How spreadsheets became the most important tool for SaaS businesses

Krishna Srinivas V

Krishna Srinivas V

A look at how spreadsheets have been the most popular tool for SaaS teams in a data-driven world

Did you know there are nearly 800 million people who use Excel across the world?

That’s more users than Evernote, Slack, Netflix, and Snapchat - COMBINED. 

If we include the new kid on the block, Google Sheets, that number rises to almost a billion spreadsheet users. 

That’s nearly 13% of the world’s population who count on spreadsheets to read, manipulate, and combine data.

What makes Spreadsheets popular?

While there are a lot of reasons for its phenomenal success such as flexibility, ease of use, powerful computational abilities, the biggest reason is, spreadsheets give a highly intuitive platform for even non-technical users to compute, analyze, and derive insights from large volumes of data with zero code.  

In this blog, we take a look at how spreadsheets have grown beyond their conventional use-cases to forge themselves as the single most important piece of software for SaaS businesses when it comes to measuring KPIs across teams.

Table of Contents:-

1. What workflows do companies rely on spreadsheets for?

2. Rise of SaaS: A catalyst for the no-code movement 

3. Spreadsheets: The most popular application for SaaS teams

4. How SaaS teams use spreadsheets to measure data-driven KPIs?

What workflows do companies rely on spreadsheets for?

With a clean interface and a non-existent learning curve, spreadsheets are universally loved across industries - from the smallest of old-school businesses to the biggest of new-age cloud enterprises.

From the basic functions like data entry to the most complex financial data models, there is nothing that spreadsheets can’t get done.

For instance, take Accounting & Finance - even with the rise of software like Netsuite, Quickbooks, SAP over the years, Spreadsheets continue to remain the de facto tool for financial calculations. 

Rise of SaaS: A Catalyst for the No-code Movement 

There are industries that spreadsheets have tremendously impacted, simplifying the day-to-do workflow to a great extent. And then, there is SaaS; whose very rise was founded on the legacy of spreadsheets that evangelized the ‘no-code’ way of doing business operations. 

Back in the 1970s’ when VisiCalc was launched, it instantly disrupted the industry - turning computers from clunky, obscure code machines exclusive for tech geeks to a useful tool for everyday businesses that anyone can operate. 

Importance of spreadsheets for business
From Visicalc to Excel, spreadsheets have long helped users compute complex data with zero technical knowledge.


“Though hard to describe in words, VisiCalc comes alive visually. In minutes, people who have never used a computer are writing and using programs. […] You simply write on this so-called electronic blackboard what you would like it to do — and it does it.” 
              
- A  review of VisiCalc in the Morgan Stanley Electronics Newsletter in 1979.

Almost five decades later,  the SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) industry has followed the same path disrupting modern-day operations - replacing rigid, expensive on-premise solutions with powerful yet lightweight applications that require almost no technical knowledge for even the most complex workflows. 

“I used to spend $25k-$100k building an app over 3-6 months. Then I started using NoCode tools like Webflow, Bubble, Zapier, and AirTable… Suddenly I was able to build my app idea in days instead of months, at a fraction of the cost”  
-  Andrew Wilkinson

Astonishingly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

In addition to paving the path for disruption for its new-age counterparts, Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel have become the very sources of inspiration for a host of SaaS applications that have since revolutionized their respective industries. 

Much like how companies sprouted out of Craigslist (think Airbnb, Tinder, Upwork), several SaaS products are on some level, enhanced and robust versions of disparate spreadsheet features.


Unbundling Excel - importance of spreadsheets for businesses
Hundreds of SaaS applications across multiple domains are on some level, an extension of features available within spreadsheets.

From invoicing (Xero, Freshbooks) to CRM (Salesforce, Freshsales) to project management (Asana, Jira), these are functions that have inherently been available within the likes of Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets for years, which have since gone on to become stand-alone products worth billions of dollars today.

For example, a quick search on Capterra for ‘Billing & Invoice’ software returns more than 350 solutions - that’s 350 independent companies who are trying to build better versions of the invoicing features available within spreadsheets.

