Notion Emerges From Stealth with Smart E-Mail App, $9.5M in VC Bucks
After more than a year spent quietly beta-testing its intelligent e-mail app, Ann Arbor, MI-based startup Notion publicly launched this week with the goal of nothing less than solving our modern communications overload, co-founder Guy Suter says.
“We’ve been very intentionally under the radar building our team and technology,” Suter says.
Notion is coming out of stealth mode with $9.5 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Drive Capital and Accel Partners, with participation from Hyde Park Venture Partners and Silicon Valley Bank. Mark Kvamme, a partner at Drive Capital and one of LinkedIn’s earliest investors, has joined Notion’s board.
Notion is initially focused on making e-mail more useful and efficient. For many people, checking and responding to work-related e-mail messages is a major time suck. According to Notion, in 2015, people sent and received more than 200 billion e-mails each day. A quarter of the average worker’s day is spent on e-mail, making it one of the most time-consuming activities in their workday, and 92 percent of people feel stressed simply by seeing a notification that they have a new e-mail message waiting, the company says.
Suter says he knows that anxious feeling well. So he began to wonder: what if it was possible to make e-mail smarter by incorporating a layer of artificial intelligence that could work as an automated assistant and find the e-mails that were most urgent or relevant to the user? With recent advances in machine learning and virtual assistants, this longstanding goal just might be attainable.
“The cloud intelligence layer is the foundation for all of our products,” Suter explains. “It’s the heart of what makes us special. It looks at all of the e-mails you have, the history of behaviors and interactions, and is able to predict what matters.”
Suter breaks it down like this: part of what Notion does relieves the pain caused by the “big, hairy problem” of a cluttered e-mail inbox. But after that headache is gone, he says, another component comes into play. “What can AI offer to make your network more visible?” Suter says. “Where do these relationships come from, and which should I focus on first—that’s what Notion is able to bring forward, helping you nurture those relationships. There’s a big gap between tools to communicate and tools to manage social relationships. Notion fills that gap.” Suter also claims Notion is capable of predicting what users find important with 95 percent accuracy.
So far, the technology is available as a mobile app for iOS and Android, with a desktop version coming soon. He says the app groups together e-mails of lesser importance for easier deleting, delivers “smart notifications” that only alert users when a message is truly important, tracks the responses users need to send or receive soon, and “surfaces” new relationship insights from the network Notion believes is buried in your e-mail account. As time goes on and Notion learns more about your habits and who you interact with, it gets smarter, Suter says.
Of course, Notion is not the first company to attempt to make e-mail smarter and more productive—see Google, Microsoft, and startups like X.ai, Handle, and Clara Labs. But two factors make its approach different, Suter says. Although assistive bots like Siri have been around for a long time, he says, the technology has only recently progressed to the point where it’s useful in the context of e-mail. Notion also has a differentiating “thoughtful, deliberate design,” Suter says.
“Where others trying to solve e-mail, including Google, have fallen short is in taking a generalized view and trying to segment e-mail,” he notes. “It’s risky, because e-mail is mission critical, and it’s why it has taken so much time [to launch]. We wanted to really make sure the way we were doing it was adding value and not risk.”
Suter formed Notion in 2013 with two technical co-founders, Lindsay Snider and Ian Berry. Notion is the trio’s second venture; they also co-founded data backup company BitLeap before being acquired by Barracuda Networks in 2008. Jason Mars, a University of Michigan professor and CEO of applied AI startup Clinc, serves as one of Notion’s advisors. Notion currently has 24 employees.
Notion is a free app, and Suter says it will remain free for individual users. The company plans a pricing structure similar to Dropbox, where subscribers get the basic service free but can pay for premium features. An enterprise version is a possibility for the future, he adds.
Suter, Snider, and Berry have lots of ideas about where Notion’s technology can be applied, but first, they want to advance the foundational technology and confirm that users find it valuable.
“One of our challenges is what to say no to,” Suter says. “We want to be the company that takes the power of data and AI and puts it in the user’s hands. We want to be an expert in the field and build out the technology in a way that can build better relationships and power the future of communications.”