February 9, 2024
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Unusual

Notion's product-market fit journey

Sandhya Hegde
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Editor's note: 

SFG 40: Notion's Akshay Kothari on productivity and embracing AI


Notion is a productivity platform that blends all your workplace apps into a single platform, including team projects, wikis, and docs. Last valued at $10bn, Notion’s customers include teams at Amazon, Nike, Uber, Figma, Deel, and more!

In this episode, Sandhya Hegde chats with Akshay Kothari, co-founder and COO of Notion.

Be sure to check out more Startup Field Guide Podcast episodes on Spotify, Apple, and Youtube. Hosted by Unusual Ventures General Partner Sandhya Hegde (former EVP at Amplitude), the SFG podcast uncovers how the top unicorn founders of today really found product-market fit.

Summary and key takeaways

👉 When Notion launched publicly, it was a small team of people supporting extremely rapid growth. Akshay joined as the 9th employee and spent his first months doing over 100 customer support tickets per day.

👉 Creating early templates was a “game changer” for the early Notion team. They realized that people weren't likely to build full solutions from scratch. So they created templates for common use cases like wikis and task boards, allowing users to get started in just one click.

👉 Notion noticed early on that power users were proudly sharing the workflows and templates they built on the platform. The idea was to try to make these “builders looks cool.” They decided to spotlight these community stars rather than just promote the Notion brand.

👉 Rather than hire content marketers, Notion looked at influencers in the productivity space. Notion convinced many YouTubers and bloggers to adopt Notion for their own workflow needs, resulting in organic video reviews and recommendations. As Akshay explains, they wanted other people to be “creating content about Notion” to promote the brand.

👉 Notion aimed to strike the right balance between leveraging AI to enhance productivity while providing users with control and the ability to customize their experience. Notion’s AI team prototypes new capabilities and then hands it off to product teams to commercialize. This allows them to experiment rapidly while still maintaining product quality and user trust.

Episode transcript

Sandhya Hegde

Welcome to the Startup Field Guide, where we learn from successful founders of unicorn startups, how their companies truly found product market fit. I'm your host, Sandhya Hegde and today we'll be diving into the story of Notion. Now, if you haven't heard of Notion, you've been living under a rock. It blends all your workplace apps into a single platform, including projects, wikis, and docs.

Last valued at 10 billion, Notion's customers include teams at Amazon, Nike, Uber, Figma, Deel, and many more. So joining us today is Akshay Kothari, the CEO and co-founder of Notion. Welcome to the Field Guide, Akshay.

Before we dive in, a couple call outs. One, if you have been following this podcast and like what we are doing or have ideas for who else we should have on the pod, please leave us a review and let us know you left us a review. We are making some cool new swag for the podcast. And also want to call out that Akshay actually hosts a new podcast called First Block that just started last year and also interviews really great founders.

Do you want to share a little bit more about First Block?

Akshay Kothari

Yeah, it's been a really fun process. I bet you probably started this with similar ideas, but I think when we were starting to think about how we can help other startups, we obviously have an amazing grant program where we give people credits to use Notion for free. And we thought, how do we help them more?

And the big idea in our heads was like, I think every entrepreneur is trying to learn and could we get the best entrepreneurs to tell their story, to talk about their first block, their early days. And so that was the idea. And instead of doing an event, we thought it'd be good to do it as like a video podcast so that people are all around the world could have that learnings.

And we've had some amazing people like from Parker Conrad at Rippling to Cristina Cacioppo at Vanta, and I personally really enjoy doing it because I feel like I'm learning when I'm talking to these people and so thank you for the shout out and I'd love for people to tune into that as well.

Sandhya Hegde

Of course. Yeah, no, couldn't agree more. It's really wonderful to learn from like the people who have done it and hear the unvarnished story. Do check out First Block. And then without further ado, we'll dive into the story of Notion. This is one of, I think the most fascinating product market-fit journeys I have ever you know, seen from the outside-in. Notion technically started in 2013, but it took many years for the team to figure out what they are building and for whom and , I think about probably five years or so, and you Akshay were at LinkedIn at this time.

I'm curious how and when did you meet Ivan in those early years when it was just the two or three of them trying to figure out what Notion is.

Akshay Kothari

Yeah, it's a cool backstory. I've known Ivan now for almost 13 years, so I think two years before Notion was born I tried to hire Ivan. I was running a startup called Pulse back in the day. I was looking for my first designer, and Ivan had recently moved from Canada, and he was looking for a job in the valley, and I actually found him through Hacker News of all places, and so I saw his post about looking for a job and I reached out to him.

He ended up joining another company, but we stayed in touch and when Pulse was acquired by LinkedIn in 2013, he was about to start Notion and I got the opportunity to invest early then. And so Notion actually was my first angel investment. And for about four years, the first four years, Notion actually didn't launch a product, and I thought it was like a mistake I made by investing in the company, and the next year I joined full time to work here.

Sandhya Hegde

Incredible. And like a perfect synthesis of what it feels like to be a founder or an early-stage investor, really. And like how long it takes for like the best stories to play out. I would be remiss to not spend a moment on Pulse. Because I think, you and Ankit were just students on the Stanford campus when you started Pulse and Ankit is now working on his own healthcare startup.

And I think on your team you also had Christina Cordova, who's, gone on to now be the CEO of Linear. So really like early app store success and powerhouse team. What were some kind of big lessons for you from the Pulse journey that you've taken into either angel investing or now working at Notion?

Akshay Kothari

 Yeah, I think we really got lucky. Ankit and I were, we took a bunch of courses together, and that's how we got, and and Christina actually is interesting. It was like, I was like a TA in one of the courses that she took. That's how I got to know her. She was the first employee.

In fact, she actually came back and worked with us at Notion for two years, also before her current job. And yeah, I think there's a lot of learnings. I would say like the biggest one for me at least at Stanford, I was studying electrical engineering, Ankit was studying computer science, but both of us got lucky in taking courses at the design school at Stanford.

And in many ways, I feel like D-school opened up one side of the brain that we were probably not using as much. I think we were very much like analytical, quantitative. We were good students academically, but I wouldn't say we were super creative and so I think in many ways, like D-school sort of really improved our creative confidence and it pushed us into the field more. I think about my life really pre-D-school and post-D-school. I think pre-D-school like a lot of my ideas were in my head. I was just a tech person thinking of what tech could do and I wouldn't talk to a single customer on the field.

And I think D-school changed that, like D-school pushed us to be out there, talk to customers, talk to the problems that they're facing, and really like use tech more as an enabler rather than as the driver. So it's what you're trying to do is not just think of what tech can do, but what you're trying to do is like actually solve problems in the world and figure out how tech can enable that So I would say that's probably the big one and I think I still carry it today. Like every product review or design review or thinking I have right now I think a lot more about the customer and make sure we're not just dreaming up like a solution that we want. But it's actually like, more broadly, the customers are looking for And it gets harder.

When you're small, it's easy to just be out there and talk to customers more naturally. We're like a few hundred people now at Notion, and it gets harder to like, leave the office and make the attempt to do that.

Sandhya Hegde

Oh, that's so interesting. And, fast forwarding to 2017, 2018, you mentioned that it took, about four or five years for the Notion team to launch the product. And I remember, I think, the 2018 launch on Product Hunt was when they came into public consciousness, at least for me, for the first time.

Could you share more about what was happening at the company at this time? I think it was also the year that you actually joined Notion full time. So I would love to learn what led up to that successful launch, finally and how did the early product come together?

Akshay Kothari

Yeah. But I think maybe worthwhile going all the way back. So 2013, Ivan started this company, and I think his dream was this idea that there's a billion people in the world who are knowledge workers, who are using all these different tools to do their work, and there's only about 20 to 30 million developers and these 20 million developers decide how a billion people work and the tools are increasingly more rigid, and if you wanted to change something about it you would have to call a consultant to make some changes there.

And I think Ivan's big idea was, like, Hey, what if you could decompose all the software down to the building blocks? And there's not that many building blocks. There's probably 25 to 30 building blocks that make up most of the enterprise software we use today. And so his big idea was, like, what if we give these building blocks to people?

Can people put these building blocks together and build their own software? And the thing, the hard lesson we learned in the first three, four years was that it's just like, people don't wake up to build software, like people wake up to do their jobs. And even though we have this like dream platform where you can build your own software, most people were not looking for that. Most people were looking for tools that they can just do their job. And so the big sort of pivot we had to do in 2016, 2017 was we had to use our own building blocks and we had to build templates. We had to build templates where someone can just click a button and actually do that thing. You need a to-do list. I click a button, I get that template, I can get up and running. And so that was Notion 1. 0. It was basically a simple note-taking and like a knowledge base for your company, and it started to get people to actually use it more and more. In early 2018, on top of this knowledge base, we introduced a general-purpose database.

And it was not a separate product. It was a product that was built into the the product, the core product itself. And so now not only for people using for note-taking and for also for their company wiki, you could quickly see people using the general purpose database in all sorts of different ways like some people use it for as like a task list, some people use it as a project list some people use it as CRM. Some people use it as like their application tracking system. And I think what people realized was like wow I'm actually using four or five different tools before and now I can consolidate all these different things into a single place that actually supports structured information as well as unstructured information and the ability to put both of those into a single product unlocked a lot of different opportunities for people, right?

And it being a general-purpose database really helped. We were not saying that this is the thing that you need to use for tasks. We said, hey, it's a database. You can drag and drop a page into a database and suddenly that page has properties. And that's what it is. And you have all these different ways you can use it.

And so I would say I think if I look back at those five years, I would say the big learnings were, I think you need a wedge into the market. You can't will your sort of dream into the world like you have to think about okay, How do I like create something that people need to solve their problem today?

And then once we get to a lot of people using it people started to discover they can actually change everything about Notion So that was one that was just like sort of trying to figure out like what's that wedge? I think the other thing was like, I think the templates were a big game changer. And initially we built some templates of our own, but soon the community picked up and like suddenly we had people building all sorts of new templates which actually introduced other people to the platform and I think that sort of like the first day experience became a lot better for our customers, like we didn't have to tell them to go put these building blocks together to use something. They could just click a button, start using it, start exploring with get to the aha moment themselves. And then as they use it more and more, they can go deeper and deeper to figure out like certain changes they wanted to make So I think in early 2018 I could see that was just like happening underneath like most people still didn't know about Notion when I joined. But you could see it in their numbers.

There was like a pull from the market that you could feel. We didn't have any marketing people, we were not doing much PR, but you could see the numbers going up every week because people were telling other people about it. And in some ways, got lucky that I was an investor and I caught up with Ivan that summer, and I could see that, and I can imagine a different world where I didn't come to the US that summer and did not know about it, and I wouldn't be here. I think, definitely good fortune that happened.

Sandhya Hegde

Right. And how was that conversation like? How did you figure out, okay, do I go from a really massive role that you had at LinkedIn at the time to join, what was it, like a five, eight person startup that's, just getting off the ground again? How did you think about that and your role?

Akshay Kothari 

Yeah, I think, surprisingly, the professional decision was relatively straightforward. Once Ivan suggested the role, it felt like the right thing to do, which was surprising to me in some ways, because I feel like, I don't know, I was sitting in India when this happened, I was running LinkedIn International from there, and I thought maybe the next play for me would have been to maybe start something that I can build products as a new company, sitting in India.

Yeah. And I think this actually broke all the rules, like I was moving back to the US, I was working on everything except product, and I wasn't starting something of my own but actually like the things came together in my mind in that like I had done product for so long and I'd always been very curious about the go-to-market and foundational side, I'd always, like always, thought why things happen the way they happen, like why the sales teams are structured in this like SDR, AE, AM, CSM structure. I've always been curious about the difference between performance marketing and demand gen, for example, and I've always managed these teams before, but I've never done it myself.

And so this opportunity to get back into the garage on something that had just hit product market fit and getting the chance to build those teams was very appealing to me. And so the professional side, I didn't actually have to think that much, and I literally talked to no other company. This was literally... Ivan made the offer, and I was like, let's do it.

I think the challenge was more personal, to be honest, because I had just had a kid, we had just built a new home in India which my wife had spent a year building, and suddenly to tell her that we're gonna move back to the U. S. was, like, it was a tricky decision on the personal side.

I was closer to family then. This was like one of the first times that I guess in our marriage where we were like on two different sides of the decision and I had to pull the wild card and be like, okay, I commit to doing whatever you want to do in like in the future, but I really want to do this. I guess coming back to the U. S. was very smooth and I think we're all very happy here, but I think that part was hard and I remember a funny incident where I think Ivan spent like two, three hours with Manya just trying to convince her that, she should say yes to it. I think that was probably like the more trickier part than the professional side. The professional side seemed like I was itching to get back into the garage, itching to get back to building, itching to start something again. And this felt like a unique opportunity to build not the product, but build the go-to-market engine, build the company, build all these other things that support the business.

And, at this point it feels like what a good decision, but back in 2018, I think 99 percent of the people were like, why are you doing this? Like, why are you leaving your VP job at LinkedIn to join this startup that nobody's heard about? So it was fairly risky, but I'm glad it worked out.

Sandhya Hegde

Yeah. And then some. I'm curious you had this new role and you were joining a company that had just taken off in terms of user traction, literally millions of people trying the product. What was your 30-day analysis of okay, what are the problems we have? I'm curious, like, where the company was in terms of having a revenue strategy, for example, and so what were some of the earliest things you invested in that helped the company grow?

Akshay Kothari

 Yeah, the first couple of weeks were super interesting. The thing that really was shocking back then was how small the team was. Like, I was the ninth person. There were, like, two founders, three engineers, three support people, and that was it, essentially. And this thing was growing quite fast and when you come from like a large company, you wonder, it's like, where is the marketing team, and where is the sales team, and where is this team, and you realize oh, down to the basics, like, all that matters is we're building up good product that people want.

And then we have good service that sort of comes with it, right? And it really is that basic, right? It's like before we had a go-to-market team, before we had sales and marketing. Our support people were sales and marketing. Like they were going above and beyond to do that.

And I think for the first six months, all I did was actually like become another support person because we were just trying to keep up with the demand. And so essentially I would do like about 100 to 120 Intercom tickets and I'm so glad I did that like for a while I actually thought am I adding value? Like I'm just like an expensive support person here, but actually the first few months, like I really got to understand all the different ways people were using Notion, like I wouldn't have understood all the different use cases and all the different ways the platform was being used unless I'd done that.

And so 30 days in I was somewhat like, like you have to unlearn so much, so many things coming from a big company to just feel like, okay, what, how is it that we're operating and how can I add value? And then it's also surprising, like how much you can do with how small the team is, right?

In fact, the first few months, like we didn't hire anybody else and it was shocking to me like how much we could get done every week with such a small team. And so I think there's probably like a lot of credit to Ivan because I think in those early days and even now, he's so deliberate about every new hire we make.

He almost meets with every person that you know, joins Notion. And I think, it's always like pushing the team to build the right systems and solve the problem the right way, rather than trying to throw people at it. And that's something that has very much become a core ethos of the company is like we are willing to endure a lot of pain to solve the problem in a good, systematic way rather than just take shortcuts, and hire more people and solve it that way

Sandhya Hegde

And what were some kind of surprises or aha moments for you in those early months in terms of understanding what is, why is it that customers love Notion and what are the implications for future company strategy?

Akshay Kothari

I think the biggest surprise for me, which was true then and it's true now, is you know, I would get in customer calls like through support or just trying to understand and like the things people build with Notion is totally wild. I thought I knew Notion, but like every time I meet a customer and like the way they're using Notion is so different from everything I've seen and at this point I've seen like thousands of customers use Notion in different ways I still get surprised because I think like you know, at the end of the day like Notion has these simple building blocks and like the way people like put them together, the way they run their own workflows is it's totally unique and so I think that earlier days, like I was just surprised how little I knew about the product and the way people were using it.

And in many cases, I would say 20 percent of the support tickets, I did not know how to answer. Likelike people were doing all these interesting things with it that I actually had to ask other support people to just help me learn. I think, but I think one of the things we picked on were, like, you could see how we were attracting the builders of tomorrow you could see how there was starting to be this excitement around people building templates and being so proud of it in a way that I remember when I was in high school there were like two three people in our class who were like Excel macro gurus, right? And then when they build these macros, they feel like these macros are mine. Like it's not Excel, it's like me who's built this and I could see some of that starting to show up in our community where people are like this Notion template is mine, like I build this and I love that instead of us trying to be cool, we're trying to make these builders cool.

Like we're trying to like really up level, like elevate them in a way where we can tell the audience like all these different things that people are building with it. And so anyways, like those first few months and even six years later, even today, I think that's the thing that really gives me energy and like really excites me is like what people are doing with Notion.

Like we have some ideas, some templates we can build, but the community is like infinitely more creative and infinitely more resourceful and it's really fun to watch that. It's probably the thing that gets me like excited every morning. It's just okay, like seeing other people's setups is just like so fun.

Sandhya Hegde

 Notion's probably one of the companies, like a B2B software company with a real TikTok community that came out of nowhere, but maybe going back a little, would love to understand, how would you think about the way Notion has evolved over the years that you've been there?

Like, how have you thought about, what's the right go-to-market strategy needed as the company matures? And I think getting more intentional about the community, I think, definitely played a big part in it. I'm also curious, though, about how you thought about enterprise versus SMB.

Akshay Kothari

Yeah, lots of interesting questions there and like I wish we had more time to go into all the details, but I'll try to short-circuit I guess some of the learnings... I very much think that like our approach has been what I call like B2C2B. It's very much, there's a B2C component to it and there's a B2B component to it.

And like, the way we get to the B2B part is through the consumers, actually. And so what that means is we're trying to build a product that I think consumers love. And I think a lot of consumers think of Notion as a note-taking product, which is fine. Because that's the simplest unit of work, and that's what gets people in the door. But when people use it and they realize, Oh, actually I'm using it for personal note taking, but wouldn't it be great if I added a bunch of my team and like we can collaborate on it? And suddenly the doc becomes a wiki. And then soon more people join and they realize, Oh, wouldn't it be great if we take all this context and manage my projects with it and like suddenly you can manage your projects with Notion, right?

So almost always when I'm talking to customers if you take it back to like how it started with a champion who used it themselves or used it with their partner on a gardening project or a home improvement project or like their training they're doing at the gym It's amazing how much how many people just trace it back to a personal use case, And so we think a lot about okay, how do we make a product that's that is consumer-grade quality that gets people into using it and people having this love for this product. And then how do we take the same product and make it so that like you can take it to work and your work and life in some ways is in harmony with each other. Now I think over the years, I think internally, we've always like ping-ponged between the two.

 Some quarters we feel like, it's like the personal use case and the consumery stuff is like the only thing we need to worry about. And some quarters we think, oh my god, the wiki and the project management is like, the company's enterprise use case is the only thing we need to think about.

 And so I would say like we would probably have gone back and forth a lot and everybody move to the enterprise side, everybody move to the consumer side. But I think we've gotten mature enough and large enough to now feel like we have a more like centered view. Which is at the end of the day, we're building a single product on the Notion side and we're trying to build these building blocks.

And some of these building blocks can be used for the consumer use case, and the same building blocks can then now be used in the business use case. To give you a simple example, you can have a simple checkbox, like a to-do list, and that's the to-do list as a person. And you can essentially take the to-do list, the checkbox, and convert them into a task in a database, right?

And like suddenly it becomes like a task board for your team, right? And so that's been our perspective is like we're building a product that is the same product that can go from one person all the way to 10, 000-person company and I think that actually is an interesting design challenge. There's so many interesting permission issues and so many interesting design paradigms in terms of, like, how do we give people control, but also make it feel like consumery that we've had to deal with that it's a very rich space. Like, I don't think we've cracked all the issues.

We have a lot to do But at the end of the day, like it's one product that sort of works for the B2C context and the B2B context And it's also one product that has all these like amazing list of like horizontal use cases that we need to solve and we're able to do all of that because underneath our engineers are really obsessing about the right primitives we have to build. They're not trying to obsess about the solution.

We're trying to be like, okay, what's the basic primitive we can launch that can unlock all these different use cases? So imagine being a Lego company and we're thinking about the, what's the next building block, what's the next Lego block that we can innovate on that can have 20 new use cases, and then the marketing team is very much thinking about the packaging. It's okay, here's the Harry Potter castle and here's the Star Wars-shaped spaceship and like underneath they're all built of the same building blocks

Sandhya Hegde

 What have been your learnings, especially, being focused on go-to market over the past few years? What would you say are the big learnings you have and some of the challenges that you are still working on in terms of this specific role?

Akshay Kothari

 I think like one of the things that I tried to bring to the go-to-market side was probably like I guess being a product person was trying to bring more systems thinking into that world. There's a couple of examples of this. So if you start with support, I think in the early days, we got really good at every support ticket we answered in Intercom, we would tag them.

And then we would take these tags and every day we would run a job that would bring the frequency of these tags into a Notion database. And so essentially, without having any person, every engineer had access to what trends they could see in terms of support tickets coming in or if someone was working on search, they could just go find the search tag in Intercom and suddenly they have 2000 tickets that they can read about the problems that people have and they can work on that problem.

In many companies, I found these to be several different people, like it's like someone's like aggregating all the feedback, somebody's synthesizing it, somebody's then doing research and then, so I think like the early days, we just built a good system where the connection from engineering to support was like the system. There was no people involved, like support was answering questions, engineers were building the new product, and somehow those systems were connected. I think if you take the marketing side also I think, we could have hired a lot of like, content marketers in the early days, but instead of doing that, we thought what can we do so that other people could be creating content about Notion, right? And we found like there's this whole subculture of productivity people who are like reviewing these things and they're like YouTube stars in their own right and they use a tool to manage their business And we realized what if we could convince all of them to use Notion as their core operating system And if they're using Notion, maybe they'll do videos on Notion and so suddenly like it's like high leverage, right?

Like, how do you get more people? I think the learnings on the sales side is interesting. I don't know, I had probably had like a bias towards like if somebody wants to buy Notion, they should be able to try it, buy it and without having to talk to anyone. I think Notion is still one of the rare companies where you can actually buy the enterprise plan on a self-serve, like you don't have to talk to anyone, like you can pretty much do the whole process.

I think one thing I've realized is like, as much as that is true, we probably could have started early, earlier in our journey, we could have figured out how to tell the Notion story for someone who's never learned about Notion. The product-led growth stuff is super compelling, But I think you're not gonna get your product to every person or every company you want to cater just with the product being good, right?

I think you have to think about what's the story and one of the things you learn very quickly is like, how do you move away from selling features to selling solutions, right? And how do you, what's that arc of the story and like, how is it solving a problem for the persona you're doing?

And I learned this on the go-to-market side first and I was like, okay, instead of selling single-sign-on as a feature, we gotta think about okay, how do enterprises benefit from using Notion as a connected workspace? And I feel like I'm learning the same lesson on the product side now, which is okay, instead of just building a bunch of different features, we gotta think about what is the solution we're building that actually makes sense for a chief product officer or for a chief technology officer, right?

And I feel like at least building SaaS tools, it's like the thing you're building is the thing you're selling, right? There's no like ads model, right? It's actually more direct in some ways, and I feel like Go To Market teams working very closely with the product teams in shipping a solution that actually solves a problem.

I think it's actually harder than you think because I think we end up in this like feature land for the most part, and we have to like always step above, like slightly higher altitude, figure out what the core solution is that you're trying to put out there in the real world. And I think Notion was a little bit slower in figuring out that arc, because we got so obsessed with just product distributing itself, right?

So I think there's some learnings in terms of we could have started earlier, figuring out like what Notion is, and if you've never heard of it, like how it solves some of the problems you have.

Sandhya Hegde

Yeah, I think especially with product-led sales like it's A, it's actually much more complicated as a go-to-market motion because there are more stakeholders and there's more nuance involved than, say, either cold outreach or self serve, right? It's a blended motion. And most of the companies I work with as an investor are using this motion, so it's definitely something for I think a lot about and I think the kind of hindsight 2020 on timing always in terms of like when was the right time to start doing a blended motion as opposed to when you're super early, maybe you're just doing founder selling and then you're just trying to make this bottom up motion work and build your pipeline.

So it's always hindsight 2020 there. But I think the interesting thing that I see a lot of people, product-focused people and founders figure out is there's always this gap between what your end user knows about the product, uses the product for, and what kind of like the buyer and procurement and all these stakeholders who are not going to like just live in your product all the time, what they need, what help do they need to buy the right solution?

So I think about it very much as especially when it comes to design, productivity, any creative tool, like it's bought, not sold. But there's still an important role for this kind of account team to play. And it's very much connecting those dots, right? Like you have these kind of happy end users in the company, but there's a gap in terms of information and knowledge.

And they need help buying the right version of the product for a bigger team or a bigger company, because they're busy people who need the education and are just not going to be your power users, like that's just not what their day looks like. And so you need someone, but you still need them to be very different from maybe a traditional sales rep that leverages a cold outreach-based motion. It's almost a different job entirely, but with similar responsibilities.

Akshay Kotari

Yeah, very much resonate with that. I think in many ways I would almost say nobody's actually cracked that, right? I think I think there's obviously the company we look up to a lot is Atlassian because what they've done is maybe the only company that has taken product-led growth to several billion dollars of ARR with very little like classic sales work.

But most other companies, even Slack and Zoom tend to be like more sales-driven, right? And what is the right way to build a company where product led growth and product-led sales can coexist and be done in a beautiful way where you're expanding distribution?

I feel like they are still wide open. I hope we crack it and people study us, but it's fun because it's, there's not like a certain playbook you can follow. You are like building the playbook as you build.

Sandhya Hegde 

Yeah, it's a great intellectual challenge. I'm definitely betting on you, Akshay. And I think it's also I hope that if we look at 10 years into the future, it will be like the way every company wants to go to market because I do think there's just so much more net positive value for the world, both buyers and sellers of software.

I would love to maybe pivot to obviously the big topic of the past couple years, which is AI. I think Notion was one of the first few kind of mature software companies to come out with a blend of AI features and an existing product. And I loved how thoughtful you all were about, like, how to introduce it.

 What's the kind of right way to have customers experience Notion with AI. I would love to hear, what it looked like in the background. What was the process leading up to launching that? And what have been your top learnings from the product launch since it's been released?

Akshay Kothari

We got lucky in many ways on the AI front. We got some early access to like the newer model. Like I don't know if it was 3. 5 or GPT 4 back in October 2022. And our two other founders, Ivan and Simon, essentially like. We were at a company offsite and they locked themselves in a room for a week and prototyped the early versions of it.

And you could see through the prototype like how much of an impact, difference it's going to make in the world. Just like how knowledge work was going to change. And so when we looked at that, I think it was very clear to us, like we had to lean into this. I think part of it was like playing offense, but also playing defense.

We did not want another company to just be like, hey, we're Notion, but with AI. We wanted to be that company directly. And so I would credit a lot to my co-founders Ivan and Simon for their conviction in pushing the company to get out quickly. I think we came back from that offsite and a month later we announced our alpha.

This was a month before ChatGPT came out, so like we were pretty early in terms of betting heavily on this. And yeah, and three months later we had a GA product in February where you could buy Notion AI for 10 bucks a month and it's our fastest growing business line. It's like a meaningful part of our business now.

And it's really fun to watch us go from like a basic writing tool to now like you can do Q& A and essentially all the content you have in Notion, you can ask questions and get full answers with citation down to the docs you have. It's really powerful. So it's gone from like a thing you can do inside Notion, what you could do in ChatGPT to now, you can now like‌ do something that is just not possible in any other tool.

I think in terms of like the transformation inside the company, I compare this to the mobile change we had a decade ago and I think that change took several years from people to go from like a mobile team to everybody thinking about mobile as the first thing.

I feel like that was like, I don't know, if I remember, it took several years to get there and I feel like AI happened in a matter of months. Like within last year, we went from a small AI team of five people building an AI feature to AI is a fundamental technology, like you should. We should probably put it in every feature we design.

So it's amazing that, that sort of happened. I think the way we're building AI products now is actually compelling. And I think we're starting to see more and more companies follow that. And what we have is we have a very small team, like 12 people who are like on the bleeding edge of AI technology.

They're playing with all sorts of different models. They're prototyping all sorts of new interactions. And every time we see, okay, something is working, they almost pass it on to the core teams that can then productize it and take it to market really quickly. This AI team is also helping other engineers and product people inside the company and designers to learn about AI.

So they're like helping them like think about different models and think about different use cases they have. So it's almost become like a consulting team internally. And yeah, so like a product leader, like every new thing that we're doing, I think the question that everybody's asking themselves is like, how does the AI as a fundamental technology help me solve the same problem?

And in short, I think we've gone from like, how can we use this technology to build some new feature, to actually we're solving the same problems we were solving for the last 10 years, but now like we have this like whole new technology that has become an enabler that was not there before extraordinary that we got there in a matter of months, I think.

Sandhya Hegde

Yeah, the pace and cycle of just, interest to actual prototyping, adoption has been incredible. I think like the fastest thing to get adopted in terms of new tech that we've ever seen in our careers. And I'm curious what are you learning from customer feedback on. I think people are still trying to figure out how to change their workflows to reflect this kind of new enabling tech that could speed up their process a lot, right?

So I'm curious what you are seeing, and how have you expected to change over time?

Akshay Kothari

 Yeah, it's funny. It's last year, a lot of the year, I think the most of the people were just focused on cutting costs. But as AI started to take off, I think it was like this interesting mix of, I still want to cut costs for the most part, but I have this new budget for AI that I'm willing to spend and learn from.

And so I think it's exciting to watch like how much companies are leaned in to this new technology. I think. a lot of companies are investing because everybody is hoping that the productivity boost that they're going to get is going to be totally worth the dollars that they're spending. And I'm definitely a believer

that like even simple things that can be automated could suddenly give you like, I don't know, three hours of the week back and that's totally valuable, right? It's like it's actually gonna be like free up time to do more And so more generally, I'm very bullish on AI actually helping each individual and each company do more with what they already have And so there's gonna be this unlocking of like dollars that companies and people are willing to spend Because suddenly if you're like a high school student, like $20 a month to get help on your work and you know it's like totally three coffees like yes I'm gonna do it.

And similarly on the company side like if it's gonna take me like 20 minutes to find the answer to a doc which I can find that answer in like 15 seconds like you multiply that to the number of queries each person does and you multiply that to all the people you have, like that's so much time saved, right?

So anyways, I think we will all mature in telling that story. And I think companies will see the benefits of actually using it. One actually interesting tidbit is, it's actually fascinating. I was in Japan this summer, this past summer. And I was amazed how leaned in the Japanese society is on AI.

It could be because they're used to automation. But everything from individuals to companies to the government totally wants to lean in, wants to make the most of it, and has very little skepticism. It almost makes US feel like the EU compared to like, how Japan is feeling like the US. If that's the future, if that's where we get to I'm pretty excited about the unlocking. of creativity and value that happens in the world.

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February 9, 2024
Portfolio
Unusual

Notion's product-market fit journey

Sandhya Hegde
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Notion's product-market fit journeyNotion's product-market fit journey
Editor's note: 

SFG 40: Notion's Akshay Kothari on productivity and embracing AI


Notion is a productivity platform that blends all your workplace apps into a single platform, including team projects, wikis, and docs. Last valued at $10bn, Notion’s customers include teams at Amazon, Nike, Uber, Figma, Deel, and more!

In this episode, Sandhya Hegde chats with Akshay Kothari, co-founder and COO of Notion.

Be sure to check out more Startup Field Guide Podcast episodes on Spotify, Apple, and Youtube. Hosted by Unusual Ventures General Partner Sandhya Hegde (former EVP at Amplitude), the SFG podcast uncovers how the top unicorn founders of today really found product-market fit.

Summary and key takeaways

👉 When Notion launched publicly, it was a small team of people supporting extremely rapid growth. Akshay joined as the 9th employee and spent his first months doing over 100 customer support tickets per day.

👉 Creating early templates was a “game changer” for the early Notion team. They realized that people weren't likely to build full solutions from scratch. So they created templates for common use cases like wikis and task boards, allowing users to get started in just one click.

👉 Notion noticed early on that power users were proudly sharing the workflows and templates they built on the platform. The idea was to try to make these “builders looks cool.” They decided to spotlight these community stars rather than just promote the Notion brand.

👉 Rather than hire content marketers, Notion looked at influencers in the productivity space. Notion convinced many YouTubers and bloggers to adopt Notion for their own workflow needs, resulting in organic video reviews and recommendations. As Akshay explains, they wanted other people to be “creating content about Notion” to promote the brand.

👉 Notion aimed to strike the right balance between leveraging AI to enhance productivity while providing users with control and the ability to customize their experience. Notion’s AI team prototypes new capabilities and then hands it off to product teams to commercialize. This allows them to experiment rapidly while still maintaining product quality and user trust.

Episode transcript

Sandhya Hegde

Welcome to the Startup Field Guide, where we learn from successful founders of unicorn startups, how their companies truly found product market fit. I'm your host, Sandhya Hegde and today we'll be diving into the story of Notion. Now, if you haven't heard of Notion, you've been living under a rock. It blends all your workplace apps into a single platform, including projects, wikis, and docs.

Last valued at 10 billion, Notion's customers include teams at Amazon, Nike, Uber, Figma, Deel, and many more. So joining us today is Akshay Kothari, the CEO and co-founder of Notion. Welcome to the Field Guide, Akshay.

Before we dive in, a couple call outs. One, if you have been following this podcast and like what we are doing or have ideas for who else we should have on the pod, please leave us a review and let us know you left us a review. We are making some cool new swag for the podcast. And also want to call out that Akshay actually hosts a new podcast called First Block that just started last year and also interviews really great founders.

Do you want to share a little bit more about First Block?

Akshay Kothari

Yeah, it's been a really fun process. I bet you probably started this with similar ideas, but I think when we were starting to think about how we can help other startups, we obviously have an amazing grant program where we give people credits to use Notion for free. And we thought, how do we help them more?

And the big idea in our heads was like, I think every entrepreneur is trying to learn and could we get the best entrepreneurs to tell their story, to talk about their first block, their early days. And so that was the idea. And instead of doing an event, we thought it'd be good to do it as like a video podcast so that people are all around the world could have that learnings.

And we've had some amazing people like from Parker Conrad at Rippling to Cristina Cacioppo at Vanta, and I personally really enjoy doing it because I feel like I'm learning when I'm talking to these people and so thank you for the shout out and I'd love for people to tune into that as well.

Sandhya Hegde

Of course. Yeah, no, couldn't agree more. It's really wonderful to learn from like the people who have done it and hear the unvarnished story. Do check out First Block. And then without further ado, we'll dive into the story of Notion. This is one of, I think the most fascinating product market-fit journeys I have ever you know, seen from the outside-in. Notion technically started in 2013, but it took many years for the team to figure out what they are building and for whom and , I think about probably five years or so, and you Akshay were at LinkedIn at this time.

I'm curious how and when did you meet Ivan in those early years when it was just the two or three of them trying to figure out what Notion is.

Akshay Kothari

Yeah, it's a cool backstory. I've known Ivan now for almost 13 years, so I think two years before Notion was born I tried to hire Ivan. I was running a startup called Pulse back in the day. I was looking for my first designer, and Ivan had recently moved from Canada, and he was looking for a job in the valley, and I actually found him through Hacker News of all places, and so I saw his post about looking for a job and I reached out to him.

He ended up joining another company, but we stayed in touch and when Pulse was acquired by LinkedIn in 2013, he was about to start Notion and I got the opportunity to invest early then. And so Notion actually was my first angel investment. And for about four years, the first four years, Notion actually didn't launch a product, and I thought it was like a mistake I made by investing in the company, and the next year I joined full time to work here.

Sandhya Hegde

Incredible. And like a perfect synthesis of what it feels like to be a founder or an early-stage investor, really. And like how long it takes for like the best stories to play out. I would be remiss to not spend a moment on Pulse. Because I think, you and Ankit were just students on the Stanford campus when you started Pulse and Ankit is now working on his own healthcare startup.

And I think on your team you also had Christina Cordova, who's, gone on to now be the CEO of Linear. So really like early app store success and powerhouse team. What were some kind of big lessons for you from the Pulse journey that you've taken into either angel investing or now working at Notion?

Akshay Kothari

 Yeah, I think we really got lucky. Ankit and I were, we took a bunch of courses together, and that's how we got, and and Christina actually is interesting. It was like, I was like a TA in one of the courses that she took. That's how I got to know her. She was the first employee.

In fact, she actually came back and worked with us at Notion for two years, also before her current job. And yeah, I think there's a lot of learnings. I would say like the biggest one for me at least at Stanford, I was studying electrical engineering, Ankit was studying computer science, but both of us got lucky in taking courses at the design school at Stanford.

And in many ways, I feel like D-school opened up one side of the brain that we were probably not using as much. I think we were very much like analytical, quantitative. We were good students academically, but I wouldn't say we were super creative and so I think in many ways, like D-school sort of really improved our creative confidence and it pushed us into the field more. I think about my life really pre-D-school and post-D-school. I think pre-D-school like a lot of my ideas were in my head. I was just a tech person thinking of what tech could do and I wouldn't talk to a single customer on the field.

And I think D-school changed that, like D-school pushed us to be out there, talk to customers, talk to the problems that they're facing, and really like use tech more as an enabler rather than as the driver. So it's what you're trying to do is not just think of what tech can do, but what you're trying to do is like actually solve problems in the world and figure out how tech can enable that So I would say that's probably the big one and I think I still carry it today. Like every product review or design review or thinking I have right now I think a lot more about the customer and make sure we're not just dreaming up like a solution that we want. But it's actually like, more broadly, the customers are looking for And it gets harder.

When you're small, it's easy to just be out there and talk to customers more naturally. We're like a few hundred people now at Notion, and it gets harder to like, leave the office and make the attempt to do that.

Sandhya Hegde

Oh, that's so interesting. And, fast forwarding to 2017, 2018, you mentioned that it took, about four or five years for the Notion team to launch the product. And I remember, I think, the 2018 launch on Product Hunt was when they came into public consciousness, at least for me, for the first time.

Could you share more about what was happening at the company at this time? I think it was also the year that you actually joined Notion full time. So I would love to learn what led up to that successful launch, finally and how did the early product come together?

Akshay Kothari

Yeah. But I think maybe worthwhile going all the way back. So 2013, Ivan started this company, and I think his dream was this idea that there's a billion people in the world who are knowledge workers, who are using all these different tools to do their work, and there's only about 20 to 30 million developers and these 20 million developers decide how a billion people work and the tools are increasingly more rigid, and if you wanted to change something about it you would have to call a consultant to make some changes there.

And I think Ivan's big idea was, like, Hey, what if you could decompose all the software down to the building blocks? And there's not that many building blocks. There's probably 25 to 30 building blocks that make up most of the enterprise software we use today. And so his big idea was, like, what if we give these building blocks to people?

Can people put these building blocks together and build their own software? And the thing, the hard lesson we learned in the first three, four years was that it's just like, people don't wake up to build software, like people wake up to do their jobs. And even though we have this like dream platform where you can build your own software, most people were not looking for that. Most people were looking for tools that they can just do their job. And so the big sort of pivot we had to do in 2016, 2017 was we had to use our own building blocks and we had to build templates. We had to build templates where someone can just click a button and actually do that thing. You need a to-do list. I click a button, I get that template, I can get up and running. And so that was Notion 1. 0. It was basically a simple note-taking and like a knowledge base for your company, and it started to get people to actually use it more and more. In early 2018, on top of this knowledge base, we introduced a general-purpose database.

And it was not a separate product. It was a product that was built into the the product, the core product itself. And so now not only for people using for note-taking and for also for their company wiki, you could quickly see people using the general purpose database in all sorts of different ways like some people use it for as like a task list, some people use it as a project list some people use it as CRM. Some people use it as like their application tracking system. And I think what people realized was like wow I'm actually using four or five different tools before and now I can consolidate all these different things into a single place that actually supports structured information as well as unstructured information and the ability to put both of those into a single product unlocked a lot of different opportunities for people, right?

And it being a general-purpose database really helped. We were not saying that this is the thing that you need to use for tasks. We said, hey, it's a database. You can drag and drop a page into a database and suddenly that page has properties. And that's what it is. And you have all these different ways you can use it.

And so I would say I think if I look back at those five years, I would say the big learnings were, I think you need a wedge into the market. You can't will your sort of dream into the world like you have to think about okay, How do I like create something that people need to solve their problem today?

And then once we get to a lot of people using it people started to discover they can actually change everything about Notion So that was one that was just like sort of trying to figure out like what's that wedge? I think the other thing was like, I think the templates were a big game changer. And initially we built some templates of our own, but soon the community picked up and like suddenly we had people building all sorts of new templates which actually introduced other people to the platform and I think that sort of like the first day experience became a lot better for our customers, like we didn't have to tell them to go put these building blocks together to use something. They could just click a button, start using it, start exploring with get to the aha moment themselves. And then as they use it more and more, they can go deeper and deeper to figure out like certain changes they wanted to make So I think in early 2018 I could see that was just like happening underneath like most people still didn't know about Notion when I joined. But you could see it in their numbers.

There was like a pull from the market that you could feel. We didn't have any marketing people, we were not doing much PR, but you could see the numbers going up every week because people were telling other people about it. And in some ways, got lucky that I was an investor and I caught up with Ivan that summer, and I could see that, and I can imagine a different world where I didn't come to the US that summer and did not know about it, and I wouldn't be here. I think, definitely good fortune that happened.

Sandhya Hegde

Right. And how was that conversation like? How did you figure out, okay, do I go from a really massive role that you had at LinkedIn at the time to join, what was it, like a five, eight person startup that's, just getting off the ground again? How did you think about that and your role?

Akshay Kothari 

Yeah, I think, surprisingly, the professional decision was relatively straightforward. Once Ivan suggested the role, it felt like the right thing to do, which was surprising to me in some ways, because I feel like, I don't know, I was sitting in India when this happened, I was running LinkedIn International from there, and I thought maybe the next play for me would have been to maybe start something that I can build products as a new company, sitting in India.

Yeah. And I think this actually broke all the rules, like I was moving back to the US, I was working on everything except product, and I wasn't starting something of my own but actually like the things came together in my mind in that like I had done product for so long and I'd always been very curious about the go-to-market and foundational side, I'd always, like always, thought why things happen the way they happen, like why the sales teams are structured in this like SDR, AE, AM, CSM structure. I've always been curious about the difference between performance marketing and demand gen, for example, and I've always managed these teams before, but I've never done it myself.

And so this opportunity to get back into the garage on something that had just hit product market fit and getting the chance to build those teams was very appealing to me. And so the professional side, I didn't actually have to think that much, and I literally talked to no other company. This was literally... Ivan made the offer, and I was like, let's do it.

I think the challenge was more personal, to be honest, because I had just had a kid, we had just built a new home in India which my wife had spent a year building, and suddenly to tell her that we're gonna move back to the U. S. was, like, it was a tricky decision on the personal side.

I was closer to family then. This was like one of the first times that I guess in our marriage where we were like on two different sides of the decision and I had to pull the wild card and be like, okay, I commit to doing whatever you want to do in like in the future, but I really want to do this. I guess coming back to the U. S. was very smooth and I think we're all very happy here, but I think that part was hard and I remember a funny incident where I think Ivan spent like two, three hours with Manya just trying to convince her that, she should say yes to it. I think that was probably like the more trickier part than the professional side. The professional side seemed like I was itching to get back into the garage, itching to get back to building, itching to start something again. And this felt like a unique opportunity to build not the product, but build the go-to-market engine, build the company, build all these other things that support the business.

And, at this point it feels like what a good decision, but back in 2018, I think 99 percent of the people were like, why are you doing this? Like, why are you leaving your VP job at LinkedIn to join this startup that nobody's heard about? So it was fairly risky, but I'm glad it worked out.

Sandhya Hegde

Yeah. And then some. I'm curious you had this new role and you were joining a company that had just taken off in terms of user traction, literally millions of people trying the product. What was your 30-day analysis of okay, what are the problems we have? I'm curious, like, where the company was in terms of having a revenue strategy, for example, and so what were some of the earliest things you invested in that helped the company grow?

Akshay Kothari

 Yeah, the first couple of weeks were super interesting. The thing that really was shocking back then was how small the team was. Like, I was the ninth person. There were, like, two founders, three engineers, three support people, and that was it, essentially. And this thing was growing quite fast and when you come from like a large company, you wonder, it's like, where is the marketing team, and where is the sales team, and where is this team, and you realize oh, down to the basics, like, all that matters is we're building up good product that people want.

And then we have good service that sort of comes with it, right? And it really is that basic, right? It's like before we had a go-to-market team, before we had sales and marketing. Our support people were sales and marketing. Like they were going above and beyond to do that.

And I think for the first six months, all I did was actually like become another support person because we were just trying to keep up with the demand. And so essentially I would do like about 100 to 120 Intercom tickets and I'm so glad I did that like for a while I actually thought am I adding value? Like I'm just like an expensive support person here, but actually the first few months, like I really got to understand all the different ways people were using Notion, like I wouldn't have understood all the different use cases and all the different ways the platform was being used unless I'd done that.

And so 30 days in I was somewhat like, like you have to unlearn so much, so many things coming from a big company to just feel like, okay, what, how is it that we're operating and how can I add value? And then it's also surprising, like how much you can do with how small the team is, right?

In fact, the first few months, like we didn't hire anybody else and it was shocking to me like how much we could get done every week with such a small team. And so I think there's probably like a lot of credit to Ivan because I think in those early days and even now, he's so deliberate about every new hire we make.

He almost meets with every person that you know, joins Notion. And I think, it's always like pushing the team to build the right systems and solve the problem the right way, rather than trying to throw people at it. And that's something that has very much become a core ethos of the company is like we are willing to endure a lot of pain to solve the problem in a good, systematic way rather than just take shortcuts, and hire more people and solve it that way

Sandhya Hegde

And what were some kind of surprises or aha moments for you in those early months in terms of understanding what is, why is it that customers love Notion and what are the implications for future company strategy?

Akshay Kothari

I think the biggest surprise for me, which was true then and it's true now, is you know, I would get in customer calls like through support or just trying to understand and like the things people build with Notion is totally wild. I thought I knew Notion, but like every time I meet a customer and like the way they're using Notion is so different from everything I've seen and at this point I've seen like thousands of customers use Notion in different ways I still get surprised because I think like you know, at the end of the day like Notion has these simple building blocks and like the way people like put them together, the way they run their own workflows is it's totally unique and so I think that earlier days, like I was just surprised how little I knew about the product and the way people were using it.

And in many cases, I would say 20 percent of the support tickets, I did not know how to answer. Likelike people were doing all these interesting things with it that I actually had to ask other support people to just help me learn. I think, but I think one of the things we picked on were, like, you could see how we were attracting the builders of tomorrow you could see how there was starting to be this excitement around people building templates and being so proud of it in a way that I remember when I was in high school there were like two three people in our class who were like Excel macro gurus, right? And then when they build these macros, they feel like these macros are mine. Like it's not Excel, it's like me who's built this and I could see some of that starting to show up in our community where people are like this Notion template is mine, like I build this and I love that instead of us trying to be cool, we're trying to make these builders cool.

Like we're trying to like really up level, like elevate them in a way where we can tell the audience like all these different things that people are building with it. And so anyways, like those first few months and even six years later, even today, I think that's the thing that really gives me energy and like really excites me is like what people are doing with Notion.

Like we have some ideas, some templates we can build, but the community is like infinitely more creative and infinitely more resourceful and it's really fun to watch that. It's probably the thing that gets me like excited every morning. It's just okay, like seeing other people's setups is just like so fun.

Sandhya Hegde

 Notion's probably one of the companies, like a B2B software company with a real TikTok community that came out of nowhere, but maybe going back a little, would love to understand, how would you think about the way Notion has evolved over the years that you've been there?

Like, how have you thought about, what's the right go-to-market strategy needed as the company matures? And I think getting more intentional about the community, I think, definitely played a big part in it. I'm also curious, though, about how you thought about enterprise versus SMB.

Akshay Kothari

Yeah, lots of interesting questions there and like I wish we had more time to go into all the details, but I'll try to short-circuit I guess some of the learnings... I very much think that like our approach has been what I call like B2C2B. It's very much, there's a B2C component to it and there's a B2B component to it.

And like, the way we get to the B2B part is through the consumers, actually. And so what that means is we're trying to build a product that I think consumers love. And I think a lot of consumers think of Notion as a note-taking product, which is fine. Because that's the simplest unit of work, and that's what gets people in the door. But when people use it and they realize, Oh, actually I'm using it for personal note taking, but wouldn't it be great if I added a bunch of my team and like we can collaborate on it? And suddenly the doc becomes a wiki. And then soon more people join and they realize, Oh, wouldn't it be great if we take all this context and manage my projects with it and like suddenly you can manage your projects with Notion, right?

So almost always when I'm talking to customers if you take it back to like how it started with a champion who used it themselves or used it with their partner on a gardening project or a home improvement project or like their training they're doing at the gym It's amazing how much how many people just trace it back to a personal use case, And so we think a lot about okay, how do we make a product that's that is consumer-grade quality that gets people into using it and people having this love for this product. And then how do we take the same product and make it so that like you can take it to work and your work and life in some ways is in harmony with each other. Now I think over the years, I think internally, we've always like ping-ponged between the two.

 Some quarters we feel like, it's like the personal use case and the consumery stuff is like the only thing we need to worry about. And some quarters we think, oh my god, the wiki and the project management is like, the company's enterprise use case is the only thing we need to think about.

 And so I would say like we would probably have gone back and forth a lot and everybody move to the enterprise side, everybody move to the consumer side. But I think we've gotten mature enough and large enough to now feel like we have a more like centered view. Which is at the end of the day, we're building a single product on the Notion side and we're trying to build these building blocks.

And some of these building blocks can be used for the consumer use case, and the same building blocks can then now be used in the business use case. To give you a simple example, you can have a simple checkbox, like a to-do list, and that's the to-do list as a person. And you can essentially take the to-do list, the checkbox, and convert them into a task in a database, right?

And like suddenly it becomes like a task board for your team, right? And so that's been our perspective is like we're building a product that is the same product that can go from one person all the way to 10, 000-person company and I think that actually is an interesting design challenge. There's so many interesting permission issues and so many interesting design paradigms in terms of, like, how do we give people control, but also make it feel like consumery that we've had to deal with that it's a very rich space. Like, I don't think we've cracked all the issues.

We have a lot to do But at the end of the day, like it's one product that sort of works for the B2C context and the B2B context And it's also one product that has all these like amazing list of like horizontal use cases that we need to solve and we're able to do all of that because underneath our engineers are really obsessing about the right primitives we have to build. They're not trying to obsess about the solution.

We're trying to be like, okay, what's the basic primitive we can launch that can unlock all these different use cases? So imagine being a Lego company and we're thinking about the, what's the next building block, what's the next Lego block that we can innovate on that can have 20 new use cases, and then the marketing team is very much thinking about the packaging. It's okay, here's the Harry Potter castle and here's the Star Wars-shaped spaceship and like underneath they're all built of the same building blocks

Sandhya Hegde

 What have been your learnings, especially, being focused on go-to market over the past few years? What would you say are the big learnings you have and some of the challenges that you are still working on in terms of this specific role?

Akshay Kothari

 I think like one of the things that I tried to bring to the go-to-market side was probably like I guess being a product person was trying to bring more systems thinking into that world. There's a couple of examples of this. So if you start with support, I think in the early days, we got really good at every support ticket we answered in Intercom, we would tag them.

And then we would take these tags and every day we would run a job that would bring the frequency of these tags into a Notion database. And so essentially, without having any person, every engineer had access to what trends they could see in terms of support tickets coming in or if someone was working on search, they could just go find the search tag in Intercom and suddenly they have 2000 tickets that they can read about the problems that people have and they can work on that problem.

In many companies, I found these to be several different people, like it's like someone's like aggregating all the feedback, somebody's synthesizing it, somebody's then doing research and then, so I think like the early days, we just built a good system where the connection from engineering to support was like the system. There was no people involved, like support was answering questions, engineers were building the new product, and somehow those systems were connected. I think if you take the marketing side also I think, we could have hired a lot of like, content marketers in the early days, but instead of doing that, we thought what can we do so that other people could be creating content about Notion, right? And we found like there's this whole subculture of productivity people who are like reviewing these things and they're like YouTube stars in their own right and they use a tool to manage their business And we realized what if we could convince all of them to use Notion as their core operating system And if they're using Notion, maybe they'll do videos on Notion and so suddenly like it's like high leverage, right?

Like, how do you get more people? I think the learnings on the sales side is interesting. I don't know, I had probably had like a bias towards like if somebody wants to buy Notion, they should be able to try it, buy it and without having to talk to anyone. I think Notion is still one of the rare companies where you can actually buy the enterprise plan on a self-serve, like you don't have to talk to anyone, like you can pretty much do the whole process.

I think one thing I've realized is like, as much as that is true, we probably could have started early, earlier in our journey, we could have figured out how to tell the Notion story for someone who's never learned about Notion. The product-led growth stuff is super compelling, But I think you're not gonna get your product to every person or every company you want to cater just with the product being good, right?

I think you have to think about what's the story and one of the things you learn very quickly is like, how do you move away from selling features to selling solutions, right? And how do you, what's that arc of the story and like, how is it solving a problem for the persona you're doing?

And I learned this on the go-to-market side first and I was like, okay, instead of selling single-sign-on as a feature, we gotta think about okay, how do enterprises benefit from using Notion as a connected workspace? And I feel like I'm learning the same lesson on the product side now, which is okay, instead of just building a bunch of different features, we gotta think about what is the solution we're building that actually makes sense for a chief product officer or for a chief technology officer, right?

And I feel like at least building SaaS tools, it's like the thing you're building is the thing you're selling, right? There's no like ads model, right? It's actually more direct in some ways, and I feel like Go To Market teams working very closely with the product teams in shipping a solution that actually solves a problem.

I think it's actually harder than you think because I think we end up in this like feature land for the most part, and we have to like always step above, like slightly higher altitude, figure out what the core solution is that you're trying to put out there in the real world. And I think Notion was a little bit slower in figuring out that arc, because we got so obsessed with just product distributing itself, right?

So I think there's some learnings in terms of we could have started earlier, figuring out like what Notion is, and if you've never heard of it, like how it solves some of the problems you have.

Sandhya Hegde

Yeah, I think especially with product-led sales like it's A, it's actually much more complicated as a go-to-market motion because there are more stakeholders and there's more nuance involved than, say, either cold outreach or self serve, right? It's a blended motion. And most of the companies I work with as an investor are using this motion, so it's definitely something for I think a lot about and I think the kind of hindsight 2020 on timing always in terms of like when was the right time to start doing a blended motion as opposed to when you're super early, maybe you're just doing founder selling and then you're just trying to make this bottom up motion work and build your pipeline.

So it's always hindsight 2020 there. But I think the interesting thing that I see a lot of people, product-focused people and founders figure out is there's always this gap between what your end user knows about the product, uses the product for, and what kind of like the buyer and procurement and all these stakeholders who are not going to like just live in your product all the time, what they need, what help do they need to buy the right solution?

So I think about it very much as especially when it comes to design, productivity, any creative tool, like it's bought, not sold. But there's still an important role for this kind of account team to play. And it's very much connecting those dots, right? Like you have these kind of happy end users in the company, but there's a gap in terms of information and knowledge.

And they need help buying the right version of the product for a bigger team or a bigger company, because they're busy people who need the education and are just not going to be your power users, like that's just not what their day looks like. And so you need someone, but you still need them to be very different from maybe a traditional sales rep that leverages a cold outreach-based motion. It's almost a different job entirely, but with similar responsibilities.

Akshay Kotari

Yeah, very much resonate with that. I think in many ways I would almost say nobody's actually cracked that, right? I think I think there's obviously the company we look up to a lot is Atlassian because what they've done is maybe the only company that has taken product-led growth to several billion dollars of ARR with very little like classic sales work.

But most other companies, even Slack and Zoom tend to be like more sales-driven, right? And what is the right way to build a company where product led growth and product-led sales can coexist and be done in a beautiful way where you're expanding distribution?

I feel like they are still wide open. I hope we crack it and people study us, but it's fun because it's, there's not like a certain playbook you can follow. You are like building the playbook as you build.

Sandhya Hegde 

Yeah, it's a great intellectual challenge. I'm definitely betting on you, Akshay. And I think it's also I hope that if we look at 10 years into the future, it will be like the way every company wants to go to market because I do think there's just so much more net positive value for the world, both buyers and sellers of software.

I would love to maybe pivot to obviously the big topic of the past couple years, which is AI. I think Notion was one of the first few kind of mature software companies to come out with a blend of AI features and an existing product. And I loved how thoughtful you all were about, like, how to introduce it.

 What's the kind of right way to have customers experience Notion with AI. I would love to hear, what it looked like in the background. What was the process leading up to launching that? And what have been your top learnings from the product launch since it's been released?

Akshay Kothari

We got lucky in many ways on the AI front. We got some early access to like the newer model. Like I don't know if it was 3. 5 or GPT 4 back in October 2022. And our two other founders, Ivan and Simon, essentially like. We were at a company offsite and they locked themselves in a room for a week and prototyped the early versions of it.

And you could see through the prototype like how much of an impact, difference it's going to make in the world. Just like how knowledge work was going to change. And so when we looked at that, I think it was very clear to us, like we had to lean into this. I think part of it was like playing offense, but also playing defense.

We did not want another company to just be like, hey, we're Notion, but with AI. We wanted to be that company directly. And so I would credit a lot to my co-founders Ivan and Simon for their conviction in pushing the company to get out quickly. I think we came back from that offsite and a month later we announced our alpha.

This was a month before ChatGPT came out, so like we were pretty early in terms of betting heavily on this. And yeah, and three months later we had a GA product in February where you could buy Notion AI for 10 bucks a month and it's our fastest growing business line. It's like a meaningful part of our business now.

And it's really fun to watch us go from like a basic writing tool to now like you can do Q& A and essentially all the content you have in Notion, you can ask questions and get full answers with citation down to the docs you have. It's really powerful. So it's gone from like a thing you can do inside Notion, what you could do in ChatGPT to now, you can now like‌ do something that is just not possible in any other tool.

I think in terms of like the transformation inside the company, I compare this to the mobile change we had a decade ago and I think that change took several years from people to go from like a mobile team to everybody thinking about mobile as the first thing.

I feel like that was like, I don't know, if I remember, it took several years to get there and I feel like AI happened in a matter of months. Like within last year, we went from a small AI team of five people building an AI feature to AI is a fundamental technology, like you should. We should probably put it in every feature we design.

So it's amazing that, that sort of happened. I think the way we're building AI products now is actually compelling. And I think we're starting to see more and more companies follow that. And what we have is we have a very small team, like 12 people who are like on the bleeding edge of AI technology.

They're playing with all sorts of different models. They're prototyping all sorts of new interactions. And every time we see, okay, something is working, they almost pass it on to the core teams that can then productize it and take it to market really quickly. This AI team is also helping other engineers and product people inside the company and designers to learn about AI.

So they're like helping them like think about different models and think about different use cases they have. So it's almost become like a consulting team internally. And yeah, so like a product leader, like every new thing that we're doing, I think the question that everybody's asking themselves is like, how does the AI as a fundamental technology help me solve the same problem?

And in short, I think we've gone from like, how can we use this technology to build some new feature, to actually we're solving the same problems we were solving for the last 10 years, but now like we have this like whole new technology that has become an enabler that was not there before extraordinary that we got there in a matter of months, I think.

Sandhya Hegde

Yeah, the pace and cycle of just, interest to actual prototyping, adoption has been incredible. I think like the fastest thing to get adopted in terms of new tech that we've ever seen in our careers. And I'm curious what are you learning from customer feedback on. I think people are still trying to figure out how to change their workflows to reflect this kind of new enabling tech that could speed up their process a lot, right?

So I'm curious what you are seeing, and how have you expected to change over time?

Akshay Kothari

 Yeah, it's funny. It's last year, a lot of the year, I think the most of the people were just focused on cutting costs. But as AI started to take off, I think it was like this interesting mix of, I still want to cut costs for the most part, but I have this new budget for AI that I'm willing to spend and learn from.

And so I think it's exciting to watch like how much companies are leaned in to this new technology. I think. a lot of companies are investing because everybody is hoping that the productivity boost that they're going to get is going to be totally worth the dollars that they're spending. And I'm definitely a believer

that like even simple things that can be automated could suddenly give you like, I don't know, three hours of the week back and that's totally valuable, right? It's like it's actually gonna be like free up time to do more And so more generally, I'm very bullish on AI actually helping each individual and each company do more with what they already have And so there's gonna be this unlocking of like dollars that companies and people are willing to spend Because suddenly if you're like a high school student, like $20 a month to get help on your work and you know it's like totally three coffees like yes I'm gonna do it.

And similarly on the company side like if it's gonna take me like 20 minutes to find the answer to a doc which I can find that answer in like 15 seconds like you multiply that to the number of queries each person does and you multiply that to all the people you have, like that's so much time saved, right?

So anyways, I think we will all mature in telling that story. And I think companies will see the benefits of actually using it. One actually interesting tidbit is, it's actually fascinating. I was in Japan this summer, this past summer. And I was amazed how leaned in the Japanese society is on AI.

It could be because they're used to automation. But everything from individuals to companies to the government totally wants to lean in, wants to make the most of it, and has very little skepticism. It almost makes US feel like the EU compared to like, how Japan is feeling like the US. If that's the future, if that's where we get to I'm pretty excited about the unlocking. of creativity and value that happens in the world.

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