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Launch HN: Dendron (YC W21) – Structured note-taking for developers and teams
206 points by kevinslin on Nov 10, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 85 comments
Hi HN, I'm Kevin, the founder of Dendron (https://www.dendron.so). Dendron is a local, open-source, markdown-based note-taking tool that helps developers work with notes like they do with code.

My background is in software engineering. Before Dendron, I worked at AWS for 5 years on systems that had grown more complicated than what any one person (or team) could hope to understand. As someone who doesn't have a great memory, I was always overwhelmed with technology and the constant flux in programming languages, frameworks, and techniques. I realized early on that I wouldn't be able to keep everything in my head and so I wanted a better way of externalizing this information in a way that could help me find it again when needed.

The problem with externalizing information is that it becomes hard to find again later unless you're diligent about maintaining a consistent structure. Search is a possible solution, but doesn't work at the scale of personal data (too big to keep in one's head but too small and too unstructured to effectively index). I tried all the note-taking tools and found that they too, to varying degrees, made it easy to get notes in, but hard to get specific information back out again—especially once the quantity of information grew beyond a certain threshold (eg. 1k notes).

Over a decade of experimenting, I found that the only times when I've been able to find information both consistently and quickly is when that information was well organized and well structured. Whether it's a certain naming convention or a precise hierarchy, once information was indexed in a way that made sense in my head, I could find it again. This led me to the structural approach that is now embedded in Dendron. I've been using it successfully myself to manage a personal corpus of over 30K notes.

Organizing notes doesn’t happen effortlessly or become unnecessary with note-taking tools. What’s different about Dendron is that we accept that organization is necessary and requires work — we give you the structure and the tooling to do it consistently.

Dendron is the combination of two things: (1) a structured superset of Markdown with a type system to map and enforce the consistency of your notes, and (2) tooling built on top of that structure - this is a growing set of commands and utilities that let users refactor, lookup, and share their knowledge. We borrow heavily from prior work in programming languages and developer tooling which help developers organize and reference millions of lines of code.

The main way that users interact with Dendron is as a VSCode plugin. When you start the plugin, Dendron starts a local server that indexes and processes commands from the plugin in a separate process. We have interactive graph views and a note preview which is powered by React and NextJS. These are the same components that go into our NextJS template which users can export to publish their notes.

Most of our users are developers. Their use cases include daily journals, keeping track of tasks, and implementing personal knowledge management systems. Many also take advantage of our publishing feature to share their notes on Github Pages and other platforms. Because notes are local, most of our users use Dendron for both personal notes and work. They keep their personal notes on a shared drive like Dropbox and work notes on their work computer. We also have enterprise customers that use Dendron to publish their content. For example, AWS uses Dendron to host a YC specific manual to new YC batches.

Currently, we have a Patreon-like model where supporters can contribute to get access to priority support, early builds and contributor-only chat. Next year, we are launching a teams offering, to give technical teams a better alternative to existing tools like Confluence and Notion.

Dendron is open source and self-hostable. The code is freely available in Github and can be installed on all VSCode compatible clients. You can get started by following the installation instructions here: https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/678c77d9-ef2c-4537-97b5-64556d.... We also offer a CLI that has a subset of the functionality available from the plugin, which is also open source.

Whether you're just getting into note-taking or are a seasoned veteran who has tried all the tools, I would love to hear how you do knowledge management. If you do try Dendron, please let me know how we can make it better for you! I'll be responding to comments all day - you're also free to email me directly at kevinlin@dendron.so or message me in our discord server (https://discord.gg/AE3NRw9). Thanks for reading!

I'm a happy user of Obsidian as other users have commented, but I must say having your Notes + IDE on the same app has its perks.

I applied but submitted my code challenge, I must say being already familiar with TypeScript/React code bases and being a heavy user of VSCode, I don't know why, but after a few months passed I found again the code challenge in my mail and just did it in an hour or so, it was really easy to set up, iterate with, and develop what was asked for.

