This post was originally published in my free newsletter, How They Grow, where every other week, I pick one company or startup you probably know and go deep on their go-to-market strategy, how they acquired early customers, and what their current growth engine looks like.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been going down several rabbit holes to learn as much as I can about a humble little multi-billion dollar company called Notion, trying to get a solid understanding of what’s made them such a startup success story, as well as what actionable advice I can extract for us to use on growth – and there’s a lot of it!
Here’s what to expect in this piece:
How they grow
As we go, I’ll be calling out key learnings and takeaways that can help all of us build and grow better businesses, and also sound smarter in our next meeting. 😎
The great bundling
Once upon a time, if you had an idea on how to improve your mud hut building business or a list of fruits and berries your wife told you to go gather, all you’d have to help you look after that info would be your good ol’ memory.
Fast forward a couple of thousand millennia and the way we keep track of (and work with) information has progressed significantly. Today we have access to tools that make it easier to keep notes and track things in our personal and work lives
We can summarize the evolution of documentation into three broad stages:
- Undocumented, unreliable. This is where the things we learned were passed on purely through stories around the campfire.
- Documented, reliable, but fragmented. A ton of progress happened in this evolutionary phase, starting with stone tablets, through to all the note-taking and workspace apps we see around us today.
All today’s tools, by and large,
- Serve one main function each,
- Are unbundled, and
- Are defined by how they’re used.
In other words, we have to use many different tools to perform our various responsibilities at home and at work.
- Bundled, highly personalized. This next evolutionary phase is where I’d like to introduce you to Notion.
While many people are happy with phase two tools, Ivan Zhao and Simon Last have bet big on two things:
- Many people are not, and
- People love playing with LEGO.
On the back of that thesis, they founded Notion, the “all-in-one workspace” for everything and anything. This platform bundles all the most important tools you use for docs and productivity into one place and is super easy to customize.
If you’re an individual who’s looking to take notes, make to-do lists, track habits, make life wikis, build a personal portfolio website, or – like me right now – organize your budding newsletter business everyone's subscribing to, Notion’s the tool for you.
Its $10 billion-and-growing valuation comes from the fact that it’s a collaborative tool, allowing teams to build knowledge bases and wikis, share documents, take notes, manage workflows, and act as a powerful sandbox where they can build any system they need to without having to code or connect dozens of tools.
That sounds like it could be hella confusing to navigate. Through excellent onboarding and their successful templates feature, though, they’ve not just made it easy for you to build your workspace. They’ve also built an exceptionally powerful growth loop. A lot more on this soon.
With this – Ivan, Simon, and their small team of around 400 people have started a whole new phase in the evolution of productivity – the great bundling.
But, they didn’t always have VCs frothing to get a piece of their growth.
How Notion almost failed
What many people don’t know, is that in 2015, this perfect Silicon Valley startup nearly died and joined the other 90% of startups that fail.
So, before getting into how they grow, let’s take a step back for a moment to see where the idea came from, why they almost failed, and importantly, what we can learn from how they got through it.
Like many great startup ideas, the original kernel that set things in motion came from Ivan Zhao setting out to solve a problem for himself.
After graduating college, he found himself in a close circle of fashion designers, artists, and creators – a circle who had no shame in taking his technical skills for granted and asking him to create one-page portfolio websites for them.
TL;DR: he got over that pretty quickly and wanted to find a way to replace his new no-pay gig of churning these sites out. With his background in programming, he wanted to build a tool that would allow all these creative folks to build an expressive portfolio for themselves.
He had the itch, so he quit his job and teamed up with Toby Schachman to scratch it. Toby had just finished his Master’s at NYU, where he published his entire thesis on visual programming.
Visual programming posed an elegant solution to the problem, as it’s a language that allows anyone to create apps graphically without code.
All giddy on visual programming, they set their eyes on a much more ambitious project – to empower people with a tool to create any generic web app you can use and customize without having to learn how to code.
In 2013, they raised a seed round, and they brought in Simon Last, an aspiring visual programmer. The three of them began work on Concept, their aptly named prototype.
This was all circa 2012–2013 – and the problem they faced at that time was that their vision of democratizing programming for creative people wasn’t rooted in any immediate or frequent problem their target audience of creative non-programmers faced. Their big audacious goal had an early positioning problem, so the Trojan horse for their vision became creating documents.
