Grow Your Business Through Community, with Notion CRO Olivia Nottebohm

In this episode, WorkOS CEO Michael Grinich and Notion CRO Olivia Nottebohm cover how businesses can create engines of community-led growth for their products. They also talk about customer advisory boards, cultivating an ecosystem, and customer communication.
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Transcript

Michael Grinich (00:02):

Welcome to Crossing the Enterprise Chasm, a podcast about software startups and their journey moving upmarket to serving enterprise customers. I'm your host, Michael Grinich. I'm the founder of WorkOS, which is a platform that helps developers quickly ship common enterprise features like single sign on. On this podcast, you'll hear directly from founders, product leaders, and early stage operators who have navigated building great products for enterprise customers. In every episode, you'll find strategies, tactics, and real world advice for ways to make your app enterprise ready and take your business to the next level. Today I'm joined by Olivia Nottebohm, the chief revenue officer at Notion.

For those of you unfamiliar, Notion is an all in one productivity tool that has rapidly grown in popularity over the past few years. Today, over 20 million people use Notion, including both for personal use, but also for work at large companies like Pixar, IBM, and Adobe. Along the way this meant Notion needed to become enterprise ready and build new features and functionality for IT administrators. We're going to dig into all this and more and talk about how Notion is moving upmarket and crossing the enterprise chasm. Olivia, welcome to the podcast.

Olivia Nottebohm (01:14):

Thank you, Michael. I'm excited to be here today and looking forward to chatting with you.

Michael Grinich (01:18):

Let's do it. So let's just jump right in. Give us a quick update on Notion. Where's the business and team today? What's your current focus?

Olivia Nottebohm (01:25):

Well, it's actually an amazing journey. I just joined in the spring, but I'll give you a little bit of background of all that was happening starting a couple years ago. In 2019, there were 1 million users. And then by 2020, we had 4 million users, and about 40 employees in the spring of 2020. And now we have over 20 million users and about 200 team members at Notion. So really fantastic and exciting. We also have five offices, so we have San Francisco, New York, Dublin, Tokyo, and Hyderabad, and we just launched our Dublin office, which represents our EMEA headquarters this summer. And we added Hyderabad, our fifth location through an acquisition, automate.io, that helps us with integrations and brings us connectivity to over 200 SaaS tools out there. So really exciting.

Michael Grinich (02:16):

That is some incredible growth. At SaaStr this year you talked about three different channels for growth, top down, bottom up, and community led. I'm assuming that listeners are probably familiar with the first two, top down and bottom up, but not so much the third. What are some of Notion's community led initiatives that map to how enterprises discover and adopt the product and drive growth?

Olivia Nottebohm (02:39):

Sure. So community for us is our most important entry into the market, and we really have leaned on our community, because as I mentioned before, we're very small and scrappy. But that number of users have been 100% as a result of the community that's out there. So we thought about this, which is, yes, you need to build a beautiful product, but you also need to be able to make it known to the world. And our goal is really this deep mission of enabling people to be toolmakers, and we want everyone to be able to do that. So we had to ask ourselves, how are we going to get that message out there? So for us, we did a number of things around community. First we found the people who were really excited about Notion and we fostered those people, we got to know them, we got to know what they cared about. Frankly, what they wanted to build for themselves. And they became our ambassadors.
And we have many, many, many ambassadors globally, and they are out there in the various countries worldwide talking about Notion, fostering communication about Notion, and also providing us feedback on the tool. We also have champions. So within every organization that uses Notion, we very much rely on that power user or that person that has brought us into their business and is at the forefront of really engaging their team members and others about what it is to use Notion and the wonderful extension of Notion. And for both of those, we lean in really heavily. So we think about how do we empower them? How do we get them information that they otherwise wouldn't have access to? How do we fund them. If they want to host a get together, we make sure that we get them space, we get them food. Little things that enables them to really shine in what they're doing.
And then the third element within community after ambassadors, champions is also consultants. So these are folks who actually make a living on working with teams about how they can use Notion. This is what a typical SaaS company might have as a professional services team. Our goal is to not have that at all, but instead have this wonderful community of consultants who are out there day to day, engaging with our users and our customers, and we are here to help them do that great work.

Michael Grinich (05:10):

You described some of the growth of users over the past few years. I'm assuming the revenue has grown with that too as the company has scaled. I'm curious, through the lens of, really, revenue and enterprise customers, what have been the most successful community initiatives? Do you map it back to those enterprise customers, those larger customers? Where's the connection there?

Olivia Nottebohm (05:28):

Well, again, it is those elements. So also within enterprises, it is that person or those group of people that bring in Notion into their larger environment. So for us, champions continue to be a very strong entry into enterprise. In general, we find that, yes, content marketing is helpful, but for the most part, people would prefer to hear about a solution from a peer or someone who has their similar problems and are trying to solve similar use cases. So we really find that the champions are highly, highly valuable within the enterprise environment, and then we also see influencers, so influencers like Justin Tan and others, who are able to talk to use cases that are relevant for business and really operate in the social media and the social norm that I think has become very much standard for us today. So part of what Notion firmly believed was that the top down sale was never going to be our motion. It was always going to be this community led bottom up motion, and that continues to be the case for us in enterprise.

Michael Grinich (06:39):

I read that you've started to form customer advisory boards, and I actually talked on a previous episode of this podcast with Ilan Frank from Slack about how they did this early on too, for Slack enterprise. I'm curious if you can walk through when this started getting formed at Notion, kind of what the goal is for those customer advisory boards, where you're hoping to take that?

Olivia Nottebohm (06:59):

So I would say we are very early days here. It's very important to us. We have a set of customers who are all over, have over a thousand users, and go up to even 4, 5,000 users. And for us, that is making us ensure that we are attuned to the needs of those customers. So classically you have customer advisory boards and we're setting those up now and making sure that we have a good representation of types of companies, types of teams, and frankly, where they are geographically, because customers have different needs based on geography as well. So we're putting those together. We're intending to be very thoughtful about it, to make sure that the representation really is broad, because we take that very seriously. Those customer advisory boards will be looking at our roadmaps, engaging in future product conversations, giving us feedback about how our teams are engaging with them. So we have this Notion called lighthouse accounts, and they're lighthouse accounts because they are the beacon, we want to make sure that we're doing what we need to deliver for those accounts.

Michael Grinich (08:12):

I love that term, really, just what's shining bright and pulling you into the future. I know you joined Notion relatively recently, but it's clear Notion has a lot of momentum and adoption within the enterprise. How do you think about product market fit for Notion specifically at the enterprise market? When did you see initial signs of that or did the company see that? What were those initial signs within the enterprise markets?

Olivia Nottebohm (08:35):

There's many ways in which we look at this. For us, the most important is usage. So seeing almost a critical mass of users come together and use Notion for us means that we've done our job in delivering value. And really that's the bar that we hold for ourselves, is can we deliver value to team members at scale? So we have this what we call OKR internally, where we have a team size that we're targeting to make sure that we're constantly adding those teams to gauge and make sure that we're continuously adding value to new enterprise customers. So that has been picking up. In fact, we just doubled the number of those in the past four months, and it's a metric that we actually read out once a month at all hands, just to tell you how important it is for us.
And what that means is the product teams think about it, the go to market teams think about it. We're all coming together to make sure that we're delivering what's needed for those larger at scale teams. Other metrics or indicators that we look at are just the number of companies that are coming to us and asking us about our solution in the enterprise space. And that has continued to go up and up and up. As well as those companies that, as they're scaling, they take us with them. And that's really important too. You don't want to find yourself as a SaaS company in a situation where you are able to take your customer up to a thousand employees, but then after that your solution doesn't work anymore. So we are constantly trying to make sure that that will never happen and we are scaling as quickly as our customers need us to scale.

Michael Grinich (10:22):

What have you seen as some of those blockers as you get bigger and bigger customers? I'm curious on the product front, or maybe even how they pay for the product? Is there a separate enterprise roadmap that you all have built out? How do you combine, I'm sure, the focus with the individuals adopting it for personal use and then the 5,000 person company? Very different use case. Talk through if there's tension there or how you kind of meld those two together.

Olivia Nottebohm (10:47):

We do think a lot about this. We are very focused on making sure that the end user, whether they're paying or not, just finds complete delight in the product. And I think that is one of the reasons for the product market fit, which is people just love to use the product. But then of course the next responsibility of ours is to make sure that they can use it in a team environment, and we feel very comfortable with startups and SMVs, that that's also the case. If you look at the number of startups that use us, you'd say about 30% of startups use us today. So we're very comfortable that that also is product market fit. So you're right, as you go up into larger companies, you want to make sure that you're able to address their problems as well, or their needs.
Some of the things that we know are true, as you become a larger and larger company, you have concern about things like complexity of apps. So something like SSO is very important to you. Permissioning is very important to you. Security is very important to you. So we take in mind all those things. And even back in 2019, we had SSO on the roadmap. We provide it today. So it's just a constant forward movement of adding more and more things that our users need to scale, and frankly IT admins need from us in order to feel really excited about deploying the solution.

