SaaStr Annual 2022: 5 lessons from Airtable’s upmarket journey

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Howie Liu took the main stage at SaaStr this year to offer advice on what he’s learned over the past ten years as a leader at a fast growing SaaS company serving some of the world’s largest brands.

Howie Liu took the main stage at SaaStr this year to offer advice on what he’s learned over the past ten years as a leader at a fast growing SaaS company serving some of the world’s largest brands.

They covered everything from choosing your own competitors, to the future of enterprise sales being a balance between product-led growth and the tried and tested techniques of classic enterprise sales..

Listen to the full conversation on SaaStr’s YouTube page and keep reading for Howie’s top five lessons below.

1. Build the right foundations

“Part of it is having clear conviction of the market you’re going after. There are two ways to build a new company, one is to create a product and iterate along the way, which works well for something like Twitter. The other is something more pre-meditated like a SpaceX, if you’re going to be launching rockets into space you need a plan. Airtable was the latter, we had a plan for who we were going after.” 

“As an operator you need to be able to strike the balance between wanting to have this charisma and excitement about what the company could be, while still being able to execute. One of the unspoken challenges of the journey is maintaining the vision and remaining focused on the here and now.”

2. Choose your competitors wisely

“There’s some things that you can’t control, for example investors might put you in a box but you can control things like your go-to-market strategy. Think carefully about what accounts you are prioritizing. We knew at the onset that we could get bucketed into task management tools. For that reason we were intentional and focused on pushing towards a bigger opportunity, building apps that can scale in complexity.”

“Knowing when to sequence positioning is key. If we launched out of the gate saying we were similar to the likes of Salesforce or ServiceNow it would have been ludicrous, the gap was too wide. But having the clarity as an operator to know where you want to go in three years or 10 years helps you focus on what you want to do this year.”

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Howie talking with Caryn Marooney on the main stage at SaaStr Annual 2022

3. Shrink your TAM (Total Addressable Market)

“When I was in high school I was always very paranoid about a startup not having a big enough TAM. I would dream up different ideas and I would get worried that an idea wasn’t big enough. I didn’t want to build a small piece of software for a niche use case. But that can lead to extremes where you have such a big market it’s not possible to tackle it all at once.”

“When we think of an example of how we’re shrinking TAM while maintaining the horizontal platform I always reference wanting to create a lego experience. Letting people build for themselves instead of going too far into one specific use case. Find use cases that are repeatable and look for ways to encourage customers to build adjacent to them.” 

4. Leverage product-led growth in enterprise sales

“You don't have to choose enterprise sales OR product-led growth, getting this combination right can result in profound benefits from a sales efficiency standpoint. We’re trying to build a bridge to connect the two.” 

“In some cases for larger companies they may want to talk to a sales person, they want to talk to a customer success manager. The fact that the product is intuitive and empowered lines of business was a huge advantage. Cold outbounds, if paired well with a delightful product, can help you build an extraordinary business. This is likely the future of where enterprise software is moving towards.”

5. Master consumer-grade delight AND enterprise grade complexity 

“It's not just about having a delightful user experience, it's having the right frameworks and tooling to allow complex deployments to be managed at scale to prevent chaos.”

“There needs to be a bridge between the two. It is elegant to get a dataset and create a workflow in 15 minutes but to build it up over time we need to support the customer on that journey to enable more complex deployments with grace.”

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