First off, the title is meant to get a point across.  The statement of Microsoft Excel being the world’s most used database may or may not be true, but it would be a fair statement  to claim that “An alarmingly large number of individuals use Microsoft Excel to store non-numeric arrays of information that should probably be stored in a database / be created by a simple web application”.  Despite all of the technology advancements we have today there is still no solution for the age old problem of using Microsoft Excel as a database for keeping track of information and basic businesses processes.  The logic behind this post has been in my head for years, but the inspiration for it finally came about when I was sitting in on a pitch an entrepreneur was giving to my friend Adam at True Ventures.  Part of the conversation went something like this:

Adam:  So how do they do this (process X) now?

Entrepreneur:  They keep track of it in an excel spreadsheet.

Me:  Yeah, that’s a good sign disruption is needed.  If you want to find a good SaaS app to build, just find an industry/process that is largely dominated by excel spreadsheets.

Why Is Excel Still Used Like This?

It Just Works + It’s Familiar-  Though this post seems to be “bashing” the use of Excel as a simple database, it’s still the easiest solution out there.  Fire up a new excel document, define the header columns, and start entering in data.  In the long run, Excel is a poor choice, but in the short run, it’s the easiest way to get the job done  Once you’re done, click email and everyone else gets the spreadsheet.  At this point, the headaches usually start rolling in due to version control.  Excel is also very familiar to John Q Public.  My generation has been using it since we were teenagers.  We don’t want to learn something entirely foreign and different.

You Don’t Have To Ask IT To Do Anything-  Many people would like a better solution including some basic workflow management ie- the equivalent of a damn dropdown to track things!  There’s one problem:  they have to go to IT.  That means the choice is now continue using Excel OR spec something out, sit down with IT, have them build/buy something that you probably won’t end up using anyway, test it, and then wait for it to be rolled out to everyone.  I’m pretty sure Excel wins a large majority of the time here.

Some Evidence of Excel Being Used as a Database

Public Relations- When we started Publictivity, it happened because a Public Relations firm was tracking all of their conversations inside of an excel spreadsheet.  They had a separate CRM system and would export the contact list to a spreadsheet.  From there, they would keep a spreadsheet for each “campaign” (specific product launch/set of pitches) with the status of the pitch, link to the coverage, and whether they received the review material.  If there were multiple people working on an account, they would just email the spreadsheet back and forth.  Crappy way to do things, but that’s what worked well.

Human Resources (UMiami Capstone Project)- For my senior year project as part of the CIS major we had to redo the system that recorded absences at the school of business for their employees.  My first question was: How do you do things now?  Their answer?  We keep track of it all in one spreadsheet that we’ve had for close to fifteen years.  That’s right, one spreadsheet, fifteen years.  I asked why?  Their response –  It was just the easiest way to do it, and asking IT to do this until now was a huge headache.  We eventually built a fairly simple and very cool system, but had to leave some things for IT to finish due to security purposes.  Since IT still has to do something that is > 30 minutes worth of work, I have a feeling that original spreadsheet may live to see another 15 years.

A Friend’s Startup-  The final inspiration for this post came about after sitting in on the pitch I mentioned above.  It was once again “another case of the spreadsheets”.  Right now many vendors track the risk to their supply chain in a spreadsheet in Excel.  For the first time since leaving Publictivity 18 months ago I realized that there is an intense amount of opportunity around displacing Excel as a lightweight spreadsheet + process management tool.  If large corporations are leaving risk management to an excel database, this has to be a very large problem.

YCombinator Idea #22- If you look at the YC ideas we’d like to fund thread, idea number 22 is rooted in solving this exact problem.

People often use Excel as a lightweight database. I suspect there’s an opportunity to create the program such users wish existed, and that there are new things you could do if it were web-based. Like make it easier to get data into it, through forms or scraping.

Don’t make it feel like a database. That frightens people. The question to ask is: how much can I let people do without defining structure? You want the database equivalent of a language that makes its easy to keep data in linked lists. (Which means you probably want to write it in one.)

The key here is the line that emphasizes the fear of databases to your average everyday worker.  The word database seems like a complicated thing that IT deals with, which might bite their heads off.  They’ve dealt with MS Access before, but that just scared them to death.

How We Can “Fix” This Problem

Be Wufoo’s cousin.  I’ve always respected Wufoo due to the simple, yet very painful problem they were solving.  This is explained well by pg in the ideas we’d like to fund post:

…In most companies the IT department is an expensive bottleneck. Getting them to make you a simple web form could take months. Enter Wufoo. Now if the marketing department wants to put a form on the web, they can do it themselves in 5 minutes…

Wufoo was able to take a process that might take months and reduced it down to a 5 minute process that anyone can do.  I think that’s the answer here at least in it’s simplest form.  Do what Wufoo did for collecting external data, but for collecting internal data and simple workflow processes. Take what is currently done in a spreadsheet as a database, and instead of requiring IT to take months to replace it with a custom built application, make a simple way to do it yourself in a drag&drop fashion in under 5 minutes.

Ironically without even knowing it, this is the problem I spent the last 6 months of 2008 solving at Publictivity.  We had originally built Publictivity as a way for PR professionals to better manage their workflow.  I realized we were just replacing a spreadsheet and that many other companies had this problem.  So we set out to build something that was malleable and any type of company could use to replace their “spreadsheet databases”.  It was a feature called Applets.  We finished it, but it was never released to the public, but here’s a demo video below (or direct link so you can watch in full screen HD).  Maybe I’ll put it online or open source it like I’ve always planned.

Some Notes:

  • Everything was completely drag and drop.
  • There were basic relational entities ie- you could reference the equivalent of other sheets.
  • There was a public applet directory where you could one click install templates other companies made publicly shared (you would NOT see their data of course).
  • We had basic data types that we felt every company would need (files, links, contacts, and actions).
  • You could easily set the header columns and set dropdown fields as filters.
  • All data was shared with your entire company.  We had started planning privacy/security features.  We also had a “Share” button that let you simply notify/share a team member of an entry.

There have been companies that tried to tackle this problem, but ultimately failed (Blist and Coghead).  It’s certainly a problem, but what is the right solution?