The Thesis
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The Thesis

It’s time for Spreadsheets3.0

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The big opportunity

If you’re not on vacation, chances are, you’ve used a spreadsheet this week; or if you’re like me, you’ve got several spreadsheets open right now! Almost a Billion users work on MS Excel/ Google Sheets — 60% of them being from small-medium organizations (<50 employees). It’s interesting to see how organizations have adopted cutting-edge software and apps that web2.0 has to offer, across all levels; and yet, we are still reliant on spreadsheets — essentially a 30+ year old technology which hasn’t really evolved significantly since the advent of Lotus 123. In fact, the innovations have been so incremental, that after all these years, I would split spreadsheet history only in two eras:

  • Spreadsheet1.0: Lotus 123, Lotus Improv, MS Excel — with incremental functions in every new version, and better graphics and interfaces.
  • Spreadsheet2.0: Introduction of Google sheets with a lightweight sharing and collaboration layer on top of the functionality of MS Excel.

Few other tools offered the mix of flexibility and functionality as spreadsheets, and hence, at least in smaller organizations, they were the dominant tool. It would take a 10X better product to justify the additional effort of learning a new software, when the already familiar MS Excel could do the job for you.

But my conversations with users across different organizations and functions, have led me to conclude that

Traditional spreadsheets are now at their inflection point; and there is a real need and opportunity to build a 10X better spreadsheet.

Why Spreadsheet2.0 is not enough

While there is no denying the value of traditional spreadsheet software, recent trends in the future of work have exposed some huge unmet needs in their offering. Earlier teams could always get together in a room and resolve any issues, and hence these needs stayed latent — but now they have manifested into clear gaps:

Enabling seamless collaboration

  • Tracking history: Anyone who has collaborated on an important spreadsheet model is all too familiar with the following. There is a serious need for a better way to collaborate.
Multi-player collaboration?
  • Access controls at different levels: Why should I send the full spreadsheet model to the marketing team, when I really just want their input on 7 cells on CAC assumptions? My two options are, (a) to send them the full model risking version-control issues, potential model errors if someone accidentally types something in a cell or (b) to paste the data request in a table → send it to the team in an email → track if they replied with the inputs → copy those inputs and → paste them in my model.
  • Workflows for requesting, reviewing and approving data: Even if I use a google sheet and ask for data by using comments (eliminating the version control issue), how do I track which of the 7 teams’ inputs are due, and who has shared their inputs? What if I want to review the data points and approve/reject them before they are inserted in the model?

Driving effective communication about the calculations

  • Intuitive and easy-to-understand models: The pain of receiving a spreadsheet created by someone else for a 5 min input, and then having to spend an hour to just understand the model is all to real. Worse still, having to jump on a call and run someone through the model for an hour, when all you needed was a simple 5 min input! There is a need for the excel model to be simple and easy to understand what’s under the hood, not just for the creator, but also for the reader.
  • Seamless tinkering: Imagine you are presenting a spreadsheet in your big meeting — and someone asks you what would happen if your change a certain assumption. You need to switch tabs, modify the assumption in the ‘assumptions tab’, return to the results tab, and so on and so forth. And if your luck is as good as mine, someone in the audience would observe a completely unrelated data point in all this hustle, and take the meeting to a different tangent. The alternative is to anticipate the 100 inputs and paste all relevant charts and graphs in a PPT/ PDF, and then reply with “I will modify the assumption and send you the revised slides” when someone provides the 101st input, which I had not anticipated.

Break the barriers of 2D

An important use-case of a spreadsheet is as a simple database — of contact information, as a simplified CRM, as a store of team information, etc. However, spreadsheets are 2D, and that makes using them as a functional database tough:

  • What if a customer has several telephone numbers — what do you include in the contact column?
  • What if several POCs are assigned to a task — how do you track all responsibilities for an individual?

Typical hacks like the ones below, make the database quite unusable for any automated aggregations or operations.

Makeshift databases in 2D spreadsheets

Going “no-code”

It’s important to note, that three out of these four themes, point towards needs of “multi-player use-cases — and that will be an important factor in identifying areas of opportunity. Another important factor will be “what % of time on spreadsheets does the user spend on those use-cases”. The higher this share, the more feasible it is for the user to invest in learning a new software that caters to that use-case.

In order to apply these insights into potential areas where spreadsheet are up for disruption, let’s dive deeper into the top use-cases of spreadsheets.

Diving-deep into today’s spreadsheet usage

Basis my conversations with several functions, I have created a rough map that outlines the top use-cases that account for ~80% time spent on spreadsheets for different functions.

Top use-cases for spreadsheet across roles and functions

Of them, the following areas look promising — modelling and database. They are both inherently multi-player. and occupy a large chunk of time that the users spend on spreadsheets.

Convinced that there is a “critical need” and the “timing is right”, I scavenged for solutions to these issues on Product Hunt, App stores, and the early tech-adopters in my network. And I think I have found a few very interesting companies, daresay even the future of excel. Let’s look at some of them in detail.

The builders of Spreadsheet3.0

Will they create Spreadsheet3.0?

Use-case: Modelling (and reporting)

Causal

Solving for: intuitive modelling, effective communication, seamless collaboration

About: London-based startup, reimagining the spreadsheet specifically for the “modelling and projections” use-case. They launched about a year ago and are rapidly expanding.

Funding: $5.5Mn in total funding, including a $4.2Mn seed-round in 2021 from a list of well-known VCs and angels.

Product:

  • Have built a tool from scratch with the familiar spreadsheet layout, but a very intuitive almost no-code way of building models in a natural language. They have also built scenario-analysis in the core of the platform — a very important and often overlooked aspect of modelling. They have also built a fantastic visualization layer on top, which really focuses on effectively enabling a conversation on the model. This layer also enables the viewer to tweak the assumptions and see their impact in real-time.
  • Causal has also beautifully covered the reporting use-case, by allowing a host of integrations with Xero, Quickbooks, Stripe, Salesforce, etc.
  • More than the product itself, I am very impressed by the founders’ understanding of the range of use-cases and their approach to building the product. The team has managed to churn out new extremely high-relevance features rapidly, and have a solid pipeline.
  • “Tasks + Workflows” is probably one of the most critical parts of their roadmap, especially for their aim to capture the 100–500 employee organization segment.

Traction:

  • For taking on a goliath incumbent, Causal has seen great traction so far with notable companies like Babylon, OnDeck, Retool.
  • While I don’t have their usage metrics, I am blown away by the response on their ProductHunt (older) page, and on review sites. Especially interesting is that their product has received appreciation and relevance across a diverse profile of users, and in <50 employee as well as 50–500 employee organizations.
  • An important anecdotal proof of their traction is the fact that there are several non-commissioned articles and videos explaining how to use Causal models.
Very strong customer reviews for Causal

Team: Founders Taimur and Lukas — both builders and product hunters (just the sort of team to pull off a task like Causal). A look at their product roadmap provides a lot of confidence on their vision and ability to execute on it.

Overall thoughts:

  • Causal seems to have what it takes to motor ahead of the other players, and be THE product for modelling. Their impressive suite of integrations gives them a strong foot into reporting as well. Focusing sharply on these few use-cases (and giving up on some of excel’s versatility, for example to analyze small data-sets), they are able to build a much stronger modelling and reporting product.
  • The biggest proof-point for me that they are on the path to a 10x better offering, is the fact that so many professionals have spent the effort in learning how to use Causal, despite already being familiar with MS Excel/Google-sheets (this includes me as well). Their from-scratch reimagined version of a spreadsheet-on-steroids might be exactly what the future needs.
  • A big challenge in Causal’s journey towards growth will be building cost-effective distribution and onboarding so that the CAC is justified. From my experience (and user-reviews), it does take some time to figure your way around Causal leading to many users defaulting to excel — making their onboarding/activation seamless and simple, while providing the tool a complex range of abilities will be a tough balancing act.

Layer

Solving for: seamless collaboration

About: Berlin headquartered company was founded in 2019. They are building a workflow layer on top of existing spreadsheets (excel/google sheets) to enable better collaboration. In their own language, Layer wants to build a ‘Github for spreadsheets’

Funding: $5.6Mn seed funding so far from Index Ventures and a strong line-up of other notable VCs and angel investors.

Product:

  • Layer’s workflow aims to help users provide selective granular access to other colleagues; and enables them to share, request and track inputs for existing spreadsheets.
  • They have also built features that help collecting and monitoring inputs easy, e.g by sending automated reminders for delays.
  • While I am awaiting my access for a closer look, on the face of it, this looks like a great solution to the use-case of building annual operating plans involving several departments, or collating quarterly reports for the board. From my conversations I sense that, this could really empower the Financial Planning and Reporting functions — while letting them continue using their familiar spreadsheets.

Traction: Layer is in private Beta (with plans to launch soon in 2021), so we will get a better sense of traction soon.

Team: The founders have prior experience in tech startups, and a great understanding of the pain point of finance teams (by virtue of having a CFO in the founding team). They have already built a ~20 member team.

Overall thoughts: Layer could be a game changer for Finance (and also teams like Strategy, HR) and could see rapid adoption, especially because they provide them the option of using their familiar spreadsheets (eliminating the friction of learning a new tool) and simply turbocharging them with collaboration features. Of course, with incumbents also building for the future of work, there is a possibility that their features might get replicated by MS/Google itself. Or, we could also see some acquisition activity, once they manage to gain significant traction.

Grid

Solving for: effective communication

About: This 2018 founded company from Iceland, aims to build a beautiful visualization layer on top of existing spreadsheets.

Funding: $12Mn Series A from NEA and other investors.