I think it's a big enough market to have several winners, would hope so at least! should look into how to share files in between them all

we actually have a lot of users that use both Obsidian and Dendron. Dendron is mostly compatible with Obsidian (wiki links, note references aka obsidian embeddings, etc) and we have a lot of users that use Dendron's desktop vscode client and Obsidian's mobile client on the same set of notes to get the best of both worlds.

Thanks I have been using Dendron for writing a D&D campaign. It was really useful to organize places, npcs and plot lines

Happy to hear!

We actually have quite a number of D&D players using Dendron. was thinking of organizing something for world builders inside our discord. Let me know if you would be interested :)

Congrats on the launch!

I've been using Foam [1] for the last year, which is an open-source vscode-powered aternative to obsidian. There seems to be a large overlap in features. What benefits does Dendron have over Foam that would convince me to switch?

[1] https://github.com/foambubble/foam/

You're right, there is overlap in the sense that both Dendron and Foam are open source note taking tools based around vscode and markdown. Dendron differs in our focus on structure - while we support backlinks, wikilinks, and tags, the primary way of navigating notes in Dendron is by hierarchy which can be described by schemas (our type system for note hierarchies). We provide extensive tooling around traversing and manipulating this structure (lookup, refactoring, etc)

For a more detailed breakdown, you can see the foam vs dendron page here -> https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/p5fMTi-6zOyX1TwhL6dM0.html

If anyone is interested in more detail on the schema system, I found it documented here : https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/c5e5adde-5459-409b-b34d-a0d75c... after following the link in the parent.

So a quick glance makes it seem fairly similar to Obsidian... as the docs note, it's built on top of VS Code vs Obsidian which is standalone...

What are some reasons Obsidian users would want to switch?

You're right - Dendron has a lot of similarities with Obsidian. A lot of our users come from people looking for open source obsidian alternatives. Our main differentiator is our focus on structure - we let users create their own taxonomies using "Dendron schemas" which they can use to both document and change their note hierarchies over time. A big focus in Dendron: how do you continue working with your knowledge base after you pass 1k notes? Our answer: by having a consistent structure to all your knowledge so you can quickly reference what you need

More details here: https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/a84ff014-e871-445d-9366-d97f1a...

Considering you are YC backed, are there any plans for monetisations that you would be willing to share? Because (as another comment said) notes apps are dime a dozen, and there doesn't seem much that differntiates you from Obsidian (which already has a revenue stream)

Yep. we actually share almost everything in terms of source code and strategy. For business plan, see https://handbook.dendron.so/notes/f6d9bc09-04b7-4a02-a6aa-a2...

i know why it's not this way, and love what you've built, but find it vaguely dissatisfying that with the structured and hierarchical organization, the URLs don't convey that affordance

also decent weight still goes to URL keywords in SERPs

(and yes, many to many links to leaves attached more than one place seems a problem, but that's what canonical URLs are for)

we actually have a solution in the works - adding a human friendly URL label followed by the guid (eg. wiki.dendron.so/notes/tutorial-{guid}) server side, we only parse the last component of the url which will be the guid. the reason we don't do this now is because we're focused on making static publishing smooth (most people use github pages to host their dendron sites) before we start on work on the server enhanced solution

Great, the amazon.com product URL approach works for a pretty big many-to-many hierarchy!


- https://www.amazon.com/Moleskine-Classic-Cover-Notebook-Rule...

- https://www.amazon.com/dp/8883701127

For me, the reason was that I had found out Obsidian is not open source as I initially thought.

I switched because Obsidian free version is not licensed for commercial use. And I considered paying for it, but then Dendron appeared and I have VS Code installed and I copied my markdown files into that instead.

so we have the split preview today (edit in one window, preview in another). vscode supports combining the two using either webviews or custom editors. you can see an example of that here -> https://github.com/tejasvi/markless

we're planning on implementing a similar featureset

If there’s an IntelliJ plugin (don’t use VSCode) I’d give this a try! Good luck and congrats!

+1 for an IntelliJ port.

Has there been any investigation into getting Dendron working with https://vscode.dev? That is, turning it into a web extension[0]?


short answer - yes. we plan on enabling this, optimistically end of the year, or beginning of next year at the latest

Hey, congratulations on the launch! One thing I'm curious about is why you've raised so much money. Can you shed any light on other future products, or is the teams offering is the main thing in the works? I also thought you had a personal hosted offering (subscription), but I'm not immediately seeing that on your website anymore — is that still a thing?

lots to say here, most of which is covered in our initial blog post about why we raised money -> https://blog.dendron.so/notes/N9VxT7G5SovmncezBAGO2/

tldr: no one knows how to do knowledge management at scale. Dendron has a viable solution and we're building a team to become the knowledge base for every technical team in the world

for the personal hosted offering - its still available though we don't advertise it as we're focused on polishing the local version this year

Interesting idea I'll try to use this in a team setup.

Quick remark about the site, I expected the site's tool presentation to be an actual video, with sound about the app and most importantly fullscreen capabilities. I can barely see the video's text on mobile (bigger font also needed). But no auto play if there's sound please. Congrats

Awesome! We have a dedicated teams support channel on Discord, if you ping me after you join or email me (kevinlin@dendron), I'll be sure to add you to it!

It terms of the presentation - thanks for the tip. We have a backlog item to swap it out with a higher res video

Previous HN threads, if anyone wants to follow the history:

Show HN: Dendron – fast open-source note-taking in VSCode - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26491764 - March 2021 (84 comments)

Show HN: Dendron – A Hierarchical Tool for Thought - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24898373 - Oct 2020 (168 comments)

Show HN: Dendron – open-source, local first, anti-roam note-taking tool - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24517701 - Sept 2020 (9 comments)

Show HN: Dendron – a roam like open source markdown note taking app - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23890035 - July 2020 (39 comments)

Show HN: Dendron – a local-first, markdown based, hierarchical note taking tool - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23824988 - July 2020 (2 comments)

Thanks Dan for the extra context!

In terms of what's changed since the last post - we have done a soft product pivot from note-taking for everyone to knowledge management for developers. This is because we found that non-developers struggled with a lot of development basics unrelated to Dendron (eg. navigating vscode, git, etc) which made us realize we still had more work to do to make Dendron intuitive for everyone.

On a product side, we have also released a brand new publishing platform based on ReactJs and NextJS that developers can use to generate their static sites based on their Dendron notes.

What is the business model for Dendron? Is Dendron pursuing a paid feature for easily publishing your wiki?

Our beachhead market is to compete with tools like confluence to be the knowledge base for technical teams. To that end, we're building a managed backend for Dendron that will make it possible to sync your notes with teammates, provide a web ui, access control, private notes, and other team features.

More details in our public handbook -> https://handbook.dendron.so/notes/f6d9bc09-04b7-4a02-a6aa-a2...

This is exactly what I'm looking for! After creating hundreds of markdown notes with Obsidian, it became rather hard to sift through and query knowledge. I can't wait to try Dendron out!

I've been a fan of combining the use of Obsidian and Dendron, too. I use Obsidian on my phone, with MGit (Android) for the git management, and Dendron on the desktop. The combination of Obsidian (for mobile) + Dendron (for desktop) pops up in the Dendron community discord from time to time, and the common response tends positive when it comes to that workflow

Awesome, let me know how it goes. We have an obsidian to dendron guide here -> https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/f9b4fc21-7613-4c8a-9257-cec4c0...

thank you for the Obsidian recommendation.

obsidian is a great app and they have an excellent mobile client. if you ever want to explore the structural components of Dendron while using Obsidian, you can as we interop on most features

this is a hallmark of good software, and a breath of fresh air to see, given the amount of proprietary lock-in in software today.

thanks! we try to be both compatible and open about everything we do. more details on that in our handbook -> https://handbook.dendron.so/

This is a huge part of what led me to adopting Dendron (and eventually contributing to and working on the project): the importance of interoperability. Seeing progress being made toward importing docs from Google docs, importing content from GitHub issues, adding other public vaults into my local workspace (like the TL;DR docs seed), etc. were great.

