Why Armilar invested in Rows…
… and a few insights on… spreadsheets?
Office productivity tools are the most widely used pieces of software in personal computing.
Usually, you will find them bundled in a suite that includes, at least, a word processor, a presentation builder and a spreadsheet, and they are often topped by other productivity tools such as e-mail clients, calendar managers, note takers, etc. They are the basic software that you expect to find in any laptop or desktop. Microsoft dominated that market for several decades with its Microsoft Office Suite. “Word” became synonym for word processor, “Powerpoint” became synonym for a presentation document, and “Excel”, first launched for the Macintosh in 1985, became synonym for spreadsheet, despite the fact that it was not the first on the market (are you old enough to remember Lotus 1–2–3 or VisiCalc?). Even the file extensions “.doc”, “.ppt” and “.xls” became recognisable and synonyms for those documents!
Then along came Google and its suite, taking the productivity tools to the cloud. With Google Sheets launching in 2006 following several tech acquisitions, Google’s office suite brought ubiquity and collaboration to the tools, causing a big splash in the market and, mostly, contributing to expand the number of users for these tools. With the “break stuff and move fast” attitude, Google quickly evolved its products, and in particular its spreadsheet. First it reached feature-parity with its main competitor and then it evolved beyond Excel to build more features and integrations that made its spreadsheet — and, more importantly, what you can build with it — more and more powerful. Microsoft has been playing catch-up; it’s not easy to move a consolidated product that’s been decades in the making into the cloud to compete with a cloud-native platform that embraced more modern technologies from the get-go, but there is no doubt that this has pushed the spreadsheet OG to do more! (There were, of course, several other players launching competing products during this long time period, including Apple’s Numbers, Pages and Keynote, but really, Microsoft and Google remained the main contenders.)
While precise numbers are hard to come by, users of these office productivity suites are counted in the hundreds of millions, or even in the billions. Numerous sources, including authoritative websites like the Harvard Business Review, indicate that Microsoft Office had over 750 million active users in 2018. In 2016, Satya Nadella (Microsoft’s CEO) himself talked of “1.2 billion users of Office”. In 2020, quoting G Suite’s boss Javier Soltero, Axios reported over 2 billion monthly active users. Of course, there is no telling how many of these overlap, but it’s probably safe to say that office users top a couple billion people!
Within that set of tools, spreadsheets became a colossal platform, the by-default software to structure anything into tables and charts, from simple personal to-do lists to massive calculation models linking several sources and a web of sheets that power and support business processes for large organisations. They have become the de facto platform for building applications without formal coding — even if their users, used to the format of inputting formulas into cells, don’t necessarily realize that they are, essentially, programming (putting aside those “few” million that use the spreadsheets’ embedded language, like VBA in Excel, to do more complex operations and build automations). Spreadsheet makers have even gone to the extreme of classifying their products as being Turing-complete — meaning that they’re a proper programming language with which you can write any computation — through announcements such as Excel’s launch of the LAMBDA function in 2021. For years, spreadsheets were regarded as the main enemy of IT departments, fostering the dreaded “shadow IT” — business units would develop their own tools that were not sanctioned by corporate IT, wreaking havoc in data consistency and raising security issues — until they decided to recognise its inevitability and embrace it (if you can’t beat them…).
Being transversal by nature, and in many instances a critical can’t-live-without tool, meant that spreadsheets have had to offer a very broad set of features and become very solid and reliable — no calculation bugs are tolerable!
The new world of productivity — the Great Unbundling
If they are so prevalent and feature-rich — and, at the same time, so accessible — then what’s wrong with spreadsheets and what is there to innovate?
Well, nothing is fundamentally wrong with spreadsheets. To a large extent, they have helped tremendously with digital literacy and productivity of the world’s population and will continue to do so. Their scope of use is incredibly diverse and oftentimes today, they even serve as the platform to build and test new digital products as an MVP before an actual commercial-ready product is developed.
