At the heart of product-led growth is the user. And in this podcast, Olivia Nottebohm, CRO of Notion ($10B valuation), will delve into the more complex aspects of product-led growth, and why they’re essential for building a successful business that will thrive for years to come.


Hi, everyone. Nice to see you all. My name is Olivia Nottebohm, and I am the CRO of Notion. I feel very grateful to be able to be part of the team. And I chose this topic because this is truly emblematic of Notion. The topic of community and how you lead growth through community. So let’s dive in.

Okay. Who knows what this app is? TikTok.

Yes. TikTok. Okay. Who has ever bought enterprise software based on something you’ve seen in this app or your child has shown you in this app?

No one. Okay. The gauntlet is thrown. I will try to weave this into why people think about buying enterprise SaaS software based on things they see on this app. Okay. So growth is a really important topic. It’s actually one I’ve been thinking about for quite some time.

Both, what are the drivers of growth and how do you build for growth? And back in 2014, I co-wrote an article called Grow Fast or Die Slow. I’ll tell you the four findings of it. The first is that growth is paramount. What does that mean? It means that companies who are growing at over 60% as they hit $100 million in ARR are valued five times more than companies that are growing just a little less than that, say, at 20-60% as they hit $100 million ARR. What else did we find? We found that growth predicts success. So companies who are growing over 60% as they hit $100 million ARR are eight times more likely to ever make it to $1 billion in ARR. And what else did we find?

We found growth is super hard to maintain. So those companies that were pacing at 60% growth as they hit $100 million in ARR, only 15% of them were able to maintain that growth as they through to $1 billion. And finally, growth matters way more than margin. I think we all know this by now. In 2014, it was pretty insightful, not so insightful now. But actually, as it turns out, the markets don’t really value profit, they really care about growth. Okay. So this is a Silicon Valley TV episode of the time. The episode was actually titled Grow Fast or Die Slow. And here you see the founders and their expression when they realize the gauntlet that they now need to go through. So let’s take a look at the numbers. Here what do you see? There are about 20,000 active SaaS companies today, startups, pre IPO.

Then you see either about 1000 public companies that are SaaS companies that are about $150 million in ARR. And this is actually not to scale. But imagine the 50 is very much smaller than the 1,000. There are only about 50 companies that have made it to $1 billion publicly. And then there’re only about 10 that have ever made it to $5 billion. So if you’ve ever wondered, why does growth matter? This is a perfect example of the gauntlet these companies have had to go through as they drive towards growth. All right. So I would pause that there are three types of growth. One is top-down, the other is bottom-up and wave three is community-led. And that is the topic that I want to talk to you about today. So to review, the first wave.

You sold to a set of decision-makers. They made a decision about the SaaS software. They pushed it down and people at the company used it. This was not a bad model. By the way, this is how SAP and Salesforce made it all the way up and over to the $5 billion mark. And if you remember that list, the majority of the companies who got to $5 billion actually got there this way. But then in about 2010, we saw a shift. This was more about the usability of the product. What was it like to it day to day? Did it scale across the company? And what were the users saying about whether they actually wanted to use it at work? Slack is a perfect example of this. And interestingly, executives listen. They listened and made decisions based on what people were telling them. But the third wave is the wave that I want to talk to you about today.

This is the 100-foot wave. For surfers, this is the wave in Nazaré, Portugal, and for SaaS entrepreneurs, this is the wave you want to catch. And I think this wave is a wave that’s led and driven by community. So the question is, what is it that gives strength to this wave? Well, I would say it’s a number of things that are coming together all at the same time. The first is agency. People have even more agency than they did in 2010 to decide what is it that they want to use at work, especially I would say in the hybrid distributed model that we’re in today? Truly teams want to make sure that people in their teams are using the thing that really keeps them in flow and makes them productive. The other is influencers in social media. Don’t think I need to expand on it. It’s very present in our reality today. The third are review sites.

So it used to be that analysts would call a couple of the chief decision-makers, decide whether you are in the upper right-hand quadrant or not, publish their analyst report and that was that. It’s very different now. Review sites are all about users telling us what is it like to use it? What is the actual experience? And it’s crowdsourced and it’s put in these review sites. And the fourth element is the surround sound of user content. Someone uses your product, they make a video about it, they post it and it’s out in the wild. And then the fifth is this shared communication channels. And this is what compounds the previous one. But of course, we all know it. It’s YouTube, it’s TikTok, it’s Slack channels and it’s Facebook groups. These are all coming together to give this enormous power to this wave that is the community-led wave for product-led companies.

