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Retool vs Bubble: The Top 3 Differences

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Dominik Keller
Jul 17th, 2023

Which two companies made the biggest splash in the no-code / low-code application development industry?

often than not the first two companies mentioned are Retool and Bubble.

Let’s explore why Retool and Bubble are such popular no-code/low-code application builders, and let’s better understand their differences in this Retool vs Bubble comparison.

Five: Rapid App Development for Data-Driven Business Apps

The low-code industry is full of great tools that accelerate application development. Developers are spoilt for choice.

Usually, choosing the right tool comes down to the simple question: what type of application do I want to develop?

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Now, let’s take a closer look at the following key differences between Retool and Bubble so that you can select the right application development tool for your next project:

  1. Pricing: Pay per App or Pay per End-User?
  2. End-Users: Consumers or Business Users?
  3. Low Code vs No Code: JavaScript or Drag-And-Drop?

Last, we will take a closer look at Five, a Retool and Bubble alternative for rapid business application development with a simple pay-per-app pricing model.

What is Retool?

Retool is a low-code internal tool builder that helps software engineers build internal corporate applications faster. The company was founded in 2017 by David Hsu, a computer science and philosophy graduate from Oxford. Originally, back in 2017, the company’s slogan was: “Excel-like, with higher order primitives“. Nowadays Retool’s main message is “Build internal tools faster.”

1. Retool’s Target Market: Internal IT Teams

In 2022, Retool raised US$45m from investors to support its growth. On TechCrunch, the raise was announced under the headline: “Retool raises $45M at a $3.2B valuation to make building custom software as easy as buying off the shelf“.

The headline reveals something about Retool’s target market and users: Retool promotes itself to software developers who build custom applications at corporates.

Here’s how Retool advertises its solution on Google, for example:

“Ship internal tools in just a few minutes with 100+ expertly crafted UI components. Easily build your UI, connect your data, and publish your applications in record time.”

Retool solves a very particular problem. More than half of the world’s software developers work at non-IT companies, and a large part of their time is spent building and maintaining internal corporate applications. Building these applications is typically not very exciting. They typically use a lot of boilerplate code, such as forms, charts, tables, reports, or dashboards.

Retool lets software developers ship these internal tools to end-users faster by providing a library of pre-built components specifically designed for developing internal tools.

2. Retool: A Quick Introduction to the Product

Retool is a tool designed for software developers. It provides developers with pre-built components that can be extended by using high code almost anywhere. Using Retool successfully requires a background in JavaScript, databases, and SQL.

As mentioned, Retool is primarily used to build internal applications. Most internal applications do not use a fresh database. Say, you’re working for a company with a five-year history. In all likelihood, your company uses a number of off-the-shelf SaaS solutions, such as a CRM system, HR software, or an accounting tool. Retool makes it easy to connect to these existing data sources, such as APIs or existing databases. And once Retool can consume the data, it can be used to build a front-end GUI on top of the data source.

3. What Are Typical Retool Use Cases?

Retool is a powerful internal application builder that can be used to create a front-end GUI on top of almost any data source. Typical use cases are any internally-used business applications to streamline operations, store or visualize data.

Retool’s strength is that applications built with it can write back to the database that they are connected to. This, for example, makes Retool different from pure data visualization or Business Intelligence (BI) tools.

What is Bubble?

Bubble is a no-code web application builder that helps people turn their ideas into web app startups. The company was founded in 2012 by Emmanuel Straschnov and Josh Haas in New York. The company’s slogan is: “The best way to build apps without code.”

1. Bubble’s Target Market: Non-Technical Founders

In 2021, Bubble raised US$100m from investors to support its growth. On TechCrunch, the raise was announced under the headline “No-code Bubble raises $100M to make technical co-founders obsolete“.

The headline reveals something important about Bubble’s target market and users: Bubble promotes itself to non-technical start-up founders and entrepreneurs.

Here’s how Bubble advertises its solution on Google, for example:

“The Freedom to Bring Your Idea to Life. No Limits. No Code. Sign Up & Try Bubble for Free. The Fastest, Cheapest, and Most Flexible Way to Build Your Product Idea. Free to Start.”

Bubble sells the dream of application development to those who traditionally are unable to build applications because they lack the technical expertise to do so. With Bubble, anyone with an idea for an application can build it.

Bubble is “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap” productized: if you are a solo entrepreneur, a non-technical founder, or have an idea for an application but don’t know how to code, then Bubble is for you.

2. Bubble: A Quick Introduction to the Product

Bubble offers a beginner-friendly and intuitive drag-and-drop interface for building applications. You don’t need a background in application development to get started on Bubble: the tool makes it incredibly easy to build applications and anyone willing to learn can get started on it.

Bubble’s engineering team put in a lot of effort to make Bubble as easy to use as possible. For example,

  1. Objects stored in your application’s database are called “Things”.
  2. Application elements are moved around and positioned on a pixel-perfect, visual What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) interface, and
  3. Application logic is built visually in a workflow editor that can be used to create “If This, Then That” (ITTT) logic, such as “If current user logs in, show user avatar and hide login button.”