Congrats on the launch! I've love Dendron and the application to turn long timespan complex information into spatially organized formats.

My wife is writing a book and a weekly newsletter, and I know she spent a lot of time to organize how she collects/documents what she reads, so that she can minimize the time to producing new content. In that vein, this makes total sense.

What do you think are some other areas outside of software that can benefit from this kind of note taking? Are there any active users now that you can share about?

in a broad sense, any area where people struggle with having too much information can benefit (if that sounds like it could apply to everything, its because it can). the reason for our focus on developers is because the concepts we introduce (eg. schemas, type systems, refactoring, etc) are already familiar and so there's an easier onramp to a tool like dendorn. the goal is to make these fundamentals intuitive enough that everyone can use

an analogy I use here is excel - no one was born knowing how to use a spreadsheet but the structure and functionality it provides make it a pre-requisite for anyone working with numbers today. dendron's end goal is to be like excel, but for general knowledge

in terms of current non-software use cases, we actually have as many non-technical users using dendron as technical. some popular examples include authors (dendron is popular for world building), gamers (we have a professional street fighter user who uses dendron to keep track of different character movesets), and students (they use dendron for our ability to support math notation and diagrams)

Is there a way I can access dendron notes while working on some project in VSCode? It looks like it needs to open an another instance of VSCode. Closest thing I found is this Notes extension which let me access and edit notes from Activity Bar or Command pallet regardless of currently opened project. https://marketplace.visualstudio.com/items?itemName=dionmunk...

so a couple of things you can do.

dendron creates a `dendron.yml` file and a `dendron.code-workspace` file when you initialize a dendron workspace. if you're in a different vscode workspace, as long as one of the folders has a `dendron.yml` file, then dendron will treat that subdirectory as your dendron workspace.

moving forward, we're looking to support the concept of a `global workspace` that you can access anywhere

Hi, this looks like a very complete idea. Good stuff. I don't use VSCode, which probably sounds like a passive criticism on HN, but it's really not! However, I am curious if you've plans to expand to integrations with other IDEs. Or, would you would like non-VSCode users to start using VSCode just for Dendron, similarly to how they would open Obsidian to work with their Obsidian notes.

Hey this looks awesome and will try. Congrats!

I noticed on your site that the title is somehow getting pulled up into the nav area after initial load (it looks normal for a millisecond then shoots up there):


I'm in Microsoft Edge on Windows 10, 100% zoom on a 1920x1080p laptop :)

Interesting - I'll make sure we fix that. Thanks for reporting! If you join our discord(https://discord.gg/AE3NRw9), mention this post and you'll earn a special badge :)


Only reason I don't use Dendron more is because I'm not a fan of VS Code. Just not for me I guess.

Something I've been exploring is using Dendron on my desktop at work (with dual monitors) and Obsidian on my Chromebook. I convert the notes from both into a TiddlyWiki site and view/query them at the same time.

Apologies for interrupting the casual dismissals.

VSCode (or vscode compatible IDEs) is the main interface for Dendron. that being said, we do expose a CLI for a large subset of features and will ship and web version early next year!

No apologies necessary :)

What is TiddlyWiki good for?

Things which are deeply intertwingled. Joe Armstrong (Erlang) gave at least one talk about it, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uv1UfLPK7_Q

The key points were that Wikipedia style wikis force you into a page-at-a-time model. And TiddlyWiki uses more like a post-it-note sized amount of information. Wikipedia has a few links, TiddlyWiki items would have dense links to other notes. Then the experience of reading something would be like a 'choose your own adventure' book - click on a link and you don't get whisked away to a new page with all the context lost, you get the next note appearing below. It's building on the work of Ted Nelson and the early HyperText dreams from before the Web.

As you click and explore, you build up a longer page of just the ideas and content you want, and don't have to write huge topic-wide essays and browse huge topic-wide pages all in one go. He called it "the correct level of granularity, deeply intertwingled".

There were probably other important points I've forgotten.

Relevantly for Dendron, the slide I've clicked onto in the YouTube has a quote: "Hierarchical and sequential structures are usually forced and artificial. People keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can't" - Ted Nelson, 1974.

