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Inside Notion's global expansion plan

One of America's hottest productivity startups wants to become a global company. It's harder than it looks.

Notion in Korean

Notion now speaks two languages as it launches in South Korea.

Image: Notion

Notion may be the perfect Silicon Valley startup: an organization and productivity tool perfect for finicky early adopters, with lots of focus on design, used by people and companies all over the tech industry. Investors spent months banging on the door of Notion's San Francisco office, and when the company took $50 million in funding in April, it valued Notion at $2 billion.

Even as the company has grown stateside, though — at this point, CEO Ivan Zhao said, every week is Notion's biggest week of growth ever — it's boomed even faster internationally. More than 85% of the company's users (and business) are currently outside the U.S. "We don't know why," Zhao said. Yet it's catching on all over the world.

In South Korea, for instance, Notion has a couple of "Notion Ambassadors" who are teaching courses on the app, managing Facebook groups with thousands of other users, and even writing manual-style books that sit next to things like "Excel for Dummies" and "iPhone Missing Manual" in bookstores. Companies from Samsung to SoCar are using the product already.

It's not Notion's largest market, but it's one of its strongest.

But in South Korea and elsewhere, the Notion experience is … not optimized, as Zhao put it. The product is in English, the support and product teams are on a radically different time zone, and there's nothing in Notion that works the way locals do. (Just to name one: Asian countries, particularly those that use symbol-based languages, are heavy users of stylus and pen input on their devices. Notion doesn't support any of it.) Even users who would happily pay for Notion's premium features aren't always able to because Notion simply doesn't exist as a payee in the country. So they're stuck with limited space and tools.

As Zhao and his team looked into expanding into becoming a global company with a global product, they picked South Korea first. The app is launching in the country on Tuesday morning local time, fully in Korean. Why South Korea? Because of that rabid fan base, certainly. But also because South Korea shares some important things in common with the U.S. "It's a very fast-growing, early-adopter-mindset country, [with] payment systems that are mostly aligned," Zhao said.

That last part is key: South Korea has adopted mobile payments in a big way but also uses Visa and Mastercard and PayPal and many of the payment tools Notion already supports. Rather than reinvent its whole payments system, find new providers and deal with new regulatory issues, Notion's been able to get up and running in the country quickly. Zhao said the only burden on him personally has been going into Notion's office and putting down his thumbprint to notarize documents when Notion opens bank accounts in different countries.

If payments were easier than Notion expected, translation was harder. Much harder. "The whole product has to be translated," Zhao said. "Everything in the product. Everything in the marketing. The help guides are translated, and that's a lot of work, the help guides." Even Notion's library of templates — the one-click ways to make a wiki, plan your week, organize your wedding or run a bug tracker — needed to be translated for the product to feel like it's meant for a South Korean user.

Notion in KoreanOne of the challenges for Notion was translating the app without changing the way it looks or works.Image: Notion

Notion's had some help in the process, thanks to enthusiastic users who are making and translating things already. And Zhao said he's happy to lean into that: "The community's good, and they know the best word to describe certain Notion concepts. They can just take it."

Still, it's been a huge amount of work for Notion's team. Initially, they thought the process would take a few weeks. Instead, it required refactoring Notion's entire codebase, and rethinking the whole infrastructure of their help and template systems. Translation can even mess with product design, as words or buttons get longer or shorter. (Though Zhao said, if you make sure you work for German — long words — and Japanese — short ones — you're basically covered.)

First, Notion had to figure out where all its text was coming from. The codebase, the marketing material, the help documents: Everything seemed to live in a thousand places. With the help of a company called Lokalise, it pulled all that copy into one place and then hired a bunch of local contractors to rewrite each piece in its new native tongue. After that, they had to go through and QA every one, making sure the company's breezy, friendly style came through just right. "We had no idea how many words we had," said Jenny Nguyen, who works on community and support at Notion and spearheaded the translation project. She guessed they had a few tens of thousands of words to go through. "We were vastly wrong," she said. The real number? More like 251,000. By the time the South Korean team had gone through everything, they knew Notion as well as anyone.

Within the product itself, the Notion team built a way to consolidate all that text in Lokalise's databases, and serve them dynamically depending on the user. Instead of having a different version of Notion for every language, they have one extremely multilingual one.

The good news, Zhao said, is that Notion knows how to do this now. (It might have been better to build Notion with translation in mind from the beginning, but that's another story.) "Future translations beyond Korea will be a lot easier," he said, "rather than going through every page and retyping out everything." There's a lot of new plumbing underneath Notion now, he said, which makes more expansion easier.

That's not the only part of the product that has changed for Notion, either. The company has spent most of 2020 focused on improving Notion's mobile app, which had long felt to users like a second-class part of the Notion experience. Most U.S. users might spend most of their productive — and thus Notion-requiring — time in front of a PC, but in many countries, phones are the primary device. And not just phones, but Android phones. Slow, inexpensive Android phones. Notion's still a small staff, but there's a team dedicated just to mobile performance.

Offline access became more important, too, as Notion began to think globally. As it expands, the app will have more users on expensive, flaky internet connections who need a tool that works offline. This feature has its own team in Notion now, too, but offline continues to be a challenge for the company. As it has expanded into collaborative, team-based usage, Zhao said, "you're just making it harder. Like, five times harder." If one person edits a document offline, and another edits it online, how do you merge or reconcile the changes? Zhao said they'll figure it out, but it's tricky.

The other big change coming to Notion will help it localize everywhere: an API. Users have been clamoring for Notion to allow other apps to work within and grab data from Notion, and Zhao said its API is finally coming this quarter. "That's going to open up a lot of enterprise stuff," he said, and make it easier to use Notion alongside whatever tools people use, whatever country they're in.

As for pen input? Not coming yet. But Zhao knows people want it.

In the near-ish future, Notion wants to launch in lots of other countries. Brazil, Japan, France and Russia are at the top of the list. (China is … low on the list. Zhao doesn't really want to talk about what that would take.) It won't necessarily have offices everywhere, but Notion does plan to have 24-hour support and sales coverage, which requires getting out of San Francisco. Zhao said he was in Singapore last year investigating the country as a place for its Asia offices, for instance, and has thought about London and Dublin and a few other places as well.

Every country has its own legal challenges, feature requests and particular local quirks, but Zhao said Notion's going to keep plugging away. "We have to!" he said. "Fundamentally, it's about people using Notion. That's what I care about. And Americans are only part of the world." Making sure everyone can read and use the app, he said, is only step zero. But it's a good start.

Update: This story has been updated to properly spell Lokalise, the company Notion worked with on translation.

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