How We Built An App With No CTO

6 min readAug 6, 2021

2 Co-founders.

1 unified vision to create an app tackling domestic abuse.

0 technical expertise between us.

But as of last week, we’re live on the app store & google play store with ALLY: the app turning local stores into safe spaces and bystanders into Allies.

So, how did we go about the whole process and how can other founders with no technical expertise release a tech product too? Spoiler: the answer isn’t as simple as hiring out a tech team (although we did that too).


Our social enterprise ila has always been committed to bridging the gender equality gap between business and society. In ila’s early days, we were on a mission to train gender-based violence survivors with soft skills to enter the formal workforce. And we managed to pilot a program with UN Women, Unilever & WeWork in Mumbai, India.

However our full launch was set for March 2020, right before the pandemic hit. We knew that to survive we needed to pivot because the nature of the work we were doing wasn’t possible remotely. Simultaneously, with the rise of Covid cases, there was also a dramatic rise in domestic abuse cases globally. In the UK, where ila is headquartered, the first 4 weeks of lockdown saw calls to helplines increase by 120%. When victims are restricted in movement we realized that there were still a few crucial touchpoints they could travel to like supermarkets and pharmacies. Essentially, retail. Thus came the idea to pivot our existing skills and mission into an online app format; instead of training survivors we would train bystanders who are 87% more likely to intervene when equipped with the right tools. The only problem was that between the two of us, there was not an inkling of tech expertise. We didn’t even know what the difference was between UI and UX.

But what we did know was human-centered design. And by approaching your venture from idea to launch through the following steps, you can too.

Step 1: Research

We did an insane amount of market research, looking at competitors and the appetite for the app from the perspective of all our stakeholders — not just the end users.

We ended up narrowing down our audience to 3 target groups and reached out to a sample of people from each group to conduct in-depth focus groups. We also sent out online surveys to the general public to test the idea and overall concept. Note: bad feedback or feedback from unconvinced people is just as useful in the early stages; it enables you to think outside the box and focus on features and functions that might lower the barrier for downloads.

Step 2: Ideation

After you’ve got the general idea locked, it’s time to see how that might look like on a phone. If you, like us, did not know what Dribbble was, it’s time you check it out . Think Pinterest but for app design ideas. We got a lot of inspiration scouring onboarding screens and homepages there.

Next we decided that to minimize budget, decrease time and better convey our ideas to a developer we wanted to create a mock version of the screens ourselves. Essentially, taking on the role of a product manager and also building out the wireframes ourselves. How? We did it on Canva.

Step 3: Prototyping

If you’re somehow familiar with human-centered design, you know that the key when working on an idea is to start prototyping it as soon as possible. Trying the idea out with your target audiences early in the development process will prevent you from investing time and money in developing a product or service that doesn’t work. And because the prototype is meant to be constantly evolving, you need to think lean when creating it.

What are the main goals of this prototype? Who is going to see it and what insights and outcomes are you trying to get from showing it? What’s the cheapest and most effective way to create it?

We needed to show some basic interactions and knew the look and feel of the app was an important part of its USP so we hired a UI designer. We ended up with a video demo illustrating how the app would work, one that could easily be sent to key stakeholders to understand the concept in under 5 minutes.

Step 4: Now, get that tech team

Fast forward 6 months later: We’re now incorporating the feedback we got from showing the prototype into a final structure for the app. We’ve also been able to better convey our vision and get the interest of some potential clients along the way. At this point, we need to get an actual product out and, for this, we need a tech team. Now comes the million dollar question: do you need to onboard a CTO when you’re developing a tech product?

We asked ourselves a different question: are we a tech company? In other words: will all our offerings rely on tech and tech innovation in the near future? For us, the answer is no. Some of our products and offerings are definitely tech enabled but our expertise lies in our research and design expertise that is shaping these tech products. So when it comes to creating them we definitely needed a good tech team but we didn’t need to bring this tech expertise to higher levels of our company. This being said, if we have any advice for you, it would be to not compromise on the expertise and communication skills of your tech team to get cheaper services. You want to make sure you’re working with people who have strong work ethics, connect with your vision and mission and will deliver the work with as little bugs and incidents as possible. We decided to work with Pala, an impact driven tech agency, because we trusted their professionalism and commitment. This also allowed us to have only one point of contact for all things tech related rather than to manage an entire tech team by ourselves.

Step 5: Iterate

When it comes to tech specifically, you need to get into an iterative mentality. Your product won’t be perfect from the get go; all you have to do is to get something out there that is good enough. When developing the MVP of ALLY, we aimed at creating a realistic yet professional product with the budget we had. We focused on the key functionalities that needed to be displayed already and, here again, we got creative and used all resources available: voice overs recorded by our team and friends, interactions showcased in the form of videos to avoid coding extra screens and video editing made in-house. Of course, the MVP is not perfect but it’s serving its purpose.

If we were to share 3 learnings from our first steps into the tech world…

  1. Focus on setting foundations and build up from there. Knowing that you won’t get everything right from the start, you should always focus primarily on setting a good base for your product to be developed: a good structure, relevant features, a good team etc. You can always fix details but you can’t change the skeleton of your project.
  2. Cheap in the short-term means more money in the long-term. We can’t emphasize enough how, if you have no tech expertise yourself, sometimes outsourcing to a cheaper developer or UI/UX freelancer can end up costing you much more later on. Which is why we also implore you to try and do all the upfront research and basic wireframing yourself beforehand.
  3. Have a growth mindset and trust yourself. You could be surprised by how much you can learn in a short time span and the skills you can develop when your company needs it. After all, that’s what it means to be a founder — you wear multiple hats from designer to accountant to marketing.

Download ALLY today on the App Store or Google Play Store — shameless plug!

About ila:

As a multi-awarded social enterprise, our aim, at ila, is to champion a purpose-driven and socially aware workforce. Our team has extensive experience working with HR professionals, leadership teams and employees to champion a diverse and gender equal culture in the workplace through training and technology.

Visit ila at to find out more about us, the work we do and how we can help you in taking the first step towards a new way of working.




An award-winning Social Enterprise unleashing the potential of a purpose-driven generation. Visit us at to learn more.