As global cloud service is set to reach almost $278.3 billion in revenue by 2021 marked by an explosive period of growth for SaaS enterprises, it perfectly underscores the importance of spreadsheets for businesses operating in the new-age data-driven landscape.

Importance of Spreadsheets for businesses: Tip of the Iceberg
Tip of the Iceberg: Spreadsheets' Importance go well beyond conventional use cases

Spreadsheets: The most popular application for SaaS teams

While a subset of SaaS companies competes with spreadsheets for a share of the pie, universally almost all SaaS teams across functions rely on spreadsheets to run their operations.

Why?

The reason is simple:

As teams continue to add more and more tools to their tech stack (an average employee in a SaaS company uses up to 8 applications), the cumulative data generated within these tools is at an unprecedented high; this data is the answer to the most pressing questions for any company (“Why is my churn rate high?”, “Why are some users logging in infrequently”, “Why are the website leads dropping off at this particular point?” etc.) 

“Data is the new oil”

The problem is, while undeniably useful, accessing this myriad of data is tedious. 

Often, 

-> It is scattered across multiple tools in your tech stack

-> Each of these apps has its own rules, capabilities, and shortcomings 

-> They make for contrasting, highly inconsistent user experiences

Now, what better software to eliminate all of these disadvantages and help you get the key insights?

Spreadsheets of course! 

The ever-reliable, easy-to-use, ubiquitous piece of software that can compute and manipulate humongous volumes of complex information - just the way you want them.

Pro tip: Still manually exporting data and merging sheets for data analysis?  Try Dataflo. 

In fact, SaaS enterprises’ reliance on spreadsheets like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel is so well-documented that there’s a popular running joke in the industry that ‘Export to CSV’ might just be the most used feature amongst SaaS tools.  

How SaaS teams use spreadsheets to measure data-driven KPIs?

To understand how SaaS teams use spreadsheets, let us take a look at  some of the most common use-cases within different functions in SaaS, where spreadsheets are at the center of, raw data siloed within various tools being transformed into actionable insights. ‍

Product & Customer Success teams 

Being at the heart of a SaaS company’s growth, the product & customer success teams should be well informed when it comes to user behavior - this means tracking many key metrics like user health, login frequency, feature usage, pricing plan among others. 

Often, this involves identifying and consolidating numbers from a suite of tools including a customer support software (Intercom or Drift), a product analytics tool (Mixpanel or Amplitude), a live sessions tool (Fullstory or Hotjar) among others.

Here is one example of how spreadsheets help put together such insights: 

Let’s say your objective is: To identify the paid users from the last 7 days, who are at the risk of churn because they had a bad user experience. 

To get this data, you need to understand the following metrics:

  1. Health of these paid users over the last 7 days (Which users have logged in to your app and when) 
  2. # of support tickets from these users in the same period (Which users had an issue with your app)
  3. Recorded user sessions (To track down a particular page or user-flow within the app that has contributed to the support tickets) 

To illustrate the example, let us assume that you have the following tools in your product stack: 

  1. Intercom (Live customer chat tool)
  2. Freshdesk (Customer tickets tool)
  3. Fullstory (Live Sessions recording software) 

While each of these tools have their own reports and dashboards, to get the whole picture, we need to combine the data from all these applications - this is where spreadsheets come into the picture. 

Here's how you can use spreadsheets to consolidate data from across tools in your tech stack:

#1: Export data from Intercom to Google Sheets 

Intercom gives a comprehensive report on the users who logged in to your app for any given period - you can simply use a date filter and take an export of user metrics such as last logins, which days they were active, etc. as a CSV file. 



#2: Export data from Freshdesk to Google Sheets

Of the users who logged in to your app in the last 7 days, to narrow down the small percentage of them who raised a customer ticket - you export only those users from Freshdesk, along with other relevant fields such as the ticket id, issue resolve time, etc. as a CSV file.



#3: Export data from Fullstory to Google Sheets

Finally, to understand which of the users specifically had issues with user experience, we need information on events like rage clicks, dead clicks etc. which we can export from FullStory.
 

Now, with all the raw data we need from the different tools, we finally combine the useful metrics that will give context into possible churn risk. 