“We focused too much on what we wanted to bring to the world. We needed to pay attention to what the world wanted from us”, Ivan said.
And people were just not interested in a no-code programming application.
That’s a really important takeaway – you need a wedge into your market. A specific problem and use case that’s real and relatable to the people you want using your product, one that’s simple to explain. This is how you get people to come for the fries and stay for the happy meal. More on this coming up.
So, while their mission was, and still is, “to make it possible for everyone to shape the tools that shape their lives” by building LEGO-style software, they focused on a different approach to getting there.
For two-ish years, they worked away, and now we’re back in 2015, where as I said, they almost joined the startup graveyard.
A key issue: they had built their app on a suboptimal tech stack. It crashed constantly.
Their seed cash was burning with no revenue to replenish it, and they arrived at a hard choice many founders find themselves facing – start over, or run out of cash.
“If you looked at the burn rate, we all would’ve died together,” Ivan says. “It wasn’t much of a choice.”
So, Ivan and Simon set about rebuilding the tech. They left uber-expensive San Fransisco and went to Kyoto, Japan – where their founder-friendly diet of ramen would be cheaper, and where they could sublet their SF apartment and live off the difference between SF & Kyoto rental costs.
They didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese, so they spent 18 hours a day thinking, designing, programming, and creating Notion.
Several months later, in 2016 – they released version 1.0 of the app. In 2018, they released version 2.0 – and that’s when things started getting serious.
In short-stead; they hit 1 million users with just their seed round of funding and only 18 people on the team, they delayed taking on VC money while Silicon Valley was knocking and their user base and devoted community exploded. They grew rapidly to their current $10 billion valuation, and through their domino approach to breaking into large companies – are now selling enterprise software through TikTok. Yup, TikTok.
So, how did they do it? A little strategy, a great product that people love, and knowing how to grow.
And here is where our growth analysis begins.
Pause for takeaways 🍕
As promised, here are some high-level takeaways on the above. These ones are for founders.
- Try solving your own problems. One of the best ways to find a startup idea is to just be aware of your own unmet needs. Solve your own problems and you’ll have a good grip on who your customer will be.
- It’s okay to copy. Ivan Zhao said on an AMA forum, “Our guiding light has always been history. To be honest, nothing is new in Notion. We copied everything from earlier systems.”
- Bring in people with the right experience. Everyone Ivan brought in to co-found his idea had a background that made sense and contributed – this creates mindshare.
- Have a big vision, but find your Trojan horse. An inspiring vision is what gets people to quit their job, get paid nothing, and go to Kyoto with you. But sometimes that vision is hard to communicate on your homepage, and isn’t what resonates most with your new users right now. Find a specific problem that’s real and relatable to the people you want using your product, one that’s simple to explain.
- Be versatile. Have strong convictions, but loosely held. Don’t be married to your ideas or plans – because in the beginning, they are sure to not go the way you think. Adapt to what people want, not what you thought they would. Pivot or rebuild if you need to.
- Make hard choices. Letting go of friends you work with, or packing up your life to go to another country – these are not easy calls to make, but they might be necessary.
- Know when to take people's money. This is a tricky one. If someone’s offering you money right now (i.e this down market) – take it! But there’s a lot to be said for turning down cash until you have something that’s ready to have fuel thrown onto it.
- Move to Kyoto if you need to. Do whatever it takes to survive. Hustle, persevere, be creative, have grit.
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Breaking down Notion’s growth
Notion has not followed a growth strategy like your typical B2C or B2B SaaS company. They do hardly any paid ads. A key differentiator to their strategy is how they grow horizontally by marketing to a large base of people, segmenting their audiences, and leaning heavily into their flexibility, and the power of community.
Notion makes its money on the B2B side of its business, so I’m going to spend a lot of time looking at growth through this lens. But, before we get into the specifics of Notion’s growth, let’s align on a few aspects of go-to-market (G2M) motions first.
B2B companies usually go to market with:
- A product-led or sales-led growth strategy, and
- A top-down or bottom-up approach.
I’ll build on some definitions here that come from Lenny Rachitsky and Wes Bush in his book,Product-Led Growth.
Product-Led vs. Sales-Led vs. Sales-Assisted Growth
- Product-led: The product is self-serve (with a freemium or trial offering), and users become customers after using the product on their own. They also generally discover your product through SEO, ads, or referrals. Here, your product powers every stage of your funnel – from helping users onboard to discovering value, and then upgrading.
