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Interview with Akshay Kothari, Chief Operating Officer at Notion

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8min read

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This article is part of a series revealing the stories of early employees from the most successful tech companies of the past few years. You’ll walk away having learned about what these individuals experienced, what they wish they knew, and the advice they’d give to others joining high-growth startups. Key takeaways are at the top and you can find the full interview below. 

This interview is with Akshay Kothari. Akshay joined Notion in 2018 and is currently their Chief Operating Officer. During his time at Notion, Akshay has helped build several functions including support, sales, marketing, customer success, people, legal, finance and others. Notion now has over 20 million users and was last valued at $10 billion. Below is an edited version of a conversation he had with us here at Compound. 

Key Highlights

  • On Notion’s vision – “Ivan and Simon [Last] started Notion in 2013 and I ended up angel investing that year. When Ivan started Notion, he had this vision of “allowing anyone to build their own software.” From the beginning, Ivan wanted to change the way that people interacted with software. He wanted to make an interface that anyone could interact with. It’s still the vision today.”
  • On his role as COO – “During my time here, I’ve worked across just about every function: support, sales, marketing, customer success, people, legal and finance. Basically my job has been to spend 6-9 months getting any of these functions off the ground then to hire a very experienced person to run it from there. Essentially it’s a bizops job – I ramp up and get something going quickly, then hire someone to run it long-term.”
  • How Akshay built the finance function – “As an example, when I was running finance over the past 9 months, I met with all the best CFOs to understand what finance meant and what the best finance leaders did. One CFO I met had spent years as the CFO of one of the largest tech companies. He did a full 2 hour financial review with me. When we scheduled the meeting, I thought we we’re going to go through numbers. But he was instead focused on attracting and keeping the best talent, creating a path to becoming a platform, and having a strong business model. We didn’t talk about numbers much at all. What I learned is that these CFOs are business builders and team builders first and foremost.”
  • On a unique ritual that impacted Notion’s culture – “Another tradition we have is to have employees give their life stories. This started out by having people write “how to work with me” guides where employees wrote about their working style and what was important to them. Ivan, before he actually did this, gave his entire life story. From start to finish. After he gave his life story, we realized we didn’t need to share a how to work with me doc as the life story provided all the context people needed. Now, every Friday for 45 minutes, someone is giving their life story.”

How did you meet Ivan and why did you decide to join Notion?

In the early 2010s, Ivan moved from Canada to the US and posted that he was looking for a designer job. I reached out to hire him for my previous company that I was running at the time, but Ivan chose this other company. We kept in touch. 

Ivan and Simon [Last] started Notion in 2013 and I ended up angel investing that year. When Ivan started Notion, he had this vision of “allowing anyone to build their own software.” From the beginning, Ivan wanted to change the way that people interacted with software. He wanted to make an interface that anyone could interact with. It’s still the vision today. 

But things didn’t go well at Notion in the beginning. They didn’t ship anything for four years and Ivan even had to borrow money from his family while Notion was trying to figure out their wedge. There were times I thought I lost my angel investment. 

They kept at it and in 2018 Notion had found product-market fit. For the same reasons I wanted to hire Ivan years ago, I ended up working for him. I joined Notion as the 8th employee. 

COO can mean lots of different things. How would you describe your role at Notion?

When I joined, Ivan told me, “you can do everything except product.” This was a bit ironic as the only thing I had done up until then in my career was product!

During my time here, I’ve worked across just about every function: support, sales, marketing, customer success, people, legal and finance. Basically my job has been to spend 6-9 months getting any of these functions off the ground then to hire a very experienced person to run it from there. Essentially it’s a bizops job – I ramp up and get something going quickly, then hire someone to run it long-term. 

Throughout this time I haven’t had many people reporting to me. I have no qualms about this and in fact I’m happy about it. When I worked at LinkedIn I managed thousands of people. The job required a lot of emailing and meetings, which aren’t things I enjoy. Having zero reports actually allows me to focus on the most interesting problems that need to be solved. I can be most helpful with my time taking functions from zero to one rather than being a manager. 

What’s the most important part of hiring great executives?

The most important thing is to meet a lot of people. This is how you get really good at going zero to one: for the first month, meet the best people at their craft. Then, identify the traits and metrics that you should do yourself. Grade the role against those metrics. 

As an example, when I was running finance over the past 9 months, I met with all the best CFOs to understand what finance meant and what the best finance leaders did. One CFO I met had spent years as the CFO of one of the largest tech companies. He did a full 2 hour financial review with me. When we scheduled the meeting, I thought we we’re going to go through numbers. But he was instead focused on attracting and keeping the best talent, creating a path to becoming a platform, and having a strong business model. We didn’t talk about numbers much at all. What I learned is that these CFOs are business builders and team builders first and foremost. 

Another example is when I took over the people function. I had conversations with all of the best people leaders in Silicon Valley and one of the conversations was with Maryanne Caughey. A single 45 minute conversation with her ended up giving me some of the best advice. What started off as a learning call became a recruiting call. I ended up hiring her about a year after the first conversations. 

The executives that I’ve hired will be my legacy at Notion more than any product I’ve shipped. 

What’s a unique ritual that Notion practiced that might seem ordinary but you think had an outsized impact on your team’s success?

In the early days, we had a few unique rituals. First, we would take an offsite twice a year with the whole company. We would do a beach trip in the summer and a ski trip in the winter. Everyone could bring their +1’s. There was no work, just bonding. We got to know each other and everyone’s families. When you’re a young company and there’s only 10 people in the room, it’s important to make time for the company bonding. We did this until we were 50 employees or so. 

Another tradition we have is to have employees give their life stories. This started out by having people write “how to work with me” guides where employees wrote about their working style and what was important to them. Ivan, before he actually did this, gave his entire life story. From start to finish. After he gave his life story, we realized we didn’t need to share a how to work with me doc as the life story provided all the context people needed. Now, every Friday for 45 minutes, someone is giving their life story. 

One of the things I’m most proud of is that 96% of our employees recommend Notion as a place to work. 

Were there any moments you thought Notion was going to fail? Moments when you knew it was going to be successful?

The only fear of failure came while I was watching from the sidelines as an investor in the early days. I was never worried once I joined. We had found product-market fit and were growing fast enough that I knew we wouldn’t collapse. 

However, one event comes to mind as a time when there was strain on Notion. About a year ago we went viral on TikTok. It was a real strain on the backend and we quickly realized that we had to move to multiple databases, within days (if not hours). Everyone had to focus on this one thing for that time. Of course, this challenge was driven by a success (going viral) so it’s hard to say that I thought Notion wasn’t going to succeed. 

As for growth, there have been several times that lead to inflection points in the business. For example, when we made Notion free for students, and then when we made Notion free for all individuals forever. These helped a lot more people find and use Notion. And of course, there’s been incredible work in content (YouTube, TikTok) and community that constantly drives growth for us. 

What advice would you give to other early employees at high-growth tech companies? 

Your job is not just your job. It’s so much more. You get the opportunity to shape the culture of the company, from the values to the people to the rituals. Being an early employee enables you to have an effect beyond building the business machine. It enables you to have an impact on the organization level. 

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