Left: Natsuki Zihnioglu, Head of Platform at DNX Ventures | Right: Ivan Zhao, Co-founder and CEO of Notion

Why Notion is loved by users: Customization and Quality

DNX Ventures
Nov 12, 2020 · 10 min read

Interview with Ivan Zhao, Co-founder and CEO of Notion

There are many tools for business efficiency and knowledge management, but there must be a reason why Notion is so user-friendly and therefore, loved by its fans. We dived deep into “behind-the-scenes” of product development, what we found was the CEO’s commitment to “quality.”

Here’s an interview with Ivan Zhao, CEO of Notion, from the “B2B Summit Online #2” presented by DNX Ventures on November 10!

Watch the full interview here 👆

Ivan Zhao, Notion Co-founder/CEO

Ivan Zhao is Co-founder and CEO of Notion, the all-in-one workspace for notes, documents, wikis, projects, and collaboration. A designer by training, Ivan founded the company in 2016 to make it possible for everyone in the world to create the tools they need without knowing how to code. Before Notion, he worked in product design at digital education startup Inkling. He graduated from the University of British Columbia and resides in San Francisco.

The “Legos of software” that users can customize however they wish

Ivan (Notion):Hi there, I’m in San Francisco right now, watching a sunset from my window.

Natsuki (DNX):Thank you for coming to B2B!Let’s get started, could you please introduce us to Notion? What is your main focus as a CEO these days?

Ivan:Hi, everyone, my name is Ivan and I am the co-founder of Notion. And for those who don’t know what Notion is, it’s something you can think of as a combination of notes, documents, wiki, project management, all in one product. For many teams and companies, Notion can be the collaboration tool to replace email, Slack, Google Docs, Asana, Trello, Evernote, and it’s also great for personal use, I’ve probably used it more for personal use as well as for work. So it’s extremely flexible. You can almost mold it into any types of tool you want for yourself. We call it a Lego for software.

It’s extremely flexible. You can almost mold it into any types of tool you want for yourself. We call it a Lego for software.

Right now we’re planning for 2021. So a lot of planning and strategy. I’m also hands-on, redoing a lot of designs. A lot of queuing the products, as most of my personal background is on the engineering design side of things, but as the company grew, my focus shifted a lot, more towards business and strategy and growing the company itself.

We’re not that big yet, it’s a company of about 60, 70 people so still small and everybody is very much hands-on doing everything.

Minimal UI to enable users to focus on contents

Natsuki: Attention to detail, I definitely feel that, and I believe that’s something people love about Notion. So I’m curious, is there any product feature that you’re especially proud of? Any features that not many people may not know about?

Ivan:So some people like shortcuts a lot. If you’re using a Mac, you can shift lists up and down with 【Command+Shift+Up/down, That’s the one I use that all the time. Another handy keyboard shortcut like 【Command+Enter】and you can check to-do lists. So in a general one, our general principle is to keep the UI very minimal.

So to help the user be in a flow, let it be reading something or reading your notes or checking off your to-do lists, or planning your trip. The product should get out of the way. Everything should be “you” with “your content” and your notes, your information, or your projects.

Everything should be “you” with “your content” and your notes, your information, or your projects.

A fresh start with a smaller team in Kyoto, Japan.

Natsuki:I think it’s quite interesting that you mentioned a couple of times in other interviews that you founded a company in SF but the initial idea didn’t work, and then you restarted the company in Kyoto, Japan. I would love to hear why you chose Kyoto to restart the company.

Ivan:it was a happy accident. As you mentioned at one point the company wasn’t doing well. We were a team of four or five people and that we’re building on the wrong technical foundation. At one point we realized that we’re gonna run out of money. So my co-founder and I decided to lay off everyone else and it was very scary. That moment we looked around and said let’s go somewhere we haven’t been to distract ourselves a little bit. And that was Japan. When you go on Airbnb to look for houses for two people to live and work in, Tokyo and Osaka houses are fairly small while Kyoto has fairly large houses. So that’s why we ended up in Kyoto. Turns out the pace of the city is also much slower and we were just pretty much eating, biking around, and building Notion. Neither of us has been to Japan before and that’s why we found the culture very interesting. There is a lot of focus on craftsmanship and attention to detail, making things great. So in a sense, the Japanese culture inspired us to make a good product. Kyoto’s hospitality reflected on how we built a product and provide a service to our users.

In Japanese culture, there is a lot of focus on craftsmanship and attention to detail, making things great. So in a sense, the Japanese culture inspired us to make a good product.

Founded with the vision of creating a world where anyone can create any software they want.

I’d like to hear a little bit more about the inception of the company. Back then, there were a bunch of tools in the Information Management space by powerhouses like Google and Evernote. And I’m curious to hear why you decided to jump in? That was a gutsy move.

Ivan:Actually, that environment would not have changed the implementation of the product, because the core idea, the mission of the company never wavered from the beginning, which is “What if everyone can shape software they use every day on their own?” So one extreme of that implication of that idea was, let’s just make everyone a developer and allow everybody to build their own software. And that was the first iteration of what you describe as a no- call product.

Then we soon realized that wasn’t for everyone, even though if they could, they didn’t necessarily want to create their own software, they just wanted to have better tools to solve their everyday problems. And so that in that case, we said, let’s look at what our everyday users use the most frequently and they were the Microsoft Office software, the productivity tools. We asked ourselves, “Can we build a product that can solve everyone’s everyday problems?” by building the no-code product as a counterpart to Microsoft Office, that has been the approach of Notion since the early days, and so far, we’re far from bringing all the computing software power to everyone. But it’s definitely a lot more powerful than a typical Google Docs or Evernote in terms of customizability and flexibility.

I would say, we approach products fairly intuitively and fundamentally. We want to give people the power of customizing their own tools. As I mentioned earlier, it’s very much about how we can give people the building blocks, with which they can do many of the things they want to do in the most customer customizable way, but without coding.

The users didn’t necessarily want to create their own software, they just wanted to have better tools to solve their everyday problems.

Unexpected uses of “Lego” software by users

Natsuki:I see, if you think of Notion and Legos in the same vein, spurring on people’s imagination, then perhaps there are people who are using it in very creative ways. What is the most surprising use of Notion that you’ve come across?

Ivan:The notion roughly can be used as four different products: notes, document, wiki, and project management. It’s just a general-purpose database workspace. And so far, plenty of people use Notion for those four uses on the consumer side or on the enterprise side. On both consumer and enterprise sides, there’re so many interesting uses, for example, because Notion can be notes and document tools on the internet, so plenty of people use Notion as a lightweight web page or a publisher. And on the enterprise side, many companies put up jobs’ pages or publish releases in Notion directly. They don’t have to set up their blog, they can just use Notion directly without using a CMS or anything.

It’s amazing how complex people’s project management workflows are. A lot of companies say Notion actually gives people a database, where you can customize for any way to run a competent team. Some of the customers would talk about how they have set up very intricate workflows on their project management for their companies. And that has been eye-opening, which also ties back to our mission of “The people should lead the software, and it should flow into the company and not the other way around.”

“The people should lead the software, and it should flow into the company and not the other way around.”

User-driven ideas spreading the word

Natsuki:So there are these Notion “pro” people, consultants who are not Notion employees, but independently creating a bunch of templates and selling them and stuff. They are all quite creative, and so helpful for those who find it difficult to create something from scratch. Just like you envisioned, it’s getting even easier to create a new way of workflow.

Ivan:Indeed, now the community of users is taking the “Lego” pieces to places that you never imagined, right? So there’s the Lego convention, where plenty of enthusiasts showcase their creations. So it is with Notion users. They share their template, work setups on Reddit, on Twitter, and some people are selling them and making a great business for themselves. Maybe I should quit my job, and start selling Notion templates(laughs).

So happy that Notion users are spreading the word, improving the product as they do so, And we’re really grateful for that. For example, we launched in South Korea several months ago, and a lot of translation effort and the local coordination effort was done by the Notion community themselves. Without them, we could not be where we are today with our international user base. We haven’t officially launched in Japan even, but I hear there are already courses teaching Notion already(laughs). We will launch in Japan soon, so just wait a while longer.

Customization and quality are the keys to users’ love

Natsuki:What is the secret that makes people love Notion so much?

Ivan:To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a lot more art, more luck, than science and tech. I do have some hypotheses, though.

One is that the product is very flexible, that you can customize it to any workflow, your team, or your personality, and just like when people who love to create things with Legos want to share it, show it off with others, like, “Oh, look at my castle, I built it with Legos!” Notion users couldn’t stop sharing and spreading the word.

And another thing is, we care a lot about quality. We’d rather do fewer things and do them really, really well and put a lot of love and attention to detail into the product. And I think people feel that we put a lot of thought into our products. And hopefully, that can translate into how people use the product every day.

We’d rather do fewer things and do them really, really well and put a lot of love and attention to detail into the product.

Large Enterprises like Nike and Pixar are also Notion fans!

Natsuki:I believe Notion has three different kinds of users, individual users, startups/SMBs, and enterprise customers. Which users are you focusing on acquiring right now?

Ivan:We want Notion to be used by a wide range of users, so everyone is important to us. Although recently and moving forward, we are shifting our focus on enterprises, especially larger companies with a huge number of people. We really care about a tool that solves people’s problems. And arguably, enterprises have the largest problems among all the places that need good customizable tools. So companies like Nikes, McDonald’s and Pixar, have their main departments run on Notion for fully customizable workflows. And we’re really proud of that.

Natsuki:When you’re selling to enterprise customers, is it bottom-up, like their employees fall in love with Notion and start using it and it expands up to the top, or is it more of a traditional enterprise sales route, top-down?

Ivan:It’s a mix, I would say largely bottom-up. But as the product gets better, with more enterprise features for security measures like Single-sign on, and we’re slowly building a brand for ourselves, a lot of companies and their CIOs and CEOs have heard about motion, reaching out to us, so gradually, we are getting that top-down approach. We’re working right now, redesigning our sharing permission to allow a really large company, of 1000 Plus, maybe 10,000 plus people to entirely run on Notion for all their documents wiki and project management system.

Keeping the team small — Empowering each member with large ownership and decision-making capability

Natsuki:Earlier in the session, you mentioned that Notion is about 60~70 people. An extremely lean organization. What is the story here?

Ivan:We made the team small somewhat intentionally, we have a company philosophy, it’s always putting quality before quantity. So I have an extremely high hiring bar, so hard to find great people but, if you do find them, they can do the work of many people and smaller teams are more agile. If one person can solve the problem, then the same person can have a larger responsibility that could be solving problems more holistically, and having a small team serves many benefits. We sort of discovered this accidentally. The funny thing in the early days is that there were just less than a couple dozen people, so we intentionally hid our LinkedIn website. Because of our customer, this 500-people company trusts all their information on a 20-people startup? That wasn’t going to work, so we didn’t create a LinkedIn page until we had 50 people in the company.

Natsuki:That’s funny. I would love to continue the chat but I guess our time is up. Thank you so much for joining us, Ivan. Any messages for the audience?

Ivan: We are planning on launching Notion in Japan, maybe sometimes next year and I’m really grateful for the users in this country. I hope we can translate Notion into Japanese so that users can use it.

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