It also makes it easier to reach more people and to sell your product at a more affordable price, and most cross-functional teams in the business align around product. This includes companies like Spotify, Netlfix, Figma, Airtable, and Notion.
- Sales-led: The product requires someone from the company (usually a salesperson) to onboard you, and new customers generally try the product only after a salesperson reaches out. Deals take longer to close with this approach, and this cost is typically passed on to customers. This includes companies like IBM, Oracle, Snowflake, and Salesforce.
- Sales-assisted: A sales team helps close and expand larger accounts that primarily come through a product-led motion (vs. outbound sales). Some mixture of sales is needed when dealing with higher account value enterprises.
Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up vs. Community-Led
- Top-down: You go after key decision makers (e.g. execs, VPs, heads-of) within the company, who buy and spread your product throughout the company top-down. This approach only works if you’re using a sales-led G2M strategy, since the deal value needs to be a lot higher.
Benefits here include lower churn and closer relationships – but at the expense of potentially relying on a few key contracts. This includes companies like Workday, Salesforce, and Square.
- Bottom-up: You target individual contributors within a company, who try the product and then spread the word for you in their teams, eventually enabling you to sell and expand the product companywide. The benefits here are fewer touches are needed by your team to sell, lower customer acquisition costs (CAC), quicker sales cycles, and more easily predicted sales figures. This includes companies like Slack, Datadog, and GitHub.
- Community-led. This, unsurprisingly, is where your community does the selling for you. Here, your members become a powerful, multiplying force that help you drive growth at every stage of your funnel. They act as an outgrowth of your marketing, customer success, and sales teams. I will expand on this growth motion later.
Notion started out byusing a bottom-up and community-led approach to go after consumers (B2C) and SMBs (B2B with less than 100 employees). It got them to be customers with a product-led growth strategy.
As they’ve built and grown a huge and engaged community, Notion has continued to lean into product-led growth as their core growth strategy. But they’ve also built out a sales-assisted model for bigger enterprise clients that their community actively contributes to winning.
Growth happens inside either an existing or a new market – so before looking at how Notion is growing, we first need to ask what market Notion is in, and where they fit in.
Notion and the competitive landscape
Broadly speaking, Notion is in the collaborative-workspaces market.
However, the best and quickest way to introduce the competitive landscape without getting very deep here is by means of a quote from Foundation Inc, “Notion is reinventing the spreadsheet & competing with thousands of software companies at the same time”.
This Tweet by Ross Simmonds helps to further sum things up:
There are a ton of SaaS companies that have built businesses around unbundling the use-cases within excel – just like people have done for Craigslist.
“At the end of the day, the good old-fashioned spreadsheet is still coming to eat your lunch. Using Asana to collaborate with clients? There’s a spreadsheet for that. Using Trello to track project statuses and owners? Spreadsheet for that too. Using Todoist for personal task management? Yep, Google Sheets can do that too.”
– Josh Gallant, Foundation Inc
But, Notion is coming for Google’s lunch. They are bundling use cases from the spreadsheet and packaging them with an easier UI and UX.
Notion, along with direct competitors like Airtable and Coda, are positioning themselves as spreadsheet alternatives to directly challenge Excel and Google Sheets.
This means Notion spans many audiences and markets. Not only do most SaaS companies still need to compete with the spreadsheet and each other, but they’re also competing with Notion.
Notion isn’t just trying to pull users away from Airtable or Sheets. They’re trying to attract users from thousands of SaaS companies across hundreds of industries. Accounting SaaS tools, HR SaaS tools, Project management SaaS tools, Content scheduling SaaS tools – the list goes on.
Okay, now that we have a decent idea of the landscape, let’s look at how Notion is growing so successfully within it. We’ll start by looking at how they’re winning product-led growth, and we’ll circle back to their community-led growth.
In this go-to-market strategy, the product is the main driver throughout the user experience that encourages growth at every stage of the funnel.
So, product-led growth begins with people coming in and trying your product (for free). However, Notion is a bundled tool that does a lot. And while this breadth and flexibility of their offering is how they have been able to grow horizontally and appeal to such a wide base of people, it has a drawback.
It makes it a hard-to-sell product, meaning they have to explain exactly what the tool does.
Yet, Notion is multiplying its user base year-over-year with no paid advertising. This means people are…
- Picking up what they’re putting down
- Signing up to give it a go, and
- Setting their product-led flywheel in motion through referrals.
