The landscape of productivity software in 2012 had such a gaping hole in the market which created a unique opportunity for the Airtable team.
Liu’s time at Salesforce taught him many things, but arguably the most valuable insight Liu gained from his tenure at Salesforce was how many people were using spreadsheets as purely organizational tools. Despite spreadsheets’ natural applications in bookkeeping and other primarily numerical tasks, Liu discovered that most spreadsheets were cluttered, haphazard containers for various data.
“Spreadsheets are really optimized for numerical analysis and financial calculations. But almost 90% of spreadsheets don’t have formulas. Most are used for organizing purposes.” — Howie Liu, founder, Airtable
That’s 100% true. People used Excel and now use Google Sheets for project management, inventory tracking, all kinds of things — and the main problem is that spreadsheets don’t have data consistency embedded. For them any cell is just a cell and you can move it anywhere. Airtable, on the other hand, works like a relational database — each row is an individual unit and you just can’t mess it up.
The real brilliance of the product was the ability to do all this without writing a single line of code. There was no need for server-side scripting or knowledge of SQL, which made the product very consumer-friendly. The product’s accessibility also made it potentially attractive to a much wider target market.
Airtable was probably one of the first of no-code companies, which turned into a huge trend right now.
In April 2015, the company unveiled its API Builder and its embedded database features. The API Builder was especially significant as it allowed users to pull records from their underlying databases and integrate that data into external apps and websites seamlessly.
Hundreds if not thousands of SaaS products for specific industry verticals are just hardcoded databases with a bit of added functionality. You could do that with any general-focus consumer-friendly database, but they did it for you and now they charge a huge markup on top: Affinity, a CRM for venture capital industry, costs whopping $1500 per user(!). But what if any business analyst can build such a tool without code?
In July 2015, Airtable unveiled Forms. Although the concept of form fields in simple database applications was nothing new, Airtable’s forms were as robust and flexible as its other features. In August 2015, the company announced one of its biggest improvements to date––Airtable Integrations. Built using automation tool Zapier’s API, Integrations allowed users to connect their Airtable databases to more than 450 apps and products, from Google apps and GitHub to Slack and Twitter.
And that moved them much closer to a universal tool that anything before — now any company can build its own proprietary workflows with Airtable and the tools they use.
This flexibility was part of Airtable’s growth strategy. By giving users the freedom to customize Airtable to suit their individual needs, the company hoped to drive adoption of the product at companies by appealing to individual users, in much the same way that Slack had done for team-based, real-time communication.
I don’t think this particular statement holds, as Slack isn’t that flexible at all. But I agree with the point of it being the core of the company’s workflow.
To raise awareness of Airtable, the company shifted its marketing strategy significantly in 2017 by erecting colorful billboards all over San Francisco and the Bay Area. For an analog marketing strategy in a major tech hub, it was incredibly effective.
Where else can you find billboards for the geeky SaaS product?
The main lessons from their story are quite curious.
1. Your users are a goldmine for ideas of use cases. One of the smartest decisions Airtable ever made was to watch its users closely and learn from how people were using the product. Had the company not done this, Airtable might lack some of its most popular features and could have gone in an entirely different direction as a product.
2. Relying on third-party companies and products to expand your product’s functionality reduces technical overhead considerably, but it’s a risky strategy.
3. Show users a better way to do what they’re already doing. It’s arguably much easier to gently correct users’ existing behaviors than it is to “teach” them brand-new ones. This is what made Airtable such a brilliant idea. Liu didn’t set out with a solution in search of a problem––he targeted an existing problem (the limitations of spreadsheets) and an existing behavior (people using spreadsheets as purely organizational tools), and ultimately solved both.