20VC Airtable's Howie Liu on Potential Consolidation In The Collaboration Tools Market, The Transition From Peacetime To Wartime CEO & How To Make The Move To Remote Work Successful; The Process Beyond The Tools



In this episode of the podcast, host Harry Stebbings interviews Howie Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Airtable, an all-in-one collaboration platform. They discuss Howie's background, his vision for Airtable, and the challenges of scaling the company. Howie emphasizes the importance of being a fast learner and asking the right questions to absorb knowledge from various experiences. He also highlights the importance of understanding the context behind advice rather than seeking simple answers. Howie shares his thoughts on the future of Airtable as a software creation platform and his personal growth as a leader. The conversation also touches on the role of investors and advisors in a company's growth and the significance of the soft elements in building a successful company.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the Episode and Airtable

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the episode of the 20 minutes VC and his excitement for the guest.
  • Howie Liu, founder and CEO of Airtable, is the guest, with Airtable being an all-in-one collaboration platform.
  • Airtable has raised over $170 million from notable investors.
  • Howie's background includes co-founding etax, which was acquired by Salesforce.
  • Harry thanks various individuals for helping put together the episode.
  • Promotional mentions include Hello Sign, Zoom, and Cooley law firm.

"And if you'd like to suggest questions or guests for future episodes, you can do on Instagram at htebings 1996 with two B's. I always love to see you there."

This quote is Harry inviting listeners to engage with him on Instagram for suggestions, showing his openness to audience interaction.

"Howie's raised over $170,000,000 from some of the best in the business, including, check this out, benchmark, thrive, co2, caffeinated, founder, collective, CRV, and freestyle, to name a few."

Harry highlights the significant investment Airtable has received, indicating the company's strong backing and potential.

"Prior to founding Airtable, Howie was the co-founder at etax, an automated intelligence CRM that was acquired by Salesforce just nine months after creation."

Harry provides background on Howie's entrepreneurial experience and success, which is relevant to his expertise and the insights he might share.

Howie Liu's Journey to Entrepreneurship and Airtable

  • Howie Liu details his background and influences, including his family's encouragement towards entrepreneurship.
  • He was inspired by tech icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
  • After college, Howie built web apps, went through Y Combinator with etax, and experienced rapid growth and acquisition by Salesforce.
  • The experience at Salesforce and the exposure to low-code platforms influenced his approach to building Airtable.

"I grew up in a family that had immigrated the US. US. I'm actually korean, but both my parents were born in China and rather than for some reason instructing me to become a doctor or an engineer, et cetera, my parents and especially my mom really encouraged me to think about entrepreneurship..."

Howie shares his personal background and the unconventional encouragement he received towards entrepreneurship, which shaped his career path.

"And then throughout college, I learned how to build web app and learned more about this new genre of web companies and ultimately decided to start a company right after college..."

Howie's college experience and learning to build web apps led him directly into entrepreneurship, demonstrating the impact of his education on his career.

The Influence of Etax and Salesforce on Airtable

  • Howie discusses the fast-paced and iterative approach of his first company, etax.
  • Etax was founded quickly, went through Y Combinator, and was acquired by Salesforce in about a year.
  • The experience taught him about speed but also the value of a more deliberate approach when building a company.
  • At Salesforce, Howie learned about building a platform and tackling large opportunities, which informed his strategy for Airtable.

"Etax was a company that was literally founded in a matter of days. We applied to Y combinator with a demo that I think we'd built in weeks."

This quote illustrates the rapid development and ambitious pace of Howie's first startup, etax, which set the stage for his future endeavors.

"But I think that time and then later going to Salesforce and seeing how methodically Salesforce itself thought about building its platform opportunity..."

Howie reflects on the contrast between the rapid growth at etax and the methodical approach at Salesforce, which influenced his strategic thinking for Airtable.

Operational Changes and Working from Home

  • Howie discusses the transition to work from home, mentioning that Airtable already had experience with distributed teams.
  • Emphasizes the importance of management practices and empowering team members in a remote environment.
  • Tools like Zoom, Slack, and Airtable are useful, but the processes outside of these tools are equally important.
  • Airtable's structured approach complements unstructured communication tools and is well-suited for remote collaboration.

"I think truthfully we've been pretty fortunate as a company insofar as we've already had multiple offices and we've had some teams that are entirely distributed our support team, for instance, is entirely distributed already..."

Howie explains how Airtable's prior experience with distributed teams gave them an advantage when transitioning to remote work.

"Airtable to me is kind of this structured digitization of a lot of the work that was previously done in ad hoc ways."

This quote highlights Airtable's role in structuring workflows and processes, which has become increasingly important in a remote working environment.

Inefficiency and Failure in Process and Operations

  • The most significant source of inefficiency or failure is rework or well-done work that addresses the wrong problem.
  • Examples of inefficiency include building a product feature that doesn't solve the intended problem or creating marketing material that fails to communicate strategic goals.
  • Success depends on ensuring the team has the right strategic context and understands the broader framework and company goals.
  • The concept of "commander's intent" from the military is applied to business to ensure team members understand the long-term vision and can adapt to changes.

"Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest source of inefficiency or failure tends to be for us at least, rework or work that was well done but for the wrong problem."

This quote emphasizes that the root of inefficiency or failure often lies in working on incorrect issues, despite the quality of the work itself.

Evolution as a Leader

  • Reflection on past self shows significant growth and learning over time.
  • Leading a growing company presents new challenges and opportunities, requiring a continuous learning approach.
  • Acknowledges the inevitability of making mistakes and the importance of minimizing their impact.
  • Historical examples such as World War II illustrate that errors are a universal part of human endeavors, even in critical situations.

"Yeah, I mean, every year I feel embarrassed to look back at myself from a year or two years ago just because I've grown so much and I've learned so much."

The speaker reflects on personal growth and learning, indicating that looking back at one's past self can highlight how much one has developed over time.

Learning Mindset and Seeking Out Experts

  • Success breeds opportunities for learning and company growth.
  • Learning from every interaction is valuable, regardless of the mentor's status.
  • The learning process should be an open exploration rather than seeking confirmation of pre-existing beliefs.
  • Access to knowledgeable people increases as the company grows, which contributes to a virtuous cycle of learning and success.

"In hindsight, it's almost like this unspoken, virtuous feedback cycle for one to become increasingly capable and able to build a company."

This quote suggests that success and learning are interlinked, creating a cycle where each contributes to the other's enhancement.

Distilling Advice and Systems Thinking

  • The challenge lies in extracting useful insights from advice rather than blindly following best practices.
  • Understanding the systemic context in which advice was successful is crucial.
  • Learning from other companies involves understanding the unique factors that contributed to their strategies' success.
  • Systems thinking is essential when considering how to apply others' experiences to one's own company.

"So I think it's really trying to be systems thinking oriented in this learning process."

The speaker emphasizes the importance of systems thinking in learning and applying advice, rather than adopting rules or practices without context.

Wartime vs. Peacetime Leadership

  • The concept of wartime vs. peacetime CEOs is seen as a reductionist but not entirely without merit.
  • Leadership style depends on the urgency of the environment and the nature of competition.
  • Success can be about beating the competition or focusing on customer/product innovation.
  • The urgency has increased due to external factors such as the COVID environment and competition.

"Yeah, I think it's not BS, but it's a reduction. Right. And I think the unreduced version of it is, it's more like there's maybe two different axes that you care about."

The speaker acknowledges the wartime vs. peacetime leadership framework but suggests that it's an oversimplification and that leadership should consider multiple dimensions of the business environment.

Market Opportunity and Competition

  • The market for user-friendly business tools is expected to be worth tens or hundreds of billions of dollars.
  • The focus should be on customer obsession and product innovation rather than competition.
  • There is a belief that the market is as big or bigger than cloud computing.

"We think that this category could be worth literally tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars in the future, right? This is going to be as big or bigger than cloud computing as a market."

This quote emphasizes the vast potential of the market for business tools that are easy to use and the importance of focusing on customer needs and product development.

The Future of Collaboration and Remote Work Tools

  • There is a secular trend towards growth in collaboration and remote work tools.
  • These tools are additive rather than zero-sum and can coexist.
  • The challenge for companies is to prove the value of their tools and their ability to scale.

"I think it's a massive growth opportunity. It's not just everyone zero sum game fighting over a small amount of kind of users who are either going to use one for or another."

This quote highlights the optimism regarding the growth of collaboration and remote work tools and the additive nature of these tools in the market.

Unbundling vs. Consolidation of Tools

  • There is a disagreement about the future being unbundled, specialized tools versus consolidated platforms.
  • Airtable's thesis is that it can consolidate various vertical solutions into one platform.
  • Airtable aims to provide a universal platform with specificity through add-ons for different professions.

"Well, I have to disagree, because in part, airtable's own thesis is that we can actually consolidate a lot of vertical solutions into our platform, right?"

This quote indicates a different perspective on the future of collaboration tools, suggesting that consolidation into a versatile platform like Airtable is more likely than unbundling into specialized tools.

Platform Development and Strategy

  • The technical aspect of building a platform is challenging but not the hardest part.
  • The strategic challenge is creating a self-perpetuating ecosystem with virtuous flywheel effects.
  • There is no definitive answer yet on how to build this ecosystem, but studying successful companies is key.

"The really strategic part is figuring out how to use those platform affordances to create the right type of virtuous, flywheel effects, scale advantages ultimately create like an ecosystem that's sort of self perpetuating instead of one that's just kind of linear."

This quote discusses the strategic challenges in building a platform that is not just technically sound but also capable of fostering a sustainable and thriving ecosystem.

Choosing the Right VC Partner

  • Peter Fenton of Benchmark is highlighted as a valuable thought partner.
  • Peter's systems thinking approach and experience with diverse companies make him stand out.
  • His understanding of human elements in business is also crucial for success.