So – how do they sell a hard-to-get product so efficiently?
In researching Notion’s growth, I came across a concept by Ali Abouelatta that I think explains this really well. He calls out two things. A value curve, and a value stack.
“One way to maximize user commitment is by getting them to invest time and effort in learning the ins and outs of the tool at hand. Most enterprise (or even consumer) software has a learning curve. The more you learn how to use the software, the more utility you can extract out of it.
Notion did an excellent job here at moving people along this learning/value curve extremely efficiently (without the need for a large CS or sales force) and extremely fast.
For the same $4, $8, $12/month, Notion is a better bargain for someone on top of the Value curve than someone just at the start, and those are the people who would be most motivated to spread the word about the product.”
– Ali Abouelatta
So, Notion is selling a feature-packed product with many levels of utility by incrementally moving people along that value curve. This is where his concept of a value stack comes in – a layered approach to getting people to maximum product utility.
- Layer 1: I use Notion for myself
- Layer 2: My team and I use Notion
- Layer 3: Notion is my company’s source of truth
- Layer 4: Lego blocks for creating productivity apps.
If a user was thrown straight into the full power of Notion right at layer four, some people would get it. Many would be lost and leave.
That’s where Notion follows the “come for X, stay for Y” idea. They then move people towards Level 4.
Now, let’s get into the details of how they move people along that value curve.
Comparative positioning to the tools you know
Notion calls out the competitors it’s replacing with no shame. These tools are all familiar and well-positioned in the minds of their audience of consumers and SMBs.
This is a simple and effective strategy to explain your product.
Your competitors have spent a ton of time and resources creating awareness for themselves and making sure end-users understand what they do. You piggyback on that to quickly help people get what you do, and then explain your differentiator.
It’s similar (but even more useful) than the “We’re Uber for X” statement, because you’re instead saying “We’re replacing X.” This is a bolder statement, sure, but it’s far more useful because people don’t have to perform mental gymnastics to figure out what you do.
Take a look at how they’re doing it for their three most popular use-cases for teams: Wikis, Projects & Tasks, Notes & Docs.
For team wikis, it’s Confluence and GitHub Wiki:
For project and task management, Trello, Asana, and Jira:
And for notes and documents, Google Docs and Evernote:
As a user scrolls through this page, it becomes very clear what they can expect Notion to do for them.
One caveat here to keep in mind, which should go without saying – don’t bullshit people.
Overpromising and underdelivering = unhappy users = churn and a leaky bucket.
So, if this is a strategy you use, pick the tools your product ‘replaces’ with consideration.
Removing barriers to entry through single-player mode and integrations
Notion uses comparative positioning to help people get what they do before trying it. From here, the next step is converting those people into users and getting them into the product. To see how Notion did that in the beginning (and still does today), let’s start by taking a look at the productivity landscape back in 2018. Specifically, at other companies selling bundled solutions.
- Quip: Real-time collaboration on document + Chat
- Amium: File sharing + Chat
- Bear: Notes + Docs
- Notion: Docs + Wiki + Tasks
Notion has been the clear winner in this space.
Take Slack for example. It’s an extraordinary product, but if you’re the only person on your team who’s on it and you’re hearing crickets, it’s useless. That’s because it’s purely a multi-player product.
Multi-player products, once you get to the right threshold of people, are super powerful because they create network effects (i.e they become exponentially more valuable as more people use them). This means, once you’re in and using a multi-player product, it’s harder to switch and leave.
The brilliance of Notion is that there’s a single-player and a multi-player mode.
This single-player strategy within a B2B product makes it much easier to follow a bottom-up approach to selling to companies. This is because they can get people in to try it for themselves, and then upsell the value to bring in the rest of their team (only charging for the service from this point on).
This single-player support for their bottom-up strategy is why they can sell to big companies through TikTok – because technically, they’re not. They’re selling to you and me, everyday people who work at companies, that then initiate a domino effect into the rest of the company.
I can first-hand confirm the efficacy of that, because they got me, and now my team and my entire company use Notion.
As you’ve seen – Notion can replace a lot of apps you might be using across its broad, bundled, productivity stack. But that doesn’t mean you necessarily want to be replacing your entire Google Suite. For example at my company, we still use Google Docs and Google Sheets for certain use-cases.
Notion knows that. A key way that they’ve removed barriers to entry and made the decision to give Notion a go that much easier is by making it very clear that they “play nice” with other tools via integrations.
“To tackle that barrier head-on, Notion lists a few of the many tools they play nice with, showing how they can fit into the workflows you’re already comfortable with. Use Slack often? Notion works well with Slack. Don’t want to ditch the Google Suite entirely? You don’t have to. Notion and Notion integrations work with Sheets, Docs, and Drive.”
– Josh Gallant from Foundation Inc
This is important because they remove the need to make a hard switching decision if that is a friction point, and allow you to give Notion a go while keeping your other tools.
Some, actually many, of the tools Notion integrates with are not replaced by Notion. Rather, they are adjacent tools their audience is likely using to get their overall job done. Integrations then help them bring all that together into their everything workspace.
Personalizing your product experience
Okay, so Notion leaned into comparative positioning to help people know what they’re about and then got users to convert through the appeal and utility of single-player mode and easy integrations.
Now we’re in the sign-up process … and to continue helping new users “get it” and not be overwhelmed by everything – they use a personalization strategy.
This is a quick onboarding quiz users are walked through to get a sense of their goals with Notion. This, in short, ensures they send people down the most relevant and useful path within the product. It means people are seeing what they want to see. Let’s take a look.
Each path has very specific messaging and activation steps – making Notion feel like it’s the right place for you.This is such an important strategy for introducing people to new information at a pace that isn’t overwhelming.
Let’s look at a specific example. Say I was using Notion for my team, and I said I was on the marketing department. The final step in the registration process and onboarding quiz is their first touch-point for referrals – trying to get those dominos falling.
Three easy ways for a user to start multiplayer mode, with a smart default choice, make this an effective referral page. Of course, if you’re not ready to invite your team yet, you don’t have to.
Now you’re inside the product and they know who you are and what you’re here for. Notion’s next goal is to get you to activate and start engaging with the tool.
This activation step is where Notion’s most powerful feature comes into play – templates.
Because I joined as a marketer, I’m given a set of templates to start trying out that are most relevant to what I’m here for and hence most likely to use.
If I’d said I was using Notion just for myself, I’d have gotten templates like Tasks, Notes, Journals, etc.
Now, we’re starting to talk about templates – and this is where Notion’s powerful growth loop comes in. I’m starting to get giddy because I’ve been dying to talk about loops!
The “Template” growth loop
But first, let’s define what a loop is.
To start very simply, a loop is not a funnel.
Here’s Brian Balfour from Reforge, explaining growth loops:
“One of the common answers to ‘How does your product grow?’ is a picture of a funnel. The funnel AARRR framework was originally created by Dave McClure. It was a great starting point. It helped me and millions of others level up their game. But the framework is now more than 11 years old and since then we’ve learned a lot about how the fastest software products grow.
The biggest thing we’ve learned is that the funnel framework is too micro of a view in order to answer ‘How does your product grow?’ It helps explain a specific step within a Growth Loop, but misses the larger picture of the loop itself.”
He goes on to list various reasons why growth funnels are problematic, which I by and large agree with. It’s an important read.
So, why growth loops and not growth funnels?
- Loops are compound interest. With a loop, one cohort of users or one set of actions within the cycle re-invests itself at the beginning of the next cycle, and so on.
- Loops are defensible. They bring together how your product, channel, and monetization strategies work cohesively together in a single system rather than treating them as discrete silos. This makes them more specific to you, making them harder for others to copy.
- Loops lead to holistic thinking and decision-making. Because loops force you to see the entire system as one functioning thing vs looking just at just one level in a funnel, you approach growth and investment decisions with a better macro view.
Loops are a fantastic growth framework. And Notion, through templates and community (which we will segue into soon), have built a mechanism that is propelling their product-led growth.
When Notion launched, they had 30 templates that their own team produced.
These templates made it easy for new users to discover Notion without having to do any work (i.e build) and learn about how it works. From here, as people played around more, they started moving along that value stack – until they reached layer 4 and started making their own.
The beauty of Notion’s template strategy, beyond being an onboarding mechanism, is that they have also open-sourced templates. People can customize existing templates, or build their own, and then publish and share them with other people. This is brilliant, and it’s a pillar of their community.
