Notion vs. Google Docs

Whenever I begin a new project in collaboration with others, there is the natural process of figuring out how we will best work together. What tools we use together is often particularly chaotic at the start, with each of us sharing things from whatever we’re used to using, and often defaulting to Google Docs for anything that needs real collaboration. But if our work together goes on long enough, gets far enough, there is an almost inevitable need for more clear agreement on and consolidation of tools, processes, etc. I do this sort of thing professionally - needs evaluation and process + tool recommendation for consulting clients- and I enjoy it! It’s a little different when you have more of a vested interest, but it’s still fun. :sweat_smile:

Recently in the gin project I have been working on, the need for more centralized information management became pretty clear. So I took it upon myself to do some testing and decide on what to recommend for our particular needs. I did a whole write up for our team and I realized it might be helpful for others too, so here it is, lightly edited. I’ve long been a fan of Fibery as a collaboration platform, but in this case I ended up feeling Notion was the best fit. Read on to find out why…

The Why

We began our work in email and soon extended it into Google Docs/Drive. We sometimes had important discussions in text message and later in WhatsApp. And we each no doubt maintained our own personal notes in our own ways. But it became more and more difficult to find important information quickly: what is the status of our work with our legal consultant? Are we waiting on follow-up, did they answer all our questions? Or, When was the last time we consulted with a possible production partner and what were the key takeaways of that meeting? Then there were “threads” (discussions, initiatives, ideas) that came up and often were started and then forgotten about. Sometimes they were revived later but… sometimes not. Having information, ideas, etc. all locked up in email and chat threads also makes it very difficult to share context. If you’ve ever had to forward a bunch of emails to someone newly involved in a project to get them up to speed then you know what I mean.

I felt a growing need to centralize and streamline things to more effectively track and document the growing project. To make sure that cool ideas are preserved for future reference, and to avoid losing track of initiatives, contacts, and other tasks and the like. As a pre-formation “startup” it’s natural to have things a bit scattered and in flux. But eventually better organization is highly beneficial if not an absolute necessity.

Several tools were evaluated, primarily as Google Docs/Drive replacements, and to a more limited degree to take the place of some emails and chat. Both of those are still useful and an inevitable part of the flow of information and communication. But hopefully the majority of important documentation and discussion can end up within a single, central system, where appropriate.

Notion vs. Google Docs

I think Notion has a number of significant advantages over Google Docs/Drive for our purposes.

Notion Advantages

  • Full Project Management capabilities, including tasks and sub-tasks, with associated due dates, discussion, resources, etc.
  • Centralized, actionable “Inbox” to much more easily manage notifications, use as a lightweight task manager, etc.
  • Better centralizes and interconnects information, helping us all find what we’re looking for more quickly and easily
    • Much easier to collectively maintain a shared structure for information, e.g. meeting notes in folders, etc.
    • Better search functionality
  • Flexible and powerful databases to track non-task information like contacts/companies/competitors, product ideas, botanicals, formulation revisions, etc.
    • An improvement over simple spreadsheets, allowing sophisticated organization, filtering, and interlinking of related types of information, and discussion around each item.
    • E.g. I can document numerous tests of distillation, or of a single botanical, or of which botanicals were included in different recipe versions, we can search and sort them by date, by botanical, etc.
  • Good media handling, a possible replacement for Pinterest that better connects to our other work information, e.g. directly we can link to other content in the workspace (with hover for preview)
  • Better, more flexible document structure (not formatting), embeddable content, etc.
    • You can embed many/most Google products into Notion, e.g. a spreadsheet that can be edited within a Notion page, for the few cases where Google Docs may be better, or a Google Drive file like an on-page image
    • Direct attachment of any arbitrary File in a page, for sharing assets easily and quickly
    • See below for some disadvantages of Notion pages vs. GDocs
  • External sharing and collaboration on Pages that does not require a Google account
  • Newer AI features, including useful ability to “ask questions” and get answers from our own data, e.g. “When was our last meeting with Partner X?”

Notion Parity with Google Docs

There are also a number of areas where Notion essentially equals Google Docs in capability, making it an effective replacement (i.e. we lose little/nothing in these areas) in combination with its many advantages.

  • Basic document creation, editing, and sharing
  • Collaboration on text, including Comments, Replies, Reactions, and Resolve Comment function, with a very similar handling of pop-up or optional sidebar comment view
  • Internal file sharing, you can upload files up to 5GB and we have unlimited storage on paid plans

Google Docs Advantages

  • Familiarity
  • Somewhat more sophisticated document formatting, including multiple fonts, etc.
  • Export to Microsoft Office formats in case we want to do even more sophisticated documents (unlikely)
  • Better integration with certain Google products like Calendar and Gmail, e.g. quickly attach a Meeting Notes doc to a Calendar Event (note: Notions new Calendar product narrows the gap somewhat)
  • Price: Docs is included with Google Workspace, which we may want to pay for to handle Email for the company, so Notion becomes an added expense
    • Google Workspace is $6/mo/user
    • Notion is $8/mo/user + $8/mo/user for AI features, if desired

