file cabinetsBelieve it or not, there was a time in Internet history that existed before WordPress.

Stay with me here.

Content management systems were not always open source and user-friendly and available to everyone. It took years of stumbling in the dark before publishers, companies, and and content producers realized (a) what a CMS system was, and (b) how important they were.

The same is true, today, for online databases. The act of uploading, sharing, and editing any amount of data from an Excel or Access spreadsheet, particularly on mobile, falls somewhere on the “pain in the ass” scale between annoying and impossible. Brandon Griggs realized this when his Web development agency was forced to build online database management systems for his ad agency clients, over and over and over.

It was so common that Griggs built a sort of core product that he white labeled. Then he realized that if he’d run into the problem as often as he had, it must be fairly common. Further, none of the existing products in the market have adapted to the needs of the emerging mobile workforce. So for the past two years, he’s put his agency on autopilot and toiled away building a product called Knack out of General Assembly in New York. This week he launches the site after three months in beta-mode.

Knack took two years to develop, because it is solving a complicated, engineering-heavy problem, Griggs says. “It’s almost reducing a computer science degree into a product,” he adds. The existing products in the market are extremely heavyweight, expensive, feature-heavy, and difficult to learn, such as the offerings of Quickbooks or Casio. That, or they’re startups that required lots of up-front money to develop their products. Knack is beginning to look for outside capital to develop more features, now that the core product is ready for the market. “We designed things for usability, but we’re still playing feature catchup with some of the big players,” he says.

No matter, clients have already quickly adopted the lightweight cloud service, which starts at $19 a month and goes up to $1,000, depending on the feature set. A large apartment rental company which previously managed its entire inventory on a physical whiteboard now uses Knack. A bag manufacturer that was using excel spreadsheets to balance its budget with an outside accountant also adopted Knack. A small New York synagogue uses Knack to track the contents of its library.

Knack’s biggest challenge is convincing clients that lightweight, mission-critical cloud software is safe to run their businesses on. It’s the same problem Sarah addressed with the whole “consumerization of enterprise software” trend. Companies can forgive software if it is clunky and ugly. But they can’t forgive it if it’s unreliable.

Griggs says Knack hasn’t encountered much pushback on that issue yet, but admits he’s biased because the product hasn’t done much in the way of marketing. “Our early customers have been very hungry — they come to us like ‘Where have you been all my life? This problem is exactly what I’ve been trying to solve,'” he says. “It might be different if we’d had a million dollar marketing plan and persuaded them to come.”

Still, he says skepticism of cloud software is most acute for clients afraid the company will sell or go under. For example, when database app building tool Dabble DB sold to Twitter in 2010, its clients lost their accounts. Knack has plans to develop a feature that allows clients to download an HTML version of their apps like a backup, so that they wouldn’t lose data if anything happens.

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[Image courtesy t. magnum]