What is Airtable? The power of a database with the familiarity of a spreadsheet.

Luc Meijer • Updated on May 18, 2022 • 12 min read

Notable companies like Medium, BuzzFeed, and Nike have started using Airtable to increase efficiency and cut costs.


So it’s clear that the tool’s superpowers are indisputable. But what actually is Airtable? What can you use it for and how can you elevate your experience with the platform? 


In this article, you’ll learn all about spreadsheets, databases, the benefits of Airtable, what you can use Airtable for, and how you can empower your Airtable with Softr.

Softr is the easiest, fastest way to build a professional web app on Airtable

No designer or developer needed. Zero learning curve.

What is Airtable?


Airtable is a modern spreadsheet platform with database functionalities. In other words, it’s a spreadsheet-database hybrid. 


It’s simple, user-friendly, and allows anyone to quickly create a database, which can then be used to power visualizations, processes, and integrations for a custom application. 


Airtable stands out from traditional databases and spreadsheets thanks to its user-friendliness, and innovative features like


  • Various customizable field options including barcodes and formulas 
  • Familiar spreadsheet-like interface 
  • User-permission levels 
  • Pre-made templates including social media planning
  • Various integrations 
  • Custom views 


But what exactly are spreadsheets and databases?

What is a spreadsheet?


So, we mentioned how Airtable is basically a spreadsheet-database hybrid. But what is a spreadsheet exactly? 


Spreadsheets are files that contain data in columns, rows, and cells. They help you collect, structure, sort, and filter data. 


Columns sit on the X-axis and are sometimes referred to as Fields. Rows are on the Y-axis and are also referred to as records. A popular example of a spreadsheet application is Excel

Airtable spreadsheet

Airtable’s familiar spreadsheet-like interface allows you to structure information in a grid view, with the usual rows, columns, and cells.



Let's break that down with a simple example. Let's say you have a receipt for your groceries. In this example, the entire line from the product name to the product price is a row (blue). The names of the products are contained in a column (red).

spreadsheets

Spreadsheets contain data in rows, columns, and cells. In this case, the blue section is a row, and the red section is a column. 



In spreadsheet software like Excel and Google Sheets, columns are usually represented by letters, while rows are represented by numbers. Without a column title, it can be difficult to interpret data. That's why it's a good practice to name your columns. For our groceries receipt, that might look as follows:

groceries spreadsheets

When working with spreadsheets, it’s good practice to name your columns so you can interpret data easier.



Spreadsheets are an amazing way to collect, save and run calculations on data. There are also different use cases when there is a need to save huge amounts of data, and apply more structure. In this case, you might want to use a database instead of a spreadsheet.

What is a database?


Databases make it easy to store, manage, and retrieve your data. They’re at the heart of most applications we use on a day-to-day basis. 


Facebook, for example, has databases of users, groups, posts, events, and more. Banks also have their own databases including client names, account numbers, and invoices. There was a time when you’d need a coding background to create a database, and plenty of technical skills to use it, but that’s not the case now that easy-to-use tools like Airtable exist.


You can populate your Airtable databases manually, by syncing or importing from external files, or by gathering information through Airtable forms.


Some of the differences between databases and spreadsheets are:

Databases Spreadsheets
Databases can be relational. Spreadsheets are static documents.
Databases allow for a variety of different file types like pictures, videos, checkboxes, text, date, and time. Most spreadsheets only allow text, numbers, and formulas.
Databases are less flexible, but offer data validation to make sure you don’t enter the wrong type of data in the wrong format. Spreadsheets are more flexible and allow you to include any kind of data in whatever cell you like.
Databases are built for collaboration. You can share spreadsheets with your team members, but collaboration features are limited.

 Is Airtable a relational database?


Short answer: yes. 


The ability to link records from one table to another is one of Airtable’s most powerful features. This creates a relationship between those two tables, meaning that Airtable qualifies as a relational database.


For example, imagine creating a database for your soccer club. These are some of the tables you would likely need:

  • Teams
  • Players
  • Coaches
  • Games


All of these tables will be related to at least one other table. A team consists of players and coaches. A game consists of two teams. In Airtable, you would create a link for each of those relationships which would make populating each table even easier.

What are the benefits of Airtable? 


