Spreadsheets are not the ideal software for running a company
The moment when a company realizes this can be a turning point for the quality of its internal processes. This usually comes when its operations – which so far were contained enough to be manageable – all of a sudden become too big, and “do as you go” is no longer a viable way to build processes.
Airtable is a platform used by many companies that have reached this stage. It provides an alternative by being a relational database that brings a more order to spreadsheet logic, and is built with project management in mind.
It is a modern and widely used piece of software capable of much more adequately serving businesses than Excel or Google Sheets (which were never made to be the center of a business’s operations). However, Airtable comes with limitations of its own: by still adhering to a more spreadsheet-like structure and following workspace divisions, it can fail to scale up when your company needs the most.
Here are some pros and cons of Airtable.
Pro: Airtable is very customizable
One of the first things Airtable will tell you when you create your account is that it is very customizable. This goes from the types of fields you can have in your databases (or bases, as Airtable likes to call them), to being able to create various visualizations for them. Here are a few examples that may come in handy.
Many field types
One of the key advantages of relational databases is that they are capable of storing more diverse data in a structured and organized way. That is why Airtable (and Jestor alike) provides very diverse options for field types, ranging from simple numbers to image attachments. Here are some examples of fields Airtable provides:
- Link to another record: as the name suggests, relational databases are capable of linking multiple pieces of information together. This field makes an entry in one record point to an entry in another table. For example, a Feedback Session record can have a field named User, which points to a User record somewhere else in the base. There is also a Lookup field type to find records in different tables.
- Text and numbers: Airtable gives options of single-line texts, long texts, e-mails, phone numbers, URLs, numbers, barcodes, currency values, percentages, durations, ratings (from 1 to 5) and counts (i.e. integers). These are the bare-bones field types you are used to manipulating in spreadsheets. Some specific types of text (i.e. e-mail), for example, are given separate field types.
- Selection fields: these include checkboxes, multiple selections and single-selections. A particular type of single-selection is the Collaborator field type, whose values are references to members of your team – this can be handy for assigning tasks.
- Date and time: tables can also hold timestamps such as “Created time” and “Last modified time”.
- Formulas: the field types of Formula and Rollup execute tasks common in spreadsheets: containing custom computations expressed by formulas, and summarizing data from other records.
Multiple views for the same base
Besides the traditional tabular visualization, Airtable gives you other options to display and modify your bases. These options are:
- Grid: this is the traditional kind of view we are used to from spreadsheets
- Form: this is a way of allowing a third party to input data into the base.
- Calendar: if your records have any Date-type field, you can plot them onto a calendar according to this date.
- Kanban: the famous project management method is available at Airtable, and can be generated from single-selection or collaborator fields.
Jestor provides all of the above functionalities as well, as they are useful for companies from all segments; from tech to physical operations. Airtable has a further two that may be useful for project management applications, which are its focus.
- Gallery: represents records as cards in a grid.
- Gantt charts: Airtable also generates Gantt charts from tables representing tasks with start and end dates. This ties back to their focus on project management.
Con: Permissioning is not as customizable as everything else
While Airtable’s tables themselves can be customized to a satisfactory degree, the options for user access levels fail to live up to the flexibility the rest of the platform provides.
Airtable follows a permissioning structure that is similar to spreadsheets permissions: a user can be an editor, a commenter or a reader. As such, they’ll have varying levels of capabilities inside a table or a workspace.
To add a little bit more of customization, Airtable also lets fields be locked so only someone with a certain level of access or higher can edit its values.
However, this can get problematic very quickly: sometimes you may need more granular access levels than Editors, Commenters or Readers, and setting up individual accesses to fields can be a chore.
It’s also not possible to hide certain fields from users. Everyone that has access to a specific table will be able to see everything, which can lead to situations where you’ll find yourself duplicating tables and workspaces just to filter information to certain users, effectively doubling your work and muddying your databases.
Jestor, on the other hand, lets you customize access levels with the same degree of control that you’d find when customizing tables or creating automations. A specific access level may have access to an Expenses table, for example, but not be able to see certain fields (such as Payment Date), edit others (such as changing Amount) and even have a filtered view of the information (like only seeing records attributed to them, or that are marked as Paid). This extends to structural powers too: you can define if an access level can create, edit or delete records or even fields on a table.
