Protocol | Workplace

'It's a land grab': How Airtable is taking aim at the enterprise

Airtable bet on productivity before it was cool. Now, the low-code tool is dreaming big about its future in enterprises.

CEO of Airtable Howie Liu

CEO Howie Liu says Airtable's "foundational advantage" will help them streamline work processes within large companies.

Photo: Airtable

It's been an interesting nine years for the low-code spreadsheet tool, Airtable. CEO Howie Liu co-founded the database platform in 2012, back when "productivity was still a fairly un-sexy space," he said. The startup faced an uphill battle finding investors who believed a new productivity tool could find mass appeal and transform the way people work. It took Airtable two years before their first seed round of $3 million. Fast forward to 2021, home to a lucrative and competitive landscape where productivity apps can make $400 million in just their third round of funding.

Much like the databases it houses, Airtable has grown and changed to meet the needs of a demanding and complex user base. In its early days, it sought to help people hunt for jobs or plan a wedding. Now it has its sights set on helping large enterprises organize work. On Tuesday, Airtable announced various updates aimed at making work simpler for large companies, including a customizable interface where people can drag and drop text and charts, more security controls and larger datasets.

Liu is the first to acknowledge the laundry list of Airtable's competitors: Notion, Monday, Asana, ClickUp and more. Not to mention behemoths like Microsoft, Google and Salesforce that have a serious presence in the enterprise software space. But Liu believes in Airtable's flexibility, in its low-code mantra and in the power of its databases, which are qualities Airtable has been honing from the beginning. Protocol caught up with Liu on Airtable's growth, its plans for the future and the productivity space at large.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I'm curious how Airtable's pitch has changed to enterprises and also to individuals. Over the past almost ten years, what's different?

Well for one, it's gotten easier. The pace of growth in the space and also the appetite from an investment and customer standpoint has just massively accelerated. So it's gone from what Geoffrey Moore would call the chasm of adoption — where it was really just slow, early adopters who were coming in — to now, where we're entering the tornado phase. The category is valid, people understand, "I need a product like this." And it's a land grab.

For our product specifically, we've shifted more from a small scale — individuals or really small teams — to focusing on really large organizations using Airtable for more complex use cases. It's always important to maintain the consumer DNA of the product.

In the early days, we had templates, and we still have those templates, for wedding planning and job hunting and apartment searches, personal use cases alongside the professional ones. Now we're more and more focused on serving multi-hundred if not multi-thousand-person enterprise use cases. A lot of times it still grows organically. In a company, one team might start using it, and then the whole department uses it and they consolidate a major workflow around it. But there's just so much more enterprise functionality or scale functionality that we've been building over the past few years to better support those larger scale use cases.

Would you say the spreadsheet is still, ultimately, the block of productivity Airtable is focused on? Are these updates, like the drag-and-drop interface, building upon Airtable's origins or departing from them a bit?

I think the spreadsheet is arguably one of the most powerful and, in terms of economic value, value-creating software products of all time.

Spreadsheets got used far beyond their intended purpose, like if you rewind the clock to VisiCalc, and Lotus123, like, you know, in the early 80s, like, you know, they were really just meant narrowly as number crunching tools. They've obviously expanded a lot from there.There's been art projects made in Excel and you can build a CRM in Excel. And so in that sense, the spreadsheet is still a really powerful way to think about the types of use cases that we can serve.

But I do think we've kind of grown beyond the spreadsheet. When we first launched the product, it looked and behaved more like a spreadsheet replacement. It was kind of like a spreadsheet++ with rich field types. We had a Kanban-view, a Trello-like view. But to be honest, we were probably 80% spreadsheet replacement, 20% more stuff. And I think now, especially with the interface builder launch, it's more like the other way around, where it's 20% spreadsheet origins but 80% going above and beyond and actually allowing you to build things that would otherwise basically require a custom code.

People understand the need for a company like Airtable, it's cool to be a productivity app now. But how do you feel about the intense competition in this space? Is it a little like "we've been here for a while, and this is our thing," or are you welcoming this constant innovation and comparison?

In the broader space of productivity, there's something that's changed in consumer behavior or worker behavior that's opened up this massive green field of opportunity. Not just across the genre of productivity or workflows. But also companies like Figma or Miro, which are design tools, are blowing up in a good way. Overall, the rising tide lifts all the boats.

