Soundarya Balasubramani

A 22 year old Product Manager, Bookworm, and Writer.

Notion : A Product That Users Love, and VCs Can't Invest Into

If you somehow navigate the mysterious path to reach the Notion HQ at 1:00 PM PST on a Friday, you would find an empty office with two golden poodles and a mutt running around. The entire team would not be far though, just shy of a mile away sitting at Barzotto and eating Extra-Long Noodles pasta over a glass of sparkling white wine. Add some soft serve gelato to that. This is just one of the many idiosyncrasies you would find in this 20 member start-up that has captured over a million users with their sleek product.
Microsoft Office 1.0 was released first in 1989 (for Macintosh that is, the Windows version would follow a year later) with the suite containing Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Their latest release of Office 2019 took place on September 24th, 2018 — this time, with five more tools added to the suite. Today, if you search for companies that built a productivity tool on Crunchbase, exactly 666 results would show up. But these weren’t enough for Ivan Zhao and Simon Last, who wanted to build a product so simple that anybody, irrespective of their ability to code, could use it as a canvas that fed their imagination. 
‘There are too many apps and tabs that everybody needs to hops through, even to get basic things done. We noticed an appetite out there for an all-in-one tool. Something that will consolidate all the contemporary apps so that they complement and reinforce each other and can be used seamlessly. That’s what Notion is about.’ says Camille, the Head of Marketing. 
In Notion, every single piece of content is considered a block. You can convert a word into a new page and condense pages into tables. When you open it for the first time, all you see is a white screen before you waiting to be populated with Kanban boards, toggle lists, all sorts of media and databases. While the flexibility can sometimes be overwhelming, it has led to a flurry of use cases ranging from acting as a cafe guide in San Francisco to being used by startups for their roadmaps. ‘I know it wasn’t made for this purpose, but Notion is the perfect tool to track and organize a Dungeons and Dragons campaign,’ says Dave Snider, a web designer, on Twitter. 

Design — Inspiration and Process 

The Notion office is a reflection of the tool — minimalistic, artsy and easy to navigate. The entrance has a huge woolen mat, and generally a dog, inviting you to remove your shoes and treat the office like home. Aside from the few rows of computers where all employees — including the CEO, Ivan — sit, the room is spaced out to pace around and spots comfortable couches for interviews. 
While the execution happens downstairs, the thought-process is captured upstairs in a conference room with Cesca chairs and Aalto stools. Along the wall, rested atop a mantlepiece is a commissioned sketch of Douglas Engelbart, well-renowned for his inventions, one of which is the now evolved computer mouse. If an employee is not working, he or she is either reading a book on modern art or playing a masterpiece by Fritz Kleisler.
Aristotle came up with the idea of First Principles thinking 2,000 years ago. He was always looking for ‘the first basis from which a thing is known’ — the self-evident and indisputable truth. Ivan wants his designers at Notion not to look at Dribbble for inspiration. He wants them to take a step back and look at the long history of design itself. ‘Use first principles thinking, what some people call “systems thinking.” Don’t base your approach just on copying and tweaking a little bit what other people have done. Take a step back, and see how you can fundamentally solve it.’ he says in an interview. 
Currently, there are two designers on the team, including Ivan. Most of their time is spent on Figma, a collaborative interface design tool. They spend their days researching user interactions and the latest design trends, creating a dozen prototypes followed by an insane amount of permutation testing. This applies to the illustrator as well. Ivan wants the team to hash out all the ideas — including the bad ones — so the mind is freed from the concepts. Dogfooding takes place once the code is pushed to production. If something doesn’t feel right, they go back to the design board. 
In the battle of thoroughness, their design process is preceded only by their user feedback gathering. Their Intercom gets dozens of messages a week related to bugs and feature requests. ‘We created a system of tags in Intercom in order to label user feedback and feature requests. This data is piped directly into our product roadmap so we have a granular and well-developed understanding of what our users want to see created or changed’ says Camille.
'Often, you would also see Notion responding to users’ tweets gushing over their admiration with the product, or taking in tough user feedback.

Scaling — 0 To A Million Users

In 2015, Notion was on the brink of failure. They had burned through the cash they had, the tech stack they built was sub-optimal and users weren’t raving about the product. It took two and half years and an insane amount of design iteration and UX permutation until they reached a point to launch it again — Notion 1.0. It has been uphill ever since, with the fair share of rocky bumps akin to a start-up. Now, Notion 2.0 has over a million users and routinely turns away Venture Capitalists who send over proposals and dog treats to land the next big unicorn.
With the team poised towards making the product better every day, they release new features almost every week. One of their recent major launches were the templates feature, and the ability to duplicate someone else’s template—this pushes the users onto a platform that resembles a collective white-board where they can learn from each other’s ideas, rather than a siloed canvas. 
Their revenue model is similar to most companies’ subscription model where you can use the free version until you hit a threshold. Want unlimited block storage and file upload limit? Shell out $4 per month. How about if you work at a start-up that’s looking for an alternative, or an extension, to Slack? The price goes up to $8 per member per month. While it might hinge on the slightly expensive side, the promise to clear out and organize clutter has attracted millions of users. 
When asked about other cultural quirks they stick to, Camille says, ‘We have a staff meeting every week that rolls into a happy hour where one person shares their life story. We talk about the impactful moment from our lives by presenting it to everyone via Notion. It’s just a cool thing to do.’ 
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