Ivan Zhao, the founder of Notion, has created a tool that is remarkably unique: It helps users gain clarity and be more productive in their work – yet each one can design a unique workspace that’s tailored to his or her needs.
We recently interviewed him to learn the origin story of Notion, and to get his take on the evolving nature of work today and how his modular masterpiece enables it.
Chuck Frey: If you had to summarize what Notion is and what it represents in 10 words or less, how would you describe it?
Ivan Zhao: Tools that let you work the way your brain works.
Frey: What’s the origin story of Notion? How did it come to be?
Zhao: In college, I did freelance work for friends who wanted to build their own websites, and I saw a couple of things. It seemed wrong that only a few people with the ability to code could build websites and other software tools. Also, the software that so many of us used every day couldn’t be modified at all. This is not surprising if you consider how these tools evolved. There’s a short history of this (and how it influenced Notion) here. But really, there haven’t been many big changes to our essential work software in decades. We still write documents that mimic paper. And we still store them in file cabinets — only now it’s all digital.
Notion wants to challenge this status quo. We want to give more people the ability to build the tools they actually want and need without having to code. And we want to do this in a way that will help people think more clearly and collaborate with each other better. Notion does this in a couple of ways:
1) It brings all your work into one space so you can close all the many apps and tabs you’ve been using, and work alongside your team in the same spot, and
2) it breaks traditional productivity software into blocks — text, lists, tasks, databases, images, etc. — so you can easily build and stack them however you want to solve your problems your own way (made easier with drag and drop, etc.).
We started with Notion 1.0, which was all about docs and notes, and then introduced 2.0 with databases in the spring of 2018. We’re continuing to grow our functionality, and are excited about what’s ahead in 2019.
Frey: What has changed in the nature of work that has created the need for a tool like Notion?
Zhao: There are so many apps these days. In enterprise software alone, people use a whole portfolio of software tools, and most of them have very narrow use cases. There’s been kind of a big unbundling where the old guard like Microsoft Office has been broken down into many separate apps for documents, spreadsheets, notes, etc.
This reality is not only expensive for businesses, but it has all of their employees jumping and context switching between many apps and tabs all day long just to complete single projects. We think the pendulum is swinging back to a bundled solution.
When people have all their essential work tools in one place and are able to work there seamlessly together with their team, they get more done, they save a huge amount of time, their thinking is more clear and consistent, and project work flows more smoothly.
Frey: What holes does Notion fill that existing productivity, information management and collaboration tools weren’t addressing?
Zhao: The all-in-one nature of Notion is very special. Not only does this make all of your team’s work easier to find, access, and dig into every day, it also increases transparency and the flow of information throughout teams.
One of the biggest holes we fill is the information gap that emerges on teams that work across too many tools without visibility. The key to healthy culture and productivity is over-communication and true understanding of what everyone is working on and why it’s important.
This is impossible for most teams to achieve because people are doing work in all kinds of places that aren’t connected, and people don’t think to share. Notion gives you a bird’s eye view of everything your team is working on and then lets you drill down into the smallest details if and when you want.
Frey: What’s your vision for how tools can help people to create and express their ideas better?
Zhao: We think tools should mimic the way people’s brains work. And since everyone thinks and works differently, this means tools need to be very flexible. We try to give people a blank canvas that lets them arrange their thoughts in ways that are most helpful to them.
We also built in mechanisms like drag and drop so it’s easy and intuitive to rearrange your thoughts once they are “down on paper,” so to speak. People think fast, so they should be able to capture and restructure their thoughts fast too. A lot of our functionality has been designed in service to that.
Frey: How are the needs of work teams evolving, and how does Notion reflect that direction?
Zhao: Teams are increasingly tech-savvy, with things like shortcuts and working collaboratively becoming second nature. People are used to working in shared documents and project spaces, and constantly communicating with their colleagues through various channels.
That said, increasingly, teams need ways to work better together that don’t require a ton of time spent in in-person meetings (which slows everyone down), and a way to keep communication focused and action-oriented.
Notion addresses both by making communication in the product more about utility — allowing people to collaborate on the same pages at the same time, and to have very targeted asynchronous conversations about specific work (using comments and discussions). We’ve been able to eliminate a lot of meetings at Notion, for instance, because these discussions take place in a clear way inside the product right next to the work in question.
Frey: How does Notion help individuals and teams to manage their tasks and projects better?
Zhao: In Notion, you can create multiple layers of tasks so that it’s possible for everyone to see everyone’s tasks team-wide at the top level, and then drill down into individuals’ tasks at the most granular level.
The best way to do this is to create a database of all tasks across your entire team and organization. Tag them by department, assign them to specific people, even give them due dates if you want. You can view this kind of database as a Kanban board if that helps you visualize tasks better. And you can filter it to see just your tasks or a colleague’s tasks.
In this way, you get to see how what you’re working on fits into the greater whole. It reinforces organizations to make sure all work being done by everyone rolls up to the same main objectives, and provides transparency for everyone into what’s going on and who is doing what at all times.
Frey: How does Notion help teams brainstorm and innovate better?
Zhao: We’ve heard from a number of people that Notion’s very minimalist, lightweight feel encourages people to write more — even if it’s just jotting down ideas. So that’s one thing.
The more you can encourage people to share, and the more you can coax ideas and information out of their heads, the better off your team will be long-term. Beyond that, the fact that you can add any variety of things to Notion docs — images, videos, embeds from 400+ other apps — means you can cobble together a lot of different modes of expression, inspiration pieces, and creative ideas in one place.
Lastly, there’s a lot of transparency that comes from storing all your knowledge, information and work in one place that your entire team can see and access. People can dive into notes from other people’s meetings, or search for past campaigns to understand how to create a new one, just to name a couple of examples. In this way, Notion lets you capitalize on all of your institutional history and knowledge to keep doing new, exciting things.
Frey: Notion’s interface seems to do a great job of “getting out of the way” so users can focus on what they want to create. Was that intentional?
Zhao: Yes, absolutely. We wanted to create a space that was as distraction-free as humanly possible. That’s why all of Notion’s functionality fades to the back as soon as you start typing. You’re really left with a completely blank, fresh space designed to feel like a breath of fresh air and spacious opportunity to think deeply.
Also, as you use the product, you’ll notice that a lot of features only appear on hover, or that you only receive notifications when someone mentions you or something specific requires your attention. We want Notion to be as light and simple as you want to be, with the power to do complex things only if and when you want to.
Frey: What’s next for Notion?
Zhao: We believe more people should be able to modify the tools they use in their everyday lives and work. Right now very few of us can. Only those who can code, and sometimes not even them.
We’re all using tools that proscribe very specific workflows that rarely match the way we wish we could think, learn and work. In the future, Notion will be tackling this even more directly — giving people even more capability to shape the tools they use for an increasingly wider variety of applications.