Product Analysis, Software Product

One Notion to Change It All

I believe for most people their journey with Notion would have started after watching some productivity guru on YouTube or reading someone sing praises of Notion on Twitter. But not me. I got to know about Notion in a very different way.

Back in June 2018, I was a Sofware Development Intern at LinkedIn. At that time, LinkedIn India was headed by Akshay Kothari. LinkedIn had organized for the interns to have an interaction with Akshay. In an hour long session he talked about his education, his time at Purdue and Stanford, his journey co-founding a startup, and his love for building revolutionary products. His passion was infectious and inspired me so I followed his work on LinkedIn and Twitter. A couple of months later I saw on my LinkedIn timeline that Akshay had left his position at LinkedIn and went on to join Notion (I later found out that Akshay had been an early investor in Notion). And that’s when I found out Notion. More than two years later, I still think it is one of the best apps I have discovered online. So, I want to tell you a little about the story of Notion.

Notion is a no-code platform built with the mission to let people customize technology to solve their own problems. While the idea sounded simple, implementing it to perfection was an ambitious goal. And as it happened, in 2015 Notion nearly died. Carmel DeAmicis writes, “Its founders, Ivan Zhao and Simon Last had built their app on a suboptimal tech stack which crashed constantly, and to make things worse their angel investment money dwindling. They needed to take a step back and start over.“We focused too much on what we wanted to bring to the world,” Ivan put it. “We needed to pay attention to what the world wanted from us.””

GID: Notion coding guidelines example

Finally in March of 2018, Notion 1.0 was ready for release. In short stead, it skyrocketed to the top of Product Hunt, got a very positive review in Wall Street Journal, and became famous for ignoring the door when VCs came knocking.

IMAGE: Screenshot of tweet by investor in Notion explaining how hard it is for VCs to get ahold of the CEO
Source: Twitter

In the following months, Notion hit 1 million users with only a seed round of funding. It also exceeded user experience expectations, and was called, “a milestone in the history of UX design.”

The romantic goal is: Can we make tools that allow people to use computers like a new medium? Can we give that to non-programmers? This topic is getting popular again. It was really popular in the 90s, but somehow people forgot that idea for a couple of decades. So I’m saying, and I’m seeing, and I’m hoping that we’re in this pendulum swing from one product, Microsoft Office, to too many SaaS products. And now the pendulum is swinging back towards something more bundled up again. -Ivan Zhao

Every day since then Notion has continued to grow. But while this is an extremely useful product the market for note-taking and collaboration apps is crowded. Among tech giants, choices include Google’s G Suite and Microsoft Office. Among private companies, Evernote, Bear, and the upstart Coda all have their partisans. And plenty of people get by with the basic notes app that comes preinstalled on their phone or laptop. In order to establish itself, Notion aims to onboard more and more people. “The biggest motivation is just capturing market share — getting more people to use Notion,” says Akshay Kothari, Notion’s chief operating officer. And the team is trying everything to make the app more appealing. Last year in May the app removed the biggest limit on its free plan. Previously, users of Notion’s free plan could create 1,000 of what the company calls “blocks”: every single piece of content you add to Notion documents, such as text, tasks, embedded maps, or calendars. After that, you had to pay $5 per month to create new blocks. Since May 2020, free users have been able to add as many blocks as they like to their personal Notion database. Notion’s website also shows that Content API is coming soon to the personal plan (yay!), something Ivan had mentioned in the Notion documentary back in 2019.

Despite the app’s powerful functionality, the new user home screen is minimal. It features a small collection of icons that harken back to Susan Kare (the mother of Mac iconography). Ivan calls it very “Windows 95.”

Notion prioritizes a culture of design by doing all their thinking visually. These are just a few of the reasons Notion’s rise continues uncontested. The tool is infiltrating tech companies from the ground up, much like Slack and Dropbox did. In the right hands, using Notion feels for non-developers like finally gaining the superpowers of a developer who can set up their own custom software. And its flexibility can be used by project managers, productivity superfans, recruiters, executives, product teams—pretty much anyone who needs to use computers to get things done (but can’t code).

IMAGE: Bookshelves at Notion office
A drawing of computing pioneer Douglas Engelbart hangs in the Notion offices.
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