Airtable exec describes building a 'data hub' for the enterprise

Airtable is more than just a 'spreadsheet on steroids,' says Ilan Frank, who recently joined as head of platform after leaving Slack.

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Airtable has been lauded for reinventing that mainstay of office productivity software, the spreadsheet. But there’s a lot more to the company's low-code app than replicating spreadsheet functions in the cloud, according to Ilan Frank, who recently left Slack to be vice president of product at Airtable.

Airtable combines the functionality of a relational database with an intuitive interface that lets users plan a team project, manage a sales pipeline, and more. Its low-code approach enables a wide range of users to customize workflows to meet their specific needs.

The app is often referred to as being “like a spreadsheet on steroids,” said Frank, though that description underplays its use for businesses. “I don't look at that in that way at all."

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Ilan Frank, vice president for product at Airtable.

What Airtable does, he said, is tie together data from various apps that serve as systems of record for businesses. This could be data generated in Airtable itself or by external apps, such as incidents logged in PagerDuty, tickets in Zendesk, or territory maps in Salesforce. “We're building a data hub that unlocks all that siloed data.”

One way this is done is via Airtable’s data sync integrations, which can be used with Jira Cloud, Box, Tableau, and GitHub, among others. Airtable plans to increase the number of syncs so users can bring data into the platform and share it across their organization. The company also plans to create an API so developers can create their own agent to sync with external systems, and work is under way to build a data “marketplace” within the app, Frank said. That way, customers can share information more easily internally.

In one sense, he said, Airtable’s “data hub” approach has a parallel with Slack’s collaboration platform, which proved a popular conduit for interactions between co-workers. “Slack is fantastic from an engagement perspective for people to communicate with one another," he said. "Everything is there, it’s an optimal solution. But I think it's also important in departments that are spread across the world for data to [be connected]. And that, I think, is where Airtable comes in."

Airtable, which launched in 2013, has caught the attention of investors in recent years. A $735 million funding round in December valued the company at $11 billion and brought its total investment to $1.4 billion. The company claims more than 300,000 customers, including Netflix, Red Bull, and luxury goods firm LVHM, and is used by around 80% of the Fortune 500. It’s annual recurring revenues are reportedly above $100 million, and CEO Howie Liu is thought to be preparing for a public listing in the next couple of years.

The hiring of Frank is an indication of Airtable’s plan to target larger business customers. During his six years at Slack, he spearheaded that firm’s push into the enterprise, and was involved in the creation of Slack's Enterprise Grid product, which aided deployments to thousands of employees. Near the end of his tenure at Slack, Frank worked for nine months simultaneously as a product advisor for Airtable before jumping to the latter firm. He also advises several other companies on moving from product-led growth to establishing a stronger enterprise presence.

He cited similarities between Airtable and Slack in their initial adoption among smaller teams within an organization before spreading more widely. Airtable is increasingly being adopted across customer organizations, he said, citing the “same signs of maturity…where Slack was starting to really be viewed as a wall-to-wall tool by the C-suite.

“It’s brought in by a team and spreads to other teams, then eventually IT or some type of central technology organization says, 'Okay, now everyone has access to Airtable.' So it's a very similar go to market,” said Frank.

This viral adoption, he said, is also one of the differentiators Airtable has in comparison to other low-code or no-code enterprise apps. “We are continuing to live and breathe that DNA of product-led growth, of being very easy to use and adopt,” he said.

“Unlike some enterprise platforms, we want to be brought in bottom-up and make sure we serve the needs of end users, as well as eventually the CIOs that will be adopting it and rolling it out wall-to-wall,” he said. “It's thinking about both the ‘user’ and the ‘chooser.’”

Airtable has been “hugely successful” at a team level, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. That's been especdially true in smaller organizations where it taps into growing demand for low-code options that empower “individuals, non-technical employees to solve their own problems — which are often very specific to their organization or their team.”

Gaining ground among larger companies represents another challenge.

“It checks the box for ground-up, viral adoption," she said. "But stepping up to the enterprise opportunity is always hard, not least because of the new security and compliance complexity that typically comes at this level.

“Getting enterprise-wide buy-in, finding the right stakeholders and convincing IT organizations that this is something other than shadow IT will also be a challenge," Ashenden said. "There's often still a need for centralized control and management, which jars with the distributed creation approach."

Ashenden notes a range of competitors too, from smaller players like Coda and Asana, to the likes of Microsoft with its Lists product.

“So it will definitely take time for Airtable to gain serious traction and credibility in the enterprise," she said, "but the company’s recent injection of investment will no doubt play a critical role in fuelling this drive."

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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