Made in New England: Meet Jake and Joe of Boston Tech Startup Rocketbook
It all started one fateful night when old buddies Jake Epstein and Joe Lemay bumped into each other at a dive bar in Somerville, Mass. Joe pitched this wild idea of digitizing the traditional notebook—blending tech with simplicity—and Jake was on board before he could finish his brew. The end result? Rocketbook, a tech startup on a mission to reduce waste via their line of endlessly reusable notebooks. Since then, the ambitious duo has raised nearly six million dollars through crowdfunding campaigns, appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank and landed a spot as the number one selling notebook on Amazon.
We got to chat with founders Jake and Joe about their incredible crowdfunding success, their mission to reduce waste one innovation at a time, and how despite not getting a deal from “The Sharks,” they’ve been able to grow almost 20 times since late 2018 (and have a blast doing it too).
R.K.: How did you get the idea to launch Rocketbook and take it from idea to business?
Joe: My whole career has been as a software engineer and business exec in the software industry. For 15 to 20 years, I was plagued by the problem trying to find notes written in a notebook, and trying to refer back was not handy.
I was working on a big meeting with Salesforce at the time, and showed up in the customer’s board room with all my notes ready to go; I reached in and realized I had the wrong notebook. Needless to say, the meeting didn’t go as well as it could have, so I went out and tried every product you could think of—from digital pens to iPads—trying to digitize my notes. The problem was I couldn’t really adopt anything in the market; it didn’t seem the same as plain old paper and pen. So I thought maybe there’s a problem I could solve, and started working on it a little bit. That’s when I bumped into my old friend Jake Epstein having some beers at Sligo pub in Somerville.
Jake: Joe was pitching the idea to me, and I’m a notebook guy! More than anything, we were talking about building technology into everything—from sneakers to bikes—and the notebook was sitting there collecting dust. So we got really excited from an opportunity standpoint. [The brand] emerged in a dark dingy bar, and in matter of a couple months, we had our first crowdfunding campaign, and made about two million dollars!
R.K.: Rocketbook’s newest Everlast notebook is unique in that it’s “endlessly reusable and totally unplugged.” Explain how the notebook works from a user’s standpoint.
Our users really love that the Rocketbook Everlast is like the traditional writing experience: just paper and pen, no batteries, no booting up. And here’s the thing—it comes with a ballpoint pen, and the pages of the notebook are a special polymer with special coating for a smooth, natural writing surface. When you’re done, you wipe the page with a moist towel and it all comes off. But before you wipe those notes, use the Rocketbook app to capture and organize your notes [complete with handwriting recognition too]!
We have a good understanding of our customer base, and you’d be amazed by how wide our audience is. Students love it as it’s perfect for capturing and storing all notes for class, and nearly half of our users are corporate professionals who need to take notes, and even capture and share them as well. We’ve also seeing a big uptick for our newest product, the Rocketbook Beacon for whiteboards, which is just getting out to customers now.
R.K.: Tell us about your company’s mission to be more sustainable, and your recent partnership with One Tree Planted.
We’re all about innovation and sustainability, and take it really seriously here. We had a partnership with One Tree Planted [a nonprofit on a mission to reforest the planet one tree at a time] around Earth Day; for every Everlast Earth Edition sold, One Tree Planted would plant one tree. [On Earth Day, they upped the ante by planting two trees per limited edition sold!]
And for every Everlast sold, you can save one tree by buying it! We’re super excited about the environmental impact we’re having; people buy us not only because [of the product’s] sustainability, but also because it’s technologically helpful. Think of it like Tesla: People buy it not just because of sustainability, but because it’s an awesome car! There are all these great features and we’re always adding more—all of our users benefit as the products get more rich and robust.
R.K.: You’ve raised nearly six million dollars through crowdfunding campaigns, and have been named the number one office/school supply product in crowdfunding history. What do you think was key to your success in raising the funds to launch?
More than anything, we have a magical product that people love to see and read about, but we also have a lot of fun with crowdfunding! We say we throw a “party for nerds.” Crowdfunding is populated by early adopters like us, so we work in all the space puns and goofy video updates [like this “After the Tank” spoof]. In fact, if you look at our latest video for Rocketbook Beacon, it’s an infomercial. People love that, as opposed to taking ourselves too seriously.
R.K.: What are some of the unexpected fire drills and challenges you’ve faced in getting your products off the ground?
Fire drills have a special meaning to us because we had a microwavable notebook. In developing that, we did set three microwaves on fire!
There are so many challenges. We’re sort of a strange company where we straddle the line as an analog notebook and tech company. So when we’d talk to all kinds of investors including the “Sharks,” they thought we were a notebook company, and the notebook industry thought we were a tech company. So that leaves you in a lonely place, which is the price you pay in defining a new category. Early on, it was hard to explain what type of company we were and we couldn’t get an investor to take us seriously, but now we’re getting approached by investors every week.
R.K.: What other local New England brands are you a fan of?
LovePop comes to mind; they reinvented the greeting card category by bringing it to new heights. They’re an amazing company built upon deep values, and their mission is to create “a billion magical moments.” Another one is Night Shift Brewing, who became our after work place to have meetings.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see Rocketbook in the next two years?
It is our goal over the next few years to have our users use Everlast and other products to capture a billion great ideas with each page that they scan in. And in doing so, save over 100 million trees that would otherwise be cut down to make paper notebooks! We’ll continue to roll out a cadence of new products and innovations for people to roll into their lives; that’s going to fuel our mission to save 100 million trees.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to launch their own tech product?
There are a million different keys to having success. Two things jump out: One, you have to learn how to become an idea machine; if you took Rocketbook away from us, we’d start a new company tomorrow. It’s important to have a stream of ideas because you don’t know what’s going to be successful yet. Number two: You’ve got to learn how to test these ideas. If you can’t figure out how to get someone to pull out their credit card for a product that exists, you’re not being a responsible entrepreneur.
Also for first time entrepreneurs, if you’re going to quit your job and start a company around a new tech product, make sure it’s a big idea. It’s almost easier in some ways to chase a big idea because you’ll run into people saying, “Someone else can do this anyway.”
R.K.: At WELL, we believe wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
I think for us, it’s doing things naturally and not just shopping at Whole Foods. We think a lot abut what we naturally do and being more productive without changing your behavior.
Also having a work environment that feels natural; we all work very hard but have a very casual, comfortable environment. When you’re working with people you’re exited to work with, it doesn’t feel like a grind; it’s full of joy.
We vary activities every couple of weeks, and get together for big events. [We recently got] on sailboats and raced around a Harbor Island, calling it the “Rocketbook Regatta.” Last summer, we went out on the Esplanade and did cleanup for the Esplanade Association. It makes you feel good when you get together as a team and get to know each other personally, whether it’s having fun on sailboat or supporting a local homeless shelter. We can look back and see we’re making a difference in this world!
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