Michael Grinich (12:08):

You mentioned a lot of startups using Notion, which I definitely see this all over the place. Seems like everyone is using it. That's clearly a part of the bottom up go to market strategy. I'm curious what the sales team looks like on the counterpoint to that. Where did sales start, how was it built, and where are you at today and what's the plan for growing the sales organization?

Olivia Nottebohm (12:27):

Yeah. I mean, the sales team is just incredible. It is a small but mighty sales team, and we're being very thoughtful about how we build out that sales team. A lot of our adoption is self-serve, and we believe that if a customer wants to self-serve and can self-serve, that they should. So in fact, folks can self-serve into enterprise today, into the enterprise SKU. If you don't want to talk to anyone, that's okay. So we really have a mindset of we let users and customers dictate the way they want to buy and the way they want to engage with Notion, and then we meet them where they are. So our sales team is engaging with customers who are using the team SKU already and are saying, "Hey, I want to understand more about the enterprise SKU. Can you help me?"
And then we also firmly believe that post sale is equally as important. It's just as important for our customer success team to be engaging with our customers and making sure that they're able to address the use cases that they want to address, are able to scale it across their company, all those things. So we lean in really tightly there and we will continue to scale there. And I also firmly believe that support can be a differentiator. So if you just love the support that you get, that's also really important to someone who's trying to get work done. So that customer experience team is also really important, and we're continuing to scale that as well. One of the things that's really important to us is international. Actually the majority of our revenue comes outside of the US. So when we think about sales, when we think about customer success, and when we think about support, that is a very international footprint for us, and our intention is to continue to localize both the app and those go to market functions that we think are so important for the customers.

Michael Grinich (14:26):

Was that always the case with the international revenue external from the United States? Has that grown in the past two years. That's pretty unusual for, I think, a lot of startups.

Olivia Nottebohm (14:36):

It's pretty much always been that way. So it's really wonderful. After the US, we have big markets like the UK, but also Japan and Korea and France and Germany. So that's really wonderful to see.

Michael Grinich (14:50):

I was wondering if you could unpack the typical customer journey, how a larger customer grows. Where they start from, how they discover the product, how they scale. I know a lot of acquisition has come recently through TikTok, I think. There's a lot of TikTok Notion. Just walk through today how you see that typical customer journey leading up up to one of those enterprise customers.

Olivia Nottebohm (15:12):

So there are two paths, I would say. The one path is this firm belief of ours that the digital native startups of today are the enterprises of the future. So we actually have already experienced that. So a company like Monzo who joined us much earlier on on their journey is now a very large company, has thousands of users. And we've gone on that journey with them. So that is something we're very passionate about because we get really excited about helping startups and being there for startups, and then just really enjoy that scale with them. So I would say that's one path. And customer journey will it's everything from reaching out to all of those digital native startups.We do that very programmatically through VCs, through startup programs, through incubators, like we've worked with Station F in France and YC Combinator here, and really thinking through, "Okay, how do we make sure that we can be as accessible as possible to those startups?"
And then the other scenario and other path is where someone who has fallen in love with Notion, whether they came from another company that was using Notion, or they had used it themselves from a personal use case, take it then into work. And then they start convincing their team members, "Hey, this is a wonderful, wonderful collaboration tool," and they become champions. And that goes back to that community led approach, which is we are not trying to knock on the door of every CIO and ask them if they want to buy Notion. That doesn't scale in the way that we want to be able to scale. So it's much more important to us to help those champions and enable those champions, and of course make sure that the CIOs have their needs satisfied at the same time.

Michael Grinich (16:58):

Even the TikTok videos, it seems very unusual for a productivity tool to have that kind of depth of customer love and engagement and just virality. I'm curious about how you see the role of Notion's community in that playing against competitors or other enterprise solutions like Atlassian and Box, and Microsoft has a lot of collaboration tools. I don't see a lot of Microsoft TikTok videos happening. Where do you think that kind of love for the product comes from and how do you think through that in terms of the business impact of it?

Olivia Nottebohm (17:31):

Well, I think the love for the product honestly comes from two things. One is, yes, the love of the product itself. But the second, the respect for the relationship, if that makes sense. So the product itself, again, I had nothing to do with it, there was just an amazing co-founding team that just really just built a beautiful product. And then on the latter side, they were very intentional in being transparent with their users, not trying to curate overly much, and really saying, "Hey, how can we help you in a way that helps you shine," and really focusing on that. And I think when you look at things like our 158,000 subscribers to our Notion subreddit, that's because that is a community that is self moderated. We don't employ the Reddit moderators. They're community chosen.
So there's this trust that we don't try to intercede and tell our story. We actually want users to talk about their Notion experience. And if there's some bad things, we want to hear about that too, and we take that feedback very seriously and we catalog it all. And the second we make a change that people have been asking for, we then send out notifications to tell people, "Hey, we finally got to the thing that you wanted us to work on." So we very much consider that relationship very dear, that relationship with the community and the end user. And my hope is that people feel that, and that that is why they get excited about getting on TikTok or do that YouTube video. They feel respected as someone who is deeply cared for as part of the Notion community.