By allowing people to share their creations with the world, Notion has created an entire marketplace outside of Notion for these templates. Some people just share templates for free with the community on Reddit or Twitter; others have made entire businesses from it across platforms, from Gumroad stores to newsletters to YouTube channels.
Take a look.
Notion stores are the most tagged in Gumroad for “Business & Money”:
So many Notion videos on YouTube
People love to show people how to do things, and because you can customize Notion in so many ways – people can create many different templates for the simplest of things, like habit trackers, or reading lists.
As a result there are far more templates covering way more use-cases than would have been possible if only Notion created them – building them a massive template gallery. And people love to make money and be seen adding value so they’re motivated to share them.
This is free growth driven by word-of-mouth. As more templates are shared on Slack, Discord, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook groups, Tweets, etc, more eyeballs are seeing Notion in a relevant light.
This means more people are coming in through templates, and people who already use Notion are finding new ways to add to their existing workspaces and customize further. That’s a winning growth lever across acquisition, activation, retention and referral.
Bringing that together into a growth loop looks like this:
Let’s walk through it.
- You discover Notion through a neat daily journal template shared on Twitter.
- You sign up so you can give it a try.
- But, Notion’s learned a bit about you through the quiz, and they suggest more templates.
- So, you try another template out – “hmm, this is cool!”
- Suddenly, you’ve made a workspace your own with a few different templates.
- You’re now comfortable with Notion and have even customized a template to suit you.
- You think your template is pretty sweet – why not share it?
- So you post on r/Notion and give it a Tweet.
- Your mom sees it.
- Your mom signs up.
- And so it goes…
You can see why a funnel is the wrong way to look at it. A funnel would ignore how you becoming a user leads to your mom joining.
As I hope I’ve illustrated, templates are an important part of Notion’s product-led growth. But, the effectiveness of the template growth loop strategy comes from the tight coupling with community-led growth. (Remember how loops function as a system across other parts of the business 🤓).
I think this is as good a time as any to start talking about community.
But we’ve covered a lot so far, so let’s quickly…
Pause for takeaways🍕
- Product-led growth is a scalable G2M strategy. With a great product that helps people throughout your funnel, you reduce the time and costs it takes to bring in customers vs using a sales team alone (bottom-up). The more you have to sell, the higher the cost will be that your customer absorbs.
- Start with a very simple value proposition that solves users’ immediate problems. It’s okay to have a product that does more – but you need to create a wedge to help you explain your product, and then guide people towards “unlocking” more valuable use cases. Otherwise, you’re going to confuse the heck out of people and limit the top of your funnel.
- Call out your competition. Creating a direct comparison point helps you explain your product to people much quicker. This is a handy way to help with a positioning problem. Be bold, creative, and edgy here – people love a bit of banter.
- Make it easy to try your product. Whether you’re B2B or B2C – you need to break down any friction around trying your product. Remove risk, preempt questions, and make the decision easier for people.
- Build in a single-player mode. By making your product valuable even if you have just one user, you set yourself up for lower churn and give yourself more time to move users along the value curve.
- Personalize your user experience. This is what people want and expect, and it doesn’t require a whole lot of user data to do right. A simple quiz can be enough to set users down the most relevant path and help them find value.
- Think in loops, not funnels. Growth loops lean into the most powerful force in the universe – compound interest. While funnels are not irrelevant, loops are a better framework to think about your entire growth system. Think about how one cohort of people, or one set of actions taken by users, will lead to more of the same. Find that and you have your loop.
Community is so hot right now.
And it’s not just all the Web3 startups coming out of the woodwork. It’s also Web2 titans like Atlassian, Glossier, Datadog, Gitlab, Twitch, dbt, Salesforce, Peloton, and many others who have found success from earlier communities gravitating around their early products.
To give you some stats – in the 2021 CMX Community Industry Report, 86% of companies said that “community is critical to their mission” and 69% of companies said that they “plan to increase their investment in community in the next year.”
And, First Round said that, even in 2019, 80% of startups were investing in community, and 28% considered it to be “their moat and critical to their success.”
Before moving into Notion specifics – let’s get an expert to define community for us.
“Community is more than just a feeling of belonging. In the context of business, it’s a structure for creating value. A simple way to understand it is to compare ‘community’ to an ‘audience.’
To build an audience, you help people.
To build a community, you help people help each other.
It’s a subtle but massive difference in mindset. Traditionally, businesses create all the value for the consumer. Community-driven businesses create spaces for consumers to create value for each other.”
