Airtable co-founder and CEO Howie Liu said that establishing a clear vision during a company’s early stages and being patient are vital to a new business’s success at a Wednesday event.
Liu and his co-founders, Andrew Ofstad and Emmett Nicholas, spent three years building Airtable, a cloud collaboration platform that combines spreadsheets and databases, before its launch in 2015. Airtable now has over $600 million in funding, according to event moderator Ravi Balani, and a mission to “democratize software creation by enabling anyone to build the tools that meet their needs,” according to the company website.
During the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar sponsored by the Stanford Technology Venture Program and BASES, Liu said that he went into undergrad at Duke University searching for a drop-out worthy idea. He added that he was “somewhat disappointed” that he graduated in 2009 without finding one.
Still, his entrepreneurial endeavors started early with his first venture in 2010, a next-generation customer relationship management system called Etacts. He then began working at Salesforce, where he said he learned things critical to the founding of Airtable. He founded Airtable one year later in early 2013.
“In 2012 we made an internal vision deck that had a rough business plan and basically described our five-plus year roadmap,” he said. “The features we have since added were all part of the original vision we had set out to execute against.”
Airtable was built over three years, which Balani contrasted to the “conventional wisdom these days” of launching startups very quickly. Liu described a “level of complacency and serenity” during these early stages because of the founders’ excitement about the end product — they were prepared to be patient, he said. This time was especially important because of Airtable’s function — they were, as Balani said, building software that builds software. Because Airtable had to gain the trust of their clients and keep their valuable information safe, Liu said the stakes were higher.
Liu recommended that entrepreneurs build prototypes and get as much early customer feedback as possible during the early stages of a company to iterate accordingly. He added that it’s important to “show rather than tell” that the idea will work.
Liu said he also had investors and co-founders who were supportive of the longer pre-launch period. He emphasized the importance of hiring early and finding co-founders “who are willing to stretch their imagination” and “stretch their disbelief that against all odds, this thing is going to work.” He added that the right co-founders can also offer emotional support and push your ideas to be better.
According to Liu, investors and co-founders are not just there to execute on what you already know how to do — they also “help you figure out what you need to do in the first place,” he said.
While Liu values the power of prototyping and testing, he ultimately believes you have to take a risk in entrepreneurial endeavors.
“You have to have some creative leap of imagination that no focus group, no deterministic process will show you,” he said. “You can’t spreadsheet your way into a calculation that shows you this is going to be it.”