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Airtable is clearly not your average productivity company. In fact, it may not be a productivity business at all. Years ago when Airtable was referenced as a “steroids spreadsheet” in the press, CEO Howie Liu was less than enthusiastic, as he felt the company offered much more than that.
To this day, Liu avoids comparisons with 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’re trying to position ourselves more against ServiceNow or Salesforce, not from a CRM perspective, but from a platform perspective,” Liu said. “We always intended to become an app maker,” he said.
Today, Liu wants Airtable to move from collaboration and productivity tools to an app development platform that companies choose as the backbone of their workflows. But to do that, Airtable will have to prove to businesses, investors, and analysts that it’s much more than a productivity company.
software authoring software
Howie Liu has always been interested in the power of software. At age 13, Liu learned to code with his father’s old textbook, and soon after college he started his first company, a CRM system called Etacts. At the age of 22, he had sold this company to Salesforce.
That was the unlock for me…it’s like software that can create any other software.
While working at Salesforce, Liu realized that its underlying data model was not as rigid as other CRM systems, which gave clients great flexibility in how they customized The software. “It was a metadata-driven platform, which meant that instead of hard-coding their business objects into a single form, each customer could define their own relational data structure and all of its features worked. regardless of how the customer defined their business objects,” Liu said.
In other words, since everything could be modified in Salesforce, companies and individuals could create their own applications. That’s why Liu saw Salesforce more as an app 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 acknowledged that Salesforce’s user interface wasn’t the best, and he felt he could do better. “Building a platform to build apps, or software to build other software, is a really, really interesting problem, and I think I can put my own spin on it,” he said.
That rotation took the form of startup Airtable, which Liu left Salesforce to build in 2013, just two years after joining the company. Along with some college friends, Liu set out to create Airtable as a super-powerful spreadsheet on top of a relational database, much like Salesforce.
The company quickly found rapid adoption among designers and developers, creating an almost cult following among productivity enthusiasts for its approach to the 21st century spreadsheet. At the end of last year, Airtable reached over 300,000 customers and $100 million in annual recurring revenue.
Despite notable success in the consumer world, Liu always dreamed of serving big business. From the start, Liu said he and his co-founders designed the product with scalability and complexity in mind. Today, Airtable has landed a number of major enterprise customers, from Netflix and Shopify to Intuit and Autodesk.
But Liu isn’t content to simply be seen as a productivity software company. Instead, Liu wants to turn Airtable into an app development platform that can serve large enterprises and compete with Salesforce and ServiceNow.
Airtable’s ability to attract enterprise customers where other productivity software has struggled is due to the company’s database, Liu said.
“Because we have a relational database foundation, we’re more scalable. For example, we can just increase not only in terms of record capacity… but also in complexity of implementation,” Liu said.
Not only does Airtable’s database hold more rows than competitors, the company also has the ability to script more robust APIs and native connections to systems of record like Salesforce, Liu said.
Although Liu thinks competitors like Monday.com, Asana and Smartsheet will continue to grow in a market that can accommodate multiple companies generating billions of dollars in revenue, he still doesn’t see them as direct competitors.
In fact, Liu doesn’t think any of these productivity companies can ever truly become an app platform, precisely because they don’t rely on a robust relational database. “To be a true application platform, you need to have an underlying database,” he said.
But to create an app development platform that can compete with established enterprise technology vendors, and even win contracts, Airtable will have to not only deliver from a product perspective, but also change the perspective of the business. industry that it just has good productivity or good project management. Software.
In some ways, Airtable is well on its way to doing just that. Already, Airtable is in some of the same conversations as ServiceNow when buyers evaluate app development platforms, and the company has already beaten Salesforce in at least one deal, Liu said.
The company is also landing big companies like Netflix, which chose Airtable over other vendors because the implementation process was less time-consuming. In fact, a member of the Netflix team discovered Airtable by chance, built a prototype of what they needed virtually overnight, and started the partnership between the two companies, according to Airtable.
Despite the financial prowess and might of Salesforce and increasingly ServiceNow, Liu is confident that Airtable can beat them in at least some deals. Airtable’s cloud-native experience, ability to sit on top of a CRM or ERP, and user-friendly interfaces are all key competitive advantages, from its perspective.
The fact that Airtable doesn’t need to own a CRM or ERP system and has never been on-premises means the business can deploy much faster and easier 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 UI than Salesforce, and maybe even ServiceNow, and is well versed in bottom-up organic adoption. As more and more applications are created by line-of-business users rather than IT people, easy-to-use interfaces will become increasingly important.
Although IT should always be involved in application platforms to manage due diligence, security and data management, it is essential that business users adopt them. “You don’t want to have [IT] come and help you build the thing. You’re trying to create an end-user environment where they can extend it themselves,” said Mike Gotta, analyst at Gartner VP.
But despite Liu’s desire to compare Airtable to Salesforce and ServiceNow, it’s not here to replace them. Instead, Liu wants Airtable to become his own “source of truth” (as the enterprise software buzzword goes) for objects, data, and business processes not currently in a CRM or ERP system, such as production processes or content management.
“To have lasting value, we must, and we become, the source of truth, the source of record, for new business objects that are not the customer record, that are not the developer’s issues in Jira , which are not the employee’s record,” Liu said.
But to become a source of truth, Airtable will need to be used more widely in business.
The challenge is that “CEOs don’t say, ‘I want to have Smartsheet everywhere, I want to have Airtable everywhere,’ that’s not what we see,” Gotta said. Instead, a bottom-up approach leads individual departments to use different productivity tools, creating silos. If Airtable manages to find adoption across all business departments, connecting cross-functional processes and stitching data together, they could seize an opportunity, Gotta said.
The real test for Airtable, however, will be convincing companies to take a chance on an outsider.
Airtable’s true value proposition still doesn’t seem to be widely understood, and the app development platform market itself is quite nascent. “I think we’re not understood for all that we really are and aspire to be, but we’re working on it,” Liu said.
This is why the company plans to strengthen its marketing. Instead of app development being seen as a nice addition, the company plans to lead with that in its messaging. Airtable is also moving from the more organic discovery process it relied on in the past to directly pursuing big business.
Analysts agree that Airtable needs to work on its market presence with businesses, as well as investors. “Understanding why customers should opt for Airtable over the many other options out there, and then doubling down on that messaging is, in my opinion, the best path to success,” said Kramer of Futurum.
In many ways, the misunderstanding of the market has provided some air cover as Liu plots Airtable’s next step. For now, Liu is content to fly under the radar. But that could change as it plans to take Airtable public in the future.
An IPO isn’t on the horizon anytime soon given the macro environment, but Liu is still preparing. Airtable is in an enviable position: With millions in hand after raising a huge round last December, the company has less pressure to cut costs or reduce capital expenditures. Still, the company is cautious, keeping cash in reserve to deal with uncertainty.
However, Liu is not worried about the demand for Airtable’s products and services. In his eyes, Airtable enables companies to “do more with less” and deliver value faster – coincidentally, the same wording competitor Bill McDermott uses to describe ServiceNow’s effect on customers.
To beat Salesforce and ServiceNow in the long run, Liu knows Airtable will need to leverage its consumer-like interface, relational databases, and relationships with business users to convince companies it can meet their most complex needs. If Airtable can achieve all of this, it could give Salesforce and ServiceNow a run for their money.