In a fourth article in a series of conversations with Slack Fund portfolio companies, which explore their growth stories and the roles they play in creating the future of work, Jason Spinell, head of Slack Fund, sits down with Akshay Kothari to hear about his unconventional journey to becoming COO of Notion, the fast-growing workspace platform.
See the first three in this series featuring Hopin CEO Johnny Boufarhat, Daily Co-founder Nina Kuruvilla, and MURAL Co-Founder & CEO Mariano Suarez-Battan.
As a successful founder with an exit to LinkedIn under his belt, Akshay was one of the first investors in Notion in 2013. Five years later, he took the leap and joined full-time as Notion’s COO. Since then, the popularity of Notion has exploded.
The past eighteen months have been an interesting time for Notion, which has experienced rapid growth, quadrupling headcount, and raising a $50m round that values the company at $2 billion.
I recently caught up with Akshay to learn more about his journey and explore what the future holds for Notion.This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jason Spinell: Let’s start with a quick introduction — can you tell us about yourself, your journey to becoming the COO of Notion, and a bit about the company?
Akshay Kothari: My Notion story actually starts with me trying to hire our CEO, Ivan Zhao, about ten years ago. I was the founder of a company called Pulse, which was in the news space. Ivan had just arrived in the Bay Area and was looking for his first job. We almost got him, but he decided to go to another company at the last minute. And I was heartbroken – I really wanted to work with him! But we stayed in touch.
Pulse was eventually acquired by LinkedIn, and I started to do some angel investing. In 2013, I invested in Notion. It was actually one of the first investment checks that I wrote. I got to know Ivan and Simon Last, Notion’s other founder, really well. They had this amazing vision to democratize software building, which I really believed in. Growth was slow at first, but when they launched Notion Templates, the company took off.
In 2018, I joined full-time as the tenth employee of Notion. My background until then was all in product, but at Notion, I do everything but product, which is a lot of fun. It’s been an amazing journey so far.
Jason Spinell: I love that story. You mentioned the vision of democratizing software building — how does that resonate with the idea of the future of work? What do you think the future of work looks like, and what role do you think software will play?
Akshay Kothari: Software is going to play such an important role. Companies like Slack, Zoom, Notion, and many others are the reason companies have been able to continue operating without major disruptions over the past eighteen months.
Last March, our whole team was in the office, and then the next day, we were suddenly all at home — I can’t imagine what that would look like even a decade ago. But today, the software tools we have meant we could adapt. It wasn’t a big deal to be communicating on Slack, taking calls on Zoom, or planning projects in Notion.
One of the challenges, though, is that companies use so many different tools. I saw a study recently that found the average company uses 90 different software tools. There’s all this amazing, specialized software, but for people to do basic work, they might have to switch between ten different tools. Our belief is that the pendulum has to swing towards a core group of tools that people use to get work done.
Another trend we’re seeing is that people want to shape the tools that they’re using to better suit their needs. But the tools don’t necessarily exist to make this easy. Take the example of customizing a specific CRM system — you need to hire a consultant or dedicate an engineer to that task — it’s not easy.
At Notion, we’re focused on giving companies a central platform to work on. And as people spend more time on Notion, we see them create these amazing templates to make work easier for them. Often, they share these with the world, and we see other people take these templates and customize them further to fit their own needs.
So, I think the future of work focuses on connectedness, like we’ve seen over the past 18 months, but also more moldability — giving people the power to shape the tools they use to work for them. That’s becoming increasingly important as people start to go back into the office again, as the tools we use will need to adapt to that hybrid model.
Jason Spinell: That resonates with me. At Slack, we’re focused on being that platform where people can connect and work seamlessly together.
Akshay Kothari: For us, Slack is the hub for asynchronous communication. I get alerts when systems are down or when a salesperson closes a deal. And then we can all tackle that problem or celebrate that achievement together. With Slack for communication, we’re seeing people use Notion for asynchronous collaboration, and they’re very complementary.
Teams communicate on Slack, but when it’s time to do the deep work of creating a project brief or figuring out who is working on different parts of the roadmap, Notion is perfect for that.
Our aim for Notion is that we can connect to other tools that people may be using. So for example, if a company uses Salesforce as their CRM, we want people to be able to update their accounts in Notion, and then that updates Salesforce automatically. Right now, that connectivity that needs to exist between different software tools is lacking, and that’s one of the areas that we’re most excited to invest in.
Jason Spinell: That’s very exciting — it’s a big, big opportunity. How else do you think about the long-term effects of the pandemic? Do you think the way people work and collaborate has changed permanently?
