The BBC's Boss Week profiles various business leaders from around the world. This week we speak with Howie Liu, founder and CEO of the fast-paced spreadsheet for launching AirTable.
Silicon Valley boss Howard Liu sits, according to him, on an idea that could win tens of billions of dollars. And luckily, he tells the BBC, his AirTable company will be the one to execute it.
"This is a tremendous opportunity, not unlike the scale of Amazon, Facebook or Google," he says ironically.
"I just think this sea change will happen in terms of how people can interact with the software."
The big idea? Spreadsheets, but better. Spreadsheets, but richer .
Spreadsheets are commonly used by professionals as accountants to sort data, draw diagrams and make sums. But most of us find them too technical to be used in any basic way.
- How the computational first killer application changes everything
Changes in AirTable, which, Mr. Liu says, make it so easy that people who don't usually do it "have no coding skills ̵
"Eyes glazed over"
The app has become a hidden success, attracting high-profile clients like the entertainment company Netflix, a Tesla electric car maker and Time magazine and website.
The company is also worth $ 1.1 billion (850 million pounds) based on its latest funding round, although it has only been on the market for four years.
Explaining the investor concept was difficult in the early days of the company, acknowledges Mr. Liu, who co-founded the business in 2012 and is CEO of AirTable. It didn't sound like a whole new idea.
"The concept of a spreadsheet even preceded the calculations. Spreadsheets are the first killer app. "
So when he and his partners went into investor meetings armed with their" pitch deck, "they offered very little of what investors typically expected to hear.
"You see all these terrains that show growth charts, market size and all that stuff. Ours looked like nothing."
Instead, they made a philosophical case for AirTable and how it could transform the world of work.
"Honestly, I think a lot of eyes are just glazed. I definitely remember a few cases, even with investors saying 'yes' where they said 'we don't really get what you're talking about.'"
Ultimately, what brought these investors on board is the confidence in the AirTable team itself, which Mr. Liu says may be of greater importance at such an early stage.
"There are many ways to get a good idea with a bad team to fail, given that even an unfamiliar idea with a great team can succeed."
"I thought we were Chinese?"
Mr. Liu grew up in College Station, Texas, "two hours from Houston and three hours from Dallas."
He jokes that his family background is so complicated that his mother doesn't even tried to explain to him until she was about 10 years old.
"All four of my grandparents were Korean," he says. "But during World War II, they moved, like many Koreans, to China. And my parents were born in China, but moved to the States before I was born. "
His parents thought he would be" too confused "by this kind of story, and only when he had to make an essay story for school, this was explained to him.
"I asked my grandparents and I remember being like 'wait a second, I thought we were Chinese? I was super confused.'"
Less confusing was learning to code. At the age of 13, Mr. Liu picked up one of his father's books on C ++, a programming language, and taught in just a few weeks.
At the age of 16, he began to study wing design at Duke University in North Carolina. It was here that he met his eventual co-founders of AirTable – Andrew Ofstad and Emmett Nicholas, although the three would not work together until later in their lives.
Mr. Liu's first business was Etacts, a customer relationship management (CRM) company. It was bought by software giant Salesforce in 2011 for an undisclosed amount.
The sale gave Mr Liu the luxury of financial security when launching AirTable, but the acquisition, he said, left him feeling somewhat hollow.
"Ultimately, I was fortunate enough to achieve this life-changing financial result," he says. "But it was a failure in the sense that we had never really built a real business, an organization with our own culture."
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However, this got him in the room with powerful people when he needed support for AirTable – people like Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce and one of the most influential men in
It was not sold by Mr. Liu's idea and he offered instead This was to endeavor to create a better way to collect electronic medical records. They ignored his advice.
"It was not that we arrogantly thought we knew better," Mr. Liu recalls. "Mark was extremely generous with his time and advice. He does us a huge favor."
The San Francisco-based company still has only about 80,000 business clients, but that number is growing. Many other well-known consumers are helping to spread the word, although the company is also popular with far smaller businesses, especially in non-profit organizations.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana in 2017, AirTable was used to record rescued pets and unite them with their owners. The site has a free plan, limited functionality and capacity, and paid monthly plans for small businesses.
Success makes AirTable, quite conveniently, a "unicorn" – the nickname for private companies worth over a billion dollars, that's the status symbol most aspire to in San Francisco – but Mr. Liu chases during the mandate.
"It just feels visually … cheese. I think it's a label that has unnecessary or artificial gravy."
He feels too many start-ups, especially in the San Francisco offshore show, use "senseless" unicorn etiquette to look bigger and more impressive than warranted.
"In the short run, you can fake it. But if you focus so much on what others think of you, you are not focusing on the right things. in the long run, what really matters is your business foundation. "
Alex Wilhelm, editor-in-chief of Crunchbase Investment Tracking Website, cites several factors in AirTable's appeal.
" AirTable reflects on several trends that capitalists are currently excited about, "he says. [19659034"Thistouchesontheideathatconsumersarebecomingmoreandmoreinclinedtodaytopayasmallfeeforsoftwaretoorganizetheirpersonalorprofessionallives
"And this is something venture capitalists can use themselves and understand. Never underestimate the power of it."