Why Billion-Dollar Startup Airtable Built A C-Suite Of Outside Tech Veterans During Covid-19 (2024)

Howie Liu, the boss of cloud software company Airtable, is a perfectionist.

When launching his database startup, he and cofounders Emmett Nicholas and Andrew Ofstad spent nearly three years getting the initial product off the ground. They read books on philosophy, were maniacal about the speed at which windows and tabs popped open, and spent months toying with the shades of white and gray for the user interface. In 2018 Forbes profiled Liu’s careful and deliberate building of Airtable under the headline “Move Slow And Make Things,” a play on the Silicon Alley speed-freak mantra of “Move fast and break things.”

So far, Liu’s tortoise pace has paid off. In September 2020, Airtable raised a $185 Million Series D round at a $2.5 billion valuation. The company counts more than 200,000 organizations as customers, including Netflix, IBM, HBO and Condé Nast. Forbes uses it, too. Airtable’s head count has tripled over the last year to more than 300 people—many hired via Zoom calls during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The hiring spree includes a new C-suite made up of outside veteran tech executives to steer the fast-growing firm. Peter Deng—who built products at Facebook, Instagram, Oculus and most recently ran rider product at Uber joined as chief product officer. Archana Agrawal, former marketing exec at the software company Atlassian, came aboard to head marketing. To run finance, Liu recruited Ambereen Toubassy, a hedge fund veteran who recently was CFO at the high-profile and ill-fated media company Quibi. To steer sales, Liu tapped Seth Shaw, who managed the revenue strategy at Invision, Wrike and LogMeIn.

“In a sick way, I convinced myself that because I was feeling so much pain and because it was so hard, that I was doing my job.”

The news that Liu was bringing in a new layer of leadership from outside Airtable intrigued me. On a tactical level, I was curious about how a fast-growing startup, flush with cash, new hires—and heightened investor expectations—matures into a more organized and professionalized company.

There was also the compelling psychological angle—how does a control freak CEO like Liu give up some control to others and trust newcomers with his baby, and how do current employees react and adjust to a new management team installed at the top?

Luckily, Liu was game to share his strategy, thinking and process. The result: an intimate—and often vulnerable look—at how startups and founders come of age as they reach new phases in their life cycle and build a foundation for bigger things.

Hitting The Wall

“I have always thought of myself as a versatile leader. I would work on engineering, design and build products, write marketing copy. It’s a virtue in an early company,” says Liu. “But as the company scaled, what I had thought was a strength became a weakness—being involved in everything becomes a liability. You can’t plug all the gaps. There are only so many hours in the day.”

Liu says he would spend 14-hour days in the office and often tack on work dinners and grueling business travel. “The whole thing was just exhausting. I was pushing the limits of my physical endurance to try to make it work. In a sick way, I convinced myself that because I was feeling so much pain because it was so hard, that I was doing my job.

Covid offered clarity. The pandemic forced Liu to stay put and denied him the distractions of the endless string of meetings, the constant travel and a parade of networking functions. “When you lose the distraction of physically moving from place to place and settle down, you grow more introspective and can figure out what is adding real value,” says Liu. “I went through a personal maturation and realized that pushing myself to exhaustion was not creating maximum impact for the company.”

Talent Scouting

Looking back, Liu realizes that his investors—which include Benchmark, Thrive Capital, Coatue Management, CRV, and Slow Ventures—had long nudged him to hire more professional managers to take some work off his shoulders. “They used a Socratic method to lead me down the right path and were always introducing me to people to show what a great executive looked like,” says Liu. “I didn’t listen. It wasn’t a priority for me—maybe because we have fewer than 100 employees, and I wasn’t yet feeling the strain.”

As the company swelled to 300 employees, the strain grew too intense to ignore. Liu turned to his investors and talent search firms the Cole Group, Artisanal Talent and Daversa Partners, to find candidates for the four C-suite roles. “What separates a C-level exec from, say, a VP or division head is that they need to be a steward of the entire business, not just their group,” says Liu. “Take a chief revenue officer—not only are they talented at sales and customer engagement, but they would do a decent job writing the business plan for the entire company and also understand our product strategy.”

“It requires a leap of faith to trust my conviction, that we brought in a person you can learn from, and that we wouldn’t have made the hire unless the person worked at an amazing level.”

Liu and the board interviewed dozens of candidates for each role. He says each meeting helped inform him about the type of executive he needed. “None of these were cookie-cutter jobs, and each interview helped evolve my understanding of what the job needed. There are many different archetypes for each role,” says Liu. “They all have the basic skills needed for the job, and it becomes focused on what they are looking to do in the role and the chemistry with the company. It’s more fluid and organic than hiring for a more technical position.”

Covid complicated recruiting. Liu met a few final candidates in San Francisco and L.A., where they’d go on outdoor walks, but some hires, like CPO Peter Deng, were done entirely virtual—even today, the two have never met in person.

Building Employee Trust

A daunting challenge of bringing in a new slate of outside executives is that it causes uncertainty to current employees—some worry about how the new boss will impact their jobs and their future trajectories. Other managers feel slighted at being passed over for the promotion or insecure that a CEO had to look beyond the company to fill a need. Liu says he tried to humanize the new C-suite and make sure employees didn't know just their résumé but also the person taking the job—their personalities, talents, goals and non-work-stuff interests.

“I’m thinking of the new C-suite as the founding team of the next phase of the company.”

Liu says it was tricky for existing managers, but that open communication about his decisions and giving everyone a clear career path and growth plan helped with the changes. “I want everyone to know it can be a win-win if you recognize that we are bringing in people that you can learn from and can be a great coach and mentor,” says Liu. “It requires a leap of faith to trust my conviction, that we brought in a person you can learn from, and that we wouldn’t have made the hire unless the person worked at an amazing level.”

Liu’s New Life

Of all the changes sparked by the new management team, few are as dramatic as the ones that Liu is now experiencing. “Over the past few years, Airtable has subsumed my life. Most of my waking hours are related to Airtable. It’s not a question of what my career is going to look like—but what my life will look like,” says Liu. “I’ve been talking to other founders and mentors about what’s the best new role for me.”

Liu’s weighing two CEO styles. The first is high level—like Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey—where he'd focus significant strategic opportunities and set lofty goals for new products and talent. The other option is to remain involved in the day-to-day operations and choose a few areas to dive deep.

For now, Liu leans toward the first option. “I’m thinking of the new C-suite as the founding team of the next phase of the company,” says Liu. “I feel like we are trying to squint and imagine what the company could look like ten years from now.”

Why Billion-Dollar Startup Airtable Built A C-Suite Of Outside Tech Veterans During Covid-19 (2024)
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