Deep in the trenches: March 25th 2021
Learnings from Notion's CEO and Roam Highlighters / Trov
The start of the year has seen a crazy growth for Actiondesk and as a result lots of problems and challenges required my “more than full-time” attention.
I’ve completely reorganized how I allocate my time to make sure I make the time for the most important things, and will probably soon write about this.
In the meantime, I’ll start again writing the newsletter every two weeks as before.
Really appreciate some of you reaching out and asking me to write again, that definitely warms my heart 😍
📄 Some interesting resources I’ve checked out lately: Multiple podcasts with Ivan Zhao, Notion’s cofounder and CEO
We’re big fans of Notion at Actiondesk, it’s such a well crafted product and Ivan is not the type of CEO very present on twitter or other medias, so I’ve really enjoyed listening to how he thinks about things and the Notion story.
I listened to this first podcast from Station F (Thanks Ahmed from the recommendation :))
They started with a vision rather than a product. The vision was to help people build their own software.
For about 3 years, they experimented with various products, Ivan mentions an app builder and a web page builder. Those products didn’t stick.
I had no idea they started with products so different from the Notion we now know.
It’s also super interesting to see they took a long time before having any kind of traction. Ivan said Notion has existed for 7 years and it really started to take off in 2018. It’s something we’ve talked about with Ashutosh from Sunsama in this December’s episode of Deep in the trenches.
Ivan says they realized potential users don’t care about the general idea of building their own software, what they care about is solving a problem they have now.
So they thought they should choose something they people already do but that they could improve: documents and notes. Basically building a better Evernote with the flexibility and customizability that they always had in their vision.
Those thoughts are particularly interesting to me as it’s a realization we’ve been having as well with Actiondesk. We had a set of initial users very passionate about the product who cared that we were a spreadsheet software that could connect directly to other data sources.
But we realized there’s a much larger segment of people who don’t care as much about the general idea, but who cares about specific use cases that will help them with their specific problems.
This is why we’re taking a direction where new users will be able to generate templated reports in 1 click, which they will then be able to customize.
An idea on another topic I found fascinating. Notion is known to hire “Designers who can code”. Ivan says that it’s not only about having someone who can do two jobs, more importantly it’s about having someone who understand the constraints of both jobs and thus reduce the need of communication.
In a regular setup with a frontend engineer and a designer, the designer would design something, discuss with the engineer who would day “this and that are not possible or very hard”. Then maybe they would loop in a product manager, and the designer would probably go back to changing the design.
In a setup where the designer is also the frontend engineer, the same person knows the constraints on the engineering side and can immediately design something that takes it into account.
Of course, finding a great designer who can code is extremely hard (finding one great designer is already hard - by the way we’re looking for one at Actiondesk)
A last thought on that topic. I remember reading something about this in Ashley Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. Elon notoriously asks his teams to work extremely hard, but I remember that it was not that much about having people do more, it was also about reducing the friction in communication you can have when you have lots of people in an organization.
Some of Ivan’s thoughts on building a great product
A product has to be dumb, you should be able to use it after having had a few beers.
It's okay to be orthodox, not to be innovative. You can only innovate in certain areas. If you innovate on too many fronts, it's too overwhelming for the user.
💻 A tool I enjoy: Roam Highlighters
I’ve been using Roam Research for my personal notes and my “Knowledge” Management for about 9 months.
Whether with Roam or any other note taking app, I always find a big friction when you want to record a few highlights from an article. In Roam typically, I would create a tag with the article title, add the link, and then add my highlights.
Roam Highlighters is a great chrome app thats lets you select some text from an article, and then directly paste into Roam. It will automatically include the article’s title, link and your highlights. It’s amazing!
📚 On my reading list
Currently reading Half of a Yellow Sun
I’ve also recently finished Shantaram. It’s long and can be a bit tough to get into but it’s an amazing story.
Anyone have good fiction books to recommend?