A Bit of Context
Our agency consists of a dispersed cloud-based team. We have a full-time staff of account managers and designers, and we utilize a network of vetted freelancers to support projects. We spend the most time working offsite, with only a few in-person meetups a month. Because of this, it is critical that we implement efficient tools, processes, and workflows that make it easy for us to communicate and collaborate with as little friction as possible — this is where Notion plays an important role.
What Is Notion?
Just in case you haven't heard, Notion is an all-in-one workspace that uses databases and markdown pages for use in personal and collaboration work. It is essentially a toolkit of modules that allows you to build useful workflows, templates, and pages tailored for your needs. The tool supports note-taking, task management, project management, and knowledge management, amongst the various other things you may need. It has both a desktop and mobile application and works in any browser. All three methods of using the tool sync seamlessly with each other. It’s oh so dreamy!
Who It’s For
Since Notion is more or less a Lego kit, virtually anyone or any company can use and tailor it for their specific needs. We’ve seen companies use it only for a couple of specific features, like note-taking or knowledge management, but we’ve also seen organizations go really deep and use it to manage almost every aspect of their business operations — it is what you make of it.
How Much It Costs
It’s free for personal use, and it’s $8 USD per user for a team account that will allow you to collaborate in one place — that’s key! It is important to know that the team version of Notion has a lot of powerful features that small and medium-sized businesses can benefit from including:
- Unlimited Team Members: scale up or down as needed
- Unlimited File Uploads: nice to know you don’t have limits
- Unlimited Guests: give access to clients, freelancers, or other third-parties
- 30-Day Version History: some peace of mind knowing things are backed up
- Collaborative Workspace: a single source of truth, everyone sees the same things
- Sharing Permissions: critical for controlling who can access what information
- Admin Tools: set security rules, permissions, and global preferences
Oh, and by the way, we are not paid or affiliated with Notion in any way, other than being happy customers. 🤓
Before Notion: How We Used to Work
Ways of Working
When we started our agency we knew we needed to be extremely organized given the fact that we were all based in different locations. We needed to make sure we had the right cloud-based tools to allow us to cover the major areas of business operations related to communications, productivity, project management, and file storage. We also wanted to make sure we chose solutions that were affordable, especially at scale. Below are tools we experimented with, based on reviews and recommendations, and of course aggregate overhead costs per team member.
- Communications: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Flock
- Productivity: Google Workspace, Microsoft Office 365
- Project Management: Asana, Jira, Trello
- File Storage: Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive
We decided on Slack for communications, Google Workspace for productivity, Asana for project management, and Google Drive for file storage. This seemed like a pretty solid setup to manage business operations with a relatively low overhead cost per team member.
Our philosophy was fairly simple. Any new client inquiry would get its own folder in Google Drive with some standard files inside to facilitate the inquiry and proposal process. If that new lead turned into a paying gig, it would be moved to another folder where we kept all project materials related to that client. We thought this would keep things organized and clear — and to some degree it did — but it lacked the ability to scale. Here is a breakdown of that workflow:
New Project Lead: This is what we did with new inquiries...
- Set up a new folder in Google Drive based on a pre-defined folder structure
- Create client presentation based on pre-defined templates
- Add project quote directly to this presentation
- Give access to our team and clients
Confirmed Project: This is what we did when clients decided to work with us...
- Move initial folder to confirmed Clients folder in Google Drive
- Added folders and templates for legal, invoices, and files from the client
- Added project in Asana to control the timeline, scheduling of team members, etc.
- Added a private Slack channel to manage communications
We ran our business using this workflow for about a year and a half — but not without issues!
Issues We Encountered
We discovered over time that the more leads we received, the harder it was to keep up with the work. There was a lot of manual work needed to copy and paste materials, set up new presentations, add structure to support operative needs related to project management, legal, and finance. We spent too much time editing Google Presentations and preparing for client meetings.
Most agency leads don’t turn into paid projects for one reason or another, so we spun our wheels attempting to keep up with new pitches, desperately trying to stay organized and on top of things. It was difficult making sure that everything we sent out maintained our killer standard without killing ourselves during the process.
We realized that our workflow was too manual and required too much effort for us to run efficiently. We burnt out fast, and we could see that continuing down that path was going to be a management nightmare that would never allow us to scale the way we envisioned.
We needed to work smarter, we needed a better way.
Enter Notion: How We Started Using It
A Level team member introduced Notion as a potential solution for note-taking and knowledge management. We tried it out and instantly liked using it, but we had no idea how powerful the tool really was as our use only scratched the surface.
We started to transplant our knowledge from Google Drive, consisting of design resources, inspiration, account credentials, employee information, and more into Notion. We set up personal note-taking pages where our team could share notes and information. It was nice and convenient, but it was just another tool we added to our belt.
Our Aha Moment
We started to watch videos showing how people were using Notion. It was fascinating to see what people built because of Notion’s modular, Lego-like architecture. Lots of interesting templates were being shared, and we started to gain a deeper understanding of the true power that could be harnessed from this self-proclaimed all-in-one workspace. This was about the time we learned about templates and automation — and then it hit us:
Could we automate our entire project pipeline based on our customized workflow?
Notion: Automating Our Workflow
We sat down, fully caffeinated, and started to build out our workflow. At the click of a button, new projects were added to our pipeline, pre-populated with the standard project structure and information we used in Google Drive. It started to unfold before our eyes, and I could instantly see how crazy powerful this could get.
After a few days of tweaking and tuning, we had the first version of our new automated pipeline set up. The next lead that arrived in our inbox, we used Notion to present the information to the client. It was by no means perfect, but we had could always revisit the template and make adjustments as necessary. We won the very first case we presented in Notion, and it was official: we were officially off of the Asana + Google Drive workflow and started our Notion journey.
Since those early days of automating the basics, we’ve grown leaps and bounds. We have built powerful templates that align with our workflow planning that gets deployed at the click of a button. Our projects now include structure for the following:
- Welcome Page: Landing page for inquiring companies showing their logo and cover photo
- Objectives & Requirements: Organized information showing we understand what is needed
- Project Planning: Pre-built plans for branding and web projects that get edited with specifics
- Legal Documents: Contract boilerplate that drags in the project scope of work, that’s handy!
- Meeting Minutes: We capture and recap all tasks and to-dos from our client interactions
- Invoicing: We manage our invoicing system and bill clients directly from Notion
Since we started utilizing Notion in a deeper way, we have become more successful at landing new gigs. We've had feedback from clients telling us they appreciate the organized structure and transparency, and it has made collaborative cloud-based work much more enjoyable. We have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of clients to use Notion for collaboration.
We look to automate and streamline anything we can, because every minute saved means money saved, and it means more time can be spent doing things we love. Nobody wants to do low-value, tedious work, and Notion helps us avoid this.
We still have lots of learning and evolving to put into our homegrown system, but I hope this article helps explain how one small agency uses Notion to keep up with a heavy workload and can shed some light on the power this tool can offer small and medium-sized businesses.
Update: September 27, 2023
Due to a large number of inquiries about obtaining the template structure we use to streamline our agency workflow, we have made this available for purchase at Gumroad for $38 USD. Also, we have made this template available as part of a larger suite of templates called Notion StartOps, which has several templates that startups, freelancers, small businesses, and agencies may need.