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What is Airtable?

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5 min read

What is Airtable?

And why you should stop using spreadsheets as improvised databases

By Kim Kadiyala · August 24, 2020
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You can, technically, use a butter knife to cut fresh carrots. That doesn't mean it's the best tool for the job. People tend to use spreadsheets the same way, settling for a tool that kind of works when a database would be better.

Why do people avoid using databases? Because they can be difficult to use and often require SQL scripting skills. That's where Airtable comes in.

Airtable
Airtable reimagines the database with a friendly interface

Airtable is an easy-to-use online platform for creating and sharing relational databases. The user interface is simple, colorful, friendly, and allows anyone to spin up a database in minutes. You can store, organize, and collaborate on information about anything—like employee directories, product inventories, and even apartment hunting. You don't even have to learn what SQL stands for, let alone any scripting.

Databases are ripe for automation. Take a look at these 3 workflows to help you get the most out of your database, and then learn more about how to connect Airtable to all your other apps.

Database vs. spreadsheet

So what's the difference between a spreadsheet and a database? At first glance, databases look a lot like spreadsheets, with pages of grid lines and tabs. You organize the data in rows and columns just like in a spreadsheet.

That's where the similarities end. In a spreadsheet, you'll use functions like =SUM(A1:A5) to calculate values and crunch numbers. In a database, you'll typically use SQL queries like SELECT * FROM Customers; to find and compare data. You could compare data in a spreadsheet, but databases are much more powerful and far less easy to mess up.

A relational database doesn't just store data, it stores relationships between that data—linking, for example, all of the songs in your music collection with categories such as artist, title, and era. You can then use those relationships to answer questions you have. Storing related data together in a single spreadsheet can be unwieldy and invite errors when you try to sort and compare it, but with a database, for example, you could easily filter by '90s hits with "baby" in the title without modifying your database itself.

Cursor in a search box that reads "Find a view"

A basic rule of thumb is that a database is more suited to organize a large amount of information. Spreadsheets are the best fit for running calculations. Airtable gives you the best of both worlds: a relational database that's as easy to work with as Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel.

Basic components of Airtable

There are five basic building blocks to an Airtable database:

  • Bases

  • Tables

  • Fields

  • Records

  • Views

Bases

Bases are single databases with all the information you need for your project. Your base might be called "Employee Directory" or "New Car Shopping." (Ours is called "Editorial Calendar and Resources.") A base contains all the data you need for one project. You could start out with a blank base and build it out from scratch, but starting with a template is a good way to take a peek under the hood and get familiar with what's possible. Airtable offers a robust library of templates that are pre-populated with relevant sample data that you can modify with your own. For example, there are templates for a personal CRM, project tracker, and an employee directory.

To use a template, select + New Base from the homepage, choose a template, and then click Use template at the top of the page. The employee directory template is customized to help keep track of your entire team's roles, start dates, birthdays, food allergies, and more.

Airtable Template
Hit the ground running by starting with an Airtable template

Tables

Tables are used to hold a list of data about one particular type of item. Each base can have one or more tables, similar to worksheets in a spreadsheet. In the Employee Directory base, each table hosts a particular type of information, like name, birthdate, and department.

Airtable Tables
Tables hold data about one type of item in your Airtable base

In our editorial calendar at Zapier, we have tables for the actual editorial calendar, one for external requests that come in, one that stores the names and emails of all our freelancers, and about a half dozen more.

Fields

Each column in a table is called a field. Fields are the equivalent of spreadsheet columns, though fields are designed to bring consistency to your data. Each field has a name and can be customized to hold a wide variety of content, like photos, attachments, phone numbers, dates, checkboxes, and more.

Airtable Fields
Fields are customizable and bring consistency to your data

In our editorial calendar table, we have fields for publish date, writer, editorial category, status, link to the draft, and much more.

Records

Records are the database equivalent of spreadsheet rows and cells. Each record is an item in your list. In a table of employees, each record is a different employee, with data in each field to detail their name, department, address, and more.

Airtable Records
In a table of employees, each record is a different employee

The power of a relational database relies on its relationships. Your records in one table can have a relationship with your records in another table by adding a link. After creating an association between tables, you can use that to get information from the other table. For example, while we're in the employee directory table, we can link each employee to their department. This would display the name of the department on the same card as the employee and make it easy to pull up information about that department at any time. In our editorial calendar, we use this to pull writer names from one table into the editorial calendar in another.

You can also expand a record to see all of its information in one place.

Expand Airtable Record
Expand a record to see all its information in one place

Views

While it can be helpful to view all of your records at once, you can also create multiple views for each table in a base. Think of a view in Airtable like a different lens through which you can see the same underlying table data. These customized views can be useful when you only want to see records fitting certain criteria—perhaps to see all employees in the engineering department.

Think outside the grid with visual views. You can create a calendar view, for example, to see employees' birthdays visually. (We use it to view blog posts by publish date.)

Airtable Calendar View
Switch to a calendar view to see records visually

A gallery view represents your records as large cards. This view is particularly useful for highlighting attachments to your records like employee headshots and performance reports.

Airtable Gallery View
Gallery view represents records as large cards

With the Kanban view, you can visualize your records in a board of stacked cards. You can click and drag to move cards between different stacks, or reorder them within a stack—a great way to make a workflow for your projects or show what stage each item you're working on is in.

Airtable Kanban View
Kanban view shows your data as stages in a workflow

Import content to Airtable from other apps

Feeling confident enough to build an Airtable database without a template? Use the import feature to upload your existing spreadsheet data and transform it into a customizable base. You also import from Asana, Trello, and even your contacts or calendar application.

Import Airtable Data
Import your existing data to Airtable

Once you have your database set up, you can use Zapier to automatically send information to Airtable whenever someone submits a form, sends you an email, or anything in between. Check out these 3 workflows to help you be an Airtable expert.

Airtable's magic is in its flexibility to adapt to whatever you need to organize, however you want to see it.

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Kim Kadiyala picture

Kim Kadiyala

Kim Kadiyala is a Zapier marketer and Hyper Island alum.

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