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Why I Use Roam Research Daily
The core reason is one that's ubiquitous in products that turn into the next big thing.
Welcome to issue #30 of next big thing.
Since then, my toolkit has changed. I now use Roam Research every day to take notes. I still use Notion for certain things — more polished work such as investment memos, for example — but Roam has become the primary tool in which I jot down and keep track of my thoughts.
I hope this essay about the evolution in my workflow helps others who are iterating on theirs.
And the core reason for why I use Roam daily is one that anyone building the next big thing can take inspiration from: that the product actually gets better and better the more I use it.
[[A disclaimer: I became a small investor in Roam Research last year. While I discuss some of the merits of Roam in this piece, I also touch on drawbacks and areas where the product must improve. I didn’t share any of this essay with the Roam team for feedback — I didn’t even have time to 😅 — so these are just my unfiltered thoughts, as they should be.]]
The Key Reason I Switched To Roam
You’ve probably heard of Roam Research by now. It’s usually described simply as a note-taking product. The company’s own description is:
A note-taking tool for networked thought. As easy to use as a document. As powerful as a graph database. Roam helps you organize your research for the long haul.
There’s the concept of “bidirectional linking” that most people try to explain or understand when discussing Roam. You can create a new note as a “link,” and can link to that note in any other note. What this creates in aggregate is a graph of all your notes, and the linking of notes with one another.
Why does this matter? As a user, you don’t have to worry about where and how your notes, ideas, and thoughts are organized — they’re automatically organized and linked together through bidirectional links.
This is the core reason that I ended up switching from Evernote to Notion and then to Roam for note-taking. I’ve struggled for years to figure out how to organize my notes and thoughts. In my job as a venture capitalist, I’ve created thousands of notes for individual companies over the past decade. Each note is titled with the name of the company. But in each of those company notes are references to other companies, to investors, to sectors and thesis areas that the particular company relates to, and more.
In my old Evernote system, if I wanted to figure out which are all the companies in a particular investor’s portfolio that I’d spent time looking at, I’d have to search through all my notes to figure that out. If I wanted to remember all the companies I’d looked at in a certain thesis area, I’d again have to do a bunch of searching, or have remembered to create a new note about that thesis and added links to all the companies I’d met around it in that note.
The networked concept of Roam, with bidirectional linking as the key product feature, puts an end to all these unnecessary steps. Every idea or company or person can reference another, and vice versa. In addition, the simple paradigm of daily note-taking in Roam, and ability to create a new note via square brackets [] while typing a thought, idea, or note, lessens all cognitive load around organization of the notes.
I hope that for those of you who haven’t yet tried Roam, the above explanation makes some sense. If not, I encourage you to check out Welcome to Roam, Articles about Roam, and other materials on the site, to get a feel for how the Roam product works. Or leave a comment and maybe I can take you on a tour of my Roam setup over Zoom.
Where Roam Needs Work
There are several core areas in which Roam Research’s product needs to improve: user education, multiplayer, mobile, offline mode, and magic import are the five that first come to mind for me.
One of my favorite pieces of content in a long time is this Frameworks document by my friend Chris Paik. Read it, bookmark it, and read it again — I have done so several times since Chris published it last week, as there are so many pearls of wisdom within. Here’s one framework within business model-product fit that I found particularly relevant to Roam:
LOW ACV (AVERAGE CUSTOMER VALUE) DEMAND CANNOT REQUIRE EDUCATION
If the expected economic return on an acquired customer is low, any acquisition path that requires education of that consumer to the virtues of the product will inevitably lead to failure unless a macro tailwind or zeitgeist eventually eliminates the educational cost.
While Roam does have a cult-like following (just search #roamcult on Twitter for evidence), and perhaps the value of bidirectional linking will simply become widely known, the product does require education today to get started in using it. I’ve seen a lot of friends try to start using Roam only to be confused as to how to use it properly (myself included, initially!). As Chris states, Roam, given its low ACV (the product costs $165 per year), won’t be successful if this educational barrier remains high, so there are clear business reasons, too, for Roam to make the product easier to use and remove any education required to understand its power.
Google Docs has set the bar for me in ease-of-use for a team to collaborate on a document in real-time. Multiplayer mode in Roam, where Roam is easy for teams to use and share knowledge amongst team members, still has a way to go to reach that bar. In addition, Roam desperately needs a mobile product. I often find myself wanting to jot down thoughts on-the-go and a key limitation of the product today is not having the ability to do this. Relatedly, I can’t wait for Roam to have an offline mode — I appreciated the ability in Evernote, for example, to pull up all my notes when I was on a flight without internet access.
Finally, there’s no “magic import” that can pull all your existing notes from a system like Evernote or Notion into Roam. I do wish I could automagically link my historical notes together by importing them into Roam, and perhaps one day this will be possible. I can imagine the product being able to scrape through the imported notes to figure out keywords of existing bidirectional links, and to use intelligence to create new links out of each note title, for example. But, alas, no such feature exists today, so while all my current and future ideas are in Roam, I still find myself occasionally searching through Evernote and Notion to recall stuff I worked on in the past.
A Ubiquitous Attribute Of The Next Big Thing
But back to why I use Roam every day. There was an ‘aha’ moment for me a few days into using Roam, after taking a bunch of notes on my meetings and on my ideas, creating several links using [], and it was this:
The product actually gets better the more you use it, and therefore gets better over time.
Now, of course, this is very simplistic. Isn’t this a characteristic of any product with network effects, you may wonder? For the most part, I think yes, since if a product has network effects, definitionally it becomes more valuable to all users or nodes, with every additional user or node. But I’ve seen the misuse of the term “network effect” countless times over the years. I think the simple heuristic for any entrepreneur or product builder of “Is this product or service actually getting better over the time, and the more the user uses it?” is perhaps a more powerful framing than analyzing whether or not there can be network effects in it.
There’s qualitative data you can look at to understand if this is true — just by talking to your users, for example, to see if they get happier the more time they spend in your product. And there are quantitative measures to figure out whether or not the product is actually more compelling for the user the more they use it, such as looking at cohorts of users, and seeing in the cohort analysis whether usage retention actually increases in a cohort over time. Funnily enough, one example of a great post on this subject is by Sequoia Capital — Measuring Product Health — and it uses Evernote’s “smile graph” to illustrate this point:
With Roam, the product has become better the more I’ve used it in a more profound way than with Evernote, and perhaps than with any other product I’ve tried in a long time. The reason for this is bidirectional linking and the graph that I’ve already built in Roam. I can very quickly pull up every time I’ve referenced a company or person or idea across all my notes in Roam. When I link to an existing note, it feels like I’m quite literally building my knowledge base and mapping my brain through the product. As a result, Roam is only going to become more useful for me over time and the more notes I add to it, and that realization, in turn, makes me want to invest time and effort to use it further.
Just because the product gets better over time doesn’t mean you’ve uncovered the next big thing — Evernote itself should provide a cautionary tale.
But the product getting better the more a user uses it is indeed a characteristic of many of the most important products and companies in the world. The examples of this are everywhere — for example, the more you drive a Tesla, the better the car’s autopilot becomes with real data from the road; or, the more you watch on Netflix, the better the recommendations get as to what to watch next, and the better Netflix’s team gets at creating its own original content, which in turn improves your own experience.
It’s a characteristic I find myself thinking about often as I continue to use Roam, and as I look for the next big thing myself.
I started next big thing to share unfiltered thoughts. I’d love your feedback, questions, and comments!
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