So while one user may see this:
The other may only see this:
Having full control over access levels guarantee your data is secure and, just as importantly, that you’re free to create the best structures possible without having to worry if it’ll work with predefined access levels. The access level will serve the table, not the other way around.
To find out more about why permissioning is so important, you can check out this article.
Pro: Airtable offers apps, automations and integrations
One of Airtable’s main strengths is its app marketplace and the community that fuels it. Users can add to their bases apps whose functionalities range from giving new visualizations to data to generating PDFs (although many apps are restricted to Pro subscriptions). You can browse some of them here. These apps can be programmed by community members, although it is not possible to directly program different behaviors on your bases without first packaging them into an app.
Airtable can also interface with a lot of third-party software. Some of them are:
A more complete list can be found here.
Finally, the platform also supports no-code automations natively. This allows users to program behaviors like “when a record is created in table A, create a record in table B”. An automation is composed by a trigger (“when X happens…”) and an action (“…do Y”). Automations work together with integrations: both triggers and actions can be relative to a 3rd party app. Examples of triggers are “when a new event is added in Google Calendar” and “When a new Google Forms response is received”. Examples of actions are “Send an email”, “Create a record” and “Create a new Google “Calendar event”. You can find a more detailed list here.
Jestor’s automations are called Tricks, and you can read more about them here.
Con: automations and integrations are limited
Airtable has a lot of apps and integrations out of the box. As most out-of-the-box solutions go, they’re amazing to get you started, but they aren’t able to take the next step and solve more complex problems when you need them to.
Users that wish to create more personalized solutions can opt to create integrations via API or automate tables using a no-code wizard. However, while they do serve the purpose of allowing a little more freedom when it comes to creating processes, they’re too simple to truly be able to take in complex operations. Even the API is designed only for record manipulation: things like fetching, creating, editing or deleting those records.
Jestor is designed to automate operations no matter how complex they are. You can do that through tricks, which are no-code automations, but you can also create low-code automations that let you take full control of any aspect of the process, creating any rule you want to.
Not only that, but you can also create your own webhooks or customized pages to help you integrate and build internal solutions that fit your process perfectly.
Jestor’s API is also extremely powerful: not only can you manipulate records on your database, but you can also change your own jestor’s structure, just as you would on the user interface. This means you can even create a table or a field if you wanted to.
This flexibility regarding levels of automation control lets jestor be anything you want to: from simple tables for a specific team to the heart of your company, it will be as powerful as you make it to be.
To find out more about why integrations and automations can boost your company to the next level, check out this article.
Pro: Airtable’s cost depends on how much you use it
Corporate Microsoft Office packages and traditional ERP’s and CRM’s are usually sold with a large, upfront payment, sometimes followed by continued support from a specialized professional (as is the case with Salesforce). This, of course, can be a very big check to write, and this investment might not make sense at the stage your business is in. This pricing model essentially forces the buyer to adapt their entire operations around the software they bought, as it is just too expensive not to start using it all at once.
But we know this is not ideal for essentially any business. As with all large commitments we make in our lives, it is always sensible to get a taste of what we are getting ourselves into. Afterall, adding new software to your internal process is meant to be a transition. Otherwise, you run the risk of molding your operations to the software, and not the other way around.
This is why a price that scales with usage is crucially in the interest of the user. Airtable does this by charging per user, meaning a small group of employees can start using Airtable, and then this can organically expand into other parts of the company. As we will explain later, Jestor takes this a step further and charges by number of actions on the platform, which is even more granular than charging per user.
Airtable provides 4 user types: Free, Plus, Pro and Enterprise. Here is what they offer:
Con: User and row-based pricing work against scalability
Although user-based pricing is already an improvement from the ancient “software package” pricing, it still lags behind the complexity of modern, growth-oriented businesses.
That’s because while charging per user makes sense at first, it doesn’t take into account that not every user is equal: sometimes, a user will be a heavy user, updating and creating things constantly. Other times, a user can be somewhat passive: they may just need to check information every now and then, or create a record every week or so.
In Airtable, you would end up paying the same price for this casual user. This means that complex operations, in which a lot of people should be able to access the platform but use it with different intensities, become unnecessarily costly. A lot of people try to circumvent this by sharing a single user, but that’s far from ideal: not only it assumes everyone should have the same kind of access levels, but it’s an overall bad decision, security and compliance-wise.