Okay. So I would also like to pause that community is a force that should power every stage of the funnel, not just the top of the funnel as one would think, but actually should really shine in the middle of the funnel and really also have real impact in the bottom of the funnel and expansion. Okay. So I think we all know that if you make 10 posts about how amazing your product is, it pales in comparison to a raw video that someone posts on Instagram about your product, whether good or bad. So let’s get into it. Raising awareness. Okay, you’re small, you’re early, you’re a startup, there’s so much you want to do to raise awareness. There’s all that posts that you want to put up, the blogs you want to make so that SEO takes hold and really takes off. There are events you want to do, there’s paid media you want to do.

But at the end of the day, you feel like you’re running out of time and you’re running out of budget. Who all has been there? Yes. And if that’s the route you take, you will definitely burn out. So what do you do? You turn to the world around you and you find other people to tell your story. And you find who those people are and who are passionate about your story, and you help them tell it in the way that they want to tell your story. What are the passions they have? What is the journey they want to be on? And how do they want to be part of your own journey itself? Let’s get into it. So early on, Notion was lucky enough to have someone truly magnificent called Camille Ricketts join and she was employee number one in marketing. And she is a truly wonderful person who connects with people.

And she saw that there were a couple of people on Twitter who were very, very vocal about how wonderful Notion was. And she saw this and she realized, “Okay, this is our community. What do we need to do to embrace these people and bring them in?” And she quickly hired someone named Ben Lang who at the time was running a Notion fan site that was getting 80,000 hits per month, all about Notion. So she had this brilliant idea of why don’t I hire Ben? And Ben in his own right is tremendous. So what they decided to do was create a very simple aggregation of the ambassadors out there. This was early, this was scrappy, frankly, it was an experiment and they came from all over the globe. And what they realized was there was simple ways to make these people feel connected, connected to Notion.

And what they did was they hosted MMA, AMAs. So Ivan and Simon and others were there answering their questions. They gave them access to funds if they wanted to throw events, if they wanted to secure venues. They gave them early access to features. And they asked for their feedback and said, “What is it that we can do better with our product?” You see here this is an early group in Seoul, and this is another group in Paris, France.

As I mentioned, building that community is a full-time job. So Camille brought on Ben Lang early on. He in turn, brought on Francisco Francisco Cruz-Mendoza, who is our full-time community manager. And he knows each of our ambassadors, of which we have over 200 over 23 countries, and he gets to know them, gets to know their passions, really deeply understands what they’re there for and why they’re on this journey with us.

As I mentioned, the people leading the company are right at the forefront of it all. So in the early days, Ivan, our co-founder and CEO and Akshay, our COO, were on their way to Singapore and decided, “Hey, why don’t we reach out and tell people that we’re going to be there, that we want to hear from them?” And even though it was only eight hours away, about 20 people showed up in the driving rain and got together to give input on what could be done better with the product, what they love, what they didn’t love.

And this was all about the love of building, what they had created in this case in Notion and how they wanted to share it with Ivan and Akshay and others in the community. So today there are about 145,000 in our Subreddit. And this is something that is moderated. We don’t pay for the moderators, but are actually moderated by two of our ambassadors.

And this is a true testimony to the community that’s been building over time. Also, that small photograph that I showed of folks in Korea, that is now 34,000 people in our Korea Facebook group. And the way that we were able to harness that is pretty impressive. Last year, we announced that we are localizing in Korea and we had no one full time on the ground. And yet, people from this group hosted media interviews, did sessions, answered Q&A. And there were even a couple people that led a session that had 8,000 attendees about how to use Notion. So truly an extension of leveraging our community. We weren’t even really there on the ground in a permanent way. And I’m going to bring it back to TikTok. So another interesting and important community for us is students.