The market is so profoundly large. Every one of the now over-a-billion knowledge workers in the world could use one of these products. We're all trying to come in and create an accretive layer of value.

In that sense, it's unlike the consumer social [media] app wars. When I was starting Airtable in 2012, we were the ugly duckling while all the other geese were trying to go and start a consumer social app. Everybody was trying to do a new Snapchat knockoff. That felt like much more of a zero-sum game because consumers only need one or two apps in their lives. You don't need 20 consumer social apps, and you only have so much engagement and time and pageviews to give to these apps.

Whereas I think with a productivity space, you can arguably stack all these apps and somebody can use the FigJam while also using an Airtable while also using a Calendly. And frankly, even a Notion in the sense that we solve problems in a very different way and serve different use cases. Overall, it's a good thing for us that the market is starting to mature or at least come into focus and consumer appetite is just explosively growing for any of these products.

We think that over the next five years, our foundational advantage will give us a leg up in terms of being able to scale up and serve the more higher-ceiling use cases.

To your point of the massive appetite people have for all these different kinds of apps, what I find fascinating is that it's so personal. Everyone has a different preference for how they work. And then that can lead to tool fatigue, where there's just too much and people are overwhelmed by their options. I'm curious about your thoughts on how to guide people and make tools less intimidating.

I definitely agree that there is going to be increasing tool fatigue. Even if each of these tools has its own specialty, it's a lot of cognitive overload. It's almost like you kind of need a guide or a wizard to explain what all the different tools are for.

That is why you see this ecosystem of community evangelists starting to pop up and YouTube influencers who are explaining "here's how you build XYZ system" in one product or another. The community becomes a really important part of these products because you can't just go and learn the product on its own. It's much easier if you see how other people are using it.

For us, especially within enterprises, which is where the majority of our growth is now coming from, there is increasing value when more teams are using Airtable as opposed to another product. So if there are 50 different teams and a total of thousands of people using Airtable at a Vimeo or a Twilio or a Disney, there are all of these advantages to being able to connect their data across different teams. The benefit of having this ecosystem usage within the account is going to encourage enterprises to consolidate on fewer tools, rather than letting every single user pick their own. There's a race between all these products to get to that critical mass within enterprises.

To reflect on the macro perspective, there's this renaissance of lots of new products and lots of real value being created. So it's not just hype, but these products are all getting real traction, real revenue, and I think that means something.

But it's also interesting to try to project, what's the endgame? Do we actually end up in a world where there are 1000 different productivity tools in every company? Or do we converge back on a fewer set of winners?

Different layers are going to emerge in that new knowledge worker tool stack. Collaboration in the freeform diagramming sense à la Miro, Figma, et cetera is going to be one layer. There's the chat and raw video communications layer with Zoom and Teams and Slack. But I think there is going to be a really important layer that Airtable's playing in, which is to build robust applications that serve the process.

It's going to be a shakeup to see which products emerge to the top and become the more dominant players within each of those brackets.

So you're shifting Airtable's focus to building depth and accommodating more complex use cases. Is that something Airtable has always been working towards? Or has the pandemic heightened that sense of "that's where the money is," as enterprises are deeply in need of these kinds of tools?

You solve the problems that you know of as an entrepreneur. When I think about myself in high school or college when I was trying to come up with startup ideas, I could only think of ideas that I was directly exposed to. Like, I'm going to New York for a summer internship and I need to find an apartment. So maybe I should build an apartment-finding site that pulls in [listings] from Craigslist.

For us, when we started Airtable, we just didn't understand enterprise. I had never really worked at a big company aside from briefly being at Salesforce after they acquired my first company. But I couldn't viscerally imagine the challenges of really large, complex enterprises.

It was always our aspiration to make Airtable scale up to serve companies both small and really big. But over the past 10 years, what we've been able to do is actually see firsthand the product get adopted organically within larger companies. Even the first year we launched, we had pretty sizable Fortune 500s adopting our table on a scale of hundreds and in some cases thousands of employees.

It's certainly also true that there's a disproportionate share of dollars in the enterprise market versus the small business or consumer market. But it's also just taken us a while of learning to be able to understand what it takes to truly serve these enterprise customers and solve their biggest problems.

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