Many startups are born out of an idea for a new product or an insight into a potential business opportunity.
But not Airtable.
Before its founders figured out the service it would offer or how it would make money, they talked through the principles that would guide the company they were creating, CEO Howie Liu told Business Insider in a recent interview. He and his cofounders believed that a company’s culture and values were more important to its longterm success than its initial product or business model. Indeed, they felt like those values could help guide the development of its business model and products.
“We were very … intentional on day one in terms of talking through what is going to be the guiding principle set for our company many years down the road,” Liu said.
Airtable offers something that, at first glance, looks a lot like a simple spreadsheet. So you might think that Liu and his cofounders were focusing on upending the the market for Excel or Google Sheets.
But in reality, they had much broader ambitions, Liu said. And those aims were ones they talked about right from the beginning, even before they launched their service. They wanted to focus on disrupting the traditional method of writing software and make it more accessible to everyday people, he said.
“In the same way that Apple democratized personal computing, we wanted to democratize the act of software creation,” Liu said in a follow-up email.
The bet on values seems to be paying off
The bet Liu and and cofounders made to focus on values seems to be paying off. Airtable is one of the hottest enterprise software startups around. It raised $160 million in venture funding last year— most recently at a $1.1 billion valuation, and has some 80,000 customers, including half of the Fortune 1,000. It’s generating enough revenue and cash flow now that Liu says it can continue to run its business without any more outside financing.
The decision of Liu and his partners to initially focus on values came out of years of conversations with his cofounders and from their collective experiences in the tech industry. The three met in college at Duke, where they bonded while brainstorming startup ideas.
After college, Liu founded a startup that was eventually acquired by Salesforce. Andrew Ofstad, his cofounder and Airtable’s chief product officer, worked for giant consulting firm Accenture, helping clients develop products before joining Google product team. Liu’s other cofounder, Emmett Nicholas, Airtable’s chief technology officer, worked as an engineer at Stack Overflow, the mega-popular Q&A site for developers.
Through their various experiences in the tech industry, three continued to talk about startup ideas, both about products and the kinds of companies they wanted to build. While they officially launched Airtable’s product in 2015, the discussions that led to the company started more than two years before that, Liu said.
“In Airtable’s case, [the launch of the product] was very organic,” he said. The idea for the company, he continued, “developed slowly over the course of years.”
Airtable is increasingly resembling its founders’ vision
As Airtable’s service has evolved, its founders’ vision has become more apparent. Its service has evolved into a kind of advanced database program that allows users to input not just text and numbers, but digital objects ranging from photos to documents.
And customers can now use its service to create bespoke applications. Hollywood studios are using it to help manage the post-production process with their films, major festivals are using it to track lost-and-found items, and people are using it to help plan their weddings.
Focusing on values and principles before products and business models may seem a bit odd, almost like putting the cart before the horse, Liu acknowledged. But he and his team wanted to avoid the mistakes other entrepreneurs had made, he said.
Founders who start with a product often end up with something that becomes an accidental business, something that’s more of a feature than the foundation of a real company. By starting out with guiding principles, Liu and his founders felt they could focus instead on building a sustainable and influential business.
“In some sense, it’s a little bit contrived to talk about [values and principles] before you actually have anything — like, you haven’t even gotten to basic product-market fit, you have zero employees, you have, like, nothing,” Liu said in the interview. “But at the same time … it’s almost especially important to talk about it then, because otherwise once you get moving and into the thick of things, if you don’t have that clear set of values … it becomes really hard to retrofit that.”
In Airtable’s case, the company’s initial values have helped steer Liu and his team ever since, helping them to focus on their longterm vision.
“We knew from day one that we had to value excellence over expedience, craft over convenience,” he said. “We weren’t just replicating existing products,” he continued, “but creating something new and truly original. That required us to value open-ended, imaginative thinking.”
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