On this episode of Office Hours, Airtable co-founder and CEO Howie Liu talks about the inspiration behind his company, and shares his thoughts on the impact artificial intelligence will have on the tech industry.
San Francisco-based Airtable is a connected app platform that allows anyone in an organization to build and customize apps using shared data. The no-code platform helps companies create flexible checklists, organize collections or ideas, and manage customers or contacts.
Liu was known for building apps throughout college, including a “maps apartment listing mashup.”
“I scraped Craigslist for listings and then put them on a map which Craigslist itself didn't even do at the time,” Liu said. “[It] has a Yelp style search and filter interface, which in hindsight, doesn't sound that covered, but at the time there wasn't a great deal of documentation around how to build that sort of a rich, single page app experience. So I was also learning how to reverse engineer these interfaces and build them myself from scratch.”
Looking back, he realized it wasn’t a viable business because he didn’t own the data and he didn’t have a relationship with the realtors who listed the content. So he scrapped the idea entirely.
Once Liu graduated from Duke University in 2009, he looked for work opportunities and decided to take an internship with technology company CrowdFlower.
“That was a really great learning experience and an initial foray into the Silicon Valley startup system,” he said. “So I teamed up with a friend from college with whom I decided to go and build an app called Etact and apply to Y Combinator and see if we could get into the program, launch a product.”
Long story short, Liu participated in Y Combinator’s 2010 winter cohort to grow his first startup Etact, a customer relationship management software platform.
While he understands that accelerator programs are not for everyone, Liu said “for me, it was entirely transformative.”
“I had done all my prototypes and explorations in college, but nothing that felt like a real startup,” he added. “Being able to go into the program, be part of a class of other founders who are also trying to figure it out…and also just normalizing the experience that otherwise could have felt very lonely and, and demoralizing plus the connections that we got through the programming — like demo day — actually turned out to be really valuable for us. I don't think we could have lined up nearly the number of high quality investors that we did for that company and raise a seed round without the catalyzing event.”
Shortly after the program, Etact was acquired by Salesforce. Little did he know that his experience working under the Silicon Valley giant would catapult him into building Airtable.
“They [Salesforce] focused on building a really flexible platform and every install of Salesforce,” he said. “Whether it's for CRM or for any other application, it’s just a customization of their underlying platform. That concept directly inspired Airtable because I wanted to go and do that, but on a much more disruptive level where you don't need an admin, you don't need a lot of time and money, or a ton of resources to go and build an app.”
To date, Airtable has grown to have over a thousand employees and raised nearly 1.4 billion in funding. Liu and his team are always looking for ways to innovate their products and with AI making a huge splash in the last few years, he thinks this may be the perfect time for the company to capitalize on this.
“I'm generally not the type of person who jumps on bandwagon or hype trends,” Liu said. “With AI, you can actually just see for yourself. Today, its capabilities are these large language models…So I think this is going to be this massive sweeping force that is going to create winners and losers in software.”
Liu said that he’s seeing plenty of innovation occur within other companies attempting to incorporate AI, but for him, it’s about something different.
“In our case, it's actually thinking about how to weave AI into the go-to-market plan,” Liu said. “The really important thing is how we're going to engage with customers and frame the value of our product because we actually can deliver a lot of value through AI on our platform…Rather than us just trying to add another tackle on AI. So I think it's more foundational, and we're trying to be very clear and opinionated about our approach to AI.”dot.LA Reporter Decerry Donato contributed to this post.
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