– David Spinks, Building Community
Community is an amplifying force. It empowers members to contribute, and gives you the ability to scale value creation far beyond what your own team can manage.
It’s how Duolingo is able to run 2,600 events every month with a community team of three people, and how 83% of questions asked by Salesforce’s customers are answered by other customers.
In a guest post on Lenny’s Newsletter, David Spinks gives a few examples of what member contribution looks like – and Notion has all of this going for it:
- Moderators: keep content clean and organized in the community.
- Facilitators: start conversations in the community and host discussions.
- Event organizers: start local chapters and self-organize local or virtual events.
- Ambassadors: advocate on behalf of the brand.
- Content contributors: write articles, create videos, or develop other forms of content.
- Committee members: join a customer advisory board to guide product direction.
- Power users: achieve status by being the most active members of a platform.
- Mentors: dedicate time to supporting other customers one on one or in small groups.
And when you have these contributions going for you – here a few of the major benefits that stood out to me while researching community:
- Big trust signal – people trust other people the most.
- You can build better products with community feedback – great source of ideas.
- An engaged community helps you acquire new users.
- An engaged community helps you onboard/activate new users.
- An engaged community can augment your customer success.
- A community creates belonging, which creates evangelistic fans, which leads to great retention.
- An engaged community takes on a life of its own and grows with little effort or cost.
Okay – so we know what community is and why so many founders want one.
Now let’s look at how Notion is winning at community led-growth, having built an engaged Reddit community of 226K people and a Twitter base of 303K. That’s substantial compared to its competitors and other B2B SaaS companies.
Notion’s community-led growth flywheel
Following the Product Hunt launch of Notion 2.0 in 2018 (a wild success), Notion not only saw a huge lift in traffic and in its user base – but it noticed something significant: a few Twitter enthusiasts loved talking about Notion.
At the time, Camille Rickets, marketing employee #1, saw how vocal these people were being about how great Notion was. She knew this was their first community, and knew Notion needed to find a way to embrace these people and bring them in – Camille’s words, not mine.
To lean into this, she hired Ben Lang directly from this naturally budding community. At the time, he was running a Notion fan site that was getting around 80,000 hits per month.
Talk about nailing the “Why do you want to work here?” interview question.
Anyway, from here they went on to build technically the first version of their ambassador program, Notion Pros, which was really just an aggregation of their top fans.
In a conversation with Forget The Funnel, Camille explained how they launched the program with a simple landing page – immediately getting 400 applications.
To keep it manageable while they figured out what the cadence of communication would be, they started with just 20 people.
With these fans, they wanted to really embrace them and make them feel more connected to Notion – making them feel like members, and not customers. A large part of this was driven by both founders being extremely hands-on with them.
They hosted meetups where Ivan and Simon answered questions and spoke to them as peers. They gave them access to funds if they wanted to throw events. They gave them early access to features. Some swag was in there too.
And, critically, they asked for their feedback on how to build a better product, essentially creating a customer advisory board, bringing the voice of the customer deeply into Notion. This helped them improve their product more quickly, which feeds back into product-led growth, which helps them grow the community even more.
I get to use another loop visual here to illustrate – yay!
When you build something that people really want, people will talk about it. Notion found the people with organic enthusiasm, built relationships with them, and they became the gas for their community fire.
These early ambassadors threw events, told their friends and followers of Notion’s greatness, created and shared templates, and drove conversations on Reddit. And, because of Notion’s template strategy, these community members were building businesses for themselves.
And the way the community can participate has continued to evolve. People have been able to double down on making money and have started consulting businesses (which Notion gives certificates for) that plug directly into Notion’s platform. These help their enterprise clients get the most out of the tool and Notion doesn’t take a cent from that. This has made the community an extension of their customer support and sales teams.
What a beautiful ecosystem!
It’s not hard to see how the community has become a flywheel for growth, helping drive customer acquisition, activation, and retention. For product-led companies like Notion, community-led growth “acts as a multiplier on top of product-led growth,” says Corinne Marie Riley, an investor at Greylock. It creates a “flywheel of active members strengthening the community.”
The more people feel like they belong in the Notion community, the more likely they are to tell people, to help them get started and discover value, and to contribute to creating the content that helps start the growth loop all over again.
