Spreadsheets

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September 9, 2020

Spreadsheet Basics: A Beginner's Guide to Getting Started

Flat graphic of an Apple desktop computer that has colorful charts on the screen
SECTIONS
  1. What’s a spreadsheet?
  2. What types of spreadsheets are out there? 
  3. Who uses spreadsheets?
  4. Taking your spreadsheets to the next level.

Spreadsheets are a fundamental resource in helping businesses and individuals organize and interpret data. Most people know what spreadsheets are and have used them extensively in their work, but few people have mastered the many ways spreadsheets can optimize their work. In this article, we’ll do a surface-level exploration of the basics of spreadsheets, but feel free to skip ahead to some more advanced topics if this feels too familiar.


What’s a Spreadsheet?

There are a ton of technical definitions out there, but we like to think about spreadsheets as a fundamental tool to arrange, analyze, and present data. Any kind of data can be plugged into a spreadsheet, whether through APIs, external platforms, or simple manual entry (good old copy and pasting). Further, most software has built-in features that allow you to make tables, charts, and reports. Methods for working with more complicated types of data, such as unstructured data, can be found in our guide on unstructured data

On a simple level, spreadsheets are rows and columns of boxes (called cells) with a piece of data in each cell. The cells can then be manipulated through calculations, like everyday addition and multiplication. The rows and columns can also be isolated and analyzed individually or in tandem. Historically, spreadsheets were developed as alternatives to traditional paper spreadsheets when computers were invented. Over the years, spreadsheets became increasingly sophisticated as Microsoft (and, later, Google) continually iterated spreadsheets to the incredibly powerful tools we know today, with the capability of connecting with other services for additional functionality. Spreadsheets seem simple at the surface, but it gets tricky when you consider all the different types of programs (as covered below). From there, you can go in a million different directions, from becoming an API pro, to writing your own macros, to becoming a master of spreadsheet keyboard shortcuts. There’s a nearly infinite amount of spreadsheet-related tools that you can master, and we’ll begin to cover some throughout the rest of the article. 


What Types of Spreadsheets are Out There?

Excel

Excel is usually top-of-mind when the word "spreadsheet" is mentioned. Microsoft first launched a spreadsheet application in 1982 under the name Multiplan. Later, in 1985, Microsoft released Excel, which has become the most used spreadsheet software in the world. (Some estimates even place the total number of users at around 800 million!) Excel has been around for a while––35 years at this point––and has changed dramatically since its release. At the end of the day, the reason why Excel has stuck around for so long is simple: it has practicality for all types of users and tasks.

At first glance, Excel looks really manageable and, well, it is. For a spreadsheet novice, Excel is just a bunch of boxes with data in it, and, for many people, that’s all that is needed from their spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is typically saved locally on a computer and can be accessed with or without the internet. The reason why Excel has had so much staying power is its ability to adapt to its user. As the tasks and the user become more complex, Excel becomes more complex as well. Excel is known for its ability to handle and analyze complex sets of data, so companies don’t have to worry about wasting time learning how to use new software that could someday become obsolete. Further, experienced Excel users don’t really face an upper limit on how efficient Excel can make their work. Once you’ve learned how Excel functions, you can automate that work using Excel shortcuts, macros, or the multitude of advanced features designed for this purpose. We’ll get into some more Excel features later, but these are some of the reasons why Excel has remained the dominant spreadsheet software for 30+ years. 

Google Sheets

Google Sheets is the other mainly-used spreadsheet software and has gained traction in recent years. Google’s first spreadsheet program was released in 2006, and it was eventually named Google Sheets in 2012. Given that it was released 20+ years after Excel, Google Sheets is a relative upstart, but, with an estimate of about 160-180 million users, it rivals Excel in adoption. This wasn’t always the case though; when it was first released, Google Sheets paled in comparison to Excel and has undergone a rapid pace of iteration that has culminated in the product being what it is today. 

The main differentiator for Google Sheets is that it is web-based spreadsheet software with similar performance across most categories to Excel. If you’re interested in a more detailed description of all of the cool things that Google Sheets does, check out our Google Sheets Basics article. The difference between web- and non-web-based spreadsheet applications is that your ability to collaborate is higher for a web-based version. Furthermore, Google Sheets will also automatically save your document to the cloud, allowing you to access and edit the document from any location (with internet access). At the end of the day, functionality in Google Sheets is similar to Excel, with the added benefit of your work being accessible on any device, anywhere.

Numbers

Numbers is Apple’s foray into spreadsheet software. Numbers comes pre-installed on Macs and is free to use. For Mac users, Numbers may make sense because it is cheaper than Excel and Excel’s features are diminished on Macs. Numbers is similar to Excel and Google Sheets, except that it has limited data set and advanced feature capability. Numbers makes exceptionally good looking graphs (the good design typical of any Apple product), so it’s the best fit for simple analysis with a presentational aspect attached.

Quip

Quip is embedded inside of Salesforce, but it’s tools extend far beyond making your Salesforce experience better. For example, Facebook and CNN both use Quip, so it's gained some traction, though still not widely used. Quip is quite similar to Google Sheets in that it is web-based spreadsheet software. Quip differentiates itself by optimizing its service around collaboration. Similarly to Google Sheets, you can collaborate in real-time on Quip, but with Quip the spreadsheets you create with your team can easily be turned into shareable documents. If you’re familiar with Google Docs, think about if you could easily transform a Google Sheet into a shared budget on Google Docs. Quip also has advanced compatibility with Slack and performs similarly to Excel and Google Sheets in functionality.

