Back in 2010, when Villi Iltchev led the investments and acquisitions team at Salesforce.com, he put together a purchase of Etacts. The startup, which was focused on creating an email platform, was actually less than a year old and had the backing of YCombinator as well as angels like Ron Conway, Joshua Schachter, Jawed Karim, and Ashton Kutcher.
For Villi, he was quite impressed with the Etacts founder, Howie Liu. “It was obvious at the time that he was a special person,” said Iltchev. “I saw that he was a unicorn in that he was a brilliant engineer, designer, and business person in one package. I told him I would invest in whatever he was going to do next. It did not matter.”
Well, Iltchev did invest in Liu’s next venture, which was Airtable. The vision of the startup was to create a low code platform that was essentially a mashup between a spreadsheet and database.
And yes, Iltchev’s investment turned out to be a huge winner. Recently Airtable announced a Series E round for $ 270 million at a valuation of $ 5.8 billion (note that Iltchev is currently a partner at Two Sigma Ventures).
OK then, so what are some of the takeaways about the success of Airtable? Why did this company become so valuable?
Let’s take a look:
The Problem: Liu had first-hand experience with the challenges of enterprise applications–and he used this to his advantage in creating Airtable.
“After selling his first company to Salesforce, Howie recognized that many enterprise apps were providing basic workflows on top of a database,” said Iltchev. “He also recognized that non-technical users were struggling to manage their data in spreadsheets, which were not designed for this purpose and had significant limitations.”
Foundation: From the start, Airtable built a rock-solid infrastructure. This was to not only allow for scale but also customization. The fact is that low code platforms can be extremely complicated because of the myriad relationships with data and functions. There is also the need to seamlessly integrate with many third-party applications.
Simplicity: While many enterprise software companies claim that their applications are easy to use, this is usually far from the reality. But Airtable has broken the mold. The software is like a modern consumer application.
“Airtable focuses on the ‘for anyone’ message’ for normal people looking to help their department or team build solutions,” said Duncan Huffman, who is the Director of Product Strategy and Insights at Formstack, “They have a strong ‘get started easy and then add complexity as you need it’ approach that appeals to departmental problem solvers. They back this up with great customer stories that show the near limitless use cases for the product. This does a great job of sparking the imagination and getting customers to think ‘what could I build with this?’”
Another key feature of Airtable is the template library. This makes it easy for anyone to spin-up and customize an app.
Stay With The Vision: With Airtable, Liu was going against the conventional wisdom. He was building a horizontal product, which can be daunting for a startup. He was also taking on mega rivals like Google and Microsoft.
“When we first met with Airtable they only had a handful of employees,” said Max Gazor, who is a General Partner at CRV, which is an early-stage venture capital firm focused on enterprise software and an investor in Airtable. “The product was in beta and they had no revenue, but they were set on a gutsy vision. They were never just about the developers. They wanted to empower creators in the broadest sense possible. Now Airtable is on a path to generate a billion dollars of revenue, but that wasn’t obvious in the early days. Airtable’s first two or three years were challenging. They got knocked for not having metrics, for not narrowing the framing, for not hunkering down and serving a single vertical. Their first few funding rounds were all the result of inside support. They weren’t loved externally. Despite those hits, they never compromised on their concept. And it’s exciting to see the fruits of that commitment now.”
Tom (@ttaulli) is an advisor/board member to startups and the author of Artificial Intelligence Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction, The Robotic Process Automation Handbook: A Guide to Implementing RPA Systems and Implementing AI Systems: Transform Your Business in 6 Steps. He also has developed various online courses, such as for the COBOL and Python programming languages.