Create a product and brand that people will want to talk to their friends about and that press will want to write about. It’s ok if the product sparks a debate like, “why in the world would anyone want a microwave-to-erase notebook?” Without natural word-of-mouth and buzz, you will be at the mercy of paid advertising to get traffic to your site, which may not be profitable out of the gate or in the future.
Provide value beyond the product you’re selling. New features, tips on how to use your products, helpful non-product related content, or even a good joke or anecdote. For instance, our audience is obsessed with productivity, so we started a podcast all about testing the most extreme life hacks out there. It’s called The Betterment Experiment. It engages our fans and provides them value outside of a purchase.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Lemay and Jake Epstein of Rocketbook.
After bringing the wrong notes to an important corporate meeting in 2013, Rocketbook CEO Joe Lemay had a simple idea: bring 21st century technology to an industry that had been collecting dust for thousands of years by creating a reusable notebook. Joe, Jake and the Rocketbook team have recently brought old school whiteboards, legal pads, and index cards to the digital age, but won’t stop until they’ve conquered all single-use note taking products.
From getting laughed off Shark Tank for their original microwavable notebook to becoming the most crowdfunded office product of all time and an Amazon best seller, Joe and Jake are well on their way to helping the world organize and share ideas, save a little money, and protect the environment from paper waste.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Joe: My background is in computer science and business, but I’ve always been fascinated by connecting truly analog mediums to digital. It’s this very human problem and it’s a big challenge for computers to bridge that gap. In 2015, I was working on an app that could capture and live stream what’s written on a whiteboard, called Rocketboard. When I realized the challenges around monetizing an app I wondered “could I apply this technology to a notebook?”
Jake: Joe pitched me on pivoting the Rocketboard app to notebooks in a dark dive bar called Sligo during a snowstorm. Incredibly, despite the environment, the conversation turned so colorful and positive that we quickly realized the potential to build a brand of 21st century pen and paper notebooks. You could feel the energy. You need to realize at the time, IoT was building technology into bikes, thermostats, and watches… but for some reason the notebook was just sitting there collecting dust. And there, at Sligo pub, Rocketbook was born.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Joe: One of the things that makes digital great is that it never runs out of space (unless your battery dies). And what makes analog great is that pen and paper feels so natural to our brains. So we evaluated a few different ways to have a real “pen and paper” experience, but be truly endlessly reusable. The Rocketbook we launched with was the microwave-to-erase Rocketbook Wave because we thought “it’s so crazy it might just work”.
Jake: Ha. Ya and from there the phrase “so crazy it might just work” became our official strategy. Eventually, the product evolved into a water-to-erase version which better delivered on the promise of endless reusability. But there is no doubt… starting with the Wave was the right decision because it was so talk-worthy.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Jake: We had a really successful crowdfunding campaign for that first microwave-to-erase Wave notebook. But that success came to a crashing halt when we had trouble developing a stable final product. 30,000 backers were clamoring for delivery, and meanwhile we were literally setting microwaves on fire as venture capitalists and the sharks from Shark Tank were laughing us out of the room. Those were dark lonely days for us.
But through it all, we could feel the incredible gravity of the idea. It captured people’s imaginations. When we told someone what we were working on you could see the click in their brains and their eyes light up. That’s a high. You need to feed off that energy and use it as motivation. That’s your light at the end of the tunnel
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Joe: Ironically those setbacks galvanized and strengthened the foundation of Rocketbook. Coming through that experience forced us to be independent-minded and grow the company with like minded self-starters. There’s nobody coming to the rescue. Our mindset is simple: work on maximum impact initiatives and stay willing to be agile. This mentality helps us steer clear of high-energy, low return opportunities, and focus on BIG long-term growth drivers. Just one example of this is our seamless integration with education and our steady success there.
I also think that “misfit” status we earned gave our brand really unique, rebellious marketing. We put on space suits and sunglasses and throw “20th century” notebooks across the room. It’s ridiculous. But somehow we’re selling millions of notebooks and transforming the stationary market forever. It’s another reason to love the brand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Jake: We seriously burned through a bunch of microwaves trying to make a microwave-to-erase notebook that didn’t burst into flames. Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time. But I think that’s an extreme example of what every entrepreneur should go through when developing a new product. If it’s easy — you aren’t working on the right thing.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Joe: People’s first instinct these days is to assume everything will be done on a digital device. But typing notes on a laptop or phone lacks the freedom and focus of pen and paper. Deep down, everyone knows it. But we’re still in that awkward phase where our hunger for technology is outpacing our human brains.
