It didn’t take too long for Howie Liu, CEO of Airtable, to realise he could be in for one of those crazy overnight Silicon Valley success stories.
Liu’s startup Etacts was building an email and contact manager specifically for salespeople. He was one of the 15 startups presenting in front of a group of potential investors at Y Combinator’s 2010 Demo Day.
Shortly after it was over, Liu was approached by a man he knew only from the TV series, “That ’70s Show.”
It was Ashton Kutcher.
“Awesome job, guys,” Kutcher told Liu and the cofounders of his startup, saying how impressed he was by their contact management software. “My guys will contact your people,” he said.
Soon, Kutcher became one of the first investors in Etacts. A year later, Etacts was acquired by Salesforce. Liu was only 21 years old.
“I personally made in the low 7 figures on day one at Salesforce,” Liu told Business Insider.
But it wasn’t just the financial part of the deal that made Liu want to take Salesforce’s offer. In fact, he says, a number of different companies, including a big consumer brand, showed interest in Etacts. Ultimately, it came down to Liu’s desire to get his feet wet in a large enterprise company.
“I thought it would be the best learning experience,” Liu told us. “You look at the big consumer companies out there, Jerry Yang didn’t learn from consumer companies, and Mark Zuckerberg just went straight out of college. But Marc Benioff spent a lot of time at Oracle, learning from the inside.”
And his choice turned out to be the right one. As a product manager at Salesforce, Liu was able to see firsthand how things were run at an enterprise company, joining meetings with Fortune 500 CIOs and talking with clients in different industries. Working with Alex Dayon, Salesforce’s President of Products, on a daily basis also taught many little details of the business he didn’t know then.
But Liu only stayed at Salesforce for about a year. He saw an opportunity to start a new business, where he could provide the tools for regular people to build their own spreadsheets — only better. He chose spreadsheets because he realised they weren’t used in the right way by most users, and often ended up as a bunch of disorganized blocks cluttered with words.
“Spreadsheets are really optimised for numerical analysis and financial calculations. But almost 90% of spreadsheets don’t have formulas. Most are used for organising purposes,” Liu said.
The result was Airtable.
It’s almost like spreadsheets on steroids, where users can organise columns in a much more sophisticated way. You can add text, files and images in each block, while linking each data block to other spreadsheet files. It also allows simulateneous collaboration on the same file. For new users, it also has recommended templates pre-built for different industries and verticals.
Once he had his prototype ready, Liu reached out to Kutcher to ask for seed investment. Kutcher at the time was filming his TV show, “Two and a Half Men,” and asked Liu to come down to his filming set in Los Angeles.
“We actually drove in to the Warner Brothers studio area,” Liu said. “[Kutcher] literally had his outfit on.”
After waiting for about 45 minutes, Kutcher was finally done filming and asked Liu and his cofounder, Andrew Ofstad, to come into his movie trailer for the pitch. Liu walked him through Airtable.
“I can really see this taking off, beyond Hollywood,” Kutcher told him. “Even in my own world, I could see hundreds of different use-cases. They have spreadsheets tracking all these different stuff, it’s one giant organizational problem.”
Kutcher pretty much made up his mind to invest in Airtable on the spot. Later, he ended up joining a group of investors that included ZenPayroll CEO Josh Reeves and Bebo founder Michael Birch.
Airtable was founded in 2012, but has been in product development for almost two years. It only had its official launch earlier this year, so there’s no publicly available data on its user base or revenue figures yet.
But it’s adding new features quickly, and on Thursday, just made its API builder that allows users to build more customised features, available to the public. It’s also added an embeddable feature where users can add customised lists of content directly within their websites.
Airtable is still in its early days. It could become another success, like Liu’s first startup, or end up never gaining any kind of traction.
But for 26-year old Liu, it’s all about being on this wild ride through the Silicon Valley startup world. “I really loved every second of it. Even if I had zero per cent equity in this company, I would still want to work here and work on this kind of problem,” he said.