool is also enabling businesses to embed new Retool apps into existing apps using its existing React and newly launched JavaScript SDKs. Retool also added features to enable invite and onboarding flows, including the ability to send custom emails from the user’s email provider of choice.

“Shipping good software to external users means builders have to think about user-facing features that often aren’t as mission-critical when the tool is only used internally. This includes customizing how users onboard and navigate through applications. Security considerations become paramount with login, password reset flows, and granular permissions,” said Antony Bello, a senior product manager at Retool. “Retool for External Apps puts design flexibility and customization at the forefront so that customers can easily build white labeled apps for external users without sacrificing security or user experience.”

In its early days, Retool’s mission was to “change the way software is built.” As Hsu noted, that left people wondering: “So what? Is it for the better? Is it for the worse?” Earlier this year, the company changed its mission to focus on bringing “good software to everyone.” With that, it also published its definition of what constitutes good software (performant, reliable, secure, etc.) and indeed, Hsu says that Retool wants its framework to become more performant than React. He believes that’s quite possible because Retool can focus on a smaller set of use cases.

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