Not only that, plans also come with a database size limitation: even the highest plan won’t let you have a table with more than 100,000 records. This effectively puts a roof to stunt your growth: if your process becomes too complex, grows in size or runs for too long, you won’t be able to keep it in a single base. You may even have to upgrade your plan despite not growing at all: even if your operation shrinks, the month you hit your table’s limit you’ll have to go to the next plan anyway.
Jestor, on the other hand, is designed for growth all the way. We adopt a usage based pricing model, so there’s no need to worry about team size or hitting the ceiling. Plans adapt to you, not the other way around.
Any plan grants you an unlimited number of users, so you don’t have to choose who’ll have access to your Jestor. If someone needs to have access, just add them and you won’t be charged for it. This, paired with robust permissioning tools, allows you to use Jestor in any way you want to: you can invite team members, clients, suppliers, consultants. Your operation won’t be more costly just because a lot of people are involved. In fact, we encourage you to add them: Jestor’s power really comes through with the whole team using it.
There’s also no limit on the number of records or tables you can create on your account. When you create a good structure or process, you should be allowed to keep it for as long as you want to. Usage-based models also mean you don’t have to worry about having to upgrade plans without growing. As long as your usage stays the same, your plan stays the same. We thrive on your success, not on legacy data.
To find out more about why usage-based models are the way to go for growth-oriented companies, you can check out this article.
Pro: Airtable is made for collaborative work within teams
Airtable has collaboration features that reflect this business focus. One distinctive aspect it has is messaging. In Airtable, every record has an associated text chat, and users can leave messages to and tag their collaborators. This enables, for example, two sales collaborators to talk about a feedback meeting right on the record that refers to the feedback meeting. This can be more organized than talking about it on a separate messaging solution (e.g. Slack). However, a Slack integration is also available natively, and supports things like sending a message every time a record is changed.
Collaborators can also be tagged in specific records using the Collaborator field type. It can also be set up so that the collaborator receives a notification when their name is selected in one of these fields. This can be useful for assigning tasks to team members. Jestor implements task assignment a little differently: we have a dedicated Tasks functionality, where making assignments does not get mixed with the actual data in the tables. You can learn more about it here.
All these functionalities occur within Airtable workspaces. These are collections of bases, and the whole product revolves around them. They give a means of separating the data of different teams within an organization, but, as we will explain later, this also prevents them from ever being integrated and discourages cross-team collaboration due to the pricing model. There are 3 key ways of collaborating within a workspace:
- Workspace collaborators: these are team members that have full access to everything in the workspace. No variation on the level of permisioning is allowed – this is meant for actual members of the team.
- Base collaborators: these receive permission to edit specific bases, and the permission level can be tweaked on a base-to-base basis. They count as users of the workspace for the purposes of billing.
- External users: these either have read-only permissions or can input data using forms. They do not count as users for the purposes of billing.
Con: workspace logic is expensive and limiting
The crux of the issue with workspaces is that they are completely separate. A base from one workspace cannot link to a base in a different one, and you may need to pay 2x for the same person to have access to 2 different workspaces – which is because the pricing in Airtable is not simply per user, but per user per workspace.
This can be tenable for mostly office-based, project management operations. But for physical-world operations, this is extremely limiting, as many users are necessary, and may need to edit data across multiple workspaces. It is also an obstacle for doing internal (and external) data analytics.
Obstacles for integrated analytics
Problems start to arise when you need to manipulate information from two separate workspaces at the same time. For example, if you have a Sales workspace where you keep your Leads database, and you have a separate Finance workspace where Expenses are recorded, you would have trouble connecting both sets of data and understanding your Cost per Lead.
Not only that, analytics components are bound to the table you’re using. If you want a chart of Expenses per Day, this will be created as an app on the table of Expenses. This can work for teams or areas, but is a far from ideal structure for individual team members. If someone’s looking at the Marketing workspace and wants to check on inventory, they’ll probably need to hop on to a different part of the platform.
Jestor, on the other hand, ditches workspace logic so you can use it as a company-wide platform. Any table on jestor can access any other table (provided, of course, that the user has access to it). This lets you make analyses that use information from any part of jestor, letting you build more insightful charts and indicators, as well as other types of components.