In a Saastr podcast episode, Olivia Nottebohm, CRO of Notion, shared some great advice on community-led growth:
“I would say that an amazing product is really important for product-led companies. It’s the thing that people want to use and get excited about. I would also say that you need community to win. So how do you think about building up that community and driving growth for your company?
[First] Remember to align your interest with the goals of your community, remember and understand what is it that they want to do and go with them on that journey and really think about, and be close to the personal goals of those early, early adopters.
[Second] Build in those distribution networks to drive enthusiasm and inspiration, and that community will give back as well.
[Third] Empower your community to serve your customers. You don’t need to monetize it if your community is being the consultant or your community is selling the template. The benefit of that far outweighs any cut that you might take as a company early on when really what matters is market share and adoption.
[Fourth] don’t try to own or regulate your community engagement.
Don’t ask people to behave in a certain way or follow strict policies. In fact, one of the things I love is that Notion lets anyone use our brand and make any swag they want. That’s wonderful. People are using all sorts of different swag all over the world that has Notion on it created by ambassadors and community groups all around the world.
[Fifth] is stay scrappy. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. Experiment, lean in, try things. If they don’t work, that’s okay.
[Finally], be grateful to the community. It’s really amazing when people spend the time to get deep into the product, to fall in love with the product and then decide to turn out to the world and tell your story for you.”
To compare Notion here to other SaaS startups for a second, two things stood out to me. First, it’s pretty typical to see B2B companies throw money into paid channels – a diminishing returns approach that burns cash. But when looking at Notion’s socials and ad channels, they’ve done hardly any of that. They simply used the traction they got from their community that already loves their product.
Second, SaaS startups are usually just obsessed with numbers like churn, conversions, and sign-ups, but Notion has taken a more strategic approach to addressing this concern. They’ve developed their product and content as their community has provided them feedback.
They removed the pressure to grow to a certain number and did what any growth-stage company should do – they focused on the quality of their content and making it a platform a smaller audience loved.
As Paul Graham told Brian Chesky when Airbnb was still a place to rent air mattresses in San Francisco, “It’s better to have 100 people that love you than a million people that just sort of like you. Find 100 people that love you. People who really love a product will make it go viral”.
Notion did just that. They delayed taking on VC money, enabling them to work without insane growth goals. They focused on their users, they focused on product.
And, they smashed those goals, regardless.
Final takeaways on community 🍕
- First, build something people want. Community cannot be forced. It’s something that buds organically around what people value and want to talk about. If your product solves a real problem and you find the right early adopters (pre-requisites for growth) – look out for where these people are talking.
- Find where your community is, and meet them there. Again, community isn’t forced. You need to lean into wherever they are, whether that’s a subreddit or Discord channel.
- To build a community, help people help each other. You build an audience by helping people, but you build a community by having the right parameters to support your members to help other users.
- Community-led growth is an amplifying force to a product-led G2M strategy. It empowers your members to contribute, and gives you the ability to scale value creation far beyond what your own team can manage.
- Talk to your potential members and identify their needs and motivations. It’s the simplest thing you can do to start building community today. Yet, it’s something that companies skip because it means lifting your head from the code and actually speaking to people.
- Make it easy and rewarding for people to contribute. Create opportunities for your existing customers to share the systems, processes, and workflows they’re using successfully with others in the community. If possible, do that in a way where people can make money.
- Focus on quality. Notion focused on the quality of their content and making it a platform a smaller audience loved. While other companies were focused on hitting numbers, they took a different approach and focused on how to be clever and clear. The content reaction has been incredibly intentional, while their branding has been clever and community-forward, differentiating them from their competitors.
- Community creates a customer advisory board. Once you have members who care about the product and feel like they belong, you’ll have direct access to talk to people for product feedback and idea validation. This is invaluable as it brings the customer voice right inside your company – and that reflects in the product.
- Amplify positive community feedback. Notion did this by sharing a feed of organic tweets about their product on their homepage. This is social proof you can tap into without having to schlep and ask people for reviews.
- Take Olivia Nottebohm’s advice. Align your interests with the communities ⇒ Build in distribution networks ⇒ Empower your community to contribute ⇒ Don’t over-regulate ⇒ Experiment ⇒ Show gratitude to the community.
Phew, that was a lot we went through there. I hope you enjoyed reading this and found it as helpful as I did researching and writing it.
If you’d like to keep learning about growth, G2M motions, and strategy from the companies that are nailing it, subscribe to my newsletter.
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