van Zhao's Multidisciplinary Background

Ivan Zhao, the visionary behind Notion, had an eclectic mix of interests during his college years. As a student of cognitive science, he delved into computing and philosophy.

His passion for fine art and photography further enriched his creative palette. But there was one unique skill that set him apart: coding. In a friend circle predominantly composed of artists, Zhao was the sole individual who could converse with the language of computers.

Building Notion 

Ivan and Simon met when Simon got an internship in California. A mutual friend introduced Simon to Ivan. Ivan saw potential in Simon even though he wasn't less active on social media than other interns. Ivan invited Simon to join the team.

Simon decided to leave his internship and move to the office in the mission district. From then on, the two have been working together.

The co-founder of a startup isn't necessarily the person you start the company with, but rather the people who go through the ups and downs together. They share some of the early struggles they faced, including convincing Simon to drop out of school and dealing with the challenges of starting a company with limited resources. - Ivan 

The Spark of Inspiration

“We were just, code, code, code. Then, ‘Hey, let’s go out for food.’ Then, we go eat, go back to work, and do it again.” - Ivan Zhao.

Zhao's journey with Notion began when he started building web pages for his artist friends. He realized their creativity could flourish even more if they could create digital spaces. "Computing is a medium," he thought, "and everyone should be able to speak that medium."

Like Spotify democratized music, Zhao envisioned a tool to empower people to construct their online realms.

The team tried simplifying programming with Webflow and Figma, but people preferred preexisting solutions. So, they made computing tools into productivity tools and integrated programming into familiar ones like documents.

Despite obstacles, they persevered and remained open to learning from missteps. Simon kept everyone upbeat and practical, focused on the unsolvable problem and exploring new avenues.

My co-founder Simon and I wanted to do something different with Notion. Instead of building another specialized tool, we wanted to make a set of LEGO-style software blocks — pages, databases, bulleted lists, embeds — that would let anyone in the world build their tools to solve any problem they have. - Ivan Zhao.

Co-Founder Connections

Enter Akshay Kothari, Notion's Co-Founder and COO. Zhao and Kothari crossed paths when Zhao posted on Hacker News, seeking a designer job. Although their initial collaboration didn't materialize, they stayed connected.

After selling Pulse to LinkedIn, Zhao officially launched Notion in 2013. Kothari initially joined as an investor but later became a full-time co-founder.

Notion Takes Shape

In the early stages, Zhao pondered how to democratize web creation. Notion emerged as a solution—a versatile platform where users could build their websites, manage tasks, and organize thoughts.

The Lego-like approach fascinated him: assembling digital components like building blocks to construct personalized workspaces. The Notion wasn't merely a note-taking app but an all-in-one canvas for creativity.

Why is Notion so Popular?

Notion's popularity can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, the platform is intuitive, accessible, and flexible, allowing users to create impressive dashboards easily. 

Additionally, the pandemic in 2020 led to a surge in remote work and collaboration, which helped Notion gain popularity among companies and businesses. T

The app's "aesthetic" capabilities, such as adding personal covers, icons, and images, also attracted Gen Z users, thanks partly to TikTok's viral content. 

The notion has also benefited from the growing popularity of no-code tools, which allow users to build websites, apps, and designs without coding experience. 

The Reddit community of Notion has 150,000 subscribers, nearly ten times Slack's, indicating the app's widespread appeal across different countries and cultures. 

Notion has clearly captured the hearts and minds of its users, making it an exceptional tool in the digital age.

What aspiring entrepreneurs and creators can learn from the builders of Notion:

The notion was initially built by engineer-designers for themselves, but their goal was to make it available to everyone. They faced the challenge of balancing the needs of different users while maintaining a general-purpose tool.

To solve this problem, they focus on deeply understanding the problem and the people involved, considering multiple users, and finding flexible solutions that work for as many people as possible.

They emphasize that it is essential to be passionate about the problem and the solution and make trade-offs to arrive at a broadly applicable yet specific solution. 

Young people can draw valuable lessons from the founders of Notion, Ivan Zhao and Simon Last. Their journey embodies creativity, resilience, and a vision for democratizing software. Here's what aspiring entrepreneurs and creators can learn:

Embrace Multidisciplinarity:

  • Ivan Zhao's diverse background in cognitive science, fine art, and coding demonstrates that expertise across domains can fuel innovation.
  • Lesson: Don't limit yourself—explore various fields and integrate knowledge to create something unique.

Vision Beyond Boundaries:

  • Ivan Zhao envisioned software as a medium accessible to all, akin to Lego bricks. Notion's Lego-like approach reflects this vision.
  • Lesson: Think beyond existing boundaries. Create tools that empower users to build their own solutions.

Start Small, Iterate, and Rebuild:

  • Notion faced early challenges but rebuilt from scratch. Simon Last's engineering expertise played a crucial role.
  • Lesson: Begin with a prototype, iterate, and refine. Persistence pays off.

Lean Teams and Hands-On Approach:

  • Notion's founders believe in small teams and hands-on involvement. They handle programming, marketing, and more.
  • Lesson: Stay close to your product. Understand every aspect of your business.

User-Centric Design:

  • Notion's success lies in its user-friendly interface and customization options.
  • Lesson: Prioritize user experience. Build tools that adapt to diverse needs.

Community Matters:

  • Notion's global community contributed to its growth. Feedback loops are essential.
  • Lesson: Engage with your users. Listen, learn, and iterate based on their needs.

Adapt to Changing Contexts:

  • The pandemic boosted Notion's adoption. Akshay Kothari's leadership during this period was crucial.
  • Lesson: Be agile. Adapt to changing circumstances and seize opportunities.

Empower Others to Create:

  • Ivan Zhao's vision—to make Notion powerful enough for everyone to create their software—inspires innovation.
  • Lesson: Build tools that empower others. Democratize creativity.
Apr 22, 2024
Digital Learning

More from 

Digital Learning


View All