One other key difference between the way jestor and Airtable handle dashboards is that jestor’s dashboards are not bound to specific tables. Instead, you can create dashboards just as you would create a table, and build the components with the information you want to.
This adds a whole new level of productivity, because not only can you create area or team-specific dashboards (such as Marketing or Sales), but each team member can have their own dashboard with information that is relevant to them. So, if a team member wants to see a calendar with their open tasks, a mini table with new leads, a pie chart of support tickets by status and a summary of invoices sent, all in the same place, they can.
Individual dashboards can really help your team finish tasks and have always up-to-date information on their daily routines.
To find out more about why everyday analytics are so powerful, check out this article.
Airtable is well-optimized for project management
And this is a pro if you’re an internet company, but likely a con if you are not.
From what we have said so far, it becomes clear how Airtable is aiming for a more office-based type of client. The visualizations like Kanbans and Gantt charts are staples of agile methods and of project management, which is precisely the type of operational problem internet companies (such as Airtable itself, and many others in Silicon Valley and elsewhere) tend to have. The collaboration features also point in that direction, with Google Docs-style permissioning and workspace logic.
This means two things:
- Pro: If you are an internet company, a fintech, or from a similar segment, Airtable’s features are more tailored to needs you’re likely to have. There is also a lot of similar software available, such as Coda.io, which you can also check out and see what fits you best.
- Con: If you are not an internet company, and instead have physical-world operations, it is very likely Airtable and most of its office-focused competitors will soon fail to meet your expectations, because that is not what they are made to do.
An example that illustrates this shortcoming is how Airtable de-emphasizes its mobile app relative to the desktop experience.
Mobile apps are often overlooked by back office platforms. Sometimes they don’t exist at all, or when they do they feel more like an afterthought than anything else. In that regard, Airtable is somewhat ahead of other competitors. It has a functional app that allows you to create, edit or delete records, and can help you in a pinch.
However, where this app fails is that user experience is vastly different between mobile and desktop versions. While functional, the mobile app is more of a condensed version of the true experience, and it may feel more like an accessory than the real deal when you need to.
This can become a problem when down and opening a laptop is not viable at all. Once focused almost solely on software, even startups are way less office based nowadays, running complex field operations that need dedicated team members.
For those situations, you need an app that is just as powerful on mobile as it is on desktop, and jestor delivers this.
Mobile has the full experience. Tables and dashboards are just as you know them: you’ll have the same views, and the power to create components and fields using the same workflows as the desktop version. There’s no need to learn the same tool twice.
Everything you can do on the desktop version:
Has the same workflow, only now in a smaller screen:
This empowers every team member, regardless of where they are, to take full advantage of what jestor has to offer.
To find out more about why it’s so important to have a flawless mobile experience, check out this article.
While we point out some weaker parts of Airtable in this article, it’s a great piece of software. The spreadsheet-like features can be useful when you need something that is more robust than Excel or Google Sheets, but still need some flexibility when it comes to formatting and cell-based usability. Unlike spreadsheets, Airtable is meant to be used to manage a business (albeit a more office-based one), and its features reflect that.
Yet, it is visible that Airtable remains tied to a spreadsheet logic. This can work for you if your operations haven’t grown too much from the “turning point” where sheets stop working. But if you need deeply customized software that can support your operations across many teams in an integrated way, you will run into some obstacles.
jestor exists precisely as a platform for building no-code internal apps for businesses. This can include functions for which you normally use spreadsheets, but can extend into a variety of other things – we build jestor so that it can be molded to the specificities of your company. We have clients across Proptech, Health, Foodtech and other sectors, with applications as varied as stock management and cleaning staff operations.
As jestor has a lot of integration capabilities, a lot of teams may find themselves using both products for different purposes: jestor for running operations and as the main data structures, and Airtable for smaller scale tasks or external necessities, such as creating a public table.
At the end of the day, each platform has its own strengths, but if you find that things like weak permissioning or too simple automations are stunting your company’s routines, jestor is the way to go.
If the points above are a constant pain, it’s time to use jestor
When your company grows, you need a platform that is designed for growth. If you need full control and data reliability, why don’t you give jestor a spin?