What is Retool and what is it good for?

Retool helps developers build powerful internal tools, fast. This is a full guide to the platform, its pros and cons, and what you should and shouldn't use it for.

What is Retool and what is it good for?

A low-code platform, built for developers

Retool helps developers build powerful internal tools, fast. Using their drag-and-drop components you can quickly create commonly-used internal applications like admin dashboards, database GUIs, and more, and then customize them to your company’s needs using code. 

On the no-code to developer tool spectrum, Retool positions itself as a developer tool - targeting technical folk who feel comfortable writing in Javascript and SQL. This differs greatly from other internal tool low-/no-code platforms who prioritize making their platforms more accessible to the non-technical. These platforms make it much easier to build, but, as a trade-off, you’ll hit blocks in the customizability of functionality. Retool strives hard to maintain the flexibility of traditional coding inside of their platform, whilst simplifying elements that developers spend a lot of time building repeatedly.

To use Retool you need to know a decent amount of JS and SQL.

‍How does it work?

Retool offers 46 native integrations for your external resources (including PostgreSQL, MongoDB, MySQL, Stripe, and many more), and can connect to anything using REST API. You can even use Retool’s own built-in PostgreSQL database

It’s quick to build simple CRUD interfaces on top of any data source, but it’s also possible to join data across your resources for a more powerful internal application. 

Here are some more of its key features: 

  • Drag-and-Drop Building Blocks: Retool provides a library of pre-built UI components that can be easily dragged and dropped onto the canvas to build complex apps and workflows.
  • Database Integration: Retool can connect to a variety of databases, including PostgreSQL, MySQL, MongoDB, and others, enabling developers to query and manipulate data from within their apps.
  • API Integrations: Retool integrates with many popular APIs, including Stripe, Twilio, and Google Sheets, allowing developers to access and use external data and services in their apps.
  • Customizable User Interface: Retool's UI components are highly customizable, and developers can easily extend them using JavaScript and CSS.
  • Collaboration Tools: Retool provides features for team collaboration, such as version control, and role-based access control.
  • JavaScript Code Editor: Retool provides a built-in JavaScript editor for more advanced customization and scripting, enabling developers to extend their apps with custom logic and functionality.
  • Data Visualization: Retool offers a range of data visualization components, including charts, tables, and maps, allowing developers to create compelling and interactive visualizations of their data.
  • Deployment Options: Retool can be deployed to a variety of environments, including on-premises, cloud, and Kubernetes, providing flexibility and scalability for different use cases.
  • Extensive Documentation and Support: Retool provides extensive documentation, tutorials, and support resources to help developers get started and troubleshoot issues.

Who is Retool made for?

Retool is designed so that developers can build faster, and therefore it’s built to resemble the way developers work as closely as possible - that’s what makes it so special as a platform. 

You can write JavaScript almost anywhere on the platform to extend the functionality, and use SQL to write complex queries to read, write and join data (even across different data resources). 

‍Retool has many code libraries built-in, but you can also import your favorites to make programming faster. To work with Retool effectively it’s best if you know SQL and JavaScript, at least to an intermediate level.

Retool is built out with lots of features to speed up development time, but also plenty of areas to customize extensively with code.

Non-engineers can certainly build in Retool, as it has some low-code elements built in (like form generation, GUI-based component, query editing and more), but the ability to create a more complex app is limited to those who are comfortable with code. Nevertheless, it can be a great tool for a non-technical user to use the drag-and-drop components to prototype the UI they are looking for, and wait for an engineer to connect it all up. 

Start-ups, enterprise companies, and in-between

In terms of the kinds of companies it attracts, Retool has a package for start-ups with ~$25,000 credits in your first year. We think Retool for start-ups is a brilliant option to get started with great internal tools quickly and without needing to compromise with expensive SaaS products. 

Retool also serves a growing number of enterprise clients and can ultimately be used by any size company, from early-stage to thousands of employees. 

