People

GitHub but for docs: Meet the startups changing how we share what we know

From Black Lives Matter protest guides to how to set up a vacation policy, it's never been easier to share what you know.

Notion's homepage

Black Lives Matter supporters created databases of charities and guides on how to support the movement on Notion, one of several knowledge-sharing sites that have seen their platforms being used for change

Image: Courtesy of Notion

As the Black Lives Matter protests spread throughout the United States, Adam Nathan watched as people started searching Almanac's document directory for how they should talk to employees about the movement or adjust their HR or compensation policies in response.

"It's such an incredibly important issue that everybody needs to make change on, but it's really unclear how, and it feels like there's a lot of trapdoors where you can do it wrong," said Nathan, the co-founder and CEO of knowledge-sharing startup Almanac.

In the days following George Floyd's murder, writers started posting guides like how to run a team check-in on social justice and templates for how to write emails addressing police use of force. While bland corporate statements became a meme because of their similarity, Nathan said he saw most people searching for best practices on how to change their company for good.

"There're lots of great examples of how to structure a blog post, such that you can make a meme out of it, but there are few best practices that come from trustworthy sources around what else you can do," he said. "Our goal in helping publish these materials is to connect with D&I and racial justice experts who have been doing this work for a long time, and who need platforms that can help them get broader visibility."

It was an unanticipated, but not an unexpected use case for the startup, which is one of a handful of knowledge-sharing companies that are trying to organize information online and make it usable. While Nathan had designed Almanac to be a go-to resource for professionals looking for examples of things like marketing plans or product management guides, the startup, along with others like Coda and Notion, saw its platform being used for change.

Black Lives Matter supporters created databases of charities and guides on how to support the movement on Notion, which were shared widely on social media. Unlike Coda and Almanac, Notion currently doesn't have a way to search for community content on the website, but the company is developing a new home for it, a spokesperson said. On Coda, Amplify founder Lars Schmidt created a crowdsourced collection of Black writers and speakers in human resources to help raise the voices and profiles of Black HR leaders.

The companies are all part of the rise of knowledge-sharing startups meant to make work more organized and collaborative — an area of particular interest for venture capitalists. Coda raised $60 million from investors in 2017, and Notion raised $50 million at a $2 billion valuation in April and Almanac announced a $9 million seed funding round in May.

Instead of just being a destination for reading content, like Medium or Wikipedia, the cohort of knowledge-sharing startups are focused on helping people create and organize information, but also tap into crowdsourced knowledge that's then shared and published. Coda started as a way to create powerful documents that can include spreadsheets or presentation modes like a PowerPoint. In April, it launched a doc gallery so its users can showcase docs they've built, from a guide to Zoom games to an inside look on Figma's product roadmap.

The goal is to make it easy to go from reading a template or guide and copying it and transforming it to make it your own, all on the same platform.

"If you're reading an interesting blog post or something like that, in order to implement what you're reading, you're going to go reach for a doc or a spreadsheet or something else. And so, in the future, we hope that we can pair those two things together," said Lane Shackleton, Coda's head of product and design.

Making it easier to marry the two is the main reason why Nathan started Almanac. He had worked for the Obama administration and at Apple before he joined the early team at Lyft. "I joined thinking that I'd be building the next great rewards program and subscription program," he said. "I ended up spending most of my days just sitting in meetings trying to figure out how to operate the company instead."

He left to join a smaller fintech startup but found himself doing the same work all over again: drafting new company policies and documentation. The engineers had GitHub where they could reference other code, and designers had Figma to work together online, but Nathan realized there wasn't an equivalent for operators and knowledge workers who dealt with documents.

"The pace of the internet and innovation would move a lot slower if everybody was figuring out how to build a drop-down menu from scratch every single time," he said. "The idea that you have to design your own compensation policy by guessing is total insanity."

Almanac's now working with enterprise customers like universities and big corporations. In its paid-tier version, Almanac helps businesses link together their documents, so if one edit is made to a policy on a master document, any documents linked to it will see the same change, too, saving workers the trouble of having to manually update each one. But at its core is its library of templates and other public knowledge docs — a number that's doubled every month since its launch six months ago. It now stands at 3,000 docs.

Meanwhile, users continue to find ways to use Almanac that Nathan had never anticipated. It's not just the Black Lives Matter docs or the recipes and trip itineraries that are cropping up. Following the wave of coronavirus layoffs in the spring, he even saw knowledge workers upload examples of their policies or product management guides and submit them as part of their resume to jobs — just as engineers submit links to their GitHub accounts when applying for coding work.

"We think eventually, by open-sourcing knowledge you can change labor dynamics so that it levels the playing field where the best person can get a job based on what they know versus just whether or not they went to an Ivy League school," he said.

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