Rocketbook empowers people who feel left behind by technology. It makes typing notes seem old and lame.
Jake and I were pitching an industry leading CEO who was telling us how note taking was inevitably going to go digital and was so proud of his own digital note taking device. In the middle of the meeting the batteries died and he had to go find a charging cable. We all had a good laugh.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Jake: This is a real thing. It’s hard when early success is rooted in a brutal, relentless assault on every challenge in your way. But that mindset is totally unsustainable, and it becomes a very real threat to your culture and eventually your entire business. We’re still learning how to balance, but here are a few tips:
1) Establish a company-wide day which is free from all meetings. We have “time-out Tuesdays”.
2) Take some shared time off. We told everyone to take off and stay off slack and email for the week of Fourth of July.
3) You need to be savage about priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Be clear about what is most important.
4) Have an open culture to discuss burnout. As a leader, they can be awkward conversations, but hiding from the issue only makes it worse.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Jake: Joe, haha.
Joe: But seriously, neither of us could have done this alone, and if it weren’t for the conversation we shared in a dive bar in 2013, we’d probably both still be working our regular corporate jobs.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Joe: I think it’s clear there are a few e-commerce trends that have accelerated in 2020 that will be permanent. For most entrepreneurs and products, the shift online is a positive one. Online is a level playing field; there’s no retail buyers or expensive packaging to gate your success. It’s just you and the 5 billion people online.
We’ve tried to really embrace the places where product discovery happens online. You need to be on Amazon as well as the other e-commerce monsters. Like it or not, that’s where people are searching for “notebook” or whatever it is you’re selling. It doesn’t mean all or even most of your business is through those channels. But it catalyzes your user base growth and kicks off your word-of-mouth spread.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Jake: You can’t fight the tide, you can only ride it. Those companies can be partners, not competition. When millions of people are discovering your product on Amazon or Walmart, that’s a good thing. But that does not mean your brand or business needs to be controlled by them anymore than Apple allows them to.
Your website should offer a more branded experience for your customers. Also, it’s important to have website exclusive products and promotions. Regardless of where consumers made their initial purchase, connect with them over email and social and use those channels to bring them to your website.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Joe: A lot of things about starting an e-commerce company has become easy in the last few years that weren’t available when we started out. But there’s one thing that’s just as hard as it was pre-internet. You need to have a differentiated idea, preferably disruptive in some way. Sure, you can do some paid ads, make some interesting content and do an interview like this. But at the end of the day… you need a product people will tell their friends about.
On a related note, differentiation is also vital for preserving the margin you need to deliver a quality product, run promotions, and run your business. If you are competing on price against similar products on Amazon… you are going to lose.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Jake: Generating interest, by far. You could have the most mind-blowing new product in the world with an off-the-chart conversion rate. But if your traffic is zero, your sales are zero. Here are three tips:
- Run a crowdfunding campaign and use a third-party advertiser like Jellop.
- Regardless of where consumers buy your product, find a way through an app or even a product insert to connect with them digitally. Happy customers are your leads for new sales and your best marketing.
- Differentiate your marketing. I don’t need any more productivity tips but give me something funny or eye catching to look at and I’ll pay attention.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Joe: There are so many great platforms, apps, and services out there. It’s tempting to pile on the bells and whistles, but just pay for the services you need at every step of the way. For most eCommerce companies, a basic Shopify store and Google Analytics can take you a long way. Hopefully one day you will outgrow those and upgrade your plan, supplement with apps and custom development, or even migrate to a more robust, industrial-strength suite of tools. But start with the basics and check out what a million eCommerce companies have already done well before you. Be sure to test your new tools and tactics, and if they don’t result in growth .. ditch ‘em!
Jake: Definitely agree. Start small and be a student. Look at how other brands started, reach out for advice on LinkedIn, and read interviews like this one. Take a free course in Google Analytics or listen to Shopify’s podcast, the information is out there. You just have to look for it.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Jake: Well it’s worth noting the obvious stuff works. A/B test your website (or your Amazon listing(s) where possible). But don’t spend too much time on the color of a button. I mean try big differences in messaging, branding, checkout and creative. When you first launch you shouldn’t be looking for a 1% gain. Swing for big gains.
