4 alternatives to Excel sheets for a smooth business workflow

David Wippel

David Wippel

software development

digital buiness

Losing time collaborating on a slow Excel spreadsheet? Or are your files getting more complicated as your business grows? While Microsoft Excel is a practical option for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), it makes sense to consider alternatives too.

Once you hit a certain size or your business processes grow more complex, using Excel alone can get challenging. So if you're considering moving away from it, here are the four alternatives you could consider instead.

Excel & business growth: not the best mix

You might be familiar with using Excel (or programs like it) for business processes such as keeping track of orders, inventory, and more. But here's why using Excel can be a recipe for business slowdown in the long run:

  • Inefficient system capacity: as few as 4-5 users working on the same Excel file can slow it down. You'll find this most commonly with Excel's desktop version, which uses a classic file server — and not a cloud-based one.

  • Inability to handle large data sets: as your business grows, so does the amount of data you need to store on your spreadsheet. And the more data, the slower it gets.

  • Complicated collaboration: programs like Excel make it difficult for your employees to work together or even save changes without overwriting someone else's work. Because of this, they might be more likely to make mistakes and get frustrated.

At TRIGO, our clients reach out to us because they've identified gaps in the business software they're using — whether that's Excel or a program like it. So here are a couple of alternatives with their pros and cons.

4 Excel alternatives to streamline your business processes

Switch to a cloud-based solution

You might already be using services like Microsoft OneDrive or Google Workspace — or perhaps you're considering it. Investing in cloud native solutions is great, especially for collaboration.

Which is why it makes sense to consider their integrated spreadsheets as an alternative to Excel in the long run. They bring all the benefits of desktop versions — and beyond. Let's start with the pros:

  • Enhanced storage features, which support up to 1 TB of business data stored on the cloud. Great for centralized knowledge hubs and project documentation.

  • Easier collaboration across files since an unlimited number of users can work on the same document without any impact on capacity.

  • Syncing across devices, so you can work on multiple devices simultaneously, as well as back up and access the same files.

  • Enhanced security features to protect your business data from cyberattacks, including data encryption and data loss protection.

And now for the cons — all relevant when it comes to expanding your business and collaborating effectively:

  • Complex setup requirements, especially for software solutions like Office 365. As a result, you might find your workflow disrupted when migrating data.

  • Problems with data consistenc, for example, if two users are editing the same cell, only one user's changes will be saved. Much like Excel's desktop version, this can lead to your colleagues overwriting each other's work in the long run.

Use a low code/no code Excel alternative like Airtable

Airtable is another flexible cloud-based platform and works great as a low code/no code Excel alternative. It's built to connect your data, workflows and teams using database structures that work similar to a spreadsheet. Let's start with the highlights:

  • Improved data consistency, with features that detect and resolve conflicts when multiple users save changes. This makes it easier for your colleagues to work together on the same file without locking any records. You can also use Airtable's Checkbox feature to track reviews and approvals.

  • Flexible user interface, which makes it easy to visualize data in a grid, calendar, or Kanban format for an overview of your projects.

  • Built-in collaboration features, including messaging and tagging options so that you can keep track of project deadlines, deliverables, and updates.

  • Native integrations with apps and services popular among businesses, like Slack, Trello, MailChimp, and Google Drive.

  • Low code/no code automations that are easy to set up, speed up your workflow, and connect with third-party apps that you've integrated into your account.

At the same time, Airtable's limitations can also disrupt your business workflow:

  • Limited data analysis and calculation features, especially if your employees are more used to working with Excel.

  • Resource-intensive process since Airtable's learning curve is a bit steeper than Excel's as a whole. You might need to train your employees who aren't familiar with using business databases.

  • Limited customizability, especially when it comes to more complex business processes. This can mean that you have to keep all these processes in your head while twisting your business to meet your software requirements — and not the other way around.

  • Localized availability, since Airtable is a US-based platform and its software is geared towards the US market. This might mean that certain features and integrations aren't available in your local market and may not be fully compliant with local regulations.

Install an Enterprise resource planning (ERP) system

An enterprise resource planning system (ERP) is another popular off-the-shelf software solution for SMBs. As an alternative to Excel, it's better for helping businesses to scale and stay on top of business processes. Here are some of its plus points:

  • Enhanced automation features for complex business processes like account management, inventory, and even customer relationship management.

  • An enhanced overview of your data that's much more comprehensive than individual Excel sheets. This makes it easier to track progress, identify trends, and take action early on.

  • Enhanced consistency and collaboration features, which support multiple users on the same spreadsheet, as well as real-time edits and updates.

  • Enterprise-grade security features that protect business data from breaches or cyber-attacks.

ERP systems also come with their drawbacks. Here are some to keep in mind:

  • Complex setup and maintenance requirements, which make it difficult for your team to customize and use over time. You might end up heavily dependent on your IT team for any patches and fixes, which can slow business growth.

  • A high amount of resources to implement makes ERP systems expensive and time-consuming in the long run.

  • Limited flexibility in functions, especially for certain business processes. This means more time and effort spent customizing the system than focusing on growth. As a result, an ERP might only be an 80% match to your business processes — which is fine, if it meets your unique business needs.

Invest in a custom software solution to replace Excel in your business

A custom software solution is another popular choice for businesses — especially if you want a tech stack that's 100% customized to your needs and processes. Here's why:

  • Tailor-made features unique to your business ensure maximum productivity. Having optimized features suited to your needs optimizes your workflows rather than disrupts them.

  • Built-in data security features to ensure maximum protection. Rather than relying on a third-party security team, going custom can prevent you from having to wait for security patches or experiencing much downtime.

  • Greater flexibility and customizability than off-the-shelf software, where you're limited to its available functions. With custom software, your developers have more ownership and control over the source code and can better adapt to evolving business needs.

  • Built-in integrations, which enable you to connect all your business processes and the software you use for them. No more struggling with incompatible third-party plugins or having to pay for hundreds of expensive software licenses.

At the same time, investing in custom software also means:

  • Additional costs in terms of setup and maintenance. Even with its high return on investment, custom software development can be a pricey, resource-intensive alternative to Excel. Which is why we never dive straight into building. We always take our clients through a discovery phase weighing up whether an off-the-shelf solution or custom software would make more sense.

  • Investing more time in development. Building custom software is not just an investment into your business, but also a time-intensive commitment. You and your team need to take time out of your day to be involved throughout the development, change management, and implementation process. That's if you want the entire project to be a success. Although we've seen set-up time for off-the-shelf solutions to be much much quicker, inefficiencies can run you into bigger problems in the long run.

Custom software as an alternative to Excel is often the choice people consider last — because they think it's out of their range. But we'd like to encourage you to consider building custom software — no matter what size you are.

We've had quite a few clients come to us with Excel spreadsheets slowing them down. Our first step together has always been to analyze whether they should:

Want to discuss your excel spreadsheet with an IT professional and whether moving away from it might make sense? Book a free consultation with me, and let's talk about your needs.

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