Microsoft now lets you bring your own data types to Excel

Over the course of the last few years, Microsoft started adding the concept of ‘data types’ to Excel, that is, the ability to pull in geography and real-time stock data from the cloud, for example. Thanks to its partnership with Wolfram, Excel now features over 100 of these data types that can flow into a spreadsheet. But you won’t be limited to only these pre-built data types for long. Soon, Excel will also let you bring in your own data types.

That means you can have a ‘customer’ data type, for example, that can bring in rich customer data from a third-party service into Excel. The conduit fort his is either Power BI, which now allows Excel to pull in any data you previously published there, or Microsoft’s Power Query feature in Excel that lets you connect to a wide variety of data sources, including common databases like SQL Server, MySQL and PostreSQL, as well as third-party services like Teradata and Facebook.

“Up to this point, the Excel grid has been flat… it’s two dimensional,” Microsoft’ head of product for Excel, Brian Jones, writes in today’s announcement. “You can lay out numbers, text, and formulas across the flexible grid, and people have built amazing things with those capabilities. Not all data is flat though and forcing data into that 2D structure has its limits. With Data Types we’ve added a 3rd dimension to what you can build with Excel. Any cell can now contain a rich set of structured data… in just a single cell.”

The promise here is that this will make Excel more flexible and I’m sure a lot of enterprises will adapt these capabilities. These companies aren’t likely to move to Airtable or similar Excel-like tools anytime soon but have data analysis needs that are only increasing now that every company gathers more data than it knows what to do with. This is also a feature that none of Excel’s competitors currently offer, including Google Sheets.


By Frederic Lardinois

Airtable raises $185M and launches new low-code and automation features

The spreadsheet-centric database and no-code platform Airtable today announced that it has raised a $185 million Series D funding round, putting the company at a $2.585 billion post-money valuation.

Thrive Capital led the round, with additional funding by existing investors Benchmark, Coatue, Caffeinated Capital and CRV, as well as new investor D1 Capital. With this, Airtable, which says it now has 200,000 companies using its service, has raised a total of about $350 million. Current customers include Netflix, HBO, Condé Nast Entertainment, TIME, City of Los Angeles, MIT Media Lab and IBM.

In addition, the company is also launching one of its largest feature updates today, which start to execute on the company’s overall platform vision that goes beyond its current no-code capabilities and bring more low-code features, as well new automation (think IFTTT for Airtable) and data management tools to the service.

As Airtable founder and CEO Howie Liu told me, a number of investors approached the company since it raised its Series C round in 2018, in part because the market clearly realized the potential size of the low-code/no-code market.

“I think there’s this increasing market recognition that the space is real, and the spaces is very large […],” he told me. “While we didn’t strictly need the funding, it allowed us to continue to invest aggressively into furthering our platform, vision and really executing aggressively, […] without having to worry about, ‘well, what happens with COVID?’ There’s a lot of uncertainty, right? And I think even today there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what the next year will bear.”

The company started opening the round a couple of months after the first shelter in place orders in California and for most investors, this was a purely digital process.

Liu has always been open about the fact that he wants to build this company for the long haul — especially after he sold his last company to Salesforce at an early stage. As a founder, that likely means he is trying to keep his stake in the company high, even as Airtable continues to raise more money. He argues, though, that more so than the legal and structural controls, being aligned with his investors is what matters most.

“I think actually, what’s more important in my view, is having philosophical alignment and expectations alignment with the investors,” he said. “Because I don’t want to be in a position where it comes down to a legal right or structural debate over the future of the company. That almost feels to me like the last resort where it’s already gotten to a place where things are ugly. I’d much rather be in a position where all the investors around the table, whether they have legal say or not, are fully aligned with what we’re trying to do with this business.”

Just as important as the new funding though, are the various new features the company is launching today. Maybe the most important of these is Airtable Apps. Previously, Airtable users could use pre-built blocks to add maps, Gantt charts and other features to their tables. But while being a no-code service surely helped Airtable’s users get started, there’s always an inevitable point where the pre-built functionality just isn’t enough and users need more custom tools (Liu calls this an escape valve). So with Airtable Apps, more sophisticated users can now build additional functionality in JavaScript — and if they choose to do so, they can then share those new capabilities with other users in the new Airtable Marketplace.

Image Credits: Airtable

“You may or may not need an escape valve and obviously, we’ve gotten this far with 200,000 organizations using Airtable without that kind of escape valve,” he noted. “But I think that we open up a lot more use cases when you can say, well, Airtable by itself is 99% there, but that last 1% is make or break. You need it. And then, just having that outlet and making it much more leveraged to build that use case on Airtable with 1% effort, rather than building the full-stack application as a custom built application is all the difference.”

Image Credits: Airtable

The other major new feature is Airtable Automations. With this, you can build custom, automated workflows to generate reports or perform other repetitive steps. You can do a lot of that through the service’s graphical interface or use JavaScript to build you own custom flows and integrations, too. For now, this feature is available for free, but the team is looking into how to charge for it over time, given that these automated flows may become costly if you run them often.

The last new feature is Airtable Sync. With this, teams can more easily share data across an organization, while also providing controls for who can see what. “The goal is to enable people who built software with Airtable to make that software interconnected and to be able to share a source of truth table between different instances of our tables,” Liu explained.

Image Credits: Airtable


By Frederic Lardinois

ZenHub adds roadmapping to its GitHub project management tool

ZenHub, the popular project management tool that integrates right into GitHub, today announced the launch of Roadmaps. As you can guess from the name, this is a roadmapping feature that allows teams to better plan their projects ahead of time and visualize their status — all from within GitHub.

“We’re diving into a brand new category which is super exciting and we’re really starting to think not only about how forward-thinking software teams are managing their software projects but how they’re actually planning ahead,” ZenHub CEO and co-founder Aaron Upright told me. “And we’re really using this as an opportunity to really evolve the product and really introduce now a new kind of entrant into the space for product roadmapping.”

The product itself is indeed pretty straightforward. By default, it takes existing projects and epics a team has already defined and visualizes those on a timeline — including data about how many open issues still remain. In its current iteration, the tool is still pretty basic, but going forward ZenHub will add more advanced features like blocking. As Upright noted, that’s just fine, though, because while the main goal here is to help teams plans, ZenHub also wants to give other stakeholders a kind of 30,000-foot overview of the state of a project without having to click around every issue in GitHub or Jira.

Upright also argues that existing solutions tend to fall short of what teams really need. “Smaller organizations — teams that are 10, 15 or 25 people — they can’t afford these tools. They’re really expensive. They’re cost-prohibitive,” he said. “And so oftentimes what they do is they turn to Excel files or Google spreadsheets in order to keep track of their roadmap. And keeping the spreadsheets up to date really becomes a complex and really a full-time job.” Yet those tools that are affordable often don’t offer a way to sync data back and forth between GitHub and their platforms, which results in the product team not getting those updates in GitHub, for example. Since ZenHub lives inside of GitHub, that’s obviously not a problem.

ZenHub Roadmaps is now available to all users.


By Frederic Lardinois

You can now ask Excel questions about your data

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.


By Frederic Lardinois