From the Bottom Up—Airtable’s Approach to Distribution and Adoption

August 24, 2020

There’s no place for outbound sales in Airtable’s distribution model. 

That may change one day, says CEO and founder Howie Liu—but only if the team can figure out an approach to outbound that adds real value to the customer experience. Until then, the company is sticking by a consultative approach that better complements their self-serve product.

Bottom-up from the beginning

From the start, Airtable was built as a self-serve B2B product that could be adopted from the bottom up. In a recent episode of the BUILD Podcast, Howie explained that this wasn’t just a philosophical choice—it was a foundational assumption about how Airtable could win against existing enterprise solutions. In his words:

“It was necessary to make Airtable a bottom-up, self-serve product. If we [hadn’t], we wouldn’t have had resources or credibility to go up against the existing top-down, low-code enterprise platforms. It was table stakes for us to make this product actually good enough and easy enough to use—yet powerful enough to convince end users themselves to invest not just the money but, more importantly, the time and behavioral change effort to go and build on Airtable.”

Within a bottom-up approach, there are gradients. When Airtable launched in 2013, their best role models were Dropbox and Evernote, both products that began as consumer-first before bridging into enterprise. At that time, the Airtable team believed that in order to get B2B adoption, they needed to start with the individual consumer. But after launch, they realized that their best, most viral adopters weren’t individuals but teams.

Thankfully, this plot twist was a welcome one. Howie explained:

“We always knew that we would be a team-centric product. We had spent a lot of time and energy making Airtable collaborative by default… And so I think if there was a pivot at all in the history of the company, it was really just switching gears and saying: “Hey we wanted to get here this whole time and now we have an opportunity to just go directly after those B2B, team-centric, bottom-up use cases right away.””

The pros and cons of self-service

A self-serve approach makes sense for a horizontal platform like Airtable. When a product serves such a huge set of diverse use cases, assigning a sales rep for every one is simply not a scalable strategy.

Yet self-service is not without its drawbacks. A low-touch approach, combined with a broad platform, means that you can lose or under-serve customers with more complicated use cases who might need extra help getting started.

Related read: How to Pair Sales and Self-Service for Maximum Impact

The solution, says Howie, is to hybridize by layering in sales and high-touch strategies. Hybrid strategies are emerging in companies like Slack, Zoom, Dropbox and Atlassian, where teams are learning to leverage the best parts of both adoption models.

Howie explained what that could look like at Airtable:

“We get this compounding growth because of the bottom-up adoption model where the active users of Airtable attract more active users by inviting them directly into the product and also just by word-of-mouth. And that’s a really, really important viral loop that we want to double down on and perpetuate.”

“But at the same time,” he continued, “we can elegantly insert a sales motion into that flow. It’s not just about extracting revenue from these customers with sales—it’s also about adding value. … There’s real value to consulting with somebody and understanding how you get the most out of Airtable.”

The important thing is to avoid binary thinking that says a distribution model must be either top-down or bottom-up. At Airtable, they’re taking a first principles approach to figure out the best way to factor more traditional sales into a bottom-up viral loop.

Defining “growth” at Airtable

With user expectations rising ever higher, providing a smooth and valuable product experience is a non-negotiable part of fueling and maintaining growth. This is true for all companies, but is especially critical for those with a bottom-up approach; when you lead with your product experience, that experience has to be exceptional.

At Airtable, this interrelation between product and growth has raised questions about which teams get the “growth” label. There isn’t an easy answer.

After all, Howie said, “isn’t the whole product team really about driving [long-term] growth by building better functionality that helps unlock more value for creators—and therefore attracts more of them, helps more of them succeed, and helps more of them build awesome things that inspire even more creators?”

Related read: Building a System for Growth

To Howie, the distinction lies in the time horizon upon which teams make bets. For instance, the bet that Airtable is making around leaning into its platform capabilities and giving people the ability to build an ecosystem is expected to drive a profound amount of growth over the next five to 10 years. That’s something the entire product team has wagered on. The growth team, by contrast, is more focused on the near-term and on the incremental, compounding wins that come from an empirically driven approach.

“A growth team can get away with more rapid experimentation, without the certainty that a given debt will pay off,” explained Howie. “That is a little bit different from the longer-term initiatives where, if you spend three years building a platform and it doesn’t pay off, that’s probably not very good.”

The role of sales in a product-led, self-service model

At Airtable, growth is largely driven by the product itself. But a self-serve, product-led approach can still benefit from a human touch.

The key to layering sales and customer-facing teams into a product-led growth model, insisted Howie, is to have the right culture in place. Culture isn’t “something that’s just soft and fluffy and nebulous.” Culture is a reflection of the behaviors, motivations, and incentives that get rewarded with success within a company. Culture drives the outcomes.

Howie said they’ve been very intentional about defining Airtable as a single team, even avoiding a formal quota program for sales reps. Such a program now exists, but the emphasis is firmly not on how many deals an individual rep can personally close.

“It’s really about what’s best for the company and thinking about each customer in terms of what’s going to ensure their long-term activation and expansion success. It’s about pricing that in and thinking about those things as you determine the best way to engage with a customer… and what’s going to enable the customer to be more successful,” he explained.

“The key to layering sales and customer-facing teams into a product-led growth model is to have the right culture in place.”

At Airtable, this focus on long-term retention and expansion value is codified within the systems and incentives given to customer-facing teams. Doing so has allowed the team to create a sales function that adds real value to the customer experience.

Yet Airtable isn’t in any hurry to start doing outbound sales. At the moment, they’re focused on scaling up their consultative and implementation-oriented teams. Howie elaborates on this decision:

“Right now, there’s such a huge opportunity … to help the massive amount of people who are coming through our existing funnel to convert and to be successful. We will probably only [start doing outbound] once we’re close to exhausting that funnel, which is not at all in the near future. Partly that’s a function of how much improvement opportunity there is to help all of these people who sign up for Airtable every day. That’s lower-hanging fruit for us.

[Ultimately], I think it just comes down to whether we foresee a way that we can do outbound really effectively. Is there actually an approach that’s good for the customer, that helps more customers who could benefit from Airtable find out about us faster?”

Howie had plenty more insights about Airtable’s bottom-up approach to distribution, the product marketing challenges associated with a wide platform, and how the rise of low-code/no-code is democratizing software. Listen to the full episode of BUILD, hosted by OpenView’s Blake Bartlett, to hear the full conversation.

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Managing Editor<br>OpenView

Kristin joined OpenView after spending over four years at InVision managing their Inside Design publication and helping build brand love as chief storyteller, lead producer and editor. Before InVision, she co-founded the digital strategy agency Four Kitchens, spent several years in the restaurant industry as a chef, and was Editor-in-Chief of the nation’s largest college humor publication, the Texas Travesty, as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin.