Shared Apr 14, 2020 on Medium
This long-form article serves as introduction to Notion for entrepreneurs, founders and startup executives. It covers the basics and explains what makes this company truly special. I love film, so there are way to many references to my favorites.
Given the length, use the outline to left to navigate through the article.
Sounds Familiar 🚨
You probably heard the hype. You probably heard about the recent funding round that birthed a unicorn. You probably heard that Index, First Round, Sequoia and Naval Ravikant are on the cap table. You might've even seen Franceso D'Alessio meticulously break down Notion's features and updates. Nevertheless, a familiar voice in your head asks, "another organization/productivity application — how different can it possibly be?"
Same –– I know the routine all too well. Find a cool new tool on Product Hunt, get excited, get teammates excited, learn, scratch head, ask support, wait, abandon, try again, give up, cry, and surrender to Google Sheets. Two years ago, that was me. Deep in the dreaded cycle of the "unproductivity Matrix."
Finding Notion has changed everything. But swallowing the pill was hard. It's a new point of view that starts with a blank canvas: Notion can be anything for anyone. For new users, the level of customization and flexibility can be daunting to cope with. Hence, I shall narrow the scope to specifically Notion for startups or even more specifically, Notion for startup founders.
Why Notion Is Perfect for Founders 💯
Wearing all the hats at an early-stage startup is difficult. Exploring, learning, buying, installing and integrating new software is part of the game but it is neither important nor urgent. The peril of spending excess time on digital organization and asset management brings upon the lack of meaningful focus on customers and product. Notion is an all-in-one solution that erases the need to wrangle and connect gazillions of scattered tools. In a single illustration, Roman Muradov, the team's artist, eloquently captured the problem being solved 👇
It solved the problem for me. I was running a $50k collegiate accelerator at New York University with 11 teammates. This effort required managing 30 events, 12 ventures, a $70,000 budget and two mostly unimpressed engineering school deans. For a while, we were a usually Airtable, sometimes Google Drive, kinda Slack but always Zapier shop. Most of the time, solely I carried the burden of really knowing what the heck was going on.
I was fishing for something new and Product Hunt brought me a gift that day. The beautiful aesthetic and 6,237 upvotes stood out, so I jumped to register.
Importing information was a breeze. The built-in Google Docs and CSV import tools are straightforward and easy to use. It gets a little more complicated with markdown but still manageable. In the process, I also realized that a lot of our documents were outdated and not important — nobody, including myself, cared to maintain the relevance of our Google Drive. Something I see startups do all the time.
Learning a new product always requires support, and the Notion Community & Support team was really helpful and readily available. Intercom, email, Twitter, you name it – I got a helpful and friendly response within 24 hours. All in all, the onboarding experience kept the switching cost tiny and flattened the learning curve.
Once I set up some basic pages and databases, we were up and running. I hardly needed to explain how to do this or that in Notion because most of my teammates, entrepreneurial and curious, figured it out pretty fast. Next thing you know, our events, startups and community data set are available within a few taps both on desktop and mobile.
Information –– un-siloed.
Organization –– intuitive.
Collaboration — smooth.
Productivity –– unleashed.
Gone were the days of asking, "Have you checked Google Drive? I know you haven't, so please do! Otherwise I shall continue my passive-aggressive barrage of comments — good day to you sir/ma'am." Something about Notion gave the people what the people wanted and it just clicked...
I loved that. And this is how I felt:
The Most Secret of Sauces 🥣
Speaking of feelings — this goodness gets even better. The feeling that I got from my first interaction with the product, team and website were magical. Notion has a personality. A soul, if you will. It's cool, hip, fun like any startup... but also friendly, intelligent, elegant, humble, and welcoming.
The product shines with deliberately artful design choices and thoughtful functionalities. Soon enough you too will realize that the Notion user experience is delightful. I can hardly say that about many startups, let alone Big Co products.
The brand, people, and culture radiate with hospitality, integrity, and above all else, a deep sense of care. Even something simple like swag communicates respect and inspiration to the great pioneers of computing like Ada Lovelace, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. I'm no expert in the history of computing but that is pretty damn worthy of a high quality team.
Got the Why but not the When 🕓
That's what Simon Sinek doesn't tell you, amirite. I don't blame Simon –– it's a tricky question. As a rule of thumb, try it on your own. When you're ready to switch tools, play with it and make something that really augments an area of your personal life. Then take it to work and help others understand the reasoning for adopting "yet another new tool."
Quick startup strategy tangent — in the venture world, this customer adoption path is known as product-led growth (PLG because acronyms). In short, it's a go-to market strategy that relies on individuals adopting products that they later introduce to their teammates and/or managers. Generally, the product has a freemium version that attracts consumers and appropriately priced enterprise upgrades (think Dropbox, GitHub or Typeform). Notion is really good at PLG.
There are two great time windows to adopt Notion.
- A clean slate. You're just starting out with a new team or a new organization. A perfect time to test drive and adopt a system that is radically new. You will still need to address preconceived notions about software (no pun intended).
- An icky slate. Your current systems and processes are not working well. Your team and you constantly need reminders to use the products while your current tool stack reminds your advisor of Frankenstein's Monster.
At the Notion NYC meetup, we collected some data about team sizes. Across four meetups, we had 350+ sign-ups. Of those, 87 folks indicated the size of their teams. Here's how it breaks down across organization sizes:
- 1-5 team members: 45
- 6-10… 17
- 11-50... 19
- 51-200… 6
FWIW, people in smaller teams were more interested in learning about Notion. Makes sense. Thanks, data 🤓
You can nail the timing, yes. However, adoption requires commitment. It's best that the founders or senior executives/managers set up core functionality in Notion before getting the buy-in from respective teams. The product lends itself well for both operationally and creatively minded folks. Once the basics are fleshed out, encourage people to roam around and get creative. It takes some time to really understand the canvas, palette and the brushes. There are many to choose from. And the best part? All of them are universally accessible and easy to learn. Take the time and space for digestion and learning. Remember one important thing; in Notion:
Now Serve Me Something Concrete 🧱
Okay, okay — here! Nuff fluff (after "nuffsaid" that should also be a startup name). Anyway, let's walk through two common use cases, how they work, strongest strengths and weakest weaknesses.
1. Project Management in Notion
Yes, yes, no:
- Core management functionality is the same as Airtable, Asana, Trello and the rest of the PM gang. There are assignments, attachments, checklists, comments, due dates, labels, notifications, reminders (but anywhere) and Markdown editing. Linked records and rollups for the productivity connoisseurs as well.
- You can create multiple views to see your project and task databases as tables, kanban boards, lists, calendars and galleries. If you use Google Sheets or Trello and you did not know that it was possible I suggest that go to the address bar (Cmd/Ctrl + L) and type in "www.notion.so" now because this is going to revolutionize your world, mi amigo.
- You cannot automatically connect and sync with iCal/Google Calendar (more on that later).
Best Feature in a Lead Role
Joaquin Phoe... I mean, sorry –– the customization of individual database records.
One of the most amazing core concepts in Notion is "everything is a block." This philosophy applies across the product from the top-level pages to database entries. This allows enormous flexibility when it comes to designing an individual project or a complex task.
Here's a not-so-simple example. For my operations agency, I made a CRM page that is made up of different databases: opportunities, customers, contacts, events, and deliverables. All these databases require different properties, of course, but I can fill each entry's page with any record-specific content. For example, an opportunity called "Customer Dev" has a copy of my proposal, a link to deliverables and a shared page with reference items and meeting notes. That's two images and five inline databases in a record of another database, arranged however I want. You too can make something as straightforward as a few headers and text or you can follow my route and create a "pageception"...just make sure to use the breadcrumb block as your totem. It gives you the precise location of your page within the workspace.
Does it look as complex as it sounds? You bet... but therein lies the unlimited power (and it makes me feel like I am the Senate).
Best Feature in a Supporting Role
Great, so you have all the spices but a delicious meal requires the classic staples: salt and pepper. Well, consider "Linked Database Views" to be that in Notion.
For me, it is one of the most important content blocks in the product. It enables you to take any database across your workspaces and create a tailored view of it on any other page you want. Emphasis on "workspaces" because you can link across all of them.
Say you and Guinevere create a master task database where you capture all possible action items. One of the properties is relation to projects, where you have "Book Publication" as the sole active project. This feature will then allow you to create views like:
- Tasks assigned to Guinevere for "Book Publication"
- Tasks assigned to Guinevere for "Book Publication" that are labeled
- Tasks created within the past week and assigned to Guinevere for "Book Publication" that are labeled
- Overdue tasks created within the past week and assigned to Guinevere for "Book Publication" that are labeled
You get the point (but maybe not the reference 😉)! For another example, here's an example from the Notion team of creating multiple views on one page to divide tasks:
Achilles/Brad Pitt's Heel
Praise and adoration aside, there are some real weaknesses. Omitted features include recurring cards, email-to-card workflow, complex formulas, and Gantt charts (coming soon). Albeit issues, these are not core functions for me. You might be more concerned by the missing iCal/Google Calendar integration and sharing limitations (no anonymous edit or database link views). There's not much to say besides the fact that the Notion team is working, working, working. Yes it takes time but I admire the fact that they are not pressured to ship half-baked designs and features. They maintain an excellent standard of quality and I am very happy with that.
2. Knowledge Management in Notion
Yes, yes, no:
- Core document creation and editing functionality is the same as Confluence, Docs, Paper and the rest of the wiki gang. There are headers, text, images, dividers, code blocks, sharing permissions, comments, version control, notifications, and Markdown editing. Document outlines and HTML export for the writing connoisseurs as well.
- You can reference or embed tasks, databases, people and any other pages in your workspace. The "embed" block lets you plug in most things from the internet directly inline the document (more below).
- Each page doesn't have built-in tags unless it's part of a database and there are no "simple" Markdown pages.
That said, in 2017, I couldn't tell you what "knowledge management" is or why it needed for my organization. But I was doing it all the time. Except the doing was taking place in Google Docs and Slides that nobody saw more than three times at best. I stand corrected: we practiced "annoying data capture for no apparent reason" back then.
I hypothesize that it's a common state where the tools of the past cause the deterioration of an inherently useful function. Here's Jack Forbes, founder of YC-backed Faros:
Notion has unlocked a world of possibility and for companies, the rule of thumb is: wiki-fy ALL THE THINGS. We can finally organize our thoughts with wikis, and we now WANT to write more with Notion, instead of DREADING it with Google Docs.
Granted, there are a lot of tools that address this problem to varying degrees of success: Schema, Shift, Slab, Slite, Swit, Stonly, Slicki (no joke) and Sonfluence (joke)....But working in Confluence did cause somnolence for me.
Name jabs aside, Notion is a very good for wikis, internal documentation, product specifications or knowledge management. Capturing thoughts and ideas in the flexible interface transforms a chore into a joyfully intuitive experience.
It is Easy to Get Lost
There are no folders and the lack of default hierarchical document structure can be scary and tricky to understand. In fact, the platform is the antithesis of the desktop metaphor, which is the design framework that calls for emulation of the old school office. File cabinets, trash bins and all. I was the kid in middle school with all the binders and highlighters, so it was difficult to let go of this digitally. But it helped me realize that despite those stationery goods, organized chaos always prevailed as the superior setup.
Seems like a fluff tangent but bare with me. A stack of papers is never just a stack of papers. There are post-its, highlights, scribbles, soy sauce stains, paperclips, dog ears and that nearest thing you used as a bookmark. It's messy. But you still have a sense of its contents. Sorting and finding a thing is really easy. That might not be you but the important part is that, to the best capability of the digital medium, Notion was able to recreate this experience. Thus:
Best Feature in Lead Role
Goes to the search. You can find everything and anything you have ever written in Notion with a super duper easy shortcut. That is also perhaps the most annoying thing about Notion for me, because it is
cmd + P... not
cmd + K But that's a battle for another day. Check it out (yes, that's mobile):
🔈Shout out to Sarah Lim for re-building and shipping this majestic new search!
Best Feature in Supporting Role
- See your prototypes or wireframes? Use InVision, Framer or Figma blocks. "But I used Canva/Sketch" — okay, then embed block.
- See your Whimsical charts and maps? Use Whimsical block. "But I used Miro/LucidChart"— okay, then embed block.
- Respond to a Typeform? Use Typeform block. "But I used Google Forms/ Qualtrics" — okay, then, you guessed it: embed block :)
And so on. You can display almost anything you want using the embed block and that's pretty darn awesome. Here's my Notion NYC team embedding Figma and Google Slides for an event side-by-side.
Yes, there is no "official" support for HTML yet. But there is an awesome hack made by Notions Potions (great name) that lets you embed whatever HTML you wish. And this brings me to the fin of this all-too-long article.
Final Thought 💭
Notion is not the product. Notion is the people.
Users and customers who figure out Notion the product, go on to deeply understand and follow Notion the company and Notion the people. The community that has organically formed around this startup is full of passionate, evangelical and committed folks. It's magical and it is everywhere: Discord, Slack, Reddit and of course IRL. People love Notion.
It's real too. Looking back to the first time I saw the landing page. I can say,
Hey Notion – you had at me at "all-in-one" 😏
Case in point: Notion Pros. It's a group of power users that I have been lucky to be part of. We have been chosen by the team to host events, organize resources and act as ambassadors as volunteers. Yes, we get perks and rewards for our efforts but we do it because we feel such a strong allegiance to the organization, the mission and possibilities it has opened for us.
🔈Shout out to Ben Lang for the remarkable effort of creating structure for the Notion Pros.
But what does this mean to you? As a new member of the Notion community you have direct and immediate access to people who are willing and enthusiastic to help you set up, tinker and optimize your workspaces. For free.
The user created Facebook and Reddit groups have 12,109 and 18,341 members, respectively. If you happen to be Korean, consider yourself in good company because the Korean Facebook group dedicated to Notion just hit 10,000 members... And the unique thing? For the most part, these groups were independently created by users.
If, on the other hand, you're in need in something more labor-intensive, there's an array of consultants, like myself, Conrad Lin, Khe Khy, Marie Poulin, William Nutt ready to get you up and running in no time.
If you have used Figma, Shopify, Wordpress or Webflow, you might know what happens when and unstoppable community meets an immovable feature set. They hack, create and share. Notion doesn't yet have a marketplace yet but I promise you that when it does launch one, the creativity of solutions and useful add-ons will explode — queue final GIF. It will completely change the trajectory of the community and maybe the product.
The latter is so well built. Its fundamental bet on customization, flexibility and integration will be bring upon one, if not all, of the following:
- The end of siloed disconnected software
- The future of collaborative and intuitive digital work
Yes, the product will improve, change, grow, maybe mutate and perhaps explode (like Asgard in Thor Ragnarok) but I know that Notion will succeed because
See Also 🕸️
- Wall Street Journal: The Only App You Need for Work-Life Productivity by David Pierce
- The Sweet Setup: A Beginner's Guide to Notion by Matt Ragland
- How Notion Is Going After Atlassian and Why It Just Might Win by Hiten Shah
- Design on a deadline: How Notion pulled itself back from the brink of failure by Carmel DeAmicis
- Bullish on Notion.so by Chris Gillett
- The writer’s ultimate guide to Notion by Owen Williams
- Notion: Breakout Jobs Memo #1 by Adam Breckler
- How We Use Notion As a Startup by Jack Forbes
- How we use Notion to work together at GoSquared by James Gill