Jan 25, 2022

Airtable Is the Perfect Tool for Startup Operations

What is Airtable?

Airtable is a relational database at its core, with a user-friendly interface that reminds one of Google Sheets.

I'm guilty of having come across Airtable a while ago and dismissing it as a Google Sheets copycat. I remember thinking to myself, "why should I invest time to learn how to use Airtable when I already have Google Sheets?" I now recognize that I didn't fully understand all the capabilities of Airtable; otherwise, I would've gotten on the Airtable train right then and there.

It's really the perfect tool for operations because it introduces just the right level of rigidity and structure to data, which is useful in an operational context. Everything we do in ops is (or should be) with data, and Airtable helps structure and organize that data so that you can make the most out of your data. Airtable is also extremely flexible and versatile - you can use it for a variety of use cases in your day-to-day work - so the upfront time investment to learn the tool and add it to your stack is 100% worth it.

What's a relational database?

A relational database is a type of database that stores and provides access to data points that are related to one another. Relational databases are based on the relational model, an intuitive, straightforward way of representing data in tables. In a relational database, each row in the table is a record with a unique ID called the key. The columns of the table hold attributes of the data, and each record usually has a value for each attribute, making it easy to establish the relationships among data points.

- Oracle (What is a Relational Database (RDBMS)?)

Simply put, a relational database has multiple tables that store related sets of data. Each row in a table has a unique ID called a primary key (think UUID or an email address - something that is unique to that record and not repeated elsewhere). Relationships between tables are established by using what's called a foreign key.

To illustrate, let's say you're building a simple database for a food delivery service like Uber Eats. You'd want a data table called "Restaurant" to represent a restaurant. There will be a column for the restaurant name (this could be the primary key as it would be unique), address, phone number, etc. In addition, you'd have a foreign key called Menu that would tie a specific restaurant to its menu. The "Menu" data table would include the item name (primary key), price, and type (appetizer, main, or dessert) as the columns.

An illustrative example of what Uber Eats' relational database structure would look like

In this case, Restaurant Name and Item Name would be the primary key for the Restaurant and Menu tables, respectively. Menu would be a foreign key in the Restaurant table - a relationship that connects a Menu to a Restaurant.

Airtable is user friendly

Technical jargons like primary and foreign keys aside, what's nice about Airtable is that its user interface is straight-forward and familiar to those who've used a spreadsheet tool like Excel or Google Sheets before.

I use Airtable as the CRM tool for Ops Hacks members

The spreadsheet-like layout in the above screenshot is called the Grid View - it's simple and intuitive, especially for ops folks who spend a lot of their time in Google Sheets.

Airtable gives you the option to view your data in other ways:

  • Form: useful if you're trying to get other people to fill out some info
  • Calendar: for date-related data like an event calendar
  • Gallery: great especially with data that includes images
  • Kanban: process-centric data with statuses
  • Timeline: similar to calendar but with start and end
  • Gantt: similar to Timeline but more of a project management focus with task dependencies, etc.

I used to create Gantt charts in Google Sheets by colouring in individual cells. Airtable makes my life much easier by providing a Gantt view (plus many others) off the shelf.

How is Airtable different from Google Sheets?

Despite the similiary in their appearance, Airtable is actually quite different from Google Sheets.

First off, Airtable is a relational database that comes with the relational structure's benefits. So things like establishing relationships between things and ensuring each row is a unique record are built into Airtable, whereas in Google Sheets, you may have to do some creative formula gymnastics with MATCH + INDEX or VLOOKUP, and just hope that no one overwrites any data.

Another key difference is that while in Google Sheets you can put any data you want in a cell (be it a phone number or an email address), Airtable forces you to choose a field type for each cell - is it an email address, an image, a phone number, etc. So if you were to create an event calendar, you can specify a field as being of the Date type - and then show the data in a Calendar View - a simple two-step process. Whereas in Google Sheets, entering event data and then trying to visualize it in a calendar format would be challenging.

There are many different field types in Airtable, including a barcode!

When to use Airtable vs. Google Sheets

I've been using Google Sheets as a comparison in this post because it's a tool every ops person knows well. Let's take it one step further and talk about when it would make sense to use one over the other.

When Google Sheets is better

  1. Quantitative analyses and computations: Any calculations that require more than the 4 basic math operations (i.e. +, -, ×, ÷) are better off in Google Sheets. Yes, Airtable has formulas but they're cumbersome to write and manage. So any analyses like P&L, forecasting, modelling that you're used to doing in Google Sheets - keep them there.
  2. Loosely structured numerical data: Like I mentioned, Airtable forces you to establish structure around your data set because of the way the tool is designed. So if you're working with data that's not really related to one another, trying to shoehorn that data into Airtable will be challenging, especially when you're likely more familiar with using Google Sheets anyway.

When Airtable is better

Pretty much everything else that deals with structured data, that doesn't require a lot of computation. Seriously. When I look back on the things I tried to build using Google Sheets (like a chore management system), I can't help but cringe. This was a classic fit-a-square-peg-in-a-round-hole scenario, where I was trying to shoehorn Google Sheets in for project management. The chore management system I was trying to build is a great example of where Airtable would have been a great fit.