More importantly, you’ll need to figure out if conversion rate on your website is the most important metric to look at. What is your AOV? What is your profit per visitor? Are your paid ads profitable? Are your email/social campaigns to past customers converting? What percentage of sales are falling through to other channels, like Amazon?
It’s complicated. But that’s GOOD. Because when you take apart the data, there is always a signal of what to do next. You just need to dig in.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Joe: It feels so cliche, but it starts with the customer. Pay attention to potential new customers, and the company you keep. Listen to your biggest fans and they will guide you in the right direction. Be transparent, be part of the conversation, and show that you care. Bring in as many more prospective customers to your universe as you can, while reminding your captive audience that there are real people behind your brand that want to make your products — and the world — better.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Jake: It’s always better to be transparent, but even more important to be part of the conversation. If someone leaves a negative review, respond with honesty. But look at what they’re asking about. Of course, you need to make the customer happy, but you also need to think critically about if you can actually solve their issue and if it is an isolated inquiry or a systematic problem with your products and services. From a brand standpoint, simply responding to every single customer inquiry (or as many as you possibly can) shows that there are real humans behind the email, live chat, comments section, and reviews that actually want to make your experience with the brand better. What you’ll find is if your products and services are sound, and you’re interacting directly with your customers, the good will surely outweigh the bad and you might even see some of your biggest fans engaging in customer support before you even get a chance to!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Create a product and brand that people will want to talk to their friends about and that press will want to write about. It’s ok if the product sparks a debate like, “why in the world would anyone want a microwave-to-erase notebook?” Without natural word-of-mouth and buzz, you will be at the mercy of paid advertising to get traffic to your site, which may not be profitable out of the gate or in the future.
- Develop a product that is differentiated, better yet, disruptive. It’s ok if your product appeals only to a small group of customers at first, so long as your product/brand is different enough to create some true fans. If you “wow factor,” your first customers will spread the word and convince their friends to see the benefits, too.
- Design with your key demographics in mind and the problem you are solving for them. Then go find where their attention is and provide value to them there. Always be testing. A lot of little optimizations and key learnings make a huge impact over time. Our website is constantly changing…sometimes for the worse. That’s good, though, because the data reveals the truth. We come up with bold ideas and run tests on our hero image, site headline, and product layouts often to find what works best.
- Provide value beyond the product you’re selling. New features, tips on how to use your products, helpful non-product related content, or even a good joke or anecdote. For instance, our audience is obsessed with productivity, so we started a podcast all about testing the most extreme life hacks out there. It’s called The Betterment Experiment. It engages our fans and provides them value outside of a purchase.
- Tell your brand’s story and be part of the conversation with your customers. Show that there is more to your company than the things you sell.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
JOE: I believe that every person has the ability to create innovation in their lifetime, and that every person should expect it of themselves. With all the challenges we face across the globe, people everywhere must align and innovate our way to a sustainable future.
By replacing millions of disposable notebooks with reusable notebooks, Rocketbook is making a positive impact, but our bigger opportunity is to inspire the millions of people who use our products.
In what used to be the boring old stationery and notebook space, we’re launching a deluge of innovative products. Bigger than disrupting our industry, our goal is to show you that opportunities to innovate are hidden in plain sight. I hope you look at us and say, “if Jake and Joe at Rocketbook can come up with 100 ways to innovate paper and handwriting, I can innovate something, too.” And then I hope you do it.
JAKE: I think a lot of modern technology runs the risk of dehumanizing us in a way. The latest and greatest thing always seems to make us less social, feel worse about ourselves, lazy and less creative. It is hard to say where it’s all going.
I’d like to see more technology that augments and adds to the human experience, rather than replacing it. Peloton is an example of that — a lonely basement bike ride… now with the energy and motivation of a million other lonely basement bike riders. Oddly, I think Alexa may get there too where we can perform complex online actions using natural language without plugging our face into a screen. That goal is at the heart of Rocketbook for me. We really are revolutionizing digital note taking… with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. I wish there was more of that.
How can our readers further follow you online?
So many ways! Subscribe to our email, follow @GetRocketbook on all the major social channels, and of course check us out at GetRocketbook.com and Amazon.com/Rocketbook.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!