The Rise of the Note-Takers

The first few years of the 2010s birthed a gold rush of development of messaging apps. WhatsApp had been around for a year-ish, Kik launched to immense success in 2010, and Facebook Messenger (then only within the Facebook app) had long been top dog.

Within a couple of years, photography and photo sharing apps were the new developer trend. By 2012, thousands of photography apps had come and gone or were at least on their way out.

By way of the explosion of the mobile games industry, a quick trend in meditation services, and a series of niche utility apps, we fast forward to today.

In the last 18 months, the indie app development world has taken a liking to the note-taking space.

Now in all fairness, this view likely isn’t representative of trends across a more global audience. Within our tech-oriented corner of the digital world, though, the trend is clear.

It has never been more hot to be building a note-taking app. Bonus points if it includes [[bidirectional links]].

What’s most interesting about the space right now, though, is the lack of a clear, widely loved leader. It’s a very fragmented space. Of course, there are dominant players in the form of OneNote and Evernote, but more on them later.

In a sector so full of new entrants and growing competition, why is there still no clear leader? Then the harder question: what will it take for the new notes king to claim the throne?

Note takers, assemble

The rise of the software as a service (SaaS) model over the last 15ish years has been one of the most influential evolutions in the growth of the innovation economy.

At the root of this evolution are the inherent low barriers to entry associated with software development. It costs quite literally nothing to begin developing a digital product (leaving aside, for now, the costs associated with deployment and scaling). Where beginning developing a product has historically entailed high R&D costs, material costs, machinery costs, etc, software is cheap to produce and even cheaper to scale. The marginal cost for each new user of a product, in most cases, is near zero.

Note-taking apps are a perfect example of this.

For developers first building side projects, notes apps serve as a low-cost, simple (all is relative…) technical product to work on. Beyond exploring new technical approaches and interface designs, they’ve also allowed their creators to experiment with new ways to design the input, consumption, and structure of knowledge.

It’s this freedom to explore new formats to store and access your own knowledge that has largely fueled the notes startup trend.

This increased development on the tech side has been amplified by several prominent new influential figures / ‘thought leaders’ (ew) in the productivity and personal knowledge management space. Many of them have been building on top of the rise of new notes apps and developing entire frameworks for their mental models and note-taking process.

Tiago Forte is arguably the most prominent recent figure in this space, with the rapid success of his Building a Second Brain online course, and his range of online content. Tiago’s approach focuses on established tools, but with a rigorous, structured system for his knowledge management.

Meanwhile, Nat Eliason has been a prolific online writer for a while now but has recently seen immense success with his Effortless Output with Roam course, which acts as a deep-reaching intro course to Roam Research, a relatively technical notes platform with some promising and exciting features.

Their efforts, combined with creators such as Conor White-Sullivan — who I recently (jokingly) compared to Creed from The Office — and his growing Roam-loving fanbase, or David Perell and his Write of Passage course have recently brought the art of effective note-taking into the foreground, building communities along with it.

The space is growing quickly, and note-taking is somehow becoming cool. Still, though, there’s no dominant leader that’s widely loved. Evernote leads the pack for now in the personal knowledge management space, but is often criticized (even by myself) for feeling increasingly out-of-date and lacking many of the exciting features of new entrants.

The business of notes apps

The notes app business model is a tricky one to sell.

Most existing companies are based on a freemium model. For personal use, most users can get away with the free functionalities alone, but power users can opt for a ~$5-8/mo package for more technical features and quality of life improvements. Meanwhile, teams and companies have their own enterprise plan, which expands note size capacity, team size, etc. The go-to note app pricing plan roughly mirrors the mainstream SaaS model.

The increasing competition we talked about before, though, does little to help in the way of profitability. Most industries’ profit potential is damaged by the threat of new entrants and the low barriers to entry they face, but the SaaS model only exacerbates this.

We’ve seen the low entry barriers already, and their inherent presence in SaaS products. But it’s their combination with low exit barriers which make notes apps a difficult space to compete in.

Owing to the low long-term investment in technology required to build a strong initial notes MVP, the exit barriers in note apps are almost non-existent.

Looking at this chart from Michael Porter in 1979, the lessons ring true even in a software context. The low barriers to entry in the notes app space combined with exceedingly low barriers to exit signals a market opportunity for relatively muted, but stable returns. Sure enough, new entrants can easily enter the space with little headwinds, safe in the knowledge that should things go wrong, they have very little to lose. Their lack of need for profitability, or even top-line revenue, in many cases, leads to a race to the bottom for non-differentiated or non-niche competitors.

On top of this, several free options are increasingly gaining traction as personal knowledge management services, beyond standard note-taking apps, aimed at both the personal and professional markets. OneNote is a prime example of this, integrating block and line-level linking to allow more networked, rather than siloed thought. OneNote’s bundling with the Office suite and pre-installation on many Windows machines makes it an easy go-to for almost all business use cases.

For competitors unfortunately not packaged with the largest productivity suite in the world, the underlying challenge within growing a note-taking app is almost entirely one of switching cost handling.

Switching costs 

Low switching costs lead to increased churn risk, high switching costs lead to low adoption, and this is a fine line to walk in the notes space. Making the initial jump to a digital notes service as the hub of your knowledge management is a large undertaking.

Notes are an inherently personalized medium. No two people’s notes will look alike, and in some form of subjective esoterism, even highly contextualized notes can’t replicate the entire breadth and depth of their meaning and utility across different readers. Everyone has a distinct mental framework for note-taking, conscious, or not. This framework is largely influenced by the features and limitations of the platform on which they’re taken.

For pen and paper, the limitations are obvious: platform barriers in copying/transcribing, speed, imagery, version control, etc. On the other hand, though, the free-form nature of the analog medium offers full flexibility in style and ease of writing.

For digital platforms, these features and limitations are different, but very much present. The categorization, hierarchy, and depth of the notes I personally take are entirely crafted around Evernote’s features and limitations.

In countering these limitations, many note-taking apps have begun to turn towards Markdown, the lightweight text markup language that’s become near-standard across rich tech editors across the web and software. Markdown offers a homogeneity across platforms and services that hadn’t been found elsewhere. It serves as a basic framework for styling, hierarchizing, and formatting text content. It’s seen increasing usage in new note apps for its ease of global integration, and widespread understanding/usage. This shift, though, towards a more open standard acts as some sort of inverse tragedy of the commons — what’s good for the ecosystem is not good for the company long-term, and yet many do it anyway.

By adhering to a standardized format, many new entrants in the note app market are reducing their ability to fend off the threat of subsequent, even newer entrants. While adhering to a standard format reduces entry barriers for the company, it, in turn, reduces switching costs for the user, lowering the perceived effort required to move to a competing product. When I can copy and paste almost all my notes to a new program (or, more practically, use an online service), I feel very little tied to the platform I’m currently using.

The flexibility and portability Markdown provides is a great benefit to the user, but a serious threat to the platform.

Markdown, though, is a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s easy to integrate as your text editor’s backbone, sure, but Markdown itself offers little in the way of facilitating the smooth transmission of ideas from brain to notes. It’s in reducing as much friction as possible in this transmission that the note app leaders of tomorrow will shine.

Blueprint for a leader

There are a few ways to look at who will become the next personal knowledge management leader. The next king will likely have to tick one or a mix of these boxes:

  • Develop a conceptually new knowledge model
  • Differentiate and specialize their offering
  • Raise perceived switching costs

It’s in this first point that Roam Research has so far excelled. Rather than just serve as a better way of noting down information, it serves as an entirely new (better?) way of thinking about it and exploring it. In Roam’s view, just as brains don’t think in categorized thought, notes shouldn’t either. In using wiki-style bidirectional [[links]], it reduces mental friction in many areas (no more thinking about which notebook things go in, what tags to add…), but currently remains a bit technical for the average consumer (ie. me), right now, adding mental friction in other places instead.

I maintain that the next dominant personal knowledge management leader will heavily exploit AI to further reduce the friction involved in transcribing and contextualizing ideas.

Using Evernote, I add new notes every day from my PC, my MacBook, my phone, and now even a Google Home. Through each of these, I encounter some different form of friction. On the PC/Mac/Phone, I have to consciously format and structure my thoughts in such a way that will be optimal for later discovery in the app. Sure, this method forces me to think through my notes and really break them down, but to be honest, it’s a pain in the ass. It requires me to format my thoughts in a way that’s best for the platform, not for me.

Speaking voice notes doesn’t have all those same issues, but compensates with others instead. It’s almost impossible to format and organize/interlink these notes by voice, and always requires focused time post-hoc to do all the back-end work required to integrate the notes smoothly into the knowledge system.

And that’s the root of the issue, the brain doesn’t think in systems.

Maybe this just sounds lazy or unreasonable, it’s entirely possible. It doesn’t change my outlook, though: the first company to incorporate AI/ML and contextual ‘understanding’ in such a way that actively augments the quality of my knowledge ‘system’, rather than diminishes the flexibility of it, will be an absolutely massive deal.

It will isolate threats from new entrants by massively raising entry barriers to be even remotely competitive. The low development and infrastructure costs I talked about previously quickly go out the window when it gets into AI/ML territory.

This goes hand in hand with the next points of differentiating and specializing the offer, and in turn (significantly) raising perceived switching costs.

There are already companies exploring this space.

Otter is developing a product for the workplace, with AI-powered and voice-focused meeting notes, similar story with reason8, with a focus on natural language processing. Kiroku takes the aforementioned more niche focus, offering a powerful AI-assisted notes service to dentists.

The most disruptive social and media platforms are the ones that bring not only a new community but an entirely new format. The same rings true for the note-taking world. The top disruptors of tomorrow won’t be the ones following the playbook of yesterday — ie. a minimal UI and good tagging systems. Rather, they’ll be the ones reinventing the entire meaning of note-taking.

It’s hard, then, to argue for a single rightful heir to the personal knowledge management product crown. Still, there are clear roads to the throne.

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