The Swiss Army Knife of productivity | The origins of Notion

Did you know that Notion is used by more than 20 million people worldwide? In October 2021 they raised $275 million dollars. And they went viral.

Surely you know more than one person who uses it on a daily basis, if that person is not you.

Today, in edition #1 of the
NovoStories I tell you about the beginnings of Notion Labs Incbetter known as "The Swiss Army Knife of Productivity".

This is the story of Notion.

To learn about its beginnings, we must travel back in time. In 2011, the greatest reference for every entrepreneur passed away: Steve Jobs.

That same year, a young man named Ivan Zhao graduates with a degree in cognitive science from one of Canada's top universities.

Ivan learned to program on his own at a very young age. His friends, mostly creatives and designers, asked him to help them create their portfolios. Ivan was happy to accept: he was the only techie in his group.

This is how he spent several months of his life performing the repetitive task of creating websites. one-page.

Until he had his first aha-moment: She comes up with software powerful enough to replace this activity that he was doing manually.

What we know today as Web-page builder.

Ivan realized that he was very motivated to help people with vision and creativity to design their websites but without the technical knowledge to do it.

Second aha-momentCreative people are very visual.

This time, Ivan is the one who needs help. Visual programming was the key to attack the problem he wanted to solve. In 2012 Ivan met Toby, an NYU student with a passion for visual programming.

In 2013, they begin to develop the software for the first prototype. Along the way, they are joined by Simon Last (but not least) who shared the same passion for visual programming as Toby.

Just imagine how easy it was for Toby to convince Simon to give up his summer internship to join them in their ambitious mission:
To democratize programming for everyone.

The team was ready.

Motivation, failure and resilience.

One of the first prototypes was Concepta platform that facilitated live collaboration for programmers.

Not much is known about this prototype, but something happens after its launch: Toby leaves the group to pursue other projects. First hard blow for the startup.

However, Ivan and Simon did not give up.

After raising some seed capital, they acquire Sugarbox, a startup that allowed collaborative programming through an API.
Its founders, Chris Prucha and Jessica Lam, join the team at the end of 2013.

After a laaarge 2014 iterating the product, things didn't turn out as expected and Notion suffers the second hard blow in its short history: They run out of money.

The app has several flaws.

Real-time collaboration does not work.

The company is on the verge of bankruptcy and has no product to show.

As of early 2015, the project is stalled. The team is faced with a critical decision: Start everything from scratch or abandon the project.

Ivan and Simon make the tough decision to fire the rest of the team and leave their expensive apartment in Silicon Valley.

Ivan borrows $150,000 from his mother to avoid a total shutdown of the company.

Finally, our protagonists decide to sublet their apartment in San Francisco, move to Kyoto and live on the difference between the rental costs between SF and Kyoto.

They knew no one in Japan. Nor did they speak a single word of Japanese.

But they had one goal: to rebuild the entire application from scratch.

After months of hard work and long sleepless nights, they managed to build
Notion v0.5 and release it to the market.

In September 2015, a post is published on ProductHunt, titled: "Notion Beta: An expensive and collaborative document editor".
Ivan makes the following comment 👇.

"We want to build the work/thinking tool of the future, without the limitations of paper metaphors that unfortunately still predominate in software tools today. You are looking at Notion 0.5. We are hard at work on 1.0 which will have many more ideas chewed over. Stay tuned, and thanks for your feedback."

In 2016, Ivan and Simon launched Notion 1.0 at Product Hunt.

It is a success. It becomes one of the most successful launches of the year. Thousands of people register on its website to test this new product.

In July 2019 Notion raises $18.2M in its Series A.

October 2021 Notion acquires and becomes a unicorn, reaching a valuation of 10 billion dollars.

Today, Notion has more than 250 employees and +20 million users worldwide. How far will this company go?


An exclusive newsletter for startup founders

Thank you for subscribing! Next Friday you will receive the first NovoStory.
Oops! Something went wrong.

2022 © Novolabs