Is Notion competent and trustworthy?

I’ve been using Notion for nearly 2 years now, but have consistently hesitated to go “all-in”. At first it was because of the time and effort involved in migrating from my old tool(s) (most significantly Quip from Salesforce). But more recently it’s because I am starting to seriously question the competence of Notion’s team and be concerned that they won’t be able to execute well long-term and actually implement features that matter to people. This is going to be a long post, and may seem like it’s just repeating a common refrain, but I hope there’s a bit more meat here based on some research I’ve done on Notion’s team and history. To begin, a bit of backstory:

In the first 6 months after I discovered it (first half of 2019), Notion had a healthy, even exciting pace of development and feature releases, and we saw early mentions of their API, time line, and other things. Then, fairly quickly and without warning, new releases started becoming less frequent, and the features included in them (if any) were less and less significant. “Time line” (Gantt) stopped being mentioned, and only recently was finally released, more than a year past its initial mention (where it had stood on their “coming soon” list for months before disappearing). API still isn’t here yet (more on that in a moment).

For over a year there was no clear indication about what had happened to their dev and release cadence, no clear acknowledgement of it from any official Notion source. Then this article was released in August of this year:


In it we learn that the last year or so has been focused, yes, on the API, but also a completely unannounced project: Internationalization (aka localization, translating the UI) due to their popularity in Korea. I have some opinions on the wisdom of tackling that problem when and how they did, but nevermind, the article corresponded with the launch of internationalization, so I hoped that would then mean resources should have already shifted back to other things more relevant to their broader, global audience (e.g. API). And to be fair they did release the “time line”, as I mentioned, and it’s pretty good.

In that same article Notion co-founder Ivan Zhao also makes a key promise, or at least indication, that we will see the long-delayed API “this quarter”. Given this was published in August, one could mistake his meaning for “very soon, later in August”, but likely he meant essentially “by the end of 2020”. At the time it seemed reasonable, after so long, it had to be imminent, especially with the freeing up of dev resources following the localization project. But unfortunately they’re not going to make that promised date either. Notion Twitter posted this today:


In short, they will not even have a public beta of the API until early next year! They’ve missed yet another release time frame, publicly spoken to, if not formally “announced”. And I’m sad to see that virtually every reply in the Twitter thread is just some form of excitement, no question about the further delay, no concern expressed by anyone.

So what the heck is going on at Notion? Is this reason to doubt their tech/stack choices or competence and effectiveness as a team? After the article above some months ago, I started looking into Notion’s history a bit more, and what I found did worry me. What has happened since then has worried me further.

My understanding of the reason for Notion’s slow-down that I described above is that they got really hung up on difficulties implementing localization (translation to Korean), and the API, both of which are admittedly major projects if they weren’t planned for from the beginning. I’m not a developer (though I was a part of development decisions at a very small software company for over 10 years), so take my opinion with a grain of salt. But it seems to me that - even when you consider that both of these involve significant development effort - the amount of time it has taken them to develop their API, and the degree to which it has seemingly derailed other major progress, as well as their poor communication around it all, really indicates some serious underlying issues. Issues which are not necessarily “normal” to all development, i.e. they effed up and had to redo some stuff, or something to that effect. By comparison you can see that other dev teams implemented APIs for similarly complex tools in far less time.

If you look back in Notion’s history it’s also not the first time such a thing has happened to them:

However, the biggest issue with the original product wasn’t necessarily that there was no demand for another no-code product—though that was a factor. The biggest issue was that Zhao and his co-founder, Simon Last, had built the product using a tech stack that couldn’t possibly scale. Stability was a major problem and the product crashed frequently.

With little money and fewer prospects, Zhao and Last made an incredibly difficult choice: either dissolve their four-person company and start over, or limp along until they finally ran out of runway.