Retool has recently released a new pricing model, which now charges different rates for standard users (people who build apps in Retool) and end users (people who exclusively view or use Retool apps). This is great news for companies looking to scale apps to hundreds, or even thousands of users, as it's looking a lot more affordable to do so.

What is Retool good for?

Where custom coding complex internal apps might take weeks or even months, it’s possible to build the same apps on Retool in a couple of days. 

This means you can use Retool to build a quick-fix solution for apps that you plan to deprecate shortly after and not worry about time or money wasted. 

Bespoke internal business functions 

Data in Retool is quick to connect and display, but it’s also possible to convert this data into action using custom code and functionality like buttons and automations. You can use JavaScript almost anywhere in Retool to extend functionality and create highly complex apps. 

‍At Bold Tech we’ve used Retool to build anything from an inventory manager for a small business to a complex centralized admin portal for a major fintech company, all using Retool’s drag-and-drop and JavaScript (and without custom coding a single component!). 

‍Though Retool is frequently extending and refining its functionality with new releases, it’s also a highly hackable platform that can easily be extended with a little code.‍

Admin Dashboards 

You can wire up your apps to almost any resource or database you work with. For native resources in particular (which typically connect with one-click auth) this means you can create admin dashboards with CRUD functionality in hours. 

Retool also does a lot of the work for you, you can create apps from databases and auto-generate forms for creating and updating based on your data schema. While Retool provides no-code options for forms and CRUD generation, users aren’t necessarily locked in to Retool’s layout, rather everything is extendable through code. 

Product Prototyping/MVPs & Mock-ups

With its easy drag-and-drop components and quick resource connections, Retool is a great place to prototype your products - from internal tools to even your external ones. It’s so fast to build a functioning UI, and it’s even quick to create complex functionality with a little JavaScript knowledge. 

While you may be intending to custom-code in the long term, Retool is certainly a great place to model your development until you are ready to build them from scratch, particularly for start-ups that might not yet be sure how they want their apps to look. 

Mobile Internal Tools

With the addition of Retool mobile, Retool is a great place to build apps for any of your team that doesn’t always work in the office. Think warehouse staff, delivery drivers, and those out and about in the field. 

We built out a mobile receipt tracker for a client working in real estate, where contractors can easily upload receipts and file them correctly without worrying about the complexities of the company’s accounting structure. Retool Mobile is a great extension of the Retool suite for more internal app possibilities. 

Workflows

While we wouldn’t recommend putting your mission-critical automations on a platform like Retool, there’s a huge portion of your internal processes that can be built using their Workflows tools. By building on Retool, you have a better chance to ‘set it and forget it’; you don’t need to worry about maintaining API connections and observability, this is all taken care of. 

You can integrate all of the same resources as in your internal apps (without needing to reconfigure any connections), keeping all your tools and automations in a single place. You can create ETL tasks and CRON jobs quickly using their flowchart-like interface, and script using JavaScript and even Python. Once they are set up, you don’t need to worry about hosting, connection maintenance, or observability. The interface also includes handy debug and testing tools to help you fix any errors that may arise.

Watch the Retool workflows demo (starring our very own Bold Tech Head of Content) to learn more.

External Portals 

By popular demand, Retool has recently released ‘Retool embed’ to beta. This tool allows you to embed your Retool apps into your existing product, using the platform to expedite some of the nuts and bolts so you can focus on its core functionality.

Retool Embed also means you can use the platform to create boilerplate elements for your core products. While in most cases your customer-facing core product should be custom-built and self-hosted, you can certainly offload administrative elements like settings pages, log-in flows, analytics insights, and more to Retool. This way you can focus on the main product features and get them perfect, and keep these operational areas simple and easy to quickly iterate on by building them out on Retool and embedding them. 

Retool embed can also be used to create client portals to access applications publicly, something that has been widely requested on the platform. 

This feature is currently in private beta, but we’ve been told that public beta is coming soon. 

How does Retool compare to its competitors?

