Why Notion is staying small as its valuation gets bigger

Work tools startup Notion, which recently reached a reported $800 million valuation, isn’t on the verge of a big SoftBank round. In fact, COO Akshay Kothari says the startup has “never felt like if we had more money we could grow faster.”

The company, centered around an app that helps non-developers build collaboration tools, has more than one million users and has scaled its product quickly despite having a team of just 27.

I wrote about the company’s partnership with some of tech’s top accelerators and venture capital firms last month. People are very curious about this small company and how it is run, so here’s more from my recent interview with COO Akshay Kothari in which we discussed the hyped startup’s philosophy of staying small and some of the challenges it may have ahead with this brand of thinking as competitors are raising massive sums.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Notion COO Akshay Kothari (Photo: Notion)

Notion COO Akshay Kothari (Photo: Notion)

Where does your story begin with Notion? Give me a snapshot of where the team is now.

Akshay Kothari: [Notion co-founders Ivan Zhao and Simon Last] started Notion six years ago and that’s when I invested. I had sold my previous company and I had this newfound money that I didn’t know what to do with. I invested in Notion, so that’s my connection.

We were kind of in research mode for many years trying to uncover what the market needs were. We launched about two years ago; 1.0 was just notes that you could take and a wiki so that you could collaborate with people. And then last year we launched databases and that was the 2.0 version, which kind of seemed like an inflection point, where now you could not only have your notes and your wiki, but also manage your tasks, manage your projects, manage candidates and recruiting, all in a single tool.

Over the last year and a half, the company has grown extremely fast. I joined about a year ago, there were about 10 people at the beginning of this year and now we’re close to 30. It’s still a really small engineering team. We’re 9 engineers, we don’t have any product managers, and we’re 2 designers. So there are about 10 people that are building the product, and 10 people on community and support teams, something that we’ve invested very heavily in. We’re starting to have a sales and marketing team. We have 2 people in marketing and 2 people in sales. That all rounds up to about 27 which is where we are now.

Since you joined do you think the idea has shifted at all?

In terms of the original idea, we were thinking about how people who didn’t know how to code could build things like tools and software that were really useful. I guess the only realization has been that not everyone wakes up wanting to build software, but everyone wakes to solve problems. That was the pivot to focusing on notes, wikis and tasks, because that’s actually something that every team needs.

Are those needs universal for big and small teams?

For the first 100 people you can actually do a lot with Notion. With 30 people, we pretty much run the entire company, except for using Slack for internal communication and Intercom for external communication like talking to customers. Everything else is actually on Notion, like our application tracking system for recruiting inside Notion, our sales CRM is in Notion, our wiki obviously is, our project management as well — no, we don’t use Jira.

For sub-100 businesses, you actually don’t need another tool. When you get to hundreds of people what tends to happens is that some person or some team tends to have a preference for a specific tool. In those situations, Notion plays well with other tools. You can embed things easily. So let’s say Excel or Google Sheets is something that you want to use, you can just embed that inside Notion. So Notion becomes this kind of central nervous system for all of the work that people are doing.

Building on that, one of the things we haven’t done is we don’t do synchronous communication so we’ve stayed away from that because I feel like people like using Slack. On Slack, you can’t actually collaborate on a project… Notion has become a place where you can actually do a lot of your work alongside the synchronous communication.

So, no interest in building a chat or video chat product?

Not in the near term. I think Slack is one of those enterprise tools that people at companies actually like. For a lot of these other tools, we just have to use it, not because we love it but because that that’s what exists.

Notion HQ

Notion’s headquarters (Photo: Notion)

What are the barriers for satisfying the customers with 100+ employees?