I was a big user of tiddly wiki back in the day and a fan of the work. One point of distinction for Dendron - we are hierarchy oriented but support other means of organization (tags, backlinks, graphs, etc).

If you're trying to create a model of the real world, you probably want to use a graph primitive to capture the nuances. But that flexibility is what makes things hard for humans - since a note can exist in N places, how do you find it? How do you even know you've tagged/linked it correctly?

Dendron's constraint of hierarchy is one of those "its not a bug but a feature" things - the constraint of hierarchy makes it easy for humans to reason about. What we add on top of that is the ability to refactor that hierarchy when necessary

What I'm referring to here is converting markdown files to individual tiddlers. You get tags, backlinks, filters, etc. for free. I have an automated process that lets me put files created multiple ways in multiple directories in a single wiki. That gives me a dashboard of everything. I'm not a fan of entering notes in TW, but I really like querying and reading my notes that way.

I really like your refined positioning and messaging.

We were on the same YC cohort and I have to say, dendron didn't 'speak to me' during the batch. But looking at how you describe yourself now, I think 'yeah, I need that'. Booting up VS-Code and Dendron now.


Can you decouple it from VSCode so that we can use it with other editors like Vi or Emacs?

I struggle with PKM. Stuff is distributed on Google Drive, Github wiki and a few tools like Obsidian.

Seems like a fantastic solution - congrats

thanks! it started off as me trying to make a "better note taking tool for kevin" and just kept growing from there

Looks like the creator an active Vim guy. So I can understand, why Notion isn’t fit his needs.

Why not TeXmacs instead of VSCode? That way, you would have a WYSIWYG note taking system.

VSCode also supports WYSIWYG using either webviews or their custom editor API. that's actually something we're looking to implement soon!

Do you mean editing in one window and seeing the result in another? With TeXmacs, you edit in one WYSIWYG window.

that is how Dendron currently works. But VSCode supports WYSIWYG functioanlity inline. You can see an example of it here: https://github.com/tejasvi/markless we're planning on implementing something similar soon!

how well does it handle media files?

i find embedding media especially screenshots to be getting more and more of an important aspect of note-taking.

builtin support currently for images - we have a command to insert a copied image into an asset folder and link to it in Dendron. we also have custom syntax for controlling image styling (https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/a91fd8da-6895-49fe-8164-a17acd...)

for other assets, we current recommend that you drop into the assets folder and link to them. vscode provides a bunch of extensions that let you preview different assets (eg. mp4, pdf, etc)

Is there a GUI based resize / crop functionality built in as well?

resizing can be done using our image syntax. eg. `![a pic](/assets/images/2020-09-13-08-45-00.png){max-width: 300px}`. no support for cropping from inside dendron though I'm almost sure there's at least one vscode extension that can do that

i'm bothered by having my notes locked by a waywall like RR and find using a separate client like obsidian annoyin. this looks like it hits what i'm after. what's the monetization strategy though?

Our beachhead market is to compete with tools like confluence to be the knowledge base for technical teams. To that end, we're building a managed backend for Dendron that will make it possible to sync your notes with teammates, provide a web ui, access control, private notes, and other team features.

More details in our public handbook -> https://handbook.dendron.so/notes/f6d9bc09-04b7-4a02-a6aa-a2...

Yey another note taking app! And YC no less!

Not at all like previous YC-backed note taking app https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26565629

Or any note taking app ever.. Seriously, is that the biggest thing bothering developers? Is this what you got into computing for? The best use for your AWS experience?

The digital equivalent of making an ashtray in pottery class.

Yeah, note taking apps are like mushrooms these days and it sometimes feels like everyone is doing it.

I think the reason you're seeing all the development here is because how *humans* manage *knowledge at scale* is fundamentally an unsolved problem (this is why people keep building new tools).

