When Michael Williams bought a few beehives as a retirement hobby, little did he expect that his casual new project would eventually turn out to become a fully-fledged business selling millions-worth of honey-based goods.
But what is now known as the British Honey Company (BHC) has made a name for itself for producing 13 different honey products and 16 types of spirits, and is currently processing an average 1.5 million bottles of honey-infused gin, vodka, rum and whisky a year.
To track everything from beehives to bottles the company is using software built on low-code platform Filemaker, now re-branded Claris.
Williams was first keen to use Claris to help secure a food standard certification called the Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SAFE), which requires tracing and testing the product from the beehive to the jar, to guarantee a certain level of quality.
Alex Maurice had made this traceability problem the topic of his university dissertation, and using Claris, he built a cloud-based system for BHC connecting beekeepers, laboratory testers, production teams, as well as sales and logistics departments, into a single platform tracking the quality of the honey throughout the product's lifecycle.
BHC's beehives now have barcodes, and products come with batch numbers, all linking to a central database that is updated with every movement that occurs during different stages of production.
"Some other companies, including a distillery, were keen to buy this software from us," Williams told ZDNet. "It got us thinking – why don't we make our own honey gin?"
Managing a distillery comes with another host of administrative headaches – not the least of which is a tax system that is specific to spirits, and requires different calculations based on bottle volume and alcohol content.
What's more, BHC functions with bonded warehouses that have suspended duty, which means that tax is only due once the product ships. "The difficulty is tracking all this through and paying the right amount of duty for each bottle," explains Williams. "When you're selling hundreds of bottles a day, that becomes an enormous task."
In other words, BHC was faced with another traceability problem – but one that could be resolved by adapting the software already in place for honey production. Maurice duly prototyped new features for the platform to track the manufacturing process, but this time for bottles of spirits.
To visualize exactly which components and ingredients end up in which product, every department across the business has access to the software, from those producing honey to the teams dispatching orders. Staff can access the app with mainstream devices like iPhones or iPads, and input the required data to make sure that the product is tracked at every stage of production.
Digitising the process onto a central platform presented huge advantages over conventional pen-and-paper methods, and enabled BHC to scale quickly to meet the demands of spirit distributors across the UK.
"We built a system that did all the tracking," says Williams. "If you've got a bottle of gin, you can go onto the system with a batch number and within three minutes find out where it came from, what components went into it and who it was dispatched to."
Critics view low-code as a helpful tool to help small businesses with digital transformation, but one that is still limited, and far from a catch-all solution that can match the work of a fully custom-built, in-house piece of software.
It remains that for some, low-code services still cannot compete against the work of a programmer designing a piece of software from the ground up. Developers have repeatedly expressed doubts that low-code's Lego block-like processes might achieve the same outcomes as a fully qualified coder, who can take ownership of every line of programming that goes into an application – enabling a higher level of customization, flexibility and problem-solving.
They argue that low-code and no-code services hit a wall once a business starts scaling up and exploring more diverse models, because the tools are not capable of adapting in the same way that a creative in-house developer would.
But for Maurice, who built BHC's software, it is quite the contrary: low-code, he argues, is becoming to programming what templates are to website design. "It's the same thing that happened with websites. At the time, you'd start them from scratch, and it would cost a lot more money than it would now to take a template and have a website running in two days," Maurice tells ZDNet.
"Similarly, why would you spend thousands on an app built in native software that will take you six months to be up and running and integrated with your staff, when you can use Claris, build a prototype in one or two days, see if your staff is happy and then just build on top of it?" he continues. "Now, you can have an in-house developer that will be cost-effective and have solutions that work for the business."
Low-code and no-code services, in fact, have recently been the focus of renewed interest, with many new companies emerging to tempt individuals with little, and sometimes no, coding experience at all, into developing their own custom-made apps.
Large players like Microsoft and Salesforce are releasing new collections of low-code tools; and BlueFinity, Airtable or Bubble are only a few examples of the myriad startups that are following suit with the promise of developing software without the need for coding expertise.
Tech analyst firm Forrester has predicted that the low-code market will grow 40% annually to reach $21 billion by 2022, while Gartner forecasts that low-code application platforms will account for 65% of all app development by 2024.
Claris does require some basic understanding of development concepts, as the company's vice president Peter Nelson explains. "We are not a no-code platform," Nelson tells ZDNet. "If we break down the user spectrum from zero to 100, with zero being someone who has never seen a computer, and 100 being the most seasoned developer, our sweet spot has been serving people between 40 and 80 on that spectrum."
"We plug into users with some basic understanding of development concepts, all the way to pretty savvy developers," he continues. "So it's not the right tool for everything – but where it is, it's as resilient and extendable as something you would write in Java."
An example of that flexibility: BHC started off with a platform designed for a honey company, was able to quickly adapt the technology to produce spirits, and even pivoted to producing denatured alcohol to cope with hand sanitizer shortages at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With denatured alcohol being duty-exempt, the change could have caused another flurry of paperwork and legal accounting; instead, BHC changed the manufacturing process in less than a week, adapted the software, and started shipping hand sanitizer within 14 days.
The company continues to modify the software, for example adapting the platform to incorporate more listings with online retailers, implementing partnerships with Ocado and Amazon directly into the software to simplify the processing of orders.
Although most emerging low-code and no-code platforms are yet to convince all developers that they are capable of providing the depth and sophistication of a program designed entirely in-house, the BHC example shows that it might only be a matter of time before the buzz reaches them, too.