April 10, 2019

Does Airtable solve a well defined, specific problem?

Harry Brundage @airhorns

When thinking about ideas there's often said advice along the lines of "focus on a very specific customer with a very specific problem" so you can guide your solution to exactly that. With products like Airtable (or Coda, or Notion) however, it seems like the problems they can solve are very general. How do you think these companies validated that this general problem was real, and what generally useful solutions to build?

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    Sometimes you just build a product you believe in. I think focus has as much to do with being able to express your product in simple terms, or to set an easily defined market. It's not about feature set, it's about the expression of the concept in a way your target user will understand.

    I still struggle with this challenge. I think we've found our language. Not our purpose - we had that. But an expression of our purpose that we could write on a wall or print on a t-shirt.

    I found it relatively easy to connect with people that already understood the problem - people where I come from in advertising/marketing - but the challenge was getting to a place where anyone could understand it regardless of their industry.

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    I best describe them as online "Access". I think they filled a gap in the market of the office suite, then added all the nice things a cloud based solution offers... user created templates... sharing... and more..

    They have killed it in "word of mouth / virality" I actually wrote about them to kick off a newsletter... https://us8.campaign-archive.com/?u=0b0d633f8e4b9aed83ee09857&id=1556322bce

    But yes, VC backed. Likely tons of engineering.

    Many products rise in a new era based off of changes in the landscape (SaaS, mobile, smart phones). So the problems/pain points aren't new, just different environmental changes.

    Regarding other products like Notion, I think market timing and stagnation in existing products gave them an opportunity. I feel like they were what "Evernote" should have been... or at least the next evolution. (I previously created UberNote that was a Evernote competitor... sad looking at the features of Notion as many were on my roadmap but doubt I could have worked on it for that long)

    Legacy platforms are often handcuffed by their technology and even customers. You move a lot slower once you have something to lose.

    Some old problems/pains and solutions all come back around. Look at what's successful in the past, see how it can be re-mixed.

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    Airtable is VC funded to the hilt (and was funded from the start) so they can spend spend spend to figure it out...or die trying!

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      I don't think they were funded before they found a problem to solve... they just were very lucky to convince VC that that problem existed :)))))
      I'm just kidding. I think it's not necessarily to find "a very specific problem". Many, many businesses started from an imaginary problem, a problem that didn't exist yet, too broad or too vague problem. They managed to find their way and their customers anyway. So can anybody. But... is it's getting harder and harder.
      That's why they gave this piece of advice.

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        Many, many businesses started from an imaginary problem, a problem that didn't exist yet, too broad or too vague problem. They managed to find their way and their customers anyway.

        Many more have failed. Survivorship bias is real.

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          Many more have failed. Survivorship bias is real.
          That's right but it doesn't matter everybody should go just very safe way.

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    When Airtable first launched, they did have a list of specific use cases of people who needed it the most. Here's an article written about them in 2015: https://techcrunch.com/2015/04/30/airtable-launches-its-api-and-embedded-databases/

    It mentions a few such use cases.

    They also have a 'templates' section which is mentioned even in the 2015 article - where they list specific problems / use cases that were solved by their product.

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    Its not really fair to look at this without considering where the product started. I think they solved a problem very well initially, saw that worked, and customers liked/were very well retained, and then decided to go very very big.

    One thing a lot of indie hackers misunderstand is the complexity in product market fit. They're trying to navigate having product market fit for a few different verticals + growing a brand that matches to all of those + ensuring the product continues to work + ensuring the product gets better for those who already use it + ensuring product gets more useful for those who won't use it right now.

    To do all of that ^ you need a lot of money. That can take 100 people 5 years to nail. And to be a public company you need to nail all of that + a million other things.

    You'd never start out trying to do that. You start out (like Peter Thiel says) with an incredibly small market, the smaller the better, and nail that, and slowly iterate your way out of that into slightly larger opportunities.

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