Airtable makes it easier for you to interact with your data, while at the same time enabling programmatic management of your data. Some of the benefits of Airtable include:


  • Powerful collaboration capabilities that allow users to assign tasks and share project statuses, as well as making it easy for collaborators to find and share relevant data. Users can also assign roles to collaborators and define various levels of access.
  • A spreadsheet-like interface makes it easy for users with previous experience with tools like Excel to onboard and take advantage of Airtable’s powerful database.
  • Pre-built templates make it incredibly easy for new users to hit the ground running. All you need to do is copy one of Airtable’s many available templates, and you’re good to go. More on this later.
  • The customizability of the platform allows users to access their data using different views including grid, Kanban boards, calendar, form, and Gnatt. You can then add additional customization rules to your data and create your own Airtable actions.
  • Automations remove the need for doing repetitive tasks. By configuring custom trigger-action workflows, you and your team save time and optimize workflows more effectively.
  • Extensive data-tracking lets each team member easily track changes in individual tables and records, making collaboration more efficient and transparent. 


Airtable must-know terms


As a beginner, the vast amount of must-know Airtable terminology can be overwhelming. So let’s take a look at some terms you need to know to start using Airtable effectively. 



Bases

Airtable base

On Airtable, bases are collections of tables. You can create bases from scratch, or use Airtable’s existing templates.



Bases are collections of Tables. Airtable has existing templates like Content Calendar, Project Tracker, Event planning, and more. Of course, bases can also be built from scratch. Bases are like projects. For every new project you start, you'll likely create a new base. Bases are like a folder on your computer that holds an Excel file.



Workspace

Airtable workspace

All of your projects on Airtable are organized into workspaces. You can create as many workspaces as you’d like for free.



A workspace is a collection of Bases in Airtable. If bases are folders that hold Excel files, a workspace would be the hard drive that holds those folders.



Table

Airtable table

Tables store your data and are similar to spreadsheets in function and looks. 



Tables are similar to spreadsheets: they’re where your data is stored. Tables have columns, rows, and fields (which we'll get to in a minute).



Views

Airtable views

One of Airtable’s perks is that it offers a wide range of views so users can configure how they’d like to view their data.

Image Source: Airtable



Views are a powerful Airtable feature that allows you to configure how you view the data in a table. The Grid view is probably most familiar because it is almost exactly like a spreadsheet. The Calendar view can be useful for Tables with dates, like deadlines. The Gantt view may be helpful if items have start and end dates, it shows them in a timeline.



Fields


Airtable fields, records and table placings

In Airtable, fields are equivalent to cells. Fun fact: Airtable’s cell limit is up to 50 million cells. 

Image Source: Airtable



Fields are what cells are in spreadsheets. This is where the individual pieces of data are kept. Fields can do more than just hold text. Currently, Airtable has 29 field types, including Single-line text, Long text, Attachment (which can be used to save images, audio, and other files), and Date.



Records


Airtable records

Records are essentially the rows you see in the database, where each record is equivalent to one item in a list. For example, in an inventory table, each record is a different inventory item.



Just like with databases and spreadsheets, records are the rows of Airtable.



Apps

Airtable apps

Apps live on top of your Airtable bases and introduce new ways to visualize your data. 

Image Source: Airtable



Airtable apps are one of Airtable's more unique features. Apps extend Airtable's functionality significantly. It's a bit like the App store on your phone.

Automations


Just like apps, automations are a very powerful feature that extends what's possible with Airtable. As the name suggests, Airtable automations allow you to automate tasks based on your data.


You can have Airtable take action based on various triggers such as when a new record is added to a view, or when a record changes. Automations will save time by automating repetitive tasks and reducing the margin of error that occurs when they’re done manually.


You can learn more about Airtable automation with Gareth Pronovost's tutorial on Airtable's amazing feature.

 Gareth Pronovost from GAP Consulting explores Airtable’s internal automations in this in-depth tutorial.

What is Airtable used for?


With all of its features, Airtable is a powerful no-code tool for many businesses. Here are some examples of what Airtable can be used for:



To get a better view of what's possible with Airtable, take a look at  Airtable's templates.

Softr is the easiest, fastest way to build a professional web app on Airtable

No designer or developer needed. Zero learning curve.

How do I create with Airtable?