But cloud computing, and the users’ adoption of cloud, has opened new doors for innovative approaches, and has increased the users’ level of demand in aspects such as usability (UX/UI), cross-platform data integration, real-time automation, collaboration and shareability. It is no longer sufficient to do computation really well in your local application — you need to integrate with the rest of the world and be able to show and share what you’ve built. Moreover, in this new world of digitalisation and dematerialisation, traditional formats have been put into question.
This has created the space and the opportunity for new offerings to emerge, literally unbundling the office suite.
- When documents are not printed, why continue building and formatting text documents into A4 or Letter format? Notion, for example, started offering a basic writing tool, ditching the skeuomorphic assumption of a sheet of paper. It offered a wealth of very practical features, adding structure between and within documents, creating small practical databases to use in the documents in different formats, allowing the embedding of external objects, and, most notably, adding powerful collaboration and publishing features — and, just recently, sprinkling smart uses of AI capabilities. The no-frills formatting options are not nearly as rich as what you’ll find in Microsoft Word, for example, but it turns out that they are more than enough for everyday use, from simple note-taking to more complex repositories of varied information, while “traditional” text editors such as Word may continue to be used for specific heavy-duty professional text publishing (although, of course, there are now also alternatives to the large incumbents). Launched in 2016 as a beta, it is estimated that Notion has over 30 million users today — orders of magnitude fewer than the users of the traditional office suite, of course, but an impressive climb nonetheless!
- If thinking in terms of physical paper doesn’t make much sense anymore, things are very different when it comes to screens — to say that screens are ubiquitous today is an understatement, especially when compared with when Microsoft Powerpoint was first introduced, in 1989. Presentations have become so ubiquitous and production / graphical appearance has become so important, that it created the opportunity for products like Pitch to come out, offering a very friendly and modern user interface, very clever productivity tools, integrations and powerful collaboration features — even if less feature-rich than its incumbent counterparts. Founded in 2018, Pitch claimed to have “tens of thousands of teams” on the platform by the time it raised its Series B in 2021.
- Even more interesting in the context of this post: Remember Microsoft Access? After a peak usage in the early 2000s as one of the first citizen-developer no-code platforms, its usage declined because of competition from other DBMSs and limitations on scalability and compatibility, to the point that Microsoft announced in 2020 its retirement from the Office Suite. But then, think how AirTable re-invented the database productivity tool on the cloud, boosting the concept with powerful visualisation, collaboration and publishing features. Founded in 2018, over 300,000 organisations were using the platform in 2022.
- We could go on expanding with several other examples. Microsoft Visio? Think Miro. Think how products like SuperHuman or Slack came to the market, unbundling email and messaging for different types of uses and constituencies. The list goes on.
But what about spreadsheets?
Why is it that it’s much less evident to name one new platform that is regarded as the “new Excel” or the “new GSheets”?
To put it simply: because it’s hard!
It’s hard because the traditional spreadsheet products offer many hundreds of big and powerful features developed and perfected over almost four decades. But more importantly, it’s hard because, as previously explained, many users and entire organisations often rely on spreadsheet-based models and dashboards, in which they have invested a lot of time and which they can’t afford to have fail. It’s hard, in essence, because the use of spreadsheets has evolved much beyond a simple office productivity tool — they have become part of the no-code / low-code development platforms universe.
What this really means is that, unless they are using spreadsheets to build to-do lists or other simple computation-light tables, users approach a new spreadsheet document as a developer approaches a new software project — and that’s what it essentially is. As a spreadsheet developer, you have certain inputs, you have a good idea of the intended output, and your task is to build the mechanics in the middle, which can encompass potentially very complex mathematical calculations, for which you know you will rely in the rich roster of spreadsheet formulas to build. You build it, you test it and you debug it using the platform’s features, until you’re happy with the result and are ready to use it for real, and maybe share it with the world. Going in, you have a good estimate of how big of a project this is, how long you are going to commit to it, which could range from a few minutes to many weeks — and you often end up spending more time on it than you thought you would, just like in a software project.