Airtable

Airtable is the final product we’ll go over, though Airtable toes the line between a spreadsheet and a database. Databases essentially organize, access, and manage complex collections of data. There are large differences between spreadsheets and databases, which we won’t get into in this article, but Airtable attempts to bridge that gap. Airtable takes your spreadsheet table and gives it use-cases that are traditionally only reserved for databases. You can use Airtable as a traditional spreadsheet, but there are also a myriad of other extra tasks that Airtable can help you do. Airtable is probably the most conceptually challenging spreadsheet we’ve reviewed, so definitely check out Airtable’s product tour if you’re interested in learning more. 


These are just a few of the many types of spreadsheets that are out there. For our purposes, we tend to focus on discussing Excel and Google Sheets because they are far and away the most used tools. Their ubiquity has resulted in a network of enthusiasts and advanced users, which is valuable to any user seeking help. Have something you can’t figure out? Odds are someone has already answered your question about Excel and Google Sheets somewhere on the internet. 

Who are Spreadsheets Useful for?

Everyone. Well, not actually everyone, but pretty close. Most professions use spreadsheets and many people also use spreadsheets in their daily lives. I’ll use this section to briefly go over a few examples of spreadsheets in action. You also don’t have to work in any of the professions listed below to find spreadsheets useful. If you’re planning a vacation, looking to purchase a home, or budgeting for your household for the month, spreadsheets are great ways to make better decisions. If this is more of a review for you, check out our guide on unstructured data to learn more about maximizing your data productivity.  

  • Salespeople are a great place to start, and have a wide range of uses for spreadsheets, like lead tracking and generation. Spreadsheets are great ways to stay organized and optimize sales productivity. 
  • Marketers also have many different use cases. For instance, if you don’t have a dedicated platform for campaign tracking, spreadsheets can be great for evaluating campaign performance and tracking relevant data. 
  • Product managers can tracking product performance easily with a spreadsheet. Either gather data manually, or use a dedicated platform for doing this, and then simply aggregate the data into a spreadsheet for simple access. 
  • Business owners, and mainly DTC and local businesses, can gain a lot from using a spreadsheet. Since a business owner is essentially managing all aspects of a business, a spreadsheet can be the best way to organize all of your important data in one place. 

These are just a few of the many different potential users of spreadsheets. If you have data that your business needs in order to optimize its performance, a spreadsheet will probably be a useful tool.


Taking Spreadsheets to the Next Level

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Excel has had such staying power because it allows users to continue to increase product functionality and efficiency even as they begin to master the software. For the most part, all spreadsheet software has these features, although some more than others. Below, is a list of a few of the more common ways that you can do this, along with links to other helpful resources. You can also check out our Google Sheets tutorial if you’d like to go more in-depth with that service. 

Shortcuts 

This is an easy first step to dramatically increase the efficiency of spreadsheets. Shortcuts enable you to perform tasks without using your keyboard, which increases the speed that you can perform tasks at. Most spreadsheets use similar commands for shortcuts, with common ones being ‘ctrl + d’ for copying data down a column, ‘ctrl + r’ for copying data down a row, or even ‘ctrl + c’ for copying data. The caveat here is that some services do shortcuts better than others, with Excel being exceptionally functional for shortcuts, with some pro Excel users being able to effectively use Excel without ever using a mouse. I’d keep in mind that useful shortcuts always depend on what kind of work you’re doing, but here are a few good resources to get you started for both Excel and Google Sheets

Macros 

Macros are basically the decked-out version of shortcuts. Macros are essentially miniature programs written within your spreadsheet to instruct the spreadsheet to perform certain tasks. Typically, users write Macros for repetitive tasks that they frequently perform. Macros are a little more advanced than shortcuts, in that you’ll need to instruct the program on what to do, rather than simply hitting shortcut keys. Microsoft offers a short demo on recording macros, and you don’t need any programming experience to do it. Macro functionality in Google Sheets is similar, and there are guides for this as well. 

Templates 

Templates can also help you automate large portions of your work, though operate quite differently from Macros or Shortcuts. If you’re a small business owner and need to make a budget, rather than make the budget yourself, you can use the plethora of templates available online to do it. For most tasks done using a spreadsheet, there are accompanying free templates that can help you automate it. There are tons of templates out there, but Tiller made a great guide for Google Sheets and go skills also has a good guide for Excel templates. 

Add-ons & Integrations 

These can supercharge both functionality of your spreadsheet, as well as the types and amount of data you can use. Add-ons and integrations are slightly different, but both involve connecting external applications to your spreadsheet. Add-ons are available directly through your spreadsheet. Google Sheets has greatly improved its add-on options over the years and this blog post can take you through some of the options available. Excel calls these add-ins (creative) and here’s a great walk-through on some of the options available on Excel. Integrations are similar to add-ons (or ins), except that these typically require either personally creating an API or using an outside service, like Zapier, to connect different applications with your spreadsheet. Both integrations and add-ons are similar in that you can connect with external apps, after which you have significantly more freedom in what you can do on your spreadsheet. For example, Import.io is an add-on for Google Sheets that can import structured external web data into your spreadsheet (e.g. tables from websites like Wikipedia). You could also use a Zapier integration to integrate your GitHub and Google Sheets accounts (Zapier offers 102 integrations for GitHub alone). Both Excel and Google Sheets offer this functionality, but if you’re looking for the best add-ons/integrations, Google Sheets is the way to go. 

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