Q&A: Airtable CEO talks up automation, low-code and team collaboration

The company has seen a surge in use of its customizable spreadsheet platform during the pandemic, said CEO and co-founder Howie Liu; this week, Airtable announced $185 million in funding.

Man in blue suit reaching out to virtual gears for productivity

It’s been a big week for Airtable and its customizable spreadsheet platform. On top of unveiling new features designed to boost its automation, low-code and team collaboration cred, the San Francisco, Ca.-based company unveiled $185 million in series D funding.

Founded in 2012, Airtable has seen a sharp rise in during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 200,000 businesses now using its app. By combining the power of a database with the accessibility of a spreadsheet, Airtable lets users create shared apps for a variety of purposes, whether as a task management tool or a simple CRM platform. The company’s approach has proved popular and others have launched similar services; Microsoft unveiled its Lists app earlier this year and Amazon Web Service’s Honeycode offers comparable functions.

Airtable, now valued at about $2.5 billion, is one of several cloud productivity apps attracting significant funding in recent weeks, alongside Coda, Mural and others, as demand for tools to connect remote workers soars.  

howie liu - airtable Airtable

Airtable CEO and co-founder Howie Liu.

On Monday, Airtable unveiled major improvements to its software with the introduction of IFTTT-style automation, low-code app creation capabilities and more effective context sharing. Airtable CEO and co-founder Howie Liu talked about the new features and investment, competition with Microsoft, and why businesses are only at the beginning of digital transformation of the workplace.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

To start off, can you explain Airtable, its focus and what problems it addresses for users?

"Airtable always had a singular focus on enabling people to build useful software. That sets us apart a little bit from project management tools, for instance, which are really about managing tasks and projects, or even productivity tools, which are more about enabling some sort of productivity increase, lighter weight collaboration.

"Our ambition has always been about enabling people to build really useful software. And I think that there's been a steady trend since the time that we started the company in 2012 till now of this growing awareness in the world of why you would want software, why you would want applications.

"At this point, unlike when we first started, I think there's more mainstream recognition that there will be this explosive need for anybody to be able to create their own apps. Analysts have said there's going to be 500 million new apps created in the next five years [according to IDC]. Even Satya [Nadella] from Microsoft has stated such [an expectation] in public as well."

You’re adding three major new features this week. One is Airtable Apps. How does this work, and why would users want to create their own apps in Airtable?

"Airtable Apps really marks the shift from Airtable as a no-code platform to a true low-code platform.

"We consider 'no-code' to be a product that doesn't require you to build an app with code, but neither does it allow you to. That's what Airtable was before: purely a no-code solution. You could go and build databases with additions on top of it without any code at all. That was great; 200,000 organizations went and used that experience. But what we heard from a lot of our customers was there's this demand, this appetite, to take it to the next level, to customize it further.

"We had an incredible diversity of users, like cattle ranchers, who were coming in early on, and literally managing their livestock in Airtable, or lawyers building case management setups in our table. In the bigger enterprise world, [there were] production teams within media and entertainment managing production workloads.

"It turns out every single one of these use cases has its own unique needs, and many of those were served by Airtable - the core product, the no-code product. But sometimes what was needed was the final layer, the final 1% of extensibility. So, for the cattle farmer [it means] to now be able to build a specific add-on in the form of Airtable apps to visualize your cattle in a certain way on a map, for instance, or, in the production use case, to be able to manage your production schedules and resourcing in a very specific way.

"So Airtable Apps is enabling all the different types of customers to build very specific extensions of functionality natively into Airtables. They're able to build, with code, a new interface or new behavior into Airtable and have it integrate seamlessly, which is a little bit different from some of the other app concepts that you see, like Slack apps, which aren't actually hosted and integrated, fully hosted apps within the platform."

Automation has been one of the key areas of innovation around productivity and collaboration apps recently. How does the new workflow automation function in Airtable?

"Automation has become a more widely recognized trend. On the RPA-side of the world, you have really heavy-weight automations and then a lot of products like ours building automations as an integrated offering.

"Where we stand apart, or the unique spin that we're putting on to our automations product, is that, first, we're really focused on automations not just as a way to create convenience and do away with redundant tasks, but also to allow for additional extensibility of powerful things that you can do with our product. Airtable has always focused on raising the ceiling of what you can do, rather than trying to lower the floor and reduce the effort or complexity of doing things.

Airtable automations Airtable

Among the changes unveled this week by Airtable are IFTTT-style automations.

"With our automations feature, one of the things that we're launching as part of the v1 is the ability to not just create 'drag and drop' triggers and actions, but also to have a custom code base action.

"Our goal is also to enable people to eventually share these actions with each other. The idea is that if you want to have some custom logic in Airtable, every time you create a new video production record, you want to automatically send data out to another service that we don't yet natively support as an integration. With our custom action feature within Automations, you could go and build any action that you want using code that triggers off of events of your choice.