So you get the idea. That community is equally as important to us. Those are folks who fall in love with a product and take that product wherever they go. Okay. So I mentioned that it’s all about really grasping onto those individuals and going where they want to go. What we’ve observed is that people tend to want to either build a platform or they want to build a business. And here you see we provide them tools to actually build a business on Notion. And more tangibly, here you see Marie Poulin. And she is someone who, when we met, she only had 100 Twitter follow today. She has 22,000 Twitter followers, and she’s able to sell out classes on how to use Notion. Truly a gift back to the community, but also terrific to see that she’s able to monetize this and actually, this is what she does for a living.

Okay. So we got through the top of the funnel, we’re driving awareness through community and now we want to think about how do you create that community pull to really drive the conversion? Because at the end of the day, if people come to your site, they check out your site and they don’t find it useful, they’re going to leave and they’re probably never going to come back. So how do you make sure they get value out of the product quickly?

Again, we turn to community. Yes, we provide guides and tutorials and we create content and we create videos, but frankly, there’s really only so much our small scrappy team can do. So where do we turn? We turn out to the community. We were not the first ones to do this. Google did this early on. They crowdsourced questions that people had for how you use Google and they did it very effectively. However, in today’s day and age, this takes a different form.

You need to encourage your community members to actually make those videos where they’re creating the education on your behalf. They get the joy out of it, they understand the message is being carried more broadly and there’s true impact here. You see August Bradley. He had six followers on YouTube when we first met him. He now has 42,000 followers on YouTube and he just sold out a masterclass on Notion and has so far made $200,000 just on that two week course. Pretty amazing. And then finally, this is kind of like the final step, which is teaching the teachers how to teach. So this is how do you empower and enable people to teach others how to use your product? And this is really the final step. Okay. So another angle on this is customer stories.

And of course, you all know what it’s like to make customer stories. You can only make so many. You feel like, “Oh, I wish I could make 200, but really I can only put eight on my website.” So here again community can have true impact. What we decided to do was actually put templates on our website so that users could quickly get into the flow of the product and immediately understand how they could use it, how they could find the usability quickly and how that product was going to work for them. So here you see some of the templates. But we were also very careful not to put everything for free. We felt it was really, really important to allow people to monetize beautiful, beautiful templates that they just had so much fun with and put a lot of work into. And what really formed was a marketplace.

And this is not one that we control. This is not one that we manage. In fact, it comes up and has different places over the internet, different marketplaces. And this is good because it guarantees more discovery and really people just take advantage the beautiful templates on here. In fact, there’s one that Janel Loi created, the Newsletter OS. And so far, she’s put it down there and just recently, I found that she has made $34,000 on this template alone.

And that’s great. We want that. We want our community to be compensated for the fun and the love and the work that they put into really talking about our product and making beautiful creations from our product. Okay. The final stage in the funnel, driving upgrade and expansion. So here you are, you have users, they’re in the door, but now the question is, how do I get more users in that same company or in that same team? Or depending on the structure of your product, maybe you have another product where there’s even more value and you want to make sure that they go up onto that other product and realize the value there.

This is usually where incumbents have an advantage. Usually they have thousands of salespeople, they have thousands of customer success folks. I was at Google Cloud, we definitely had thousands of them. But now you’re at a startup and that’s not your reality. So how do you actually use your community to extend into that part of the funnel where you desperately need them as well? How do you have your community be an extension of your customer success team or even an extension of your sales force? So let’s dive in. So here what we see what we did is we actually pulled together the group of people that had organically raised up and decided to build businesses on Notion. They’ve decided to be Notion consultants. They’ve decided to help companies really get the most out of this product. And this is something where we don’t actually take a cut of it.

And fact, we just grouped them together and created a directory of consultants, so that if you’re a user, you can easily access who these folks are. And they’re across many, many different countries. And frankly, they do a much better job than we could ever do in terms of being responsive, being able to answer questions in language and really understanding the and nuances and the intricacies of what those businesses are dealing with in the local places that they’re facing their challenges. So, again, this has just been a wonderful extension of our customer success team. And in fact, we still use our customer success team, but we really keep it quite small and we’ve been using it only for enterprise customers. So this enables us to get the help out to our customer base, but also in a way that’s very extensible. Okay. So what’s the final element?

Well, we all wish we could be at the teams or in the teams using our product. We wish we could be there when they hit that wall. We wish we could be there to answer their questions because, again, finding value out of the use case is really all that matters in a product led company. So what did we find? We found that typically there were one or two people in these teams and in these companies that just deeply loved the product, really, really knew the product and could be our voice into these bigger and broader teams.

So here again, the team did a great job of saying, “Okay, what can we can provide for these champions?” First, they’ve actually created a community of champions. So champions from different companies who are all on Notion come together and they exchange ideas and they exchange best practices. But they’re also given access, as I mentioned before, to thought leaders like Michael Manapat, who’s our head of engineering, like Ivan, like Simon, like Akshay and able to ask questions directly of them about what are they thinking about the product? What are they thinking should come next? All of these that really make them feel like they can truly represent Notion within their companies themselves.

Okay. So to recap, there are three stages of the funnel and each of them is conducive to community-led growth. In the first stage, you can leverage the community to drive awareness. You can identify who to tell the story, and then you can make sure that you help them tell it in the way that they want it to be told and go with them on that journey. What are their passions? What are the things they care about? How can you really understand all it is that they want to do and be part of that, not try to constrain it or constrict it in any way? The second is about finding that distribution network. As I mentioned, often people either want to build a platform or they want to build a business on your product led company. So how do you lean into that? How do you help them extend that?

And how do you bring in community to help them be successful in the path that they’re on? And then finally, in the bottom of the funnel, don’t draw a bright line between your small startup team and the community around you. Let them be part of your team. Don’t write rules as to how the community should engage, make it as fluid as possible. It has truly been beautiful to see how our customer success team engages so fluidly with the champions in each of these companies and the consultants that are out there really helping us advocate and to create value for the product.

So I would say that everyone’s on a different journey, everyone’s on a different stage and you need to choose the community that’s right for you and resonates with the journey you’re on. And there’s a simple way to think about this and I think about it in two dimensions. The first is who is your audience? Are you selling to B2C and SMBs, or are you selling to enterprises? The second dimension is where are you on that journey? Are you post product market fit? Or are you earlier in that journey and you’re still trying to figure it out? And it might potentially be the case that you’re a hybrid and part of your company has figured out product market fit, but there’s an act two in your company that’s still figuring it out. But I would pause at that for each of these places, there’s different types of community that you can leverage.

So if you are focused more on B2C and SMB, and you’re early in that product phase, truly leverage the focus groups and help them understand what you’re trying to accomplish and then listen, and take that input. If your product market fit seems like it’s on a roll, but you’re still more on that B2C, SMB stage, well, then I would really advocate for ambassadors and creators. We’ve found this to be tremendously helpful and are just so grateful for the community of ambassadors that are out there globally.

If you’re thinking about, “Okay, now I want to pivot and turn towards large enterprises, but I’m still a little early days and I really need input.” Well, that’s where customer advisory boards and the community that comes with them can be so, so valuable. I know we’re turning to this now as we’re starting to form customer advisory boards at Notion. And then finally, if you’re at product market fit and you’re thinking about large enterprises, consultants and champions can be huge, huge levers to really drive impact in how you want to grow and drive your business.

Okay. So lessons from the road. I would say that an amazing product is really important for product led companies. It’s the thing that people want to use and get excited about. I would also say that you need community to win. So how do you think about building up that community and driving that third wave of growth for your company? Remember to align your interest with the goals of your community, remember and understand what is it that they want to do and go with them on that journey and really think about, and be close to the personal goals of those early, early adopters.

Again, build in those distribution networks to drive enthusiasm and inspiration, and that community will give back as well. And then empower your community to serve your customers. You don’t need to monetize it actually if your community is being the consultant or your community is selling the template. The benefit of that far outweighs any cut that you might take as a company early on when really what matters is market share and adoption. And fifth, don’t try to own or regulate your community engagement.

Don’t ask people to behave in a certain way or follow strict policies. In fact, one of the things I love is that Notion lets anyone use our brand and make any swag they want. So that’s great. That’s wonderful. People are using all sorts of different swag all over the world that has Notion on it created by ambassadors and community groups all around the world. And the sixth is stay scrappy. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. Experiment, lean in, try things. If they don’t work, that’s okay. And finally, be grateful to the community. It’s really amazing when people spend the time to get deep into the product, to fall in love with the product and then decide to turn out to the world and tell your story for you. And for that, we are immensely grateful and it’s just a testimony to the power of community overall that can drive this impressive, impressive growth. So thank you for your time today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of SaaStr.

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