And that, in turn, means that you the developer need to feel confident, going in, that the platform that you’re choosing to build your product on will effectively deliver what you expect it to deliver. You need to trust that you will not hit a wall after you’ve spent weeks developing, only to realise that there is some critical feature missing, or that the state of the platform somehow makes you less productive than on the platform you’re accustomed to.
This problem is, indeed, typical of no-code / low-code development platforms, so let’s talk about it for a minute.
At Armilar, we’ve been a fan of this space for a long while, ever since we first invested in OutSystems in 2007, when the term was not known and only a handful of people believed that it could become “a thing”. Today, OutSystems is the leading low-code application development platform for enterprise (don’t take it from us, we’re biased, take it from Gartner). But it took a while for larger companies to embrace low-code and reap the benefits of a more agile philosophy, in many instances internalising the knowledge and making their IT organisation more responsive and aligned with the business. It took a while not simply because nobody else was doing it (let’s credit organisations for being smarter than that!) but because it was not a rational thing to do it until they felt comfortable that that choice didn’t run the risk of hitting the proverbial wall and having to backtrack or compromise on quality and robustness. Until it became rational! Today, the enterprise low-code applications platform space is a very large market that Gartner expects to surpass $14 billion in size by 2025, growing by more that 26% per annum. But that is just a segment of the wider space that Gartner calls, more generally, the low-code development technologies space, which it expects to reach $29 billion in revenue by 2025. In this journey since our initial investment in this space, we at Armilar have learnt about the different aspects and segments of this large market which, at the lower end of the developers’ technical proficiency, appeals to the so-called citizen-developers and the business users.
That’s what someone approaching a project in a new spreadsheet document truly is: a citizen-developer. Someone who is probably not a professional programmer but who is minimally knowledgeable of digital technology, about to build something which will be an important tool for someone, somewhere, sometime. He expects to be well served by his platform of choice. And his demands are evolving, both in scope and in quality.
But what Excel and GSheets certainly offer in safety, they lack in other things that are sought in a modern digital product today.
- To start with, their interface is very dated and complicated, missing many of the principles of modern product design, the result of many years of development in a given design direction — the infinite grid, the floating charts and the cramming of options and features on the top bar. The more advanced functions and features are difficult to use and only reserved for real experts. We’ve grown accustomed to it, but it is a complex product, and it shows.
- That interface makes it a product that is difficult to share. We’ve all squinted trying to make something out of a spreadsheet on a mobile phone. We’ve all struggled to make sense of a sheet built by someone else.
- Which takes us to collaboration. GSheets brought it to the spreadsheet world and Excel followed suit, but the experience of collaboration on a spreadsheet, in part due to its inherent UI, remains flawed and an inferior experience compared with other types of products, such as word processors.
- But there is something else: beyond a leaner UI and more powerful collaboration and sharing features, now more than ever, a citizen-developer (or really, any developer, for that matter) expects to be able to leverage the interconnection of the internet today — the wealth of data and functionality that is available, at the distance of an API call.
Allow us to elaborate on this last point. There is no doubt that APIs have changed the software development paradigm. They have made software development more agile by allowing developers to focus on what is unique about their product: developers leverage APIs built and made available by other companies to handle the things that are not at the core of what they’re building. If you haven’t done so already, when you’re done here, go read this post by our friend Ricardo Sequerra Amram of Point Nine that explains what APIs are and how they’re disrupting industries. As Ricardo puts it, “APIs are like LEGOs to build software”. He points out that a few things set them apart from traditional software products, including being “Built for the developer: you need to be a developer and write code to use APIs” and being “Headless: code is the user interface. This enables developers to build dedicated Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) on top of these APIs that are customized for their own applications”. Tools like Zapier have largely democratised the world of APIs, making them more accessible and easier to use, but they are still for the tech-savvy. Why not take it a step further and make data from APIs live in a spreadsheet where you conduct your analysis and build your data applications? A no-code or low-code UI for API data would be a highly value-added service sitting on top of the API tech stack.
Because it’s hard!… Until someone goes and does it!
It takes a fair amount of guts to want to tackle this colossus that is a very mature spreadsheet product and market. Maybe a fair amount of insanity too.
