Building a LEGO Kit, Not a Solution—Airtable’s CEO on Catering to Diverse Use Cases

August 4, 2020

Airtable’s flexibility, and the fact that users can truly customize and make of the platform what they will, is one of its greatest selling points. It’s also one of the company’s biggest challenges.

Howie Liu, founder and CEO of Airtable, stopped by the BUILD podcast to talk about some of the challenges associated with building and marketing a wide platform that’s been adopted by cattle farmers and video production studios alike.

The challenges of a horizontal platform

For vertical solutions like Procore or Aviva, the building process is relatively straightforward. You talk to your customers and prospects (who all fall within a narrow range of personas and customer types), assess their needs and seal the solutions into product features.

When you’re dealing with a broad platform with a vast array of use cases, like Airtable, the process gets more complex. That’s because the use cases can be quite distinct—not only in how you set them up in Airtable, but also in terms of how people use the platform day to day, and what kind of value they receive from it. In that sense, Airtable is different from a tool like Slack, which, even though it gets adopted across a lot of different industries, provides essentially the same core experience to all.

Related read: Airtable and the Low-Code/No-Code Future of Software

Howie explained how this distinction shapes the challenges Airtable faces: “We’ve shifted the risk of failure from market size—we have great confidence that there will be a profoundly large market for us waiting on the other side—to execution risk. Our biggest probable risk of failure is stumbling on our own feet and ending up creating a product that’s either too convoluted or too specific to any one given use case to generalize.”

Leveraging third-party developers to address specific use cases

To prevent that from happening, Howie said he likes to think of Airtable as a sort of LEGO kit that allows each team to build its own application. Thinking of Airtable as a platform helps resist the temptation to reactively build a solution or feature that serves one particular use case or customer need in a hard-coded, brittle way.

“[When we build], we always have to peel it back and say, ‘Hey, what’s the meta way to do this? How do we build this in a more platform-like way wherein Airtable is still a platform and not an individual solution itself?’”

Sometimes there’s just no getting around the need for hyper-specific features. Rather than hard-coding those features into the product, the company is leaning into its platform capabilities by making it easier for third-party developers to build customized components directly into Airtable. This gives teams even more leeway to create a purpose-built solution with the specific functionalities they need to solve their unique problems.

Striking a balance: Product marketing and messaging at Airtable

As a broad, horizontal platform that can encompass just about any use case, Airtable doesn’t have to worry about a shortage of total addressable market (TAM). That means huge growth opportunities, of course, but it also presents some unique product marketing and messaging challenges.

With so much diversity among customers and use cases, how do you communicate a value proposition that is broad enough to intrigue a wide audience but specific enough to resonate with individuals?

“I think it’s actually a really fun product marketing challenge,” said Howie. “You get to define the product messaging framework on these different layers of abstraction. At the very base, there’s Airtable as a platform: Airtable as a LEGO kit and why you should be able to create software applications where previously there were none. But then at the highest, most specific levels, we also get to play around and get hyper-specific in terms of Airtable’s value and use case applicability.”

The right approach requires striking a delicate balance. On the one hand, it requires addressing specific needs by running targeted ads and tailoring landing pages to different use cases like construction or video production or product management. But on the other hand, as Howie noted, “We don’t want to belie the fact that Airtable is a platform. We don’t ever want to mislead people into thinking Airtable is just the perfect turnkey, prebuilt solution for video production, for example.”

Airtable’s answer to this challenge is to show users templates. These pre-populated templates highlight industry- and vertical-specific use cases, while also communicating Airtable’s customizability and the fact that the platform is able to grow and adapt to a user’s needs.

“The fact that Airtable does allow people to customize their product experience is a huge differentiator for us,” said Howie. “And I think it’s actually really fun—from a product marketing and go-to-market standpoint—to always be striking this balance between general and super specific messaging, even down to a per-customer basis.”

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

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