"The other difference for our product is that the automations product in Airtable is built on top of a more universal database layer. This is not a feature on top of a project management tool. It enables a more complete application-building experience because you're able to build it on top of this more flexible data model that Airtable has always provided."

Collaboration elements play a key role in Airtable. How does Airtable Sync play into that and further your goal of facilitating teamwork?

"I think it's analogous to Slack's push into Slack Connect and their shared channels concept, allowing different teams to interconnect their instances of Airtable.

"In our case, these instances are able to connect, not just in the context of communications, but you can actually share structured data – sources of truth – between two different applications that have been built within Airtable by different teams, whether inside the same company or across different companies.

"You can share granular sets of data, so you can control what gets shared and what doesn't, and yet maintain the ability for each team to build its own application and its own workflows around that data and extend that data.

"We imagine a world down the road where there are these collaborative networks that form around data. One team may have, for instance, a list of all the content productions that a company is working on, and yet be able to share just the list of data that they want with another team. Maybe the production team and the marketing team within a company can collaborate on the shared source of truth without having to expose every bit of their data to each other, or to outside collaborators or vendors.

You’re announcing a significant Series D funding round. Why did you choose to seek investment now and how the funding will be used?

"There are really two reasons why we raised this round at this time. We've always had opportunistic interest in Airtable as an investment from both existing and new investors. What made us decide to actually pull the round together this year was, first of all, the space is heating up.

"When we started this company eight years ago it was actually hard to really articulate to investors – or anybody at the time – this market opportunity for apps. It was a different time and it was just kind of early in the adoption trend.

"Today, you have these analysts talking about 500 million apps being built in the next five years, you have the validation of the category through Microsoft and Amazon's entry into this arena with their own products. So this is the phase where the market is now very obvious, very real. The opportunity is massive, and it's an all-out race to be able to capture that opportunity and maintain our lead as the pioneer.

"The funding allows us to double down on our product investment efforts, to continue to differentiate the product and do more of what we're doing with this launch.

"So, first and foremost, [the funding allows us] to be able to more aggressively fuel investment into the platform and to continue differentiating and expanding the product capabilities as the space heats up. The second is related to Covid. There's still a lot of uncertainty in the world about the economy – is the worst behind us or is it yet to come?

"Obviously, we're seeing this week [as of Sept. 11] where there's been a lot of volatility in the public markets, whereas maybe last week everything would have looked a little bit more [...] just purely 'up and to the right.' It goes to show that there's a lot of uncertainty [around how] COVID will continue to impact businesses: will there be more waves of economic damage?

"The funding round allows us to continue to make long-term bets with conviction. It allows us to be unperturbed by short term volatility in the economy.

"We always want to be in a position where we can optimise for the long-term outcome of the company and not have to worry about the short-term macro or external factors out of our control."

There's been attention in your space from large industry players, including Microsoft with its launch of Lists. How concerned are you about competing with software vendors of this size?

"It's a great market validation of the category. Truthfully, the day that we heard about many of these entrants the message that I gave to our company is this is real validation. This is exciting, because for the past eight years, almost a decade, my [fear] is that we're not able to convince the world that this is a really big, the next big thing. And so we're very excited to see the market start to really crystallise.

"We have a pretty clear path to success and to winning the lion's share of this opportunity. This is a product category where innovation and product differentiation really wins.

"This is not a tool where a company is going to just pick a product based on a checkbox list of features. It's also not a product where you're just going to decide to pick it at a company level and then be done with it. This is a tool where ...the greatest cost of adoption of a low-code app platform is actually incumbent on the creator, the citizen developer, who goes and takes the time to learn a new platform and build an application with it. That's where the product value, the product differentiation, really comes into play.

"It's not just a superficial [decision]: 'I'm going to look at all these different companies offering products and then arbitrarily pick one.' It's really going to be a function of what is the easiest and most powerful product solution for a citizen developer to adopt.

"In other words, we have this opportunity to compete at the level of every single end user who's making a decision on how to build their application, and to continue to innovate and differentiate on the product where that's our sole focus as a company, whereas for some of these bigger companies this is one iron of many in the fire."

How do you make the proposition clear to customers to subscribe to a single app, when functionality is available in a suite?

"This is actually a product that we built and customers kind of came to us. I say that because that really is not a very good strategy if you're setting out to build a company from scratch and you don't yet have your product launched. Generally, it's not a good idea to just say, well, we're going to build it and launch it and then hope that people come. But really, this is a case where I think it happened and there was a lot of pent up demand from potential customers who wanted something that was more flexible than a point solution. They didn't want to just use an off-the-shelf application. And for the citizen developers, it was completely out of reach to develop a custom application with traditional code and software development practices.

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