How Two Ecommerce Entrepreneurs Generated $91,470 in Three Months Selling Cloