Steve Lichtenstein

Case Study: Notion


For Kevin Steigerwald, co-founder and CPO of Notion, leaving behind the advertising world in Chicago for a relocation to Portland meant not only a change of scenery—it also meant going from pen and paper to keyboards, billboards to product development, and getting familiar with farm equipment. “The first product I did was essentially eBay for tractors; it was combines and farm equipment and all that type of stuff that customers would list and sell online.”

Kevin from Notion using Pivotal Tracker

The change in professional landscape also allowed him to get cozy with Agile development practices and Pivotal Tracker, two experiences he went into as a beginner. “We hired a dev team and that was my first exposure to Pivotal Tracker. It was the end of 2010, and at that point I had very little experience with development cycles, sprints, Agile workflow, the whole gamut. So to me, Pivotal Tracker was the tool to do all that stuff.”

“We started by asking ourselves how can we help make people’s work lives better. That was the core nugget.”

“All that stuff” has helped Steigerwald and his small Portland team create Notion, an analytics dashboard that combines all your various SaaS tools in one convenient location. Like most good ideas, it came alive because of the perception that something was missing. “In advertising, we always had a difficult time communicating to the client how successful our campaigns were. And with dev teams, we constantly struggled to answer questions like “How are we doing?” and “How do we get better?” The performance metrics we wanted were scattered across tools, making it hard to easily share and report. So we started by asking ourselves how can we make people’s work lives better. That was the core nugget. That’s where we see ourselves fitting in, becoming that analytics layer for those modern teams.”

Coming from a large advertising agency and moving to a smaller startup team has given Steigerwald a valuable perspective on what teams of all sizes need. “Modern teams move a little more fluidly sometimes, because they can be a little more autonomous with their decision making. They have the ability to make their decisions based on information that’s available to them, so they don’t always have to go through chains of command and wait weeks; they’re not taking directives down from on high.”  

“I would say all Agile teams are modern business teams, but maybe not the other way around.”

And that fluidity is certainly facilitated—made possible, even—by the available software tools. At the same time, the growing number of tools coupled with inconsistent usage of them can make things messy. “Sometimes teams are running different software than the team sitting across the aisle from them or across the office from them. With the explosion of SaaS software, you’re seeing teams within companies and companies as a whole using dozens of different software options. That’s why tools like Slack are becoming so popular because it connects all those tools together, so now your PMs across the board are receiving all the same notification in a single location.”

Employees working

One true fact about tools, though: they aren’t always appropriate for a given job. Steigerwald knows this well from his brief flirtations with various PM apps that just didn’t fit. “Many of the ticket management tools I’ve looked at in the past had complicated or over-designed interfaces and too many customizable options. I wanted a tool that was “get in, get out.” I didn’t want to spend half my time trying to figure out how to make the tool work as opposed to getting actual work done.”

In this wasteland of ill-fitting tools, there must be one that could help? “I had exposure to all these different tools and none of them really ever met my expectations like Pivotal Tracker did. What’s great about Tracker is it helps define the workflow, but isn’t so rigid that you can’t bring your own process to it. It’s flexible enough that you can change the way you estimate your points, you can change how long your sprints are and things like that. But at the end of the day, it’s a train and it’s moving and as long as everyone is staying up to date with their stuff, you don’t have to do a whole lot of management with the tool. Tracker gets out of the way and lets you get your work done.”

“Tracker gets out of the way and lets you get your work done.”

As they continue to improve Notion, their aim is nothing short of integration domination. “Our goal is to integrate with as many tools as we can.” Two of their first integrations were Tracker and ZenDesk, a pairing that provides a helpful example for how Notion excels. “By bringing together your data on a single dashboard, you can see your true cycle time for bugs, as an example. Now you’re able to get a full picture. We know it takes six days for the full life cycle of a bug to be completed, from the time it was captured in Pivotal Tracker to the time it’s delivered. But that’s sometimes only half the picture.”

What happens when that bug is first being handled by Customer Support, and therefore it originates in ZenDesk? It leads to an incomplete or misleading picture on that bug’s progress. “Being able to have that complete picture is really what our vision is and that’s a simple example of where we’re going. You start to get insights that you can only see and learn when all that data is working together in the same place.”

Notion team

As for Agile itself? It has its advantages, but Steigerwald says not to feel locked into it. “Don’t feel that you have to be Agile to use Tracker or you have to be 100% to the bone exactly what an Agile team means. The tool was definitely set up to run that way and if you are a full Agile team, it’s going to work perfectly for you. But there’s enough flexibility in there that you can make it work for your workflow, and still get those hidden benefits of being a natural team without realizing you are an Agile team.”

Whatever path he goes down with Notion, the skill set he’s honed with the help of Agile tools such as Tracker have provided obvious benefit. And if he once again finds himself in a business opportunity that blends SaaS with farming equipment, we’ll offer up the name Pivotal Tractor free of charge.

There are many different variables that make up software teams, but no matter the size or industry, we share a lot of the same challenges. And while Tracker is only a small part of the equation, we’ve begun collecting these stories with the hope that we can all learn from them. See the other case studies here. Want to share your story with us? Get in touch.