When a database should be used instead of a spreadsheet

The iconic spreadsheet got its first update 41 years ago in 1979 when software developers Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston created an electronic spreadsheet called VisiCalc, or “visible calculator.”

The software came with the Apple II personal computer to give users the freedom to easily change inputs and make calculations instead of using pen and paper, which is how people had updated spreadsheets for hundreds of years.

Today, digital spreadsheets in the spirit of VisiCalc offer incredible freedom — at a level Bricklin and Frankston only dreamed of — including multiuser collaboration through tools like Google Sheets.

But spreadsheets have their limitations. Why else would Google have recently launched Tables? Database-specific tools offer more powerful functionality.

As it turns out, there are multiple considerations for organizations looking to dip their toes into the advanced functionality databases deliver.

Pro Tip

Sign up for a free Jotform account to get access to Jotform Tables.

Figuring out when you need a robust database

No matter what your brand does, it needs data to fuel its sales and marketing efforts and keep track of said efforts. There are two primary methods: spreadsheets for simple tasks and databases for more advanced needs.

For many companies, spreadsheets are the logical starting point because startup founders are already familiar with easy-to-use spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel — and they’re certainly cheap when budgets are tight. Plus, users can easily input numbers and text into spreadsheets and use formulas to automatically complete even complex calculations. In addition to tracking these facts and figures, spreadsheets are ideal for data analysis and statistical comparisons.

But eventually, there are only so many rows, columns, and sheets you can input into a given spreadsheet before it becomes hopelessly complicated. Things can also get messy when multiple users are working on the same document.

Historically, these signs have indicated that your business is outgrowing spreadsheets, and you need to graduate to a more user-friendly — and robust — database.

This upgrade allows you to process data with an interface that’s easier to use. What’s more, you aren’t limited to just numbers and text as inputs — you can also attach documents or images to get additional insight into customer behavior.

As a brand grows, a database is used instead of a spreadsheet when automatically calculating figures. That means any employee can pull actionable insights from a robust database through reasonable queries. There are specialty databases for specific industries, like customer relationship management (CRM) and accounting. If that’s your field, it’s definitely worth the investment.

Figuring out which robust database is the right fit can be challenging otherwise. And there’s one huge downside: Databases can be expensive. But there are options that make it easier to get the functionality you need and meet your brand’s budget.


Airtable offers the familiarity of spreadsheets with the power of a robust database to track virtually any aspect of any business. It was one of the first spreadsheet-database hybrid tools, so it has an extensive template offering and rich feature set.

Airtable has attracted high-profile clients like Netflix and Tesla — and it recently raised $185 million in funding.

Jotform Tables

If you’re looking for a robust database solution with better pricing, check out Jotform Tables, which offers a hybrid option that includes formulas and calculations, customization options, advanced search and filtering capabilities, and access to revision history.

You can choose from multiple data-viewing options, including table, report, calendar, and cards. This makes Jotform Tables an ideal option for brands that have outgrown spreadsheets but may not have the budget for an enterprise package.

With Jotform Tables, sales teams can manage leads like they would with a CRM platform. In addition, HR teams can track job candidates, and marketing teams can track campaigns and goals.

You can also use Jotform Tables to

  • Create an online form for customer responses and then auto-populate your tables with submissions
  • Import CSV or Excel files to work with existing data
  • Develop your own workspace

Plus, it’s all free! Create a Jotform account to get started.

When a database should be used instead of a spreadsheet Image-1

Database: 1, spreadsheet: 0

Spreadsheets are an adequate data management system in an organization’s early days. But any brand destined to survive beyond those early years needs more robust data management. Successful companies use a database instead of a spreadsheet when they need user-friendliness and powerful functionality.

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