Airtable and the Low-Code/No-Code Future of Software
Howie Liu, Andrew Ofstad and Emmett Nicholas founded Airtable in 2012 on the belief that people can solve their unique problems by creating their own unique software. Airtable is now worth more than $1 billion, and over 170,000 companies use it, including giants like Netflix, Shopify and Time, along with half of the Fortune 1000.
Many people—even those familiar with the platform—think of Airtable as a spreadsheeting tool. They’re not entirely wrong; Airtable looks like a spreadsheet and behaves like a spreadsheet. But as founder and CEO Howie Liu explains, the platform’s familiar end user interface actually belies a transformational application powered by a flexible, relational database.
Above: A screenshot from Airtable’s homepage
“What we’re really doing is creating this new layer of data-based workflows,” said Howie. “And we’re creating this application platform for teams within any company to build their own useful business process using an end user interface that feels like a spreadsheet, but is actually powered by a relational database and all of these other powerful pieces that we give you to build a useful, tailor-made application.”
Like many great ideas, the vision behind Airtable formed gradually. In 2010, Salesforce acquired Liu’s first company, and he then worked at Salesforce as a product manager for a year before leaving to start Airtable.
That year proved to be an invaluable learning opportunity: While at Salesforce, Howie observed that many of the most useful software applications are nothing more than a relational database with an interface and some customizations layered on top.
This realization crystallized an idea that had been slowly taking shape in Howie’s mind for years. “What if you could make a way for people to actually build software applications without having a program?” Howie said. “And what if you could give that same transformative power to people who didn’t have all the time to go and learn how to actually code?”
When Airtable launched in 2014, many people came to the platform for personal organizational needs. Hobbyists were organizing everything from travel plans to wine bottle collections, using the platform almost like a more structured, powerful Pinterest board.
Over time, more and more businesses began adopting Airtable into their workflows. Howie attributes this shift toward more professional and enterprise use cases to both internal factors—such as increased functionality within Airtable itself—and external shifts in the way the wider world does business. The adoption of B2B SaaS solutions, by enterprise companies especially, signals a change in the way business users think about the software they use.
When Airtable started, “low-code/no-code” was an understood concept—but a much more arcane one. Eight years ago, if you went to an investor with an idea for a low-code app, you’d get a blank stare. But in the intervening years since Airtable’s launch, low-code/no-code has gone mainstream. More and more products (think: Zapier, Sunday and Bubble.io) now market themselves as low-code or no-code platforms that allow non-technical developers to create applications through graphical user interfaces and drag-and-drop components, rather than programming.
Still, the number of people who can truly participate in the creation of software is currently limited to a small, elite few who know how to code. Howie believes that while programming and computer science should continue to be taught and fostered in education curriculums, people shouldn’t have to write complicated code to build software.
Lowering the barrier to entry and democratizing the ability to create software—rather than to simply consume software built by advanced developers—will, he believes, rank up there with literacy, film and electricity as one of modern civilization’s most transformative technological advancements.
Howie’s vision for a low-code future is driven by the untapped creativity and potential that he sees bursting at the seams.
1/ Thread about the power of no-code “macros”…
Using @airtable to help cities organize volunteer grocery deliveries. A city asked for help batching delivery routes.
— Geoffrey Litt (@geoffreylitt) April 15, 2020
“I’ve had lots of random, serendipitous conversations with the person sitting next to me on an airplane or in a taxi,” Howie said. “And these people would have great ideas for an app of some kind or for some software they wanted to build—and yet it was completely out of reach for them because they couldn’t go and build it themselves or hire somebody to build it.”
Howie admits that people are never going to use Airtable to build a really complicated, large-scale app that serves 50,000 salespeople in a CRM capacity, for example. But by massively lowering the effort and cost required to build yourself a tool that is helpful to you and your team, Airtable is making possible this entirely new genre of hyper-specific, bespoke software tools. These might be mostly first-party applications built by a team, for a team, with only 50 users on them—but to those 50 users, that’s the most powerful piece of software that ever existed.
This shift opens up a whole new set of potential apps—ones that people haven’t yet imagined because we’ve always assumed it’s hard and expensive to build software.
“Our goal in starting Airtable was really to consumerize the software creation experience on a massive, ubiquitous scale. We wanted to do this by making it really, really easy for end users to actually grok—not unlike how Macintosh took all of these really powerful computing concepts and then made them easy for an end user to actually start using and interacting with, without having to read a big manual or get lots of training,” he explained.
Howie had a lot more to say about the democratization of software, the challenges of building and marketing a wide platform, and the pros and cons of a product-led distribution model. Listen to this episode of BUILD to hear the full conversation.