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.
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?