Rows was founded by two friends and serial entrepreneurs, Humberto and Torben, who probably have fair amounts of both guts and insanity in them (in the best possible sense, of course!). The task that they have embarked on is nothing short of breathtaking: to create a spreadsheet that is better than Microsoft’s or Google’s, more modern, more user friendly, adaptable, shareable and, above all, well integrated in today’s world of APIs and automation. “The spreadsheet where data comes to life. Connected to your business data. Delightful to share.”, as they put it.
They re-thought the spreadsheet from-the-ground-up and built an object oriented product (dumping the established concept of an infinite multipurpose grid, taking inspiration from Apple’s concept of separate objects in Numbers and Notion’s vision of a multimedia document) with all the additional requirements in mind. They re-built the most widely used spreadsheet formulas — which is important to do to preserve the familiarity of a spreadsheet that a potential user base of hundreds of millions are accustomed to — and at the same time, from day one, they started solving the challenges of the modern business worker:
- Faster time to value and increased accessibility. They offer innovative means of interacting with the spreadsheet, through means of carefully-crafted guided wizards for formulas, for example. And those innovations also mean that advanced spreadsheet functionality becomes much more accessible to the non-expert users — making the power of what they can build much greater. For example, how often have you done data queries on Excel? Well, go ahead and see how Rows can help you with that.
- Incredible collaboration and sharing capabilities. Rows is designed with publishing in mind. Any spreadsheet can not only be viewed as a carefully crafted web page, but the web page can also be interactive, with selected cells defined as input cells that lead the page to be updated with the spreadsheet working in the background. Think a pricing calculator for your digital product, for example. You don’t need to develop that page anymore. Build it in Rows and embed it in your web site, or in your existing Notion, Confluence or any of the thousands of platforms that allow embedding.
- And, most importantly, built-in integrations and ease of automation. Rows was built for the API world. With a few clicks, you can create a Data Table from any API, automatically feed the data in, and build additional spreadsheet intelligence on it — import data from social media, ad platforms, company databases and other tools. With a few more, you can automate this table, making sure it’s refreshed as often as you want it to be, to always be in sync, even if you are offline. Finally, you can trigger external actions from a Rows sheet: send Slack messages, send emails, or update your CRM, for example. Rows natively offers a broad set of integrations out of the box, but you can also use a simple formula to call any API accessible on the web.
The product is delightful. We haven’t met anyone trying and not enjoying it or not seeing how powerful it can be.
The challenge, of course, is overcoming that friction we discussed above. That fear that, while it is still a new product under development, it will not live up to the full extent of the requirements of a new model or project that is being started. Or that choosing it over one of the established platforms will make the user less productive due to lack of features. Those fears can only be overcome by showing completeness of functionality, ensuring that you offer all the essential features (if not absolutely everything) that Excel or Google Sheets offers — the much sought “feature-parity” — , and then everything that is different and unique on top of it.
That is no small order!
To pull it, Rows’ founders have put together an outstanding product development team. And an outstanding group of investors to back that effort. Founded about five years ago, the company has been fully focused on product development. It released the first version of its product in 2022, attracting a growing number of loyal users and the first cases of companies building tools to support their operations in Rows sheets. Over the last few months Rows has been in an accelerated pace of feature releases, improving UI features, boosting UX in their data tables magic, creating powerful SQL querying functions, enriching sharing capabilities, building their own Rows API and adding new and powerful integrations. Their OpenAI integration is nothing short of jaw-dropping, for example (check out its capabilities here).
All of that effort was leading up this: today Rows v2.0 is launched! We’re incredibly excited and can’t wait to see what users build with it! Go ahead and check it out on rows.com, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Granted, Rows is not the only team in the world shooting for the moon of spreadsheet greatness. But seldom have we seen a team with such a drive and discipline, such seriousness, willingness and ability to actually pull it off!
The bar is high, but so is the potential prize. And it’s there for the taking.
Authored by Pedro Ribeiro Santos, Armilar Venture Partners