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No one understood our idea, but now it's worth over $ 1 billion

  Howie Liu Copyright copyright

The BBC's weekly The Boss series profiles various business leaders from around the world. This week we talk to Howie Liu, founder and CEO of the rapidly growing spreadsheet startup AirTable.

Silicon Valley boss Howard Liu, he believes, sits on an idea that can earn tens of billions of dollars. And without luck, he tells the BBC, his company AirTable will be the one to do it.

"It's a huge opportunity, not unlike the scale of Amazon, Facebook, or Google," he says without irony.

"I just think it's this sea change that's going to happen in terms of how people can interact with software."

The big idea? Spreadsheets, but better. Spreadsheets, but richer .

Spreadsheets are often used by professionals as accountants to sort data, produce charts and make sums. But most of us think they are too technical to use in anything but a basic way.

  • How data processing first & # 39; killer app & # 39; changed everything

AirTable is changing that, says Mr Liu, making it so easy that people who don't usually & # 39; t have coding skills ̵

1; like cattle breeders – can set up complex cloud systems for what they do, such as keeping track of cows and equipment.

& # 39; Eyes glazed over & # 39;

The app has become a running success, attracting high profile customers such as entertainment company Netflix, electric car manufacturer Tesla and the magazine and website Time.

The company is also worth $ 1.1 billion (£ 850 million), based on the latest funding round, despite having only had one product on the market for four years.

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Salesforce Manager Marc Benioff advised Liu and his partners when they started

Explaining the concept to investors was difficult in the company's early days, admits Mr Liu, who co-founded the business in 2012 and is also CEO of AirTable. It didn't exactly sound like a whole new idea.

"The concept of a spreadsheet ahead of smooth computing. Spreadsheets were the first killer app."

And so, when he and his partners went into investor meetings armed with their pitch deck, they offered very little of what investors usually expected to hear.

"You see all these pitch decks out there showing a diagram of growth and market size, and all that. Nothing like that."

Instead, they made a philosophical case for AirTable and how it could transform the world of work.

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AirTable tries to make spreadsheets easier to use

"Honestly, I think many eyes just glazed over. I clearly remember a few cases, even with the investors saying yes, where they said & # 39; we don't get what you're talking about & # 39;"

Finally, what got these investors on board was confidence in the AirTable team, which Liu says was perhaps more important at such an early stage.

"There are many ways to get a good idea with a bad team to fail, while even an unknown idea with a great team can succeed."

& # 39; I thought we were Chinese? & # 39;

Mr. Liu grew up in College Station, Texas, "two hours away from Houston and three hours away from Dallas."

He jokes that his family background is so complicated that his mother didn't even try to explain it for him before he was around 10 years old.

"All four of my grandparents were Koreans," he says. "But during World War II, like many Koreans, they moved to China. My parents were both born in China, but moved to the United States before I was born."

His parents thought he would be "too confused" by that kind of story, and it wasn't until he had to do a family history essay for the school that it was explained to him.

"I interviewed my grandparents, and I remember being like & # 39; wait a second, I thought we were Chinese? & # 39; I was super confused."

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Howie Liu [19659017] Caption

Mr Liu's background is Korean-Chinese, but he was raised in the United States

Less confusing was learning to code. At the age of 13, Liu picked up one of Dad's books on C ++, the programming language, and taught herself in a matter of weeks.

At just 16, he began studying airfoil design calculations at Duke University in North Carolina. This is where he met the potential co-founders of AirTable, Andrew Ofstad and Emmett Nicholas, though the three would not work together until later in life.

Mrs's first business was Etacts, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) company. It was purchased by software giant Salesforce in 2011 for an undisclosed sum.

The sale gave Mr. Liu the luxury of financial security when he started AirTable, but the acquisition, he reflects, left him feeling hollow.

"I ended up being very fortunate to have this life-changing financial result," he says. "But it was a failure in the sense that we never built a real business, an organization with its own culture."

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However, it made him into the room of powerful people when he needed support for AirTable – people like Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce and one of the most influential men in technology industry.

He was not sold on Mr Liu's idea and suggested that they instead strive to create a better way of collecting electronic medical records. They ignored his advice.

"It wasn't as if we arrogantly thought we knew better," remembers Liu. "Marc was extremely generous with his time and advice. He did us a great favor."

The San Francisco-based company still only has about 80,000 business customers, but that number is increasing. A number of other well-known users are helping to spread the word, although the company has also found popularity among far smaller companies, especially nonprofits.

When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana in 2017, AirTable was used to log rescued pets and reunite them with the owners. The site has a free plan, with limited functionality and capacity, and paid monthly plans for small businesses.

The success makes AirTable, quite comfortably, a "unicorn" – the nickname for private companies valued at more than a billion dollars. It's a status symbol most people in San Francisco strive for – but Mr Liu wins in the term.

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AirTable is headquartered in trendy San Francisco, but Mr Liu is wary of the city's show-offishness

"It just feels visceral … cheesy. I think it's a label that has unnecessary or artificial gravitas."

He feels for many start-ups, especially in show-off San Francisco, using the "pointless" unicorn code to make it seem bigger and more impressive than justified.

"In the short term, you can fake it. But if you focus so much on what others think about you, you don't focus on the right things. The long-term, what really matters is your business reasons."

Alex Wilhelm, chief editor of the investment tracking website Crunchbase, cites several factors in AirTable's appeal.

"AirTable hits a few trends that venture capitalists are currently excited about," he says.

"It touches on the notion that consumers today are becoming more willing to pay a small fee for software to organize their personal or working lives.

" And that is something venture capitalists can use themselves and understand. Never underestimate the power of it. "

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