Product:

  • Grid.is allows users to convert spreadsheet workbooks into websites with interactive charts/graphs and other visuals, allowing the user and the audience to tweak the inputs and observe the outputs in a more intuitive manner. Unlike power-user tools like tableau, Grid enables users to build in their familiar spreadsheet interface and then powers it with visuals. There are subtle differences in terms by focusing more on commentary/narration along with data representation (compared to more dashboard-heavy usage of tableau).
  • This also enables users to easily customize and share different visualizations to different audiences over the web (eliminating the need to cut-paste multiple versions of the charts and graphs on PPT/PDF).
  • These interactive charts can also be easily embedded into websites.

Traction: grid.is was in Beta till 2020 with , but their ProductHunt page (launched 3 months ago) has seen great responses.

Team: The founder Hjalmar has had experience building a DaaS company DataMart in the past, and has great presence in the developer/product community.

Overall thoughts: While grid.is has seen great reviews and reactions, I foresee challenges in being able to build a profitable SaaS from this purely for the modelling/reporting use-case. Visualization layers, even for existing spreadsheets will become increasingly sophisticated — and will likely be core to new entrants (like Causal). However, Grid’s strength could be the “embed chart in website” feature which be used to add interactive calculators on websites. It’s their most popular use-case, and also has a clear demonstrable economic and time benefit (the alternative is to hire web-developers to build them from scratch). It will be exciting to track the progress and growth of grid, and learn about how they further develop the product and build a profitable distribution and growth strategy.

Airrange

Solving for: seamless collaboration, effective communication
About: Munich-based startup and a recent entrant in this space, building a collaboration and an extremely power visualization layer on top of excel 365. They launched recently and are in early-Beta stage.
Funding: Currently bootstrapped
Product:

  • Airrange in many ways, combines the features of Grid and Layer, but makes many power-improvements on top
  • They rely on excel’s named-ranges (called elements) as the fundamental building block, on top of which they build collaboration features (share elements for modifying with access control, approve/reject changes, send reminders) and visualizations (dynamic charts/graphs, convert spreadsheets into useful kanban/pivot/calendar views, …)
  • And all of this is done within the Excel 365 ecosystem, which ensures all models and data are not shared outside of the Excel tenant (unlike in Layer, where the spreadsheet is likely replicated on their server). This might become a big advantage, especially as CIOs tighten infosec rules. This also makes their solution more robust to modifications collaborators (e.g. if a users adds a row/column within a range of cells shared with them, it won’t affect the integrity of the sheet in Airrange but might mess-up the spreadsheet in Grid).
  • Another advantage of this is that since Airrange is built using Microsoft Graph 365 APIs, any new feature releases by Excel are immediately available to Airrange, and will turbocharge their performance.
  • I had a chance to see an early demo of the solution, and I am quite impressed by how sophisticated a product they have built
  • They have also built the solution keeping mobile-friendliness in mind, keeping in sync with how the future of spreadsheet consumption will evolve
  • The one potential drawback I see, is that Airrange usage relies primarily on mouse actions — I am interested to see how excel power-users (who are habituated to keyboard-heavy usage) respond to this.

Traction: Airrange is still testing the solution with excel power-users; no traction statistics.
Team: The founder Stephan Methner, has clearly brought his insights building ‘Open as App’ and as a founder using spreadsheets to manage his business, into Airrange. With his experience, he is extremely well-positioned to grow this into a formidable business.
Overall thoughts:

  • Airrange has many things going well for them — being within the excel 365 ecosystem, mobile-friendliness, and a single solution for collaboration and visualization.
  • For users who love excel, and are only looking to supercharge them, it also has an edge over spreadsheet substitutes like Causal because it can provide the full range of functions that excel provides.
  • Of course, other companies like Layer and Grid are ahead of them by a few years, and integration into the processes and systems of their existing clients does give them a temporary edge
  • The downside of being such a feature-packed product of course is they will face challenges in communicating a coherent and compelling story of what problem they solve, and training/ onboarding new users. They are doing the right thing right now by testing with power users, and deciding which features to launch with. They might even need to let go of some features initially to ensure the task of learning Airrange doesn’t become too daunting!

Use-case: Database

While posterchilds Airtable and (to some extent) Coda are rapidly capturing this use-case, I recently discovered a challenger tool — Stackby, and their design and the amount of customer-love it is generating gets me very excited about their future. And I hope to learn more about them going forward.

Customer-love for Stackby

Use-case: analysis of small data-sets

While several notable companies are in this space, I haven’t yet come across a product which will take significant share away from traditional spreadsheets. I expect excel/google-sheets to still remain the go-to software for analyzing small data-sets for some time — at least for the small organizations segment.

In fact there’s a running joke, that the most powerful feature of any BI tool, is “export to xlsx”.

Overall thoughts on Spreadsheet3.0

The great unbundling of spreadsheets is due, and I believe no-code/low-code platforms like Causal and Airtable will be at the forefront of this revolution. I am very excited to know about any more companies that might join in. If you have experienced any of the companies above, or have recommendations for other exciting products in this space, do let me know in the comments!

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