When to Use Other Tools

Although I see us primarily using Notion (or an equivalent, centralized system that includes docs and project/task management), there are certainly situations and contexts where other tools would be more appropriate. An incomplete list to hopefully give you an idea:

  • Email
    • Most communication with external people, e.g. consultants, new contacts, partners, etc, etc.
    • Anything actionable, that needs follow-up, or that we may want to reference later should get manually transferred to Notion
  • Google Docs (or desktop equivalent, e.g. Microsoft Office, Apple Pages, etc.)
    • More formalized documents where we may want more sophisticated formatting (I expect this to be infrequent)
    • We should probably link to any Google Docs we create from within Notion so we can easily reference them and know what has been created, its status, etc. Notion’s GDocs integration should make this easy and quick.
  • WhatsApp
    • General chat, quick discussions, etc.
    • Anything actionable, that needs follow-up, or that we may want to reference later should get manually transferred to Notion

Notion vs. Fibery

I strongly considered Fibery, and in fact I like its functionality and its databases better than Notion in some respects. However Fibery does not have a mobile app, which seemed like a deal breaker. It also doesn’t handle media as well as Notion (i.e. images), and with the strong visual aspect of our product it felt like this was an important issue. I prefer Fibery’s approach to startup discounts, too (6 months free, no BS requirements, just <30 employees).

Notion vs. ClickUp

ClickUp is another well-known and increasingly powerful tool of this kind (i.e. work management/centralizing business info). But I find it messier and less intuitive than Notion and Fibery. It has more overall capabilities, but because of this it feels rather disjointed and overwhelming at times. However the recent release of some of its “3.0” features and overhaul of some organizational functions may make it a better option soon.

Inflexible Databases

ClickUp is a very capable task manager, but its database functionality is less flexible and intuitive than Notion (even with the 3.0 release, though it’s getting better). It is designed to deal very well with projects, tasks, and subtasks, but would not handle things like a database of competitors or partners, or botanicals, or products, as well as Notion (or Fibery).

Pricing and Startup Discount

ClickUp’s pricing is similar to Notion, but they have a more strict qualifications for their Startup program for which we likely would not qualify. This is a small thing ultimately as the pricing is only $7/mo/user, so even if we have to pay it’s very manageable. But Notion did give us 3 months free, which allows us to more easily test its value for us so that if we decide to subscribe longer-term, we’ll be confident it’s worth it. ClickUp’s free version doesn’t include some features of the paid versions that we would need for a proper evaluation.

Other Systems

I am aware of a few other systems one might consider for this kind of work, e.g., Asana, Wrike, etc. I’ve tested all of them at various times and I think for our combination of needs none of them are ideal (not to mention pricing in some cases, e.g. Wrike). We don’t need a “heavy” project management tool, which most of them are first and foremost, and we do have some need for databases and visual aspects which Notion handles well.

Growing Pains (and solutions)

As we began to use Notion both of my collaborators expressed some frustrations and uncertainty that it was really an improvement. I’ve been there! Fortunately it quickly proved to be in good part a lack of familiarity with the new tools and the many new options, settings, etc. A few days of use and a quick screen share demo soon made things feel much better.

The one remaining challenge is simply figuring out our own preferred workflows with the tools the system provides. If we’re giving feedback on a shared file, like a PDF, do we do that in individual comment threads so that our names and dates are automatically added? Or is that too constraining? What about Headers and Sections for each person’s feedback on each Revision? We’re still working it out, but this is generally the case with any tool, unless it’s dedicated to one particular function (like commenting on a PDF), in which case it usually doesn’t offer others (like databases). And I’m confident we’ll work it out in time and evolve it as-needed. We have a system now that can reasonably allow and adapt to most notable workflows we might want to use, so we can experiment and find our collective preference.

Friction, But Not Too Much

I also want to acknowledge that there is almost always a little extra work created in e.g. documenting Tasks, or recording the status of a discussion with a consultant that was happening in email, etc. I am confident that this small added effort is be more than made up for in improved efficiency and consistency in the work we do, and in the long-term will help any team scale much more easily if and when it’s needed. But it’s undeniably a little frustrating at first, and accepting and embracing that up front can be helpful.

Imagine in the future just being able to share the entire workspace with a new employee who can search, summarize, etc. all in one place, rather than try to forward or manually summarize a year plus of 100 email and WhatsApp threads and a bunch of Google Docs to get someone up to speed. If we want to hire someone to take over e.g. social media, we could have an already-working calendar of upcoming planned posts or ideas, and they could easily ask the workspace “what are the key differentiators of our products?” and get a coherent answer (see Notion AI features above).

Content Migration and The Opportunity to Streamline

Last but not least, once a system is chosen and people are familiarized with and can begin to use it, you want to ideally get as much of the previous information, decisions, context, etc. into it. For most tools this remains a largely manual effort, which can be frustrating and time consuming. But if you think of it as an opportunity to curate, streamline, collate, and better organize and present your data, it can actually be a really valuable process in itself! Migration is inevitable, so you might as well benefit from it beyond simply ending up in your new system of choice. Make the end result better than what you started with!