Michael Grinich (19:23):

I think it's really evident just looking at the product the level of just care and thoughtfulness that went into it and building it, and those values around transparency or honesty, even with customers, you can tell in the self-serve version, it's very much there. Does that map into the enterprise, how you think about pricing, how you approach those types of larger customers to give them the same experience? I think it's probably fair to say traditional enterprise software and pricing is not always that transparent, sometimes not even that fair. As you're thinking through going at market to those enterprise customers, do you bring those values with you, and I guess just how does it inform that approach, if you could talk about that a bit.

Olivia Nottebohm (20:01):

It does inform that approach because we still have as our core mission to enable tool making in a ubiquitous manner. So that is the mission we are on, which is to empower the users. And I think everyone can feel that, whether they work in a small company or a large company. There are only so many developers in the world and they do wonderful things and create magic, but not all of us are developers. I myself am not one. So that mission is very important to me and meaningful to me. And I feel that end users feel empowered. They get into Notion and they're like, "I can do this. This is easy. This is simple. I can't believe five years ago, I would've had to have been writing code to do this." So I think that is universal regardless of what customer segment you're in.
We also take our simple user oriented approach into the enterprise in the sense that we're not trying to monetize the ecosystem. So people create templates for how to use Notion, and we actually just launched a template gallery, and there you can see that people are offering up to other users, "Hey, this is a template that I use to do gold tracking or I use to do project management within engineering." And that is wonderful. We want that ecosystem to thrive, and you see those use cases in enterprise, and those are templates that are being used in enterprise. And we're not trying to harness that or take a cut of that in any way. We want that ecosystem and community to flourish and take us with them to the enterprise. So that continues to be true.
I would say that transparency continues to be important to us. We openly answer all reach outs that we get. Every single engagement is important to us. And then on the enterprise side, I would say that we're very attuned to what the IT admin needs, and that is unique to enterprise. And we do have a full roadmap that intends to address every single one of those needs. And we're really excited about that.

Michael Grinich (22:19):

So I know you've only been at Notion for a few months. You're just a few months into your tenure there. I'm curious since you've joined, what has surprised you? What's been the biggest surprise since you joined of the company?

Olivia Nottebohm (22:30):

I don't think you can truly feel the community until you're in the flow of it. It's very real. You see champions engaging with the customer success team. You see ambassadors reach out and ask, "Oh, I hear you're coming to X, Y, Z location. How can I help? How can I set up a meetup? You see, before we do a launch, a feature launch, we actually send it out for feedback to our community. And I think when you've operated, as I have, in more traditional enterprise tech companies and you haven't experienced that, it's very new and surprising to see the extent to which that community can really play a role in how you run your company and how you engage with the world. So that's been just a delightful surprise.

Michael Grinich (23:25):

Last question for you before we wrap up. A lot of the listeners here are early stage founders, product leaders in much earlier phase than what Notion is today. What advice would you give those early entrepreneurs also building potentially business apps, thinking about going upmarket to cross the enterprise chasm?

Olivia Nottebohm (23:42):

Well, I think one of the things that I really respect Ivan for is that he's very mindful that building a product is just step one, but then how you reach out to the users and the customers of the world is step two and a very important step. And to build one in isolation of the other, frankly, in either direction doesn't work. So that's been lovely to work with a CEO who is so mindful and thoughtful of that. The conversation is not how hard or easy is it to build, but what is the thing we're building and who are we building it for and how are we going to get it to them and do they value it? And that sequence of questions is imperative in order to run and launch a successful business. So I really respect Ivan for that, and it's just been a joy to work at Notion as a result.

Michael Grinich (24:44):

Just from the outside I totally see the impact of that. It's really been incredible to watch. I think that's a great place to wrap up. Olivia, thanks so much for the time. This was a really great conversation. Hope you have a great one.

Olivia Nottebohm (24:54):

Thank you, Michael.

Michael Grinich (25:00):

You just listened to Crossing the Enterprise Chasm, a podcast about software startups and their journey moving upmarket to serving enterprise customers. Want to learn more about becoming enterprise ready? The WorkOS blog is full of tons of articles and guides outlining best practices for adding features like single sign on, SCIM provisioning, and more to your app. Also make sure to subscribe to this podcast so you're first to hear about new episodes with more founders and product leads of fast growing startups. I'm Michael Grinich, founder of WorkOS. Thanks so much for listening and see you next time.