Airtable is a hit with designers. Will enterprise tech see it as an app development platform?

CEO Howie Liu sees Airtable not as a productivity app but as an application development platform, hoping to compete with Salesforce and ServiceNow in the enterprise market.

Airtable on a pedestal above Salesforce and ServiceNow

Despite notable success in the consumer world, Airtable has always had dreams of serving large enterprises.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Airtable has always been somewhat misunderstood, even within its own market. Some analysts and investors Protocol spoke to didn’t even have the productivity tool-maker on their radar, despite the company raising a massive $735 million at an $11 billion valuation last December.

“I cover the collaboration space and Airtable wasn't really on my radar screen in any significant way,” said Futurum Research analyst Shelly Kramer. To many, the company remains shrouded in mystery, a cult classic among designers and developers but relatively unknown to the mainstream.

Airtable is clearly not your average productivity company. In fact, it may not be a productivity company at all. Years ago, when Airtable was referenced as a “spreadsheet on steroids” in the press, CEO Howie Liu wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, because he felt the company offered much more than that.

To this day, Liu eschews the comparisons to productivity apps like Asana, Trello, Notion or Monday.com. Instead, he wants people to draw comparisons between Airtable and enterprise software giants like his former employer Salesforce, or even ServiceNow.

“We are trying to position ourselves more against ServiceNow or Salesforce, not from a CRM standpoint, but from a platform standpoint,” said Liu. “We always intended to become an app builder,” he said.

These days, Liu wants Airtable to shift from collaboration and productivity tools to an application development platform that enterprises select as the backbone of their business workflows. But to do that, Airtable will have to prove to enterprises, investors and analysts that it's much more than a productivity company.

Software making software

Howie Liu has always been interested in the power of software. By the age of 13 Liu taught himself to code with his father’s old textbook, and shortly after college he built his first company, a CRM system called Etacts. By the age of 22, he had sold that company to Salesforce.

That was the unlock for me … it's like the software that can make any other software.

While working at Salesforce, Liu realized its underlying data model wasn’t as rigid as other CRM systems, which gave customers a lot of flexibility around how they customized the software. “It was a metadata-driven platform, meaning instead of hardcoding their business objects to be one shape, every customer could define their own relational data structure and all of their functionality worked regardless of how the customer defined their business objects,” said Liu.

In other words, because everything in Salesforce could be changed, companies and individuals could build their own applications, which is why Liu saw Salesforce as more of an application platform than a CRM giant. “That was the unlock for me … it's like the software that can make any other software,” he said.

But Liu also recognized that Salesforce’s user interface wasn’t the best, and he felt he could do better. “Building a platform to make apps, or software to make other software, is a really pretty interesting problem, and I think I can put my own spin on it,” he said.

That spin came in the form of startup Airtable, which Liu left Salesforce to build in 2013, just two years after joining the company. Alongside a few friends from college, Liu set out to build Airtable as a super-powered spreadsheet on top of a relational database, much like Salesforce.

The company quickly found rapid adoption among designers and developers, building an almost cult following amongst productivity enthusiasts for its 21st century take on the spreadsheet. As of late last year, Airtable reached more than 300,000 customers and more than $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

Despite notable success in the consumer world, Liu always had dreams of serving large enterprises. From the beginning, Liu said he and his co-founders designed the product with scalability and complexity in mind. Today, Airtable has landed a number of large enterprise customers, from Netflix and Shopify to Intuit and Autodesk.

But Liu isn’t satisfied with just being viewed as a productivity software company. Instead, Liu wants to turn Airtable into an application development platform that can serve large-scale enterprises, and compete with the likes of Salesforce and ServiceNow.

Airtable’s ability to land enterprise clients, where other productivity software has struggled, is due to the company's database, said Liu.

“Because we have a relational database foundation, we’re more scalable. For instance, we can just scale up not only in terms of sheer record capacity … but also the complexity of implementation,” said Liu.

Not only can Airtable’s database hold more rows than its competitors, but the company also has the ability to script more robust APIs and native connections to systems of records like Salesforce, said Liu.

Although Liu thinks competitors like Monday.com, Asana and Smartsheet will continue to grow in a market with room for multiple billion-dollar-revenue businesses, he still doesn’t see them as direct competitors.

In fact, Liu doesn’t think any of those productivity companies can ever truly become application platforms, precisely because they don’t sit on top of a robust relational database. “In order to be a true app platform, you need to have an underlying database,” he said.

