citizen development with zoho creator

In our previous blog, we had Pedro from PFS (Pro-Farmer Solutions) talk to us about how he used Zoho Creator to run his entire organic farm, and, in the process, empower his fellow farmers worldwide. This time around, we’re introducing BBN International from Shrewsbury, United Kingdom. BBN International is a specialist supplier of fiber optic instruments and other related components to telecom, aerospace, research, and sensor markets worldwide. 

We had an enriching conversation with Blair Nimmo, CEO and founder of BBN International, who is also one of our longest and most prized customers—for over eight years and counting! Let’s take a look at what transpired during our chat.

Could you tell us about the industry that BBN International belongs to, and your role as the founder and CEO?

[Blair] I am what I describe as a specialist supplier of fiber optic instruments, components, and devices. If you’re going by official terminology, then we’re a non-stocking distributor. Although we’re middlemen, we don’t hold any stock, as the products that we deal with are high tech and require premium care. Everything we sell is specific to a customer’s requirements.

It’s been 15 years for BBN as a company and 25+ years for you as an entrepreneur. How would you compare your business journey, from back in the day to what it is now?

[Blair] In my previous business, before BBN, we were more of a typical distributor with sales, support, marketing, and accounts departments. We developed what was then a Microsoft Access database to handle CRM and simple order processing. So when I decided to start BBN with a completely different business model, without stocking options, the need for automation and assistance was high, since I worked for myself, from my home in Shrewsbury. I looked for a comprehensive business solution and worked incredibly hard to find an off-the-shelf CRMs, like NetSuite, Brightpearl, and Salesforce. The pricing was never appealing, and anything I wanted to change or add would have an additional cost on top of their annual or monthly license fees. So, long story short, I looked for an application to create everything I wanted from scratch.

I’m sure “low-code” as a term was pretty unheard of 8-10 years ago. So how did you land on this relatively new technology and particularly on Zoho Creator?

[Blair] My wife had a small business and she used Zoho CRM for simple billing and contact management purposes. This introduced me to Zoho, and when I started 10+ years ago, Zoho was like the best kept secret in the world. I had a conversation with your product support because I was a novice Creator user, and in the process got some tips to start my business software development journey. In the end, it worked out really well for me and I’m glad I took the Zoho route.

Do you consider yourself a citizen developer? Did you have a professional coding background or was the transition harder than you thought?

[Blair] Yes and no. I’m an electronic engineer by profession, but I’d never done business software development until I started using Zoho Creator. The code I wrote before, apart from Microsoft Access, wasn’t necessarily software. It was more engineering oriented and technical, like software methods to control satellite communication. The transition had its hurdles, as low-code was pretty irrelevant back then and I had never used this drag-and-drop builder before. Most of the time, I looked up the commands and techniques in the Deluge manual available on your website. 

Considering you run your entire company on Zoho Creator, what are some of the important modules you’ve built on your app? And if you could pick your favorite feature from one of them, what would it be?

[Blair] I run 100% of my business on Zoho Creator. We’ve got 1,000+ customers and 100+ suppliers, and all their business documentations is done through Zoho Creator. I have over 20 modules for the app, but I’ll just mention the primary ones that are at the core of BBN.

The first one is marketing. I create newsletters which are automatically sent to whichever customers I decide, like an email campaign.The data collected from the website, and the content that goes out, are stored on Zoho Creator. The second module is the content management system (CMS). I created a front end, which sits on my website, and makes API calls to Creator for content, and then caches them locally on my web server. This contributes massively to real-time updates. The pictures and text associated with each product on the website are stored either as links or text in Creator. And the next significant module is the CRM. Although Zoho has a CRM, I built one on Creator which handles all the customer-related data and sales functions for BBN.

The primary reason I use Zoho Creator is to stop worrying about servers and backend functionalities. I’ve seen the problems of configuring servers and compiling different sections of code. I have some huge tables in the database and, so far, I haven’t found any problems with performance or with scale. I love the fact that I don’t have to worry about designing the front end and other UX features which otherwise would involve HTML and CSS. So that, for me, would be the most appealing attribute of Zoho Creator.

From a business standpoint, what would be your single biggest gain after switching to a low-code application development platform?

[Blair] Since BBN runs completely on Zoho Creator, it has enabled me to go paperless, which is massive from a sustainability aspect. I send links to documents in the case of sales quotes, purchase orders, sales invoices, etc. I’ve also written a complete multi-currency double-entry accounting system. This is significant for companies based in the UK, because at the end of the financial year, during the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) management accounts process, I send the authorities just one file. This saves a substantial amount of time and money.

What’s next for BBN International in the software space, and what’s something you’d want from a product point of view? 

[Blair] Building on Zoho Creator is an open book. You learn and build something new every day. I try to improve the functions I have in place to make work easier and organizational processes smoother. From a product point of view, what I’d want is a single huge manual covering everything from the basics of Zoho Creator to advanced Deluge functions, along with commonly encountered problems and their solutions. It’d look like a combination of a help doc, community posts, and shortcuts. 

We had a chance to see Blair’s app and it was nothing short of mind-boggling. His loyalty to the product, combined with his technical enthusiasm, makes him one of our favorite customers.

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