Quoted from:

And while the API and localization processes are not (yet?) being described in the same way by the team, the actual outcome for users and their dev progress appears to me from the outside to indicate similar problems. If so, it really does not speak that well for their tech leadership (e.g. CTO) and overall management.

This would not be totally surprising. Co-founder Ivan Zhao had basically no substantive experience prior to the founding of Notion way back in 2013. Simon Last, his developer co-founder, seems to have come out of college and basically gone straight into co-founding Notion.

Meanwhile another co-founder, Chris Prucha, who says on his LinkedIn “I created and implemented many of the features that make Notion popular today, and single handedly implemented the first mobile version of Notion” left the company in 2015 to found a new one. Which might help explain why it seems as if Notion burst onto the scene with all this innovative stuff and then, even as development continued (and slowed down more and more), the number of genuine innovations tailed off significantly.

So in short, the Notion team appears to have a history of incurring too much technical debt and not doing a good job balancing back-end, low-level overhauls vs. regular feature updates and improvements. Not only that but much of what makes Notion seem so special may well have been due - at least in part - to the brilliance of one since-departed team member. I for one can’t point to anything they’ve done in the last couple years that has really impressed me or set the bar higher than any other tool; Notion is in its fundamentals and broad capabilities largely the same as it was when I first found it. Now the API, if it does actually come early next year, will help a lot, no doubt. But it still doesn’t mean that Notion suddenly becomes a tool (and team) worthy of trusting as a “central hub”.

Despite these concerns I do still use Notion on a daily basis. But for all the reasons above I still haven’t gone “all-in” on it yet, and unless something changes significantly, at this point I probably won’t, at least not for quite some time. For me, at least, they need to reestablish trust and demonstrate their ability to execute on important improvements for a sustained period of time. Their more recent dev cadence has been encouraging (time line, hide-able properties, etc.), but the further delay of the API is absolutely not. So it’s a mixed bag at best, for now.

Meanwhile I’ve gotten into the Anytype beta, and although it’s very early in development, I have reason to be hopeful about its potential, at least from what I’ve seen so far. At the least I prefer their dev and funding model, avoiding big VC and crazy valuations, and aiming for local-first, and eventual open source for the core app.

So I’m really interested to hear if anyone else has had similar concerns and was aware of all of this or, if not, does your opinion of Notion change now? If you’re still a Notion super-fan, what are your thoughts and counterpoints to the above concerns? Do you feel comfortable using Notion for everything, and if so, is it because you trust the team, or simply haven’t found a comparable alternative and you’re willing to take the risk for the unique capabilities?

I’ve not looked at Notion, personally, but I sure see it mentioned a lot, as a great tool. I had no idea it had stagnated or started to rot.

Thanks for the background. I would also be very concerned about trusting all my data to such a company. They might pull through and dominate the world, but I currently live in Missouri which is the “Show Me” state.

There are a bunch of other options out there, and the list seems to be growing daily. I would advise keeping your eyes open for a better option. In the meantime, if you have the ability to do backups and your data can be exported to a transportable format, maybe you don’t have too much to worry about if nothing else is tempting you to move.

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Thinking about this , I realise that not a lot of well established tools release features regularly that are as exciting as the ones that came out during the early years . Maybe thats just the trend ?

I would actually be fine with a stable product , IF they didn’t charge us with subscriptions !
If it was only a one time purchase , it really makes sense if the product had already reached it’s plateau phase of development . At least we know what we are buying is a finished product and could weigh our options and probably pay for an upgrade once the next iteration comes along or stick to the same one .

But when a product charges it’s users on a subscription , I think it’s only fair to assume that they do so because the company is yet to grow and they need the money to scale up proportionately ! They get our hopes high that features are going to be raining in like the early days of dev . Maybe the release of a free tier was just a compensation to cut such high hopes and also to survive the competition, while they should rather be surviving the competition with features and advances ?

If things are as bad as your findings say , I don’t see how they are going to get any better , any time soon . Unless they find a way to get over the tech debt .

