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Nobody understood our idea, but now it's worth more than a billion dollars

  Howie Liu

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The weekly BBC series The Boss introduces several business leaders from around the world. This week we're talking to Howie Liu, founder and CEO of the fast-growing spreadsheet startup AirTable.

Howard Liu, head of Silicon Valley, believes he's sitting on an idea that could bring tens of billions of dollars. And with luck, he tells the BBC, his AirTable company will be the one to do it.

"It's a profoundly great opportunity, much like Amazon, Facebook or Google," he says without irony.

"I just think there's going to be this fundamental shift in the way people interact with software."

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

Spreadsheets are often used by professionals such as accountants to sort data, create charts, and calculate totals. However, most of us find them too technical to be used in any other way.

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AirTable is changing that, Liu says, making it so easy for people who normally do nothing. They have no programming skills ̵

1; like ranchers – and can set up complex cloud systems for what they do, such as: For example, tracking cows and gadgets such as the entertainment company Netflix, the electric car maker Tesla, and the magazine and website Time.

The company has a value of $ 1.1 billion (£ 850 million) after its recent round of financing, although it has only had one product on the market for four years.

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Salesforce boss Marc Benioff advised Mr. Liu and his associates when they started

In the early days of the company, it was difficult to explain the concept to investors, admits Mr. Liu, who co-founded the company in 2012 and is also managing director of AirTable. It did not sound like a completely new idea.

"The concept of a spreadsheet even precedes arithmetic – spreadsheets were the first killer app."

And so he and his partners went into armed investor meetings With their "pitch deck," they offered very little of what investors normally expected.

"You see all these pitch decks showing a graph of growth, market size, and all of those things – ours did not look that way."

Instead, they made a philosophical rationale for AirTable and how it is changing the world of work could.

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AirTable attempts to simplify the use of spreadsheets

"Honestly, I think a lot of eyes are just glazed in. I clearly remember a few cases, even investors who said yes, where they said we do not really understand what you're talking about."

Ultimately, these investors aroused confidence in the AirTable team itself, which, according to Liu, may have been more important at such an early stage.

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

"I thought we were Chinese?"

Mr. Liu grew up in College Station, Texas, two hours away from Houston and three hours from Dallas. He jokes that his family background is so complicated that his mother did not even try to explain it to him until he was about 10 years old.

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

His parents thought he was" too confused "by this kind of story, and not until he wrote a paper on family history for the School had to write it was explained to him.

"I interviewed my grandparents and I remember thinking that we would wait a second were Chinese? I was really confused. "

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Howie Liu


Mr. Liu's background is Korean-Chinese, but he grew up in the United States

Less confusing was the learning of programming. At age 13, Mr. Liu took one of his father's books on C ++, the programming language, and taught himself in a few weeks.

At just 16, he began studying computer-aided design at Duke University in North Carolina. Here he met his later AirTable co-founders Andrew Ofstad and Emmett Nicholas know, although the three would work together later in their lives.

Mr. Liu's first company was Etacts, a customer relationship management (CRM) company. It was bought in 2011 by the software giant Salesforce for an undisclosed sum.

The sale gave Mr. Liu the luxury of financial security when he launched AirTable, but the acquisition, he speculated, left him somewhat hollow.

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

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However, it caught him in the room with strong people when he needed support for AirTable – people like Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce and one of the most influential men in the business tech industry.

He was not interested in Mr. Liu's idea and suggested instead to develop a better method for collecting electronic medical records. They ignored his advice.

"It was not as if we arrogantly thought we knew better," recalls Mr. Liu. "Marc was extremely generous with his time and advice, and he did us a great favor." A variety of other famous users are spreading, although the company has also found favor with much smaller companies, especially nonprofit organizations.

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

The success makes AirTable a "unicorn" – the nickname for privately owned companies worth more than a billion dollars. It's a status symbol most people in San Francisco are looking for – but Mr. Liu wins the term.

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AirTable is headquartered in fashionable San Francisco, but Mr. Liu is wary of the city's bragging rights

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

He believes that too many start-ups, especially in the San Francisco show-off, use the "meaningless" unicorn day to make themselves look bigger and more impressive than it is justified. But if you focus so much on what others think about you, you do not focus on the right things. In the long run, it really depends on your business fundamentals. "

Alex Wilhelm, Editor-in-Chief The investment tracking site Crunchbase cites several factors in the attractiveness of AirTable.

"AirTable meets some trends that interest venture capitalists are currently excited about," he says.

"It touches the idea that consumers today are more willing to pay a small fee for software to organize their private or work life.

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

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