Akshay Kothari: If this had been like a week or two, we’d easily snap back to our previous ways of doing things. But because it’s been nearly a year and a half now, we’re definitely seeing major, lasting shifts in the workplace.
I definitely see an increasingly hybrid workplace with a flexible work environment. That makes it more important than ever for companies to document things well and ensure information is readily available. Going back to the idea of asynchronous work that we talked about; companies now have people all around the world in different timezones. As decisions are made, they need to be communicated asynchronously so that everyone can do their best work.
This flexibility and hybrid work life is the future. And companies will need tools like Slack and Notion to ensure that they keep productivity levels high.
Jason Spinell: I agree that the hybrid nature of work is definitely here to stay. But it’s not as binary as when people were fully in the office, or for the past year, fully remote. What do you see as the challenges of that, and what are some tools you’re using at Notion to manage these challenges?
Akshay Kothari: Great question. For us, work has moved pretty fast over the past eighteen months. We’ve made so much progress, even though we haven’t seen each other and half the company hasn’t even met each other in-person. A lot of the credit has to go to the tools that we use – Slack, Notion, Zoom, and more.
The challenges are more on the human side. Not being able to have that social connection we had as coworkers in the past is a huge challenge. When being social is another meeting on Zoom, that can be really tough. A lot of companies are facing that challenge and figuring out how to best support people’s physical and mental health. At Notion, we’ve been sending every employee themed monthly boxes (eg. for AAPI awareness month, Pride month), teams organize virtual offsites like charcuterie board creation and dumpling making, and our ERGs organize remote activities and lectures.
But I really do think that companies are adapting quickly. I’m optimistic about the future; there might be some bumps in the road, but I’m confident we’ll find a steady state that works for everyone.
Another challenge we think about is what hybrid work means for company culture. When you’re a large company, the culture is built in, and people have made those connections. But if you’re a startup where people haven’t met a lot of their coworkers, building culture in a hybrid environment is challenging.
Companies have to get more opinionated in defining and codifying their culture. As leaders, we need to explain: “Hey, this is what Notion’s culture is, this is our mission and strategy, and these are our values.” We have to be discrete about this, because a lot of the ambient information that drives culture gets lost in hybrid environments.
Shifting to a hybrid culture, you almost have to redesign everything. At Notion, we’re 120 people, so much smaller than Slack, but we’ve still had to redesign how we do new hire onboarding, 1:1 meetings, our buddy system, and more. It’s kind of like a new world.
One of the things that’s top of mind for us is employee wellbeing. Some people really like being in the office, and some like working at home. Being able to support both is really important.
Jason Spinell: How have you seen people’s work patterns in Notion change during the pandemic, and does that affect the product roadmap going forward?
Akshay Kothari: In the early days of working from home, we all became much more aware of how hybrid and distributed teams use our product. That gave us a lot of empathy for the teams that we’re serving. Because of that, we were able to ship a bunch of new features pretty quickly. For example, if you’re on the same doc as me, I can click on your avatar and see what you’re seeing on your screen.
We heard from a lot of customers that were trying to figure out how to adapt their existing tech stacks to support remote work. Sure, companies have docs and they have communication systems, but they don’t necessarily have one central platform that ties it all together. Notion acts as a knowledge base where companies can run a lot of their core processes.
So a lot of companies, big and small, have started to use Notion as the heartbeat of their company, and a place to connect to a lot of other internal tools. That’s been the evolution of the platform for us. A couple of months ago, we launched the API, and it’s been really exciting to see the connections people are making between Notion and other tools. We see a world where the interconnectivity between these tools gets even better, because that’s the only way we’re going to get out of this siloed software world.
One of the things that we’re excited about is synced blocks. Essentially, you can write something in one place in a page, and paste that block in multiple places in Notion. Changing it in one location will change it everywhere else.
Jason Spinell: You’ve been an operator for a long time, both as a successful founder and now scaling Notion. Is there one specific piece of advice you’d give aspiring entrepreneurs starting this journey?
Akshay Kothari: Stay grounded and humble throughout the journey. My career has had plenty of ups and downs, but things are never as bad, or as good, as they seem at the time. Keep in mind that changing stock prices or valuations don’t necessarily reflect the full value you’re creating for your customers and the world.
Of course, it’s easy to tell people to stay even keeled, but it can be much harder to do in the heat of the moment. But it’s served me very well, and I think it’s solid advice for founders.
Jason Spinell: That’s very true. Everybody goes through cycles, but staying the course and believing in the vision is critically important. In closing, more of a fun question. What’s your favorite Slack emoji?
Akshay Kothari: We have a custom emoji that’s a heart with an Elmo on it. One of our core values is to put users first, and our custom Elmo emoji acts as a reminder of who we’re building for.
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