When you open a Google doc or a spreadsheet, you get a blank spreadsheet and some documentation as to what you can do with it — and that’s pretty much where we’ve been for quite some time.
But two MIT graduates, coming in from Microsoft and Google, have built up a team that for the past three years has quietly been trying to rethink how we approach documents. CEO Shishir Mehrotra spent his life in documents, and now he and co-founder Alex DeNeui have raised $60 million for a startup called Coda that’s trying to start the concept of an online document or spreadsheet from scratch. Greylock Partners, Khosla Ventures, and General Catalyst participated in the financing, with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and General Catalyst’s Hemant Taneja joining the board of directors.
“We like to describe it as a new document that blends flexibility of documents, the power of spreadsheets, and the utility of applications into a single new canvas,” Mehrotra said. “It really started from an observation that we think that the world is full of all these different types of applications but most work gets done on documents and spreadsheets. Every team we looked at, you’d ask them what they use to run things they’d name off all these different applications. They have task trackers, CRM tools, inventory tools, but if you looked over their shoulders they’d spend all day in documents and spreadsheets.”
Starting with a blank slate, Coda aims to begin with the familiar look and feel of a document. From there, it kind of spins off in a different direction to allow a lot of flexible collaboration and UI elements and new ways to organize data that you might find across different platforms like spreadsheets or documents. Mehrotra said the team built up a new kind of programming language for it as a refinement of the tools you’d find in Google Sheets or Office 365. The hope is that Coda can be flexible enough to stitch together the problems that span all those kinds of products into a single flow — sheets, docs, and other kinds of places where people collaborate and store information.
Part of the origin story can actually be traced back to one of his daughters looking over Mehrotra shoulder while he worked on a spreadsheet, Mehrotra said. Explaining a spreadsheet to a 6-year-old, it turns out, is pretty difficult and he says he had to come up with a convoluted example to describe how to use it rather than starting from the primitives. Fast forward to launching Coda, he says they’ve rethought it in such a way that his daughter can figure it out fast enough to start planning a competition on it.
“If you step back and think about it, I can’t quite explain what [a spreadsheet] is, I have to find a contrived use case,” Mehrotra said. “What we’re trying to do with Coda is building a new set of primitives. Some we built to be intentionally familiar. We start with a frame that feels like a document, but the set of primitives are really built to be building blocks. They’re reimagined in a way that we think it should be done in the first place. If we started again, pretended we didn’t know how those work, what would we come up with?”
Taneja has known Mehrotra and DeNeui for some time since their days from college when he recalled that Mehrotra was already thinking about cloud infrastructure before cloud infrastructure was a thing.
“If you were to think first principles today as to what a modern surface, doing work should be, that’s what they’ve tried to conceive,” Taneja said. “It’s a very complicated engineering problem, Shashir [Mehrotra] and Alex [DeNeui] have built one of the best engineering teams that can be built at the earliest stages. [Mehrotra’s] trend is to make really complex problems and turn them into simple products.”
Part of the challenge might be getting people off their spreadsheets in the first place. But Mehrotra said that Coda generally works side-by-side with them. The goal of Coda is to satisfy the use cases that span across multiple applications and to discover new kinds of use cases that would require something flexible like Coda.
That kind of “we’ll play nice” argument probably works for now, but as more and more teams adopt it, we’ll see if people start seeing it as a complete replacement or if it’ll be an “over my dead body” situation in terms of getting people to drop their spreadsheets. At the end of the day, it’s normally the user base that figures out the killer use case for an app — which might be completely perpendicular from what the company originally anticipated.
Of course, there are a lot of attempts at rethinking how we view online documents. Dropbox Paper is probably one of the biggest and more radical attempts at trying to figure out how to approach the whole “blank slate on the internet.”Mehrotra argues that products out there still rely on the same “metaphors” that led to the construction of the original document services. Time will tell whether or not Coda proves out to be as flexible, or more, to satisfy the needs for a wide array of teams that all have different demands.