Spreadsheet Shame

I’ve been working on a way to fix spreadsheets on mobile and I’ve noticed something really funny: Every business owner or manager uses spreadsheets and almost all of them are ashamed of the fact.

Spreadsheets are seen as an admission of failure, particularly for highly “technical” people. We’re supposed to be past that. If we were truly good at selecting/implementing software, we would never need an outdated Excel workflow, right? Wrong.

There are some very good reasons to use spreadsheets and, if anything, these problems will only continue to increase in the near future. For one thing, the way businesses are using software is changing, making a need for more manual data management. But on a more basic level, people really like spreadsheets. Those same managers who sheepishly admit to using Google Sheets to manage some core function, are almost invariably proud to show me how they use Google Sheets to manage that workflow.

First, the software. When I’ve talked to business owners about their business processes, the spreadsheets usually appear at the edges of one tool, where it connects with either a person or another tool. Sometimes as a simple report, but more often as a report that will be edited or merged with other input, or synced to another system. Where spreadsheets are used to connect software manually, there might be APIs available but the business owner (particularly in small businesses) doesn’t know how to implement them or want to take the time and expense to do so.

If spreadsheets show up at the edge of software, it makes sense that there will be more spreadsheets where there are more edges. This is the moment we find ourselves in now. Market forces are pushing behemoth, all-in-one ERP products out in favor of smaller SaaS offerings that serve particular niche functions or industries. Add in to that the tendency of small business owners to act like consumers, jumping from one free trial to the next, facing low switching costs and you have a state of continuous flux, with lots of rough edges to address.

Fortunately, to my second point, people just seem to really like spreadsheets. I might be at the extreme end of this phenomenon but spreadsheets appear in my own life at times of great stress and change: moving, having a baby, a child’s illness, selling a home. Sure there are functional reasons to turn to a spreadsheet (list making, calculations) but I think there is something about the very structure of a spreadsheet that makes you feel calm and in control. A child’s illness can be terrifying, but list the specialists along a Y axis and you will feel as if there is something adding order to the chaos.

The same is true in a business context. The spreadsheet brings a sense of order and clarity to business owners who are often overwhelmed with day to day management of their operations. And they do it fast. Software developers would do well to realize just how valuable it is for busy, stressed people to be able to do something right now instead of 5 days from now, or 5 hours, or 5 minutes from now.

So it’s time to stop dismissing spreadsheets as “old fashioned” and respect the very valid reasons that they appeal to industrious people and define workflows. It’s a bad idea to let people create workarounds in Excel because they are tool confused or lazy to learn a new software, but don’t assume this is always the case. No matter how great a new software is, it’s just not possible for it to check every box for every user. So they will find ways to make their own solution.

Interested in getting tools to support your own business on mobile? We’re launching Augl soon, a new way to report and collect data on mobile. Join our beta list!

*Fun Fact: We named Augl after the “Gold” (Au) in “Golden Rule”.

Like what you read? Give Megan Matt a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.