The Power of Simmering: Airtable’s Design Principles for a PLG Company
When people think about software companies, they usually think about technology first. They think about innovation and sophisticated new features, functionality and use cases. But a great deal of what makes any software company successful has little to do with technology and everything to do with understanding and investing in the connection between technology and humanity.
At Airtable, we’re on a mission to democratize software creation. Our ultimate goal is to enable everyone to participate in the experience of making – rather than just using – software. Our platform enables anyone to build their own useful, collaborative business applications. We help more than 90,000 organizations build tools that support everything from producing videos and communication plans to crafting product roadmaps, doing UX research and much more. We want to put the power of creativity in the hands of all the people, not just a select few.
This mission is the reason I joined Airtable as VP of Customer Engagement. I’ve always been attracted to startups and began my career in the for-profit education space before spending six years at Twitter as that company’s first sales manager. From there, I joined a very early stage AI startup. While that experience was exciting, it was a little intense, and I was looking for a position with a slightly more mature company when a colleague introduced me to the CEO of Airtable. After he explained his vision not only for the product, but also for the company, I was inspired to get on board.
We’re doing some things very differently, and we’re embracing change in a way few organizations manage to do successfully. But, we’re doing all of this in a very intentional and measured way that balances our technological innovation with a very human-driven approach to growth.
Structuring Your Teams for a Better Customer Experience
A lot of companies make the mistake of structuring their teams around internal drivers. The result is an infrastructure that isn’t ideal for the customer. At Airtable, we’re trying to build our organization through the lens of making sure that each decision we make hinges on what’s truly best for the customer. This isn’t easy. There’s no playbook to follow, so we’re learning together as we work to set our teams up for success with a strong foundation, open lines of communication and an environment that breeds trust and encourages experimentation. It’s challenging as we work through who owns which elements, but we believe in the overall plan.
When I first joined the company, our sales and success teams were a little siloed. They weren’t consistently talking through specific customer challenges, and their workflows weren’t completely coordinated. We began shifting to a different model by starting with the people on the team. We had a joint team happy hour to start integrating the two functions. And then we brought the two team managers together for weekly talks about common challenges and where there was overlap.
Ultimately, we decided that it made sense to bring these two areas together under one customer engagement umbrella. This has allowed us to align our objectives more closely, which in turn makes it possible to deliver a more seamless customer experience. In this model, customer success is empowered to own the customer relationship throughout the entire journey rather than having to hand it off at certain stages. This allows our CSMs to build really strong long-term partnerships with all our customers. Our CSMs are customer champions and advocates. They focus not only on adoption, expansion and retention, but also on working closely with their counterparts in sales to ensure that there’s strong alignment when it comes time for renewal and other critical junctures in the relationship.
Another key element to building a support team that is empowered to redefine what great support looks like, focusing on customer empathy. Our support team isn’t simply responding to thousands of tickets each week, they are digging into understanding why people are asking particular questions and empathizing with those motivations. Overall, our team’s goal is to shorten the time to value, whether that first customer touchpoint is with sales, support or success. There’s no single cycle or journey the customer has to follow. Our team orients themselves as a single entity around what’s best for the customer and meets each individual where they are.
Designing for Better Customer Engagement
As we build this new kind of customer engagement organization, we are designing around a few core principles that help us stay the course toward our ultimate goals.
Empowerment is a key element of our product, and it’s also a critical part of how we want to engage our customers. In terms of product, empowerment is all about creating a direct connection between users and creativity. Airtable gives anyone in any role in any company the ability to build their own custom software. By enabling individuals to realize their unique visions, our platform helps these individuals accelerate their careers and increase their influence with an organization.
Internally, that ethos of empowering creators is baked into everything we do. For example, when we’re building product features, we’re focused on delivering tools that empower humans rather than reduce user agency. So, we aren’t always interested in automating humans out of the creative process; we want to enable and enhance that process.
We also consider our team members to be creators. Because our product is infinitely flexible, we can’t make a lot of baseline assumptions about how to solve a customer’s challenge. While other businesses can respond with rote solutions to a tight range of use cases, we need to take a totally different approach that requires open-ended thinking. Our team has to be empowered to think on their feet and innovate as needed to address a wide array of scenarios.
Simmering and Long-term Thinking
We believe in making the right decision, not the expedient one. And we’re lucky enough to have the kind of business traction that allows us to take a long-term approach to the way we build our product and our company. We’re not constrained to thinking only about tomorrow or even next year. We proactively think about what kind of impact a decision will have several decades from now.
Of course, we need to balance this with the urgency of day-to-day demands, but we never feel boxed into going after a short-term revenue win. Instead, we think through every decision to make sure that our choices consistently help every single customer to experience greater empowerment through the applications they build on Airtable. We want our customers to know that we are always there for them. Solid, dependable, trustworthy—as invested in their long-term success as they are.
Finally, we make sure we don’t assume we know better than the customer. We make a point of acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers, and we don’t get too attached to any one idea. This keeps us open to new ideas and suggestions and invites collaboration with each other and with our customers. We approach challenges with the mindset that people know how to do their jobs and are better equipped than anyone else to create the unique software that they need to realize their ambitions. Our job is to support and empower them, not to tell them how to do their jobs.
Driving Growth through Constant Change, Honest Feedback and Patience
Though we’ve already made a lot of structural changes and sharpened our focus on empowerment and tapping into our empathy for customers, I expect that ours will be an ever-evolving organization. In my experience, if a company isn’t changing in some substantial way every three to six months, something’s wrong. On some level, you want to feel like a completely new company in those moments of transformation.
This may sound scary to some, but it’s the reality you have to embrace if you’re ramping up for hyper growth. And to do this successfully, you need people on board who can lean into this paradigm and thrive. Your team needs to be truly open to growth, including the discomfort that comes with change. You want people on your team who are willing to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Achieving this kind of environment is about hiring the right people, setting those people up for success by empowering them to do their jobs, and fostering a strong feedback culture. For a company to grow by leaps and bounds instead of baby steps, you want everyone in the organization to be able to offer productive peer-to-peer feedback—upwards, downward and all around. The goal is to ensure every single person at the company is successful. Providing supportive and actionable feedback is key to moving people forward in a positive direction.
At the same time, I’ve learned that sometimes, the best thing you can do to move forward is to take a step back. It’s only by looking at the big picture and taking time to be intentional about your decisions that you can create the kind of long-term stability you need to sustain growth over time. There have been times in my career when I’ve succumbed to the pressure to act quickly on something. In almost every case, I would have been better served – as would the organization and our customers – by exercising a little patience and allowing myself to take my time. It’s hard advice to follow in the fast-paced software world, but it might surprise you how effective it can be.
On the last episode of the season, Tope Awotona, Founder & CEO of Calendly, shares his take on product led growth and what finally convinced him the was the right business to build.
This episode features Vlad Magdalin, Co-founder & CEO of Webflow, a business that took four tries to get off the ground. Find out how they think about creating a product that’s applicable to as many people as possible and why adding incremental value is more important than shipping a perfect product.
Many tools have emerged to help PMs do their jobs more effectively. These make up the product stack, composed of more than a dozen categories. But what is the actual function of each category? Here, we drill down.