Notion, Roam, and The Future of Doing Work (#1)
May The Best Products Win
Welcome to issue #1 of next big thing.
The first title for this essay was "Notion, Roam, and The Future of Notes."
I then changed "Notes" to "Documents."
"Documents" became "Files" a few weeks later.
And I finally settled on "Notion, Roam, and The Future of Doing Work."
I've been an avid user of Evernote for the past decade. I've taken notes on every potential new investment, in every portfolio company board meeting, in every partnership meeting, for to-do lists and other stuff in my personal life, and more, on a combination of my laptop, iPad and iPhone, in Evernote.
But as the popularity of "next-generation" note-taking products like Notion grew in the past few years, I became intrigued. I saw friends publish Notion templates and love letters about the product. My use of Evernote has stayed pretty much the same for many years, and the product has become stale. So, over the past few months, during shelter-in-place, I thought I would give Notion a go, and see if it made sense to move my notes and future note-taking there.
First, I tried to import my Evernotes into Notion. The import functionality worked for some subset of notes, but not for all, as I have over 2500 notes in a single Evernote notebook (too many notes for the import to handle). I'm still figuring out this migration, and will need to do some clean up of my large Evernote notebook to do so.
Second, I started to play around with Notion's functionality, and began to use the product for every new conversation, company, essay idea, and to-do list. I started to use templates, to learn Notion's block structure and / commands, and, while there was indeed a learning curve, creating in Notion began to become more and more intuitive. It even became fun.
Third, I became an avid Notion user. I found myself wanting to open Notion to write in it, to explore new templates, and to figure out how to configure it for different use cases. I found myself becoming more creative, with Notion bringing me joy from using the product.
It's difficult to put this feeling into words and not make it sound silly. But in using Notion these past few weeks, I've found myself re-discovering what got me into the world of technology and entrepreneurship in the first place.
I'll never forget the first time I signed up for Dropbox in 2008, and within minutes understood how simple and how powerful it was. Suddenly here was this folder on my computer that enabled anything you dropped into it to be backed up to the Internet, and shared. The mind-blowing user experience made me want to tell everyone about Dropbox (and indeed, the referral program, especially the 2x bonus in free space for university students, made that worth my while!).
It takes more time to understand the power of a product like Notion, especially for people like me who've been used to using a different product for the same use cases for a long time. The improvement in experience going from a USB drive to Dropbox is an order of magnitude greater than the improvement going from Evernote to Notion. But the feeling of using a more powerful piece of technology, a user experience that's just better than what you've become used to, is something I still find magical.
Just as I was ramping up my usage of Notion, I learned about a new note-taking product, Roam Research, from my friend Jeff Morris.
I signed up for Roam, and checked out a few of the tutorials. A key feature of the roam product is bi-directional linking.
One of the challenges I've found in using Notion is figuring out where to place everything within Notion - does something go in a workspace or a database or a page? How should I organize everything?
The simple paradigm of Roam is daily notes, and links back and forth between notes, enabling you to not have to worry about organizing your stuff in the way that you do with Notion and with traditional file and document systems. As a result, Roam seems like it becomes more and more useful over time. The more you write in it, the more multi-directional links get generated, and the better your thoughts become organized around one another.
I prefer the user interface of Notion today (perhaps because I became used to Notion right before I tried out Roam, and because I'm used to traditional organizational systems), but I'm excited to see where Roam goes. It feels particularly helpful for people who are writing in-depth research pieces. I wish I had had it when working on my senior thesis in college, when I was constantly referring to different pieces of my own writing, and going back and forth between word documents, notes, and other files at the time to produce a final manuscript. And with the community starting to build around Roam, it feels inevitable that the product will get better and broader, so that it will be used for more than just notes, just as Notion is today.
The Future of Doing Work
When I started using Notion, I thought I was migrating my notes from Evernote to use Notion for note-taking. But Notion has become the place where I do my work. I can create within Notion, and can configure the product to suit the way I get stuff done.
Every day, i'm discovering other Notion users who are using the product in ways I wouldn't have imagined when I first got going; for their personal website, for instance, and even for their new business idea, like super.so, which is built on top of Notion.
This got me thinking about the history of how people have been doing work, digitally, and what the future may look like.
In the 1990s, Microsoft bundled a bunch of products together in Office, and Office became the de facto software suite for doing work digitally, through the 2000s. Though Office remains the product that many people around the world use to do work, there's been an unbundling of the Office suite in the last decade.
Google's suite of products enabled real-time collaboration on top of the Office paradigm of docs, sheets, and presentations.
Since then, "specialized" products like Evernote, Notion, and Roam in note-taking, Coda and Quip in documents, Airtable in sheets, Canva* and Beautiful.ai* in presentations, Superhuman and Front in email, Figma in design, Frame.io* and Kapwing* in video, and countless others have grown in popularity at the intersection of productivity and collaboration, ushering in a new era of many products.
And, as I've discovered, using one of these "specialized" products can make you realize the product has much broader potential use. After using Notion for the last few months, I no longer want to use any Microsoft or Google products. It feels better to have everything in Notion. I'm sure avid users of the other tools listed above feel the same way.
May The Best Products Win
Perhaps we are about to see a re-bundling - where a product like Notion gains so much depth and popularity that it becomes the de facto platform where most people do their work, replacing not only Microsoft Office and the G Suite, but also the "next-generation" and "specialized" set of collaborative productivity products. In this future, Notion effectively becomes an operating system for most people.
But I would hazard a guess that this won't happen.
That is not to say that Notion and its ilk won't all be big companies; they have every chance to be, as over a billion people on the planet use Microsoft Office today, around a billion also use Google Drive and its related products, and all of those users are up for grabs, as well as the many more just starting to use software in their work.
Each individual, though they may work at a company that uses a certain product as a team, will have the chance to choose the best product that fits their working style.
There'll be increasing inter-operability between these products as each builds an API and launches a platform. We'll all end up having accounts on Notion, Roam, and every other product that people around us are using to do and share their work.
Many people will end up using a combination of these products to do their work, and to form their own operating system, a new paradigm detached from the traditional paradigms of Microsoft and Google's product suites.
So the future of doing work is up for grabs, for the best products that cater to each and every unique individual. I'm excited to see which products, and how many, become the next big thing.
I started next big thing to share unfiltered thoughts. I’d love your feedback, questions, and comments!
*denotes a company I'm affiliated with as an investor - see my substack about page.