There are several well-known platforms that aim to simplify the process of building internal tools for non-developers (think: Airtable, Bubble and Outsystems), but we find that they are much more limited in terms of code extensibility and customization. For this reason, many developers avoid such platforms and prefer to custom code. Retool is one of the few developer tools that targets engineers and developers’ needs above all. ‍

Other close competitors, that also target developers, include: 

  • Superblocks
  • Appsmith
  • Budibase‍

Retool is one of the longest-standing developer tools in this space, and in terms of pure product features, certainly has the most comprehensive suite of products. 

Let’s dig into some of the main comparison points. 

Retool is the more mature product

Retool was launched to the public in 2017, much earlier than its direct competitors, and has been on a fast upward trajectory since. They have grown to 300+ employees, and through this growth, we have seen the rapid shipping of great new products every quarter. 

One of the major developments of late is the runtime boost, which has allowed developers to build out entire multi-page app systems that are more performant. In terms of reliability of the platform, it’s well past its teething-era downtime issues and is a trustworthy platform for even critical tools. 

Retool has the most extensive suite of tools with Mobile dev, workflows, and, more

Retool started as a frontend builder with drag-and-drop UI components but has quickly grown into a fully-fledged development suite of tools. You can now build apps for mobile as well as web apps, build your CRON jobs and ETL tasks on Workflows, and also use their integrated PostgreSQL database

For this reason, it’s the platform with the best chance to centralize all your internal tools, not just your web apps. 

Retool has the highest pricing

Retool has certainly turned a lot of heads in the internal tool space, but we can’t ignore the fact that it has some of the highest pricing out there.

When calculating the ROI of your internal apps for subscription-based platforms like Retool it’s important to think about how long this app will be in production, but also the time and money saved by not building from scratch. If you are a start-up, make use of the start-up credits package if you can. ‍

The beauty of the financials does, of course, lie in the eyes of the budget-holders, but at Bold Tech we do believe that Retool provides ample value for its pricing, particularly for those looking to build multiple apps and fulfil many use cases on the platform. With the release of their new pricing structure, it's becoming even more affordable to build an infrastructure with lots of end users.

We will cover direct comparisons between platforms you might be considering in a comparative series coming soon. Stay tuned!

What is Retool not so good for?

BI Tools 

Retool still has some way to go to replace any BI tools or advanced analytics and reporting. While it does connect to analytics databases like Snowflake, we find that the chart component (which is built on top of PlotlyJS) is not advanced enough for such tools, or at least plotting advanced charts is hard work. Retool is not really built as a BI tool so it’s unlikely to improve too much in this area. 

Replacing fully-fledged SaaS Products (don’t reinvent the wheel)

This one might be a no-brainer, but there are plenty of sophisticated tools out there that don’t make sense to rebuild on Retool. One area we recommend skipping for instance is communication tools. If your team is used to Slack or teams, don’t try and migrate their chat onto a new custom tool in Retool or you will likely find poor uptake. 

‍The Build vs Buy debate is often best summarized as ‘buy what you can, build what you can’t’, but sometimes it’s not that simple. We talk more about the two sides of this argument in our build vs buy guide

Creating your core product 

Retool is a powerful platform, but it is proprietary, which means you don’t have control over its downtime, the maintenance or bugs within the product itself, or the pricing. For this reason (unless you are building out a quick MVP or prototype to show potential customers or investors) we wouldn’t recommend building your core IP or main customer-facing product on Retool. 

Summary

To summarize, Retool is a powerful platform with an extensive suite of products designed to help developers build internal tools much faster. With Retool, companies are building apps in hours and days, rather than weeks and months, without skimping on the technical elements. 

Retool is great for building out all kinds of internal tools, from simple to advanced. It can combine data from across all your data sources and create practical, functional apps that help you read, write and action data across your company. 

Retool is well positioned against its competitors, offering a broader suite of products and a more established product and support team.


As internal tool experts, Retool is our favorite platform to build on, and the one we recommend the most to our clients. If you are thinking about building your internal tools faster, and aren’t sure where to build them or how, get in touch today. 


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