Lessons in Scaling a Low Code Platform with Airtable

How do you scale a company based on software that can be collaborative for everyone in your org — from finance to marketing? Howie Liu, CEO and Co-Founder @ Airtable shares the strategies he used to gain traction with a low-code platform.

Airtable is a low code, bottoms-up business which means that its users don’t have to be in IT or have a technical background in order to build useful internal databases within Airtable. The idea was to create robust solutions that empower business processes within companies.

Here, we breakdown some of the strategies Howie used to turn Airtable into the project-management powerhouse it is today.

Stay True to Your North Star

Howie and team purposefully built Airtable on a horizontal platform that can do anything. They created templates to allow it to maintain its flexibility, but still maintain an ease of use for all its end users.

Why Horizontal vs Vertical Growth 

The product side is foundational to build a horizontal route and commit to it. The product experience is the core DNA of the product to take the complexity of lego pieces and make them intuitive. When Howie first started the company, they made the commitment to make the product experience more intuitive without taking away from the elegance of the onboarding experience.

In the early days, Airtable used a bottoms-up economic approach which is not an adage for salespeople. Ultimately, they developed a more hybrid sales approach because there are good parts to each experience. The bottoms-up philosophy is highly efficient because the unit economics are going to look awesome due to thousands of organic sign-ups every day. Some people will pull out their wallets to pay for more extensive plans without talking to anyone on the sales team but some people will need to talk to a salesperson before making a purchase. It’s more a matter of “when” not “if” to change the bottoms up adoption in order to be able to layer on higher and higher sales enterprises.

On Category Creation

From the beginning, Airtable convinced themselves that they had a different category of product through the creation of a software creation platform that anyone can use. The idea of grounding is really important when thinking about category creation because you can only explain one new thing at a time, as opposed to explaining too many things at once.

The software creation pitch is faulty because it’s not obvious to average/most customers that they can build software to directly fit their needs.  If a customer realizes this, then they can build their workflow in a more structured, transparent, and collaborative way which would be the value.

Challenges as CEO

One of the early challenges Howie faced was figuring out how to get the most leverage doing the things that only he could do and let go of everything else he could hire out for, and can hire someone who can do the job better than him. It’s partly hiring the right leadership team specifically to create the right cultural practices and standards in order to define the culture of the company to be a performance-oriented culture or not.

Next, as Airtable didn’t want to only compete against project management or productivity tools, but they had to keep building a platform ecosystem that continues pushing the company into new layers of value to open up the possibility for bigger creative leaps. Howie’s job became taking all of the possibilities and simplifying them down into a clear set of objectives that everyone can align around. This allows all employees to be more creative and innovative in their daily jobs which gives them more autonomy.

Lastly, as a platform business, he had to avoid the temptation to optimize visible, short-term metrics such as revenue. He had to figure out the best metrics that can capture not only near-term results, but output of business using leading indicators of network size, number of active applications, third-party applications solved by customers, etc.

Take the time to invest in the right metrics because down the road they will contribute to financial success through sustainable revenue growth in addition to better strategic advantage in the competitive landscape.

Words of Advice from Howie Liu:

  • Actively seek out diverse sources of advice.
  • Mentorship is crucial to success.
  • Invest in your own personal growth similar to how you would actively solicit venture investment for capital.
  • Have a good balance of patience and impatience.
Published on January 6, 2021

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