Coda is a next-generation spreadsheet designed to make Excel a thing of the past

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When Shishir Mehrotra worked at YouTube, he was struck by the relatively pedestrian tools that kept the site running. Mehrotra, who served as the company’s head of product until he left in 2014, managed his team largely using a combination of Google Docs and Sheets. The system worked well enough, but the tools had been built for a previous age. Mehrotra began to fixate on a question: what would documents and spreadsheets look if they were invented today?

Coda, a company Mehrotra co-founded with his fellow former Googler Alex DeNeui, represents his answer to that question. The company, which is announcing a private beta today after three years of secret development, makes a collaborative document editor that combines a word processor and a spreadsheet. It’s a versatile tool that Mehrotra hopes will find a home in companies where diverse teams need regular access to shared sets of data, but want to view and manipulate that data on their own terms.

Mehrotra’s pitch for Coda, which was built under the codename “Krypton,” goes like this: “It’s a document so powerful you can build apps in it.” Open it for the first time and you’ll see a blank canvas that will be familiar to anyone who has ever used Google Docs or Microsoft Word. But drop in a table, add a few rows and columns, and you’ll find a powerful engine underneath. Coda wrote its own, modern formula language design to integrate other services into your spreadsheets. Enter “GoogleDirections” into a formula, for example, and Coda will insert a Google Map with directions from an origin location to a destination.

Alex DeNeui, left, and Shishir Mehrotra.
 Coda

One of Mehrotra’s chief frustrations with the older generation of documents was what he calls “the game of Battleship” — the need to describe rows and columns in formulas using headings like “A1 to F7,” as in the old board game. In Coda documents, rows and columns are named objects, making formulas both easier to read and write. Your formulas no longer have to refer to “A1:F7”; instead you just type the name of the column.

Excel and other older documents also required formulas to be placed inside of tables. In Coda they can be placed anywhere: hit the “=” sign, and you can bring in data from anywhere else in your document. You might include a summary section in your document that includes a written account of your progress, with embedded formulas that update key numbers automatically as you make progress.

The result is a system that, to date, can be used for everything from bug trackers to wedding planning to Salesforce-style customer relationship management software. The more flexible the system, Mehrotra says, the more uses people find for it. “We think the world runs on docs and apps,” he says. The average office worker has access to company-provided software for tracking projects, clients, inventory, and other needs. And yet, Mehrotra says, “they’ll spend all day long in documents and spreadsheets.”

One place where this is true is Uber, where Yuhki Yamashita’s team has been using the beta version of Coda since July. Yamashita, a senior product manager responsible for the driver experience, says his team used a variety of project-management tools before moving gradually to Coda. A few employees who had expertise in spreadsheets ported over some of Uber’s data from Google Sheets. Then less Sheets-savvy employees began building new views of the data. Yamashita says it has changed the way his team works for the better.

The ability to link documents together, infused with live data that updates automatically, has led Uber to use Coda like a wiki in some cases. In others, engineers build complex views of databases that showcase data with a high degree of granularity, while the marketing team relies on a summary document that only displays key numbers.

Of course, Coda isn’t the first company to attempt a reinvention of Microsoft Office. Smartsheet, which launched in 2006, has 70,000 businesses using its collaborative, cloud-based spreadsheets. Quip, which was founded in 2012, sold its combined word processor and spreadsheet to Salesforce for $750 million last year. But neither of those apps has become a breakout hit in the fashion of other modern workplace tools, such as Slack or Trello.

Investors think Coda can win. The company has raised $60 million in two rounds of fundraising, from investors including Greylock, General Catalyst, Khosla Ventures, NEA, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Reid Hoffman, a partner at Greylock and the co-founder and executive chairman at LinkedIn, took a seat on Coda’s board. Hoffman told The Verge that the increasingly collaborative nature of office work created an opportunity for Coda to carve out a niche. “Our goal is to try to create this new kind of productivity app,” Hoffman says. “And already in the private beta, we’ve seen organizations start adopting it in ways that lead us to think we’re right about this hypothesis.”

Even after three years of development, Coda remains at an early stage. For the private beta, the full experience is available only on the desktop. You can access it on the mobile web, but in read-only mode. The company won’t say when it will be available to the larger public. While it remains in beta, Coda plans to build out its gallery of examples and other help features that will make it more approachable to newcomers.

For now, though, the learning curve is real. The most impressive aspects of the service are the ones that require mastering Coda’s formula language — which could be a hard sell at the typical American office, where workers often only use new tools begrudgingly.

Coda goes against the grain in other ways. Other work-tracking tools, such as Trello and Asana, obscure their formulas and tables behind colorful buttons and widgets. They might be less flexible than Coda, but they also feel more approachable. I’ve built a handful of custom trackers in Asana without needing to rely on the help menu at all; to do the same thing in Coda, I had to spend a fair amount of time reading documentation. In Asana I click buttons and they do basically what I expect; in Coda I type an equal sign and cross my fingers.

But Coda is betting there’s a legion of disaffected Excel jockeys out there itching to make powerful, custom, lightweight apps using a more modern formula language. And if that means investing some time to learn the tool, many will. “People had to learn macros 30 years ago,” says John Lilly, another partner at Greylock. Most people will never need to become Coda masters, he says. Once documents are built, other users in the organization can view and manipulate them rather easily. “It gives you more depth as you go,” Lilly says. “We haven’t had an application creation tool like this since HyperCard. I think we’re going to see lots and lots of good experiments.”

Mehrotra says he’s pleased with the experiments he has seen so far. His daughter, who is 11, is running her school’s Lego robotics team using Coda documents. If he’s worried about Coda’s learning curve, he doesn’t show it.

“I like products where there’s a little bit of depth to them,” he says. “That feeling of, as I become more of an expert, I can do more and more, is a good thing. The tool-centered people are going to say, ‘show me all the features.’ The problem-focused people are going to say, ‘I have this problem. How do I solve it?’ You want to address both.

“One of the reasons spreadsheets run the world,” he adds, “is that they’re super deep.”