Time to test it out I guess . But how does it fare against fibery? What are the main striking differences ?

The VC path is one to be wary of , that more and more startups are being aware of and avoiding as well .
Here’s a nice thread on how a certain startup is approaching investments , even though it means that they are not going to be funded heavily .

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Depending on your perspective, “starting to rot” may be an exaggeration. But certainly I think it had stagnated at least until recently. In the last ~4 months they’ve added backlinks, time line (Gantt charts) property visibility control for Pages/databases, and some other stuff that is reasonably notable. But in context, they started talking about time line 2 years ago I think, and the backlinks implementation is pretty basic and definitely has a “me too” feel compared to Roam, Obsidian, and many others.

:laughing: :100:

Honestly there is nothing else I’m aware of that is quite like Notion though. The very closest thing is Anytype, which I am involved in testing on Windows and Android. And it’s extremely promising, but still very early compared to Notion, and not something I can use for anything serious yet, unfortunately. I would say it will probably be at least 6 months until it will be capable of that for my purposes. Though I know some other testers are apparently already using it for a lot.

The other similar option IMO is Fibery, which has lots of pros and cons vs. Notion. The biggest con is the lack of a way to interact with pages as a block structure, and no columns either. That and the lack of “embeds”, either internal or external (with a few exceptions). The DB capabilities are for the most part much better and more well thought-out than Notion though. I use Fibery regularly for my “day job”. Still I haven’t yet felt like it is quite right for my personal data needs…

Oh believe me I definitely keep my eye on the options. I almost can’t help it, even if I didn’t need an alternative. Checking out new apps is definitely in my nature and has been for a long, long time. :slight_smile:

In general this is somewhat true, though I can easily think of many exceptions. But it makes sense that to some degree this would be the pattern. Apps tend to be based on certain core ideas, they debut with some subset of what the founders envision, then it matures to a better representation of that vision, and unless there is good reason to innovate further and/or they have a team capable of handling a broadening of the mission/scope, then they will tend to “mature” into fewer major changes, etc.

To some degree this can be a good thing, but I would argue that’s only true in certain app categories or classes where massive innovation may not be necessary, for example file managers, image editors, and other things that have been around a long time. Sure you can add AI features, and whatever other modern fancy stuff to an image editor, but is it going to revolutionize most users’ workflows? Probably not.

This takes us back to older software models, and while I definitely see the appeal as a user, having been on the other side working at a tiny software publisher, having recurring revenue is really nice. I would say that if its potential for abuse can be avoided, subscription models have benefits for both the user and the developer/publisher, and are ultimately more sustainable and rational toward the market value of the tool in many cases.

As a really good example, how many more people now have access to e.g. Photoshop as a subscription than when it used to cost $700+? It had to cost that much (arguably) because of the cost of employing the advanced software engineers responsible for its fancy features. But that didn’t align well with the total addressable user base, many of whom only need Photoshop occasionally. Only pros could ever afford to pay the full retail price. And interestingly, although many have bemoaned Adobe’s move to subscriptions, I’ve actually seen a lot more innovation in their products since they did so.

Well, to be fair I’m only basing my analysis on a few key, significant events. It’s a small sample size, in other words. But that’s all most people ever have to go on with a software company, unless they’re “overly transparent” like Fibery’s team. :wink: But I really do hope I’m wrong, because Notion really got a nice head start and it would be sad to see it wasted (further).

Oh it’s way behind both Notion and Fibery at this point. Doesn’t even have database functions yet (that is their current main focus of dev). It’s just very promising because A: it’s local-first, B: they haven’t taken major VC money (it’s mostly privately/angel funded), C: they’re very responsive to their community, D: the functionality they do have already improves on Notion in some minor but useful ways. Again I have to stress that it’s well behind Notion in overall capability, I’m just saying that based on how they have implemented things so far, I have high hopes for what they can accomplish in the future.

Missing link, or did I misunderstand?