My friends give me grief about doing cloud computing for over half a decade to work on a local-first note-taking app. There is some overlap though - it is impossible to keep even a small subset of AWS (which now has over 200+ services) in one's head. The only way to use it effectively is externalizing the relevant details in a way that I, as a human, can retrieve. In many ways, trying to externalize my mental model of AWS was a great proving ground for many of the fundamental ideas around structure used in Dendron

I love Kevin's humbleness. I not only became a Dendron user/evangelist but I mostly loved the fact it is driven by such a smart-yet-humble person like Kevin Lin. Thank you and congrats on your YC backing!! <3

thanks for the kind words :)

> Yey another note taking app!

You're posting on HN. I'm willing to bet you wouldn't be as interested in posting comments on r/housekeeping. Superficially, HN and r/housekeeping are the same thing since they both have a form to input comments. Obviously, there's more to it, and good reasons for both to exist.

I disagree with your casually dismissive "digital equivalent of making an ashtray in pottery class". Dendron supports a specific workflow, something that takes a lot of effort to get right. And if they're going to get into syncing and collaboration, that's a challenge. As someone that has been watching this space for a long time, there's plenty of room for new entrants.

Potentially of interest: https://danluu.com/sounds-easy/

I thought that was to-do apps?

But the one you are making a comparison with is not really relevant: that's Apple-only it seems, and that, in itself, is enough incentive to look out for more.

Ultimately, market can decide which are needed and which aren't. As for investors like YC, they usually bet into multiple products — while YC might have a better hit rate than some other investors, there are likely still more failed investments than successful ones (by count). The important bit for YC is what the monetary equation is at the end.

I think there's now a blurred line between todo app and knowledge management, especially as tools like notion (and for that matter Dendron), are making it more viable to manage todos within your knowledge base.

As for YC, I remember seeing at least two other note taking companies within our winter batch. At AWS, the mentality for new services is to "let 1000 flowers bloom" (and see which one's make it). Something similar is happening in the note taking space right now

Definitely agree, though I think that line was always blurry (see Emacs' org-mode originating in 2003, but built on top of outline-mode which is even older), but _now_ might be a good time to approach the wider population with more polished/opinionated (UI-wise) tools.

“Developers should work with notes the same way they work with code.” Ok, so just put your notes in a git repo, and edit them in an IDE.

That is the start :) And if that's all you want to use Dendron for (eg. a markdown editor with better integration to vscode and git), then you can.

But if you want to expand further (eg. you now have a few hundred or few thousand notes), Dendron adds additional syntax and structure to make that manageable.

But there's more than just revision control, no? Compilers, linters, intellisence.

I don't know what is to notes as compilers are to code, but certainly note taking could stand to use more tooling.

Yep. Developer tooling has been making massive strides over the last six decades, all focused on the problem of making information (aka code) easier to manage. Dendron builds on top of this and applies it notes.

In terms of the compiler analogy to notes, in Dendron, this is the schema (aka type) system we use to help users define the structure of their notes: https://wiki.dendron.so/notes/c5e5adde-5459-409b-b34d-a0d75c...

The scrolljacking on your site makes it nearly impossible to read. Please ask your web team to find a native scroll friendly solution.

Could you elaborate? You mean how animations are tied to scrollevents? (our web team might be influenced by the apple landing page...)

It's style over function. With Apple, everyone already knows what it does. I would concentrate on explaining what it does.

You're targeting devs, we hate this stuff :). What I like is markdown based, VSCode based, open source, alternative to Confluence for tech teams. Make that clear.

Got it. Yeah this was something that was subject to internal soul searching. The landing page for Dendron was our wiki for the majority of its existence -> https://wiki.dendron.so/ We hired a design firm to make it pop but then went too far in the other direction. When we have cycles, we'll take another stab at finding a happy medium.

The most amazing thing about this is that a note-taking app got funded in 2021.

I’d call it a note-structuring app and if you’re amazed at this you’d be shocked to know that Roam Research raised $9M in a seed round with a $200M valuation last year. People spend billions each year on note-taking systems from Evernote to Confluence. YC would be foolish not to spend $125k to be in this space.

And notion 200m at 10bn valuation

And mem.ai raised ~$5M

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