Let’s go over some of the basic steps of beginning your creation process with Airtable. You’ll learn how to create a workspace and build your first base.



Create a workspace


When you open up your homepage, you can see all the workspaces you’re a part of. To create another workspace, all you need to do is go to Workspaces on the lower left-hand side of the screen, click on Add a workspace, give it a name, and you’re done! 


Now you can go ahead and build and add some bases.

Airtable workspace

Go to workspaces>Add a workspace to get started.



Build a base


There are a few different approaches to building a new base on Airtable.

If: Then:
You’re new to Airtable Copy an existing Airtable template that comes with a pre-designed base
Your data is in a traditional spreadsheet Import your CSV file into the base
You’re an Airtable wizard, or up for a challenge Create a base from scratch

To get started with your first base, head over to your homepage> Add a base. Here you can choose to import your work, check out some templates, or restart from scratch. 


Check out the video below for a more in-depth tutorial.

When creating your first Airtable base, you have the option to copy a template, import your data, or start from scratch.

Airtable integrations


You can synchronize Airtable with popular apps and automate repetitive tasks. Using automation, you can:


  • Sending emails using Airtable
  • Syncing Airtable to Google Calendar
  • Updating records based on changes in other applications
  • Sending messages in Slack/Microsoft Teams
  • Scheduling tweets
  • Registering payments using Stripe
  • Managing files with Dropbox/Box


Empowering Airtable with Softr


Now that you know the ins and outs of Airtable, you can start using it to easily manage your data.


If you want to present your data in a more customized way, or share your data with people that aren't in your Airtable workspace, or outside of your organization, you can use Softr.


Softr is an easy-to-use no-code platform that turns Airtable bases into powerful web apps, member-only websites, and client portals. Softr offers a way for you to authenticate your end-users, control access to your content and data based on conditional rules like roles, logged-in status, and subscription plans.


If you're using Airtable as a product catalog you can use a Softr template to build your e-commerce website. Or maybe you'd like to build a custom website for your travel journal, there's a template for that too!

Softr template

Softr’s E-commerce template allows you to turn your product catalog into your own e-commerce website.



You can also turn your Airtable base into powerful job boards, online communities like FoundersDoor, and marketplaces like Nanny Network.

Softr is the easiest, fastest way to build a professional web app on Airtable

No designer or developer needed. Zero learning curve.

Design your perfect solution with the Airtable-Softr duo


Airtable’s spreadsheet-database hybrid solution allows you to streamline processes, workflows, and projects while easily creating a powerful database without writing a single line of code. 


Some ideal use cases include

  • Content calendars 
  • Resource directories 
  • Bug trackers 
  • Event planning 
  • Job hunting
  • Project management


And if you have a use case that isn’t offered by the platform, you can fill in the gaps by upgrading your Airtable experience with Softr.

Softr is the easiest, fastest way to build a professional web app on Airtable

No designer or developer needed. Zero learning curve.

Frequently asked questions about Airtable

Airtable’s popularity comes from the fact that it’s not just a spreadsheet software like Google Sheets or Excel. Airtable is a spreadsheet and database hybrid, which allows you to: - Streamline your workflow - Manage your tasks - Generate easy-to-digest visuals - Easily collaborate with your team Its ability to serve as a backend to no-code tools like Softr also contributes to its popularity since the pairing allows you to easily build web apps and websites.

Individuals, small teams, and those with lightweight needs can take advantage of Airtable’s essential features for free. Users can also create websites and web apps for free by combining Airtable and Softr’s free plans.

Some free Airtable alternatives include 1. Baserow 2. Notion 3. Stackby 4. Trello 5. Google Sheets 6. Rows

Airtable is a database spreadsheet hybrid, so in addition to tracking and organizing data in a flexible but structured manner, it also allows you to track team workflow and data, and automate your processes. With more robust functionality than a simple database software, Airtable can also serve as a backend to various websites and web apps built with no-code tools like Softr.

Some of the benefits of Airtable include 1. Extensive collaboration capabilities 2. Spreadsheet-like interface 3. Pre-built templates 4. Customizable 5. Task automation 6. Extensive data-tracking system

Airtable is a database-spreadsheet hybrid, while Excel is traditional spreadsheet software that doesn’t have database capabilities.

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