3. What Are Typical Bubble Use Cases?

Bubble is a powerful no-code tool that can be used for a variety of use cases. It is best suited for building consumer-facing web applications, such as online communities, marketplaces, or SaaS apps.

Bubble is also a great tool for building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Bubble can get you to a working prototype application quickly. Your MVP may not be perfect, but at least it’s better than a Figma mock-up, because you can store real data.

4. Who Owns the Intellectual Property of My App Developed in Bubble?

Bubble is primarily used by start-ups as an MVP builder. Once their application is up and running on Bubble, these companies often seek funding from investors. This then raises the question: who owns the intellectual property in an application developed in Bubble?

Bubble developers own the full intellectual property of their application, i.e. their design, workflows, and data. Bubble, on the other hand, retains the IP of the non-app-specific engine.

For more information on how to explain Bubble to your investors, check out this Bubble cheat sheet.

Now that we better understand Retool and Bubble, let’s compare these two tools by analyzing their pricing, end-users and application development approach.

Retool vs Bubble: The Top 3 Differences

1. Retool vs Bubble – Pay per App or Pay per End-User?

If you’re unsure whether Retool or Bubble is the right application development platform for you, then the first question to ask is this: How do you want to pay for your application?

Bubble charges per application and the cheapest plan is just US$29 per month and application. Retool, on the other hand, charges per user at US$10 per month.

If you plan to build the next Uber, eBay, or Tinder, then Retool’s pricing model won’t work for you. Why? Let’s assume for a second that indeed your app is the next Tinder, and your users grow from 10 to 10,000 in a matter of days.

With Retool, your monthly bill will be US$100,000 per month. With Bubble, it will be S$349 per month (assuming that by now you have moved up to their most expensive plan).

2. Retool vs Bubble – Internal or External Users?

Our discussion on pricing leads us straight to the second significant difference in our Retool vs Bubble comparison: application end-users.

Are your application end-users consumers? Or are they business users? If you’re unsure what the difference is, ask yourself how do you expect users to sign up.

Will they sign up using a corporate email account or Microsoft’s Single Sign-On? Then they are business users. Or will they sign up using their private email address or social media account, such as their Facebook profile? Then they are consumers.

Now that the difference between consumers and business users is clear, here’s another important difference between these two user groups. There is almost an almost unlimited number of consumers and the growth of your user base is unpredictable but as mentioned above, could be exponential. Meta’s Threads, for example, went from zero to 100 million users in just five days.

The number of business users, on the other hand, is predictable and their growth is in all likelihood linear. Let’s say you’re building an internal lead generation app for your sales team. Your sales team might grow from 10 to 12 people in a year. But it won’t grow to 100 million in five days.

3. Retool vs Bubble – Low Code or No Code?

Now, if after analyzing Retool’s and Bubble’s pricing strategy, and making assumptions about your end-users, you are still unsure which tool is right for you, then here’s the last important difference between Retool and Bubble: are you looking for a low-code or a no-code tool?

Retool is a low-code tool designed to increase developer productivity. It is best used by software developers and programmers.

Bubble is a no-code tool designed to democratize software development. It is best used by people who have never written code before.

Experienced software developers will be frustrated by Bubble’s drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface and by how opinionated Bubble is. Using Retool, however, they can apply their existing JavaScript or SQL skills.

Non-coders, non-technical founders, or those new to application development will be amazed by Bubble’s drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface. Retool, however, is not for them. Even the initial step of connecting Retool to a MySQL, Postgres, or MongoDB database is outside their comfort zone.

Five: The Best Business Application Builder

Five is a great alternative for anyone building an internal tool, business application, business partner portal, or online database application. Applications built and deployed with Five come with a hosted MySQL database.

Here’s how Five compares to Retool and Bubble:

1. Pricing

Five charges a fixed monthly price per application with unlimited end-users, meaning you always know exactly how much you need to pay for your app. Application developers pay a fixed monthly fee per application (starting from US$29.99 per month). This gives developers greater transparency than an end-user-based pricing model because they can safely budget for a fixed monthly cost, regardless of how many end-users use the application.

2. Users

Five does not impose any limits on end-users: every application built with and hosted by Five can be used by unlimited end-users. This is great for both internal apps, such as line-of-business applications, or external apps, such as business partner or supplier portals.

3. Low Code or No Code?

Similar to Retool, Five is best used by those with a background in SQL. You don’t need to be a coder, but it helps to know what a relational database is or how to write a SELECT statement in SQL.

Conclusion: Retool vs Bubble Comparison

Retool vs Bubble: What are the differences?

Retool and Bubble are two popular low code / no code development tools. But their target market and use cases are very different: Bubble is best used by people who have never written code before. It’s a great tool if you’re new to application development and have an idea for a start-up. Retool, on the other hand, is made for software developers proficient in SQL or JavaScript. Its typical use cases involve building a GUI on top of an existing data source. Retool charges an additional monthly fee for each end user. Bubble and Five, a Bubble and Retool alternative for rapid business application development, offer a fixed monthly fee per application.

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