The foundation of the web is built on the power of databases and the ability to manipulate data within them. But few database providers offer an experience that is as accessible, and now as well-funded, as Airtable.
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The SF-based startup has raised $100M, bringing its total known funding to $170M. And with the check comes a mission beyond rows and columns in a spreadsheet: an aim to democratize software.
Howie Liu, Airtable’s CEO and co-founder, told Crunchbase News that his startup aims to take “all of the complexities of interacting with a relational database and exposing those to an end-user in the most intuitive possible form.” Essentially, Liu is saying that if you can grok Excel, you should be able to grok Airtable.
However, manipulating that data into a product or useful piece of software mostly remains in the domain of developers. That doesn’t mean some companies haven’t tried making building apps on top of databases easier. Quickbase, which automates workflows for hundreds of SMBs across the nation, also boasts about its ability to make software creation accessible to end users. But according to Liu, Quickbase and other drag-and-drop software creation tools are more “low-code app platforms that are frankly never going to see bottoms-up adoption.”
“If you showed Quickbase to twenty randomly selected people from a company or a cross-section of America, I think zero out of twenty, more times than not, would be able to go or want to go build the application they need on top of Quickbase,” Liu explained, crediting Airtable’s more considered approach to product development as a big part of its differentiation from more established players.
Furthermore, Liu doesn’t believe that an injection of cash dwarfing all of its prior total funding rounds will impact the company’s ability to execute on new, user-friendly features.
“We were deliberate about thinking through who are the right people to involve at this stage to help us scale to the next five levels of the company,” Liu explained. That said, investors do like cash as much as they like great products. And on revenue metrics, Liu said that the company is “fortunate enough to be in a position where, reduced to those numbers, we look very good as a business.”
Assuming that Airtable chose the right investors, a solid financial footing paired with an influx of cash should give the startup room to explore its software creation ambitions. It plans to do so by investing more resources into “Blocks,” which are essentially mini-apps within Airtable, and opening up the platform to “third-party developers and customers.”
It’s an ambition that’s fraught with potential problems. One only need look at the list of poorly maintained Google Doc Add-ons and Twitter’s lackluster handling of developers over the years to understand the potential perils, and responsibility, of calling yourself a platform. But the use of the buzzword isn’t lost on Liu.
“Not all platforms are created equal. It’s kind of in-vogue to call yourself or something a platform because it sounds more ambitious, more empowering, and more important to do than build a product,” said Liu.
Even without third-party developers, Airtable plans to commit internal resources to its Blocks platform, likely an encouraging sign for developers.
“We’re going to have a full-time team… to go and just build useful blocks on top of our own platform,” said Liu.
To this writer, in many ways, Airtable is attempting to create a new economy of app development built off of its accessible database. It’s a tall order that will require millions, and this is the bull market to raise it in.
Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias