No-code companies have become one of the hottest trends in startups. The industry has moved past the idea that you need code to build things, and companies are instead offering tools that make it easier for people to build anything — from websites to databases — without having to write a single line of code.
Airtable is one of the early startups that jumped on the trend, having worked on its no-code database software since 2013. But now its co-founder and CEO, Howie Liu, is taking a different approach: adding some of the code back in.
"I think no-code is great, and it will always be an important aspect of our offering. You shouldn't have to code to be able to use Airtable," Liu said. "It's about getting the best of both the expressiveness of code and then allowing non-coders to still participate and piece together really, really useful apps."
The goal is for its no-code product to take its users most of the way there with what they need to do. But now it's launching a new platform, complete with an app marketplace, to allow companies and developers to build their own custom apps on top of Airtable and share them with others. It's also introducing new automations, similar to IFTT commands, that will help companies automate things like sending emails or reports.
Investors have bought into Liu's bigger vision, too. Airtable closed a $185 million series D round at a valuation of nearly $2.6 billion, doubling its valuation from 2018. The round was led by Thrive, with participation from new investor D1 Capital and existing backers including Benchmark and Coatue.
Part of expanding into apps was the realization that there was never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Liu admitted that he thought the initial users would be a lot of startups and SMBs (and they have been, in droves), but he's seen everyone from cattle farmers use it to track herds to lawyers using it for case management. The nonprofit Frontline Foods, which was started during COVID-19 to have restaurants cook up meals for hospitals, created its own app, allowing people to easily see which hospitals were in need at a glance rather than having to comb through a spreadsheet.
"I think the significance of that is, we go from being able to replace or being an alternative improvement to spreadsheets or project management tools to now actually being able to replace or compete against custom software at large," Liu said.
Airtable is also adding a sync feature, similar to Slack Connect, so people from multiple teams can build their own applications on top of a database, like production and marketing teams both building off the same list of TV shows being filmed. It now counts over 200,000 businesses as customers, including entertainment powerhouses like HBO, Netflix and Condé Nast Entertainment.
Despite the growth in use cases and its new expansion into becoming a more customizable platform, one area that Airtable has notoriously shied away from is optimizing for mobile (though it does have iOS and Android apps). Liu is holding firm in his belief that the kind of database work Airtable does is better-suited for desktop and that mobile is more complementary to it.
"I think smartphones are really important for consumptive experiences, but I think that it's important — even for the countries that have leapfrogged desktops to go into a smartphone first digitization or computer internet access — that they eventually also gain access to full, rich desktop experiences, because I just think there's so much that you can do on a full desktop, that you can never do well on a smartphone," he said.