But to build an application development platform that can compete for, and even win, deals against established enterprise tech vendors, Airtable will not only have to deliver from a product standpoint, but also shift the industry’s perspective that it just has good productivity or project management software.

In some ways, Airtable is en route to doing that. Already, Airtable is in some of the same conversations as ServiceNow when buyers are evaluating application development platforms, and the company has already beaten Salesforce in at least one deal, Liu said.

The company is also landing in large enterprises like Netflix, which chose Airtable over other vendors because the implementation process was less lengthy. In fact, a member of the Netflix team discovered Airtable by happenstance, built a prototype of what they needed virtually overnight and launched the partnership between the two companies, according to Airtable.

Undercover threat

Despite the prowess and financial muscle of Salesforce and increasingly ServiceNow, Liu is confident Airtable can best them in at least some deals. Airtable’s cloud-native background, ability to sit on top of a CRM or ERP and user-friendly interfaces are all key competitive advantages, from his perspective.

The fact that Airtable doesn't need to own a CRM or ERP system and has never been on-premises means the company can deploy much faster and more simply than other enterprise software — sometimes in hours or days, rather than months.

Airtable’s roots as a consumer-focused company also translate into a major competitive advantage. Airtable arguably has a better user interface than Salesforce, and perhaps even ServiceNow, and is well-versed in organic bottom-up adoption. As more apps are built by line-of-business users, rather than IT, easy-to-use interfaces will become increasingly important.

Although IT always needs to be involved with application platforms to handle due diligence, security and data management, it’s critical that business users adopt them. “You don't want to have [IT] come in to help you build the stuff. You’re trying to create an end-user environment where they can extend it themselves,” said Gartner VP analyst Mike Gotta.

But despite Liu’s desire for Airtable to be compared with Salesforce and ServiceNow, he’s not out to replace them. Instead, Liu wants Airtable to become its own “source of truth” (as the enterprise software buzzword goes) for business objects, data and processes that don’t currently sit in a CRM or ERP system, such as production processes or content management.

“To have durable value we need to, and we are becoming, the source of truth, the source of record, for new business objects that are not the customer record, that are not the developer issues in Jira, that are not the employee record,” said Liu.

But to become a source of truth, Airtable will need to be used more broadly across enterprises.

The challenge is, “CEOs aren’t saying, ‘I want to have Smartsheet everywhere, I want to have Airtable everywhere,’ that’s not what we see,” said Gotta. Instead, a bottom-up approach leads individual departments to use different productivity tools, creating siloes. If Airtable can manage to find adoption across business departments, connecting cross-functional processes and stitching the data together, they could seize an opportunity, said Gotta.

The true test for Airtable, however, will be convincing enterprises to take a chance on an outsider.

Airtable’s true value proposition still doesn’t seem widely understood, and the application development platform market itself is fairly nascent. “I do think we’re not understood for everything that we really are and aspire to be, but we’re working on it,” said Liu.

That’s why the company is planning to beef up its marketing. Instead of app development being viewed as a nice add-on, the company plans to lead with that in its messaging. Airtable is also shifting from the more organic discovery process it has relied on in the past to directly going after large enterprises.

Analysts agree that Airtable needs to work on its market presence amongst enterprises, as well as investors. “Figuring out why customers should opt for Airtable over the many other options out there, then doubling down on that messaging, is, in my opinion, the best path to success,” said Futurum’s Kramer.

In many ways, the market’s misunderstanding has provided a bit of air cover as Liu plots Airtable’s next stage. For now, Liu is content flying under the radar. But that may shift as he thinks about taking Airtable public in the future.

An IPO isn’t on the horizon anytime soon given the macroeconomic environment, but Liu is still preparing. Airtable is in an enviable position: With millions on hand after raising a huge round last December, the company has less pressure to cut costs or ramp down investment. Still, the company is being conservative, keeping cash on reserve to weather the uncertainty.

Liu isn’t worried about demand for Airtable’s products and services, however. In his eyes, Airtable allows companies to “do more with less,” and deliver value faster — coincidentally the same phrasing competitor Bill McDermott uses to describe ServiceNow’s effect on customers.

To beat Salesforce and ServiceNow in the long run, Liu knows that Airtable will need to leverage its consumer-like interface, relational database foundations and relationships with business users to convince enterprises it can service their more complex needs. If Airtable can achieve all that, it might just give Salesforce and ServiceNow a run for their money.


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