How document-editing upstart Notion plans to beat Microsoft and Google

Notion has a secret weapon against Microsoft and Google in its attempt to build the document editor of the future.

As Notion’s style of free-flowing, interlinked documents has taken off—the app now has more than 20 million active users—both tech giants seem to have taken notice. Microsoft recently announced Loop, a Notion-style editor that integrates with Word and Excel. Google, meanwhile, has been making Docs more like Notion with interactive checkboxes, custom templates, and easier linking between documents.

To fight back, Notion is now leaning on its community of fervent users, who share and sometimes even sell templates that make the app more useful. Those templates can instantly transform Notion from a simple document editor or to-do list app into a habit tracker, project planner, reading list, study system, and more.

[Image: courtesy of Notion]

This week, Notion is revamping its built-in template gallery to underscore how extensible the software can be. Users can now submit their own templates to the gallery, and they can even offer premium templates by linking out to external stores such as Etsy and Gumroad. The idea is that while Microsoft and Google might be able to clone Notion’s basic features, the enthusiasm Notion users have for creating new things won’t be so easily copied.

“There is something very special when you have folks who are putting in so much effort, and really feel like they have a strong emotional connection to software and what they’re creating,” says Ben Lang, Notion’s head of community.

[Image: courtesy of Notion]

Building from the bottom up

As Notion is eager to point out, its templates have become a thriving business unto themselves. Marketplaces such as Notionery and Notion Everything list templates that cost as much as $79, including ones for managing a freelance business and building a startup. Meanwhile, a cottage industry of Notion experts has emerged to sell courses on getting the most out of the software.

One of those experts is Marie Poulin, a former web designer and business consultant whose online Notion training course has earned roughly $500,000 over the last two years. Poulin says she discovered Notion in 2018 and quickly fell in love with it as “a place to do really, really messy thinking.” She put together a webinar on how to use the software, which led to the company asking her running live office hours on its behalf. After making $40,000 in a year of selling Notion templates, she sensed a broader opportunity, and now employs five other people for her Notion Mastery courses.

“I basically pivoted my whole business around Notion-related products and services,” Poulin says.

Ben Lang [Photo: courtesy of Notion]

Meanwhile, Notion’s Ben Lang joined the company as a result of his work outside of it. After learning about the software on Product Hunt in 2018, he became enamored with it and started tweeting about his setup. Conversations with other Notion users inspired him to create Notion Pages, a template site that had attracted more than 30,000 monthly visitors within a few months. The company hired him to head its community efforts soon after.

“When I connected with the Notion team, they were realizing, ‘Oh wow, there’s something really interesting here,’” says Lang of the passion users had for the app and its possibilities. “The founders really decided to make it a priority very early on.”

Lang believes that Notion’s open-ended nature is key to the enthusiasm it’s generating. The software is very much what users make of it—it can be as simple as a blank page, or as complex as a kanban board with branching pages, subtasks, and collaborators—and its most dedicated users gravitate toward sharing their secrets on sites like Reddit and Twitter. (Notion’s subreddit alone has more than 158,000 members.)

[Image: courtesy of Notion]

At the same time, Notion has tried to maintain some distance from the community that’s sprung up around its creation. The company doesn’t try to moderate discussions on channels such as Reddit, Facebook, and Discord, and instead lets those communities manage themselves. It’s not interested in in trying to bring discussions onto its own platform, where it can control the conversation.

“We don’t want to force people to come to one place. We want them to be able to be on their own platform, talk in their own languages, and be self-empowered to gather,” Lang says.” I think that’s what’s made it so successful.”

Don’t call it a template store (yet)

Given the amount of money changing hands between Notion’s users, one might think Notion itself would want a cut. But its new gallery only provides direct downloads of free templates. It does list paid ones as well, but links to other storefronts such as Etsy or Gumroad to handle the transactions. Notion isn’t selling templates itself or taking any revenue from sales that originate from its own software.

For now, that leaves subscriptions as Notion’s sole business model. The basic service is free, but the company charges $5 per month for unlimited file attachment sizes and guest editors, and it has team plans starting at $10 per month.

Olivia Nottebohm [Photo: courtesy of Notion]

“Our goal is not to monetize the creators,” says Olivia Nottebohm, Notion’s chief revenue officer. “Our goal is to make sure that the underlying software is so incredibly valuable that people would like to pay us for it.”

Still, Notion hasn’t ruled out eventually selling templates, and it may have several reasons beyond revenue for doing so. Without a centralized template store, for instance, users have no simple way to keep track of the templates they’ve added or purchased.

Notion also currently has no way of preventing users from pirating templates and selling them as their own, which Poulin says she’s seen happening on sites like Facebook. It’s not a major concern for her—the idea of a bootleg template market is kind of amusing, she says—but it could become a bigger issue as Notion spotlights paid templates in its own app. Poulin speculates that a centralized store could potentially give Notion more ways to prevent template thievery.

Notion spokeswoman Elaine Greenberg denies that bootlegging is an problem, but doesn’t dismiss the issue entirely.

“Our community is incredibly supportive of one another, but we’ll also be exploring ways to protect their IP going forward,” Greenberg said via email.

The limits of templates

While Notion’s focus on community gives it a unique selling point over the likes of Google Workspace and Microsoft’s Word and Loop, its success against tech giants isn’t guaranteed. All those people using Docs or Word may not feel compelled to try Notion if they can get a close enough experience with the software they already know (and may be paying for).

I’ve found that the best way to get into Notion is by starting with a single blank page.

And even if they do give Notion a try, the software’s leaning curve can be steep. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to get into Notion is by starting with a single blank page, then gradually expanding to more elaborate documents as you get comfortable with the software. Notion sees its new template gallery as a shortcut to productivity, but it also risks adding even more complexity to an app that’s not necessarily easy to understand up front.

Poulin says that’s an issue she deals with first-hand as a Notion educator.

“People think that just buying a template is going to solve their disorganization woes, but if they haven’t thought through the process, just adopting somebody else’s template really isn’t going to make that big of a difference,” she says.

[Image: courtesy of Notion]

But in the end, that might just be another challenge for Notion’s community to solve. If people like Poulin continue to teach other users how to become Notion wizards, the company may carve out a place for itself that withstands the efforts of tech giants.

“All this happened in a very organic way,” Lang says. “It’s very unique, and it’s very hard to just duplicate that the same way you would with a template.”


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