What we can learn about product-led and community-led growth strategies from a $10bn SaaS startup.
This post was originally published on my free newsletter, How They Grow, where every other week, I pick one company/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 a rabbit hole 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, no bullshit, advice I can extract for us to use on growth — and there’s a lot if it!
Here’s what to expect in this piece:
- What they do, where they came from, why we should care
- Market positioning
How they grow
- Product-led growth
- Community-led growth
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. 😎
I do have just one ask of you though — if you learn at least one new thing, please consider subscribing (www.howtheygrow.co), sharing or just giving it a like! Thank you 🙏
And on that note, let’s not waste any more time with the pleasantries, and let’s get down to the brass tacks of it (a new idiom I learned and now use way to often).
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, or a bunch things to plan before your holiday to another village that had a bigger fire pit than yours — all you’d have to help you look after that information is (1) your good ‘ol memory, and (2) the hope that anyone you told accurately remembered.
Fast forward a couple thousand millennia — and along with the progress of more interesting tourist attractions, the way we keep track of (and work with) information has progressed significantly — from pen and paper, to the typewriter, the filing cabinet, and now all the different productivity and documentation tools we have available — tools that make it easier for us to keep notes and track things in our personal lives, as well as to collaborate on stuff at work.
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 camp fire — à la broken telephone.
- Documented, reliable, but fragmented. A ton of progress happened in this evolutionary phase — starting with things like Moses’ stone tablet, through to all the note-taking and workspace tools we see around us today. However, a defining feature of this phase, which is where the world is today, is that all these tools, by and large, (1) serve one main function each, (2) are unbundled, and (3) are pretty defined in how they are used. To put that in simpler terms, we have to use a lot of different tools to get all the different things we do at work and at home done, and there’s not much personalization we can do in terms of how we get to use them.
- Bundled, highly personalized. This next evolutionary phase is where I’d like to introduce you to Notion.
While many people are happy in phase 2 — Ivan Zhao and Simon Last have bet big on two things; (1) many people are not, and (2) people love playing with LEGO.
And on the back of that thesis, they went out and founded Notion — the “all-in-one workspace” for everything and anything. A platform that bundles all the most important tools you use for docs and productivity into one place, and then makes it super easy for you to customize it so it can work the way you do.
If you’re an individual who’s looking to take notes, make to-do list, track habits, make life wikis, build a personal portfolio website, or like me right now…organize your budding newsletter business that everyones subscribing too…Notion’s got you. But, it’s $10 billion and growing valuation comes from that fact that it is equally a collaborative tool — allowing teams to build knowledge bases and wikis, share documents, take notes, manage workflows, and essentially be a powerful sandbox where they can build any systems they need without having to code or connect dozens of tools.
That all sounds like it could be hella confusing to navigate, because it is a lot in one place — but through excellent onboarding and their most successful feature, templates, they’ve not only made it easy for you to get setup and and start building your workspace — but they’ve also built an exceptionally powerful growth loop. A lot more on this soon.
With this — Ivan, Simon, and their small team of ~400 people have started a whole new phase in the evolution of productivity — the great bundling.
But, they didn’t always have VC’s frothing to get a piece of their growth.
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 1-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 — who had the vision and idea for what they wanted, but just lacked the programming abilities — to get out there and build a self-expressive portfolio for themselves.
He had the itch — so he quit his job and team 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.
Toby’s background was highly relevant, because visual programming posed itself as an elegant solution to the problem, as it’s a language that allows anyone to create something graphically rather **than through having to write code. All giddy on visual programming, they set their eyes on a much more ambitious project — empower people with a tool to create any generic web app that you can use and customize without learning 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 accurately named prototype. Here’s what it looked like.
Read the full article here