This excellent write-up on Airtable from Sacra captures well the essence of what Airtable is building and its use cases (emphasis mine):

Airtable does have the opportunity to be one of the biggest players in the no/low-code industry. By allowing people and teams to build their own software solutions to their problems, Airtable could do for productivity in the enterprise what Roblox did for gaming: unlock a massively valuable market by unlocking the expressivity of its users.

So what exactly are the key use cases for Airtable, especially for ops?

People across different functions have used Airtable for COVID resource and project repository, a lightweight content management system, and a product launch calendar.

What are some ops-specific use cases ? Let's dive in.

Project Management

One obvious use case for Airtable is as a project management tool. Ops folks manage many projects involving several functions and stakeholders. You can spin up a quick tracker in Airtable customized for your project.

For example, my first project after joining the Uber Eats Canada team was launching 30 new cities in one day. This required tight coordination across sales, marketing, all ops teams (marketplace, courier, restaurant, support) plus comms and legal teams over several months. There were task dependencies (i.e. tasks had to be completed sequentially), many decision points, and a constant shift of prioritization - par for the course for a startup ops project.

Had I known about Airtable back then, I would have used it to build out the tracker for the project - relying heavily on its Kanban view to visualize the progress on tasks and the Gantt view to quickly understand dependencies and which tasks are creating bottlenecks in the launch preparation.

Critical Path (highlighted in yellow) visualizes task dependencies - helpful when you're trying to prioritize action items while managing a project

Onboarding Tracker

So much of operations deals with building, maintaining, and optimizing processes. And since startups are usually growing rapidly, a lot of processes are built around onboarding - whether that be new customers, drivers, restaurants, etc.

I built an onboarding tracker / CRM for Ops Hacks on Airtable, and will keep building on top of it as the process gets more complex. The current iteration of the tracker takes in the information that a community member provides in an application to populate the initial user record. Then I track their onboarding progress through the stages of Applied to Onboarding (or Waitlisted or Rejected), and then Active. I've connected these onboarding statuses with MailerLite using Integromat, so that when I update the status in Airtable, the user receives an email from Ops Hacks.

A screenshot of the Ops Hacks onboarding tracker, grouped by status
Kanban view with better visualization of who's at each step in the onboarding process

Airtable Ecosystem

A thriving ecosystem consisting of extensions or complements to the primary software has become table stakes in the SaaS space. Chrome extensions, Shopify apps, and Slack apps are prime examples of this. These apps, extensions, and integrations help increase the value and extend use cases of the foundational software by solving a niche pain point that an existing user may experience.

It was no surprise, then, that Airtable announced the launch of its own apps marketplace and automations last year in a move that's very much on trend with the rest of the SaaS industry.

The new Airtable apps unlock capabilities like being able to add maps and visualize relationships between your data tables in Airtable. The automations allow users to quickly create if-trigger-then-action automations - personally, adding an automation to Airtable feels like taking it from a pure database that just stores data to an actual software that takes actions based on data.

For Ops Hacks, I use automations for Slack notifications and automatically updating records.

Current Airtable automations for Ops Hacks

Softr, Stacker, Pory, and other "frontend" tools

Despite all the different views that are included in Airtable, you may want to build out a customized frontend or view that is tailored to your needs. For example, if you're building a customer onboarding tracker for a startup, you may want to surface different information to the sales team versus the customer success team. Perhaps you want to limit access (e.g. view only or edit access) depending on the role of the user. You can achieve this level of specification in how people access and interact with your Airtable data with external "frontend" tools.

Softr, Stacker, and Pory are the most popular tools that enable ops teams to build customized internal tool frontends through their integration with Airtable as the backend. These tools can integrate with other backend data (like Google Sheets), but Airtable is definitely their bread and butter.

A sales CRM built with Softr and Airtable

These frontend-for-Airtable-backend tools take a similar approach to building out the frontend. They provide template blocks that you can put together to display the data however you see fit. For example, Softr provides a template block for a user profile, a table of records, and other use cases that you can drag and drop on to your site.

Personally, I have the most experience using Softr and IMHO is the best of the bunch at the time of this writing. Softr has a pricing structure that is the most friendly to testing and trialling (a permanently free tier vs. a 14- or 30-day trial). It provides the largest variety of design blocks that you can put together to create your site or web app. Having said that, Stacker is more specifically built for internal operations - less design blocks but all the ones they have are more relevant and specific to operational needs. So it is worth checking out if you're looking to build something that's strictly internal and don't care too much about aesthetics. Again, though, I wish Stacker had a permanently free tier to try out the tool before committing.

In summary, these frontend tools extend the functionality of Airtable by providing a customizable frontend that allows users to:

  1. Design a more customized customer-facing UI and UX
  2. Enable granular permission / access options depending on team, role, etc.
  3. Create a simple web app in a matter of days vs. months by thoughtfully constraining design and architecture choices

My bold prediction in this space is that Airtable will try to acquire one of these companies or start building out their own frontend tool. As more people realize they can create simple apps powered by Airtable data, we will start seeing the usage of Airtable explode first in internal operations, followed by building side projects and eventually full-fledged businesses. This is already happening to an extent, but I believe we're still at the very beginning of the movement. I highly recommend getting started on Airtable, if you don't use it already.

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