Airtable: The cool, new database on the block
Meet Airtable, an attractive new cloud database and collaboration platform with spreadsheet, metric reporting and API capabilities.
Founded in San Francisco by Howie Liu, Andrew Ofstad, and Emmett Nicholas, the seven-year-old cloud database and collaboration service Airtable is already worth $1.1bn.
So how does it work?
Airtable replaces traditional spreadsheets with ‘bases’ (short for ‘databases’) which form the basic file format. Bases are made up of tables (equivalent to Excel tabs) which collate various forms of data. Rich field types within tables include checkboxes, drop-downs, images and attachments, among others. Bases are created using specialised, industry or sector-specific templates, imported spreadsheets or from scratch.
With an array of viewing formats, bases comprise of fields (columns) and records (rows) which can be filtered, grouped and sorted. Multiple bases form workspaces which can be shared and interchangeably viewed as calendars, kanban boards and galleries, separate for each viewer. Edits are saved and synced across all views, with interactive messaging alongside the workflow.
What can it do for accountants?
Alastair Barlow, founder of accounting service flinder and Airtable user, describes the platform as “a relational database with a lot of control and power behind it,” allowing a lot of manipulation and structuring of data.
In the search for a suitable practice management tool, Airtable was recommended to flinder by a client as a “really powerful database solution”, resulting in the firm replacing its practice management master data solution with Airtable.
“It's a game-changer for housing our data, we were looking at a traditional database and then trialled this and fell in love with it,” Barlow told AccountingWEB.
According to Barlow, its flexibility provides more insight because you are not restricted locked down in those sorts for things based on what the software vendor thinks you need.
Airtable’s unfettered manipulation of databases allows companies “to report on metrics that software vendors would never really think about”, explained Barlow, “we literally use it as our one version of the truth for our client engagement activities.”
Where to start?
As a starting point to understanding Airtable, watching a Youtube tutorial is "probably the first thing to do,” according to Barlow.
“Then trial some of your existing spreadsheets to see how they could fit into Airtable,” he continued. To do this, click Add base > Import spreadsheet > Choose the spreadsheet. This will dump the spreadsheet contents in the relational database in a tabular format.
Subsequent tables can then be created which have content rolling up from one table to another. “The next step is using the template options to understand the features and functionality Airtable has, such as table types, and the field types eg text, checkbox, drop-down selection, or something more complex like a formula or roll-up field,” explained Barlow.
“With more experience, you can create a base and table from scratch from your own user requirements.” However, “it's not for the faint-hearted,” Barlow added
One major advantage Airtable possesses is a powerful API, which when set up correctly can remove layers of laborious manual data manipulation.
“We store heterogeneous data within Airtable, the most powerful is our client master data and people master data," said Barlow. "It has user restrictions and in the cloud, so you can access it anywhere.”
Airtable has built-in integrations with popular apps like Google Drive, Slack, Dropbox, Trello and Gmail. However being supported by Zapier, Workato, Integromat and Automate.io integration services allows users to build their own integrations without requiring programming.
When using Airtable's survey creation function, flinder connects its reporting layer through an API to Airtable to report real-time, skipping the spreadsheet elements. “Essentially, it gives the manipulation of a spreadsheet, with the control of a database and the accessibility of a modern API.”
Airtable is free for the basic sign-up, which includes 1,200 records and 2GB per base, and two weeks of history. This then increases to £8 or 15.50 per months for increasing database capabilities and longer data history (6 months or a year).
flinder has been using Airtable for two months and are still using the basic, free version “but plan to pay for it once we've used more functionality.”
“It's a game-changer for housing our data, we were looking at a traditional database and then trialled this and fell in love with it.”