"What makes Peter special as an investor and more importantly as a thought partner to, I think the ceos, the portfolio companies that he gets involved with as a helpful partner is he's basically on one hand very much a systems thinker, right."

This quote explains the reasons behind choosing Peter Fenton as an investor, emphasizing his systematic approach and his understanding of the human aspects of running a business.

Appreciation for Humanities in Company Building

  • Recognizes the importance of liberal arts and soft skills in entrepreneurship.
  • Suggests that beyond technical skills, a founder should value the humanistic aspects of creating a company.

"en also this kind of soft appreciation for the humanities, the liberal arts, but very people. The soft and fuzzy side of what it takes to build a company, I think is one of the things I've really come to appreciate."

This quote emphasizes the speaker's growing recognition of the value of humanities and soft skills in the context of company building, highlighting their importance alongside technical expertise.

Extracting Value from Investors

  • Stresses the importance of seeking valuable context over specific answers from investors.
  • Best investors or advisors should provoke thought and provide rich perspectives or introductions rather than just answers.

"I think it comes down to getting the valuable context rather than a specific answer."

This quote underlines the idea that founders should look for investors who can provide broader context and thought-provoking questions that lead to deeper insights, rather than just straightforward answers.

Book Recommendations

  • "Hard Drive" provides an account of Microsoft's early history and strategic decisions.
  • "Spying on Whales" offers a serene contrast to tech-focused literature by exploring whale evolution and behavior.

"The first is hard drive, which is basically an account of the early founding history of Microsoft." "And the other one, on a more light hearted note, is spying on whales."

These quotes provide specific book recommendations that offer both a historical perspective on a major tech company and a light-hearted look at a topic completely unrelated to technology, reflecting the speaker's varied reading interests.

Superpower and Weakness in Company Building

  • Superpower: Ability to learn quickly and ask the right questions.
  • Weakness: Lack of prior experience in operating a large company like Airtable.

"The only power I have is really the ability to learn quickly and I think asking the right types of questions and thinking systematically about the answers to really absorb as much as I can from it."

This quote reveals the speaker's perceived strength in learning and critical thinking as key to their success in company building.

"I haven't done this before, right? And airtable is the kind of first company, or is the largest company that I've ever operated in this way, and it will be as we continue to grow."

Here, the speaker candidly acknowledges their lack of experience as a potential weakness, indicating a self-awareness that is crucial for personal and professional growth.

First Investment in Airtable

  • Ray Tonsing was likely the first investor in Airtable, showing commitment even before the company's official start.

"I'm pretty sure it was Ray Tonsing. And in fact, Ray had even told me before I officially started working on airtable that since we had known each other through my prior company, that he was eager and excited to invest."

This quote details the early investment history of Airtable, highlighting the importance of prior relationships and trust in securing initial funding.

Hardest Role to Hire For

  • Hiring for new leadership roles is challenging due to the lack of repetition and benchmarks.
  • The process involves constructing roles, meeting new people, and assessing against unfamiliar standards.

"I think for the CEO of a company it's interesting because you're always hiring for roles that you haven't hired for before or for a new variation of that role, right?"

The speaker discusses the unique hiring challenges faced by CEOs, especially when it comes to filling new or evolving leadership positions.

Vision for Airtable and Personal Growth

  • Airtable aims to evolve from a spreadsheet-like tool to a robust software creation platform.
  • Personal goal is to grow as a leader and operator, hoping to look back on continuous learning over the next five years.

"Airtable is really trying to be a software creation platform." "And the only thing I can hope for is that in five years from now, as much as I'm embarrassed to think about how I could even have possibly tried to lead a company a year, two years ago with the kind of paltry knowledge that I had then, to feel exactly the same way in hindsight to today, because I've learned so much more during that five years."

These quotes outline the strategic direction for Airtable, aiming for increased customization and integration capabilities. The speaker also reflects on personal development, emphasizing the desire for continual learning and improvement as a leader.

Acknowledgements and Sign Off

  • Expresses gratitude for the conversation and invites listeners to engage on social media.
  • Promotes various sponsors and their services, including HelloSign, Zoom, and Cooley.

"Yeah, likewise. Thank you so, so much, Harry."

This quote signifies the end of the conversation, with mutual appreciation for the discussion between the speakers.

"And if you'd like to see more from us, you can do that on Instagram at hdebbings 1996 with two B's."

The speaker provides information for listeners to follow for more content, indicating an interest in community engagement.

"I want to take a moment to mention hello sign... Check out hellosign.com 20 VC... And speaking of signatures and getting deals done there, you really need to build that relationship. And there's nothing like meeting face to face, and there's nothing like Zoom to make that happen... And finally, I've always been a big history man, and so I want to talk about Cooley..."

In this sequence, the speaker acknowledges the sponsors and their services, highlighting their relevance to the audience and the business community.

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