Pro Tip: Tired of multiple exports and merging sheets? Try Dataflo - the fastest way to export data to Google Sheets.

With these insights, both the product & customer success teams can take the necessary next steps:

  1. For customer success teams this means proactively reaching out to these users, understand their workflows better, and guiding them through the application, and ultimately prevent them from churning. 
  1. For the product teams, this could mean revisiting a particular feature/ product page to see if the workflow designed matches the user intent, removing any friction points, or even deep-dive into user research to understand how to eliminate the problem altogether instead of simply troubleshooting.

Marketing & Growth teams

While the product & success teams focus on user behavior and paying customers, the marketing teams channel their efforts more toward the top of the funnel metrics - this includes website visitors, qualified leads, promising prospects, etc.   estimating how many leads are likely to convert to paying customers.  

Again, let’s take a popular Marketing use-case where spreadsheets combine with the rest of the tool stack to give you useful insights: 

Analyzing the user behaviour in your website.

Here's how you can use Spreadsheets to consolidate data from across tools in your tech stack:

#1: Export data from Google Analytics to Google Sheets

With Google being the most popular search engine, Google Analytics is the go-to tool for all metrics related to the website.




While it gives a neat overview, the sheer volume of data available makes it difficult to get a distilled view to keep track of only the most relevant metrics you need to keep an eye on - which is where Google Sheets combines with Google Analytics to remove the hassle.

#2: Create Google Sheets dashboards 

Once you export the raw data from Google Analytics to Google Sheets, the evergreen features available, like bar charts, histograms, etc. allows you to create powerful customized dashboards where you can visualize your entire funnel. 



Pro-tip: You can even set up automation between Google Analytics and Google Sheets using simple plugins to update the dashboard in real-time.  

Sales Teams

Sales teams, with their high-velocity functions, want a very straightforward workflow that does not disturb their day-to-day tasks - which is in most cases setting up user demos and moving the leads through the sales funnel. 

If you have only a handful of leads coming in every month, a CRM alone would be enough to keep track of their movement. 

However, beyond a threshold it becomes tedious to track every lead coming in - this practice is also futile because, as a salesperson, you want to focus and prioritize the small percentage of leads who are eventually going to become customers rather than use a spray and pray approach. 

The question is how do you identify these highly qualified leads that came in, say, the last 30 days?

This is where your spreadsheets help you get insights with the raw data available across the other tools in your sales stack: 

Let’s say your sales tech stack contains the following tools:

  1.  Meeting software (Zoom)
  2. Live chat software (Intercom)
  3. CRM ( Salesforce).
#1: Export data from Salesforce to Google Sheets

To begin with, go to your Salesforce account and export all the ‘Leads’ that came in the last 30 days as a CSV - this will give you a list of users from the last 14 days who have expressed some level of interest in your product - it could be a form sign-up, an inquiry on the live chat, checking out the pricing page, attending a demo, etc.

 #2: Export data from Zoom to Google Sheets

Next, go to Zoom to get a list of the leads who attended a product demo - the reason is, this helps us narrow down the focus from the entire list of leads to those might be serious about your product (with attending demo being a fair indicator of their interest). 


#3: Export data from Intercom to Google Sheets

Finally, use Intercom to still filter down the list to those who are most likely to convert - how so? If they have reached out to support in the last 14 days during their free trial, this is another indication that they are thinking long-term about your product. 



Using the reports from the different tools, we can combine them into a spreadsheet to guess the leads that are most likely to convert. 


While this is not the perfect and accurate indicator of user intent, this can be a very useful first-step to narrow down the large volumes of leads to a small number that the sales teams can prioritize.

From here on, salespersons can take things forward - be it pushing to close the deal, offering discounts, sending more personalized follow-ups, etc. to the most interested users first. 

To conclude…

We’ve all come across posts on why spreadsheets are no longer as important as they used to be or hear about new-age tools dubbed as spreadsheets killers only to fade away, as spreadsheets continue to stand the test time. 

At Dataflo, we strongly believe that the situation is not going to change for a long time to come.

In the meanwhile, let us raise a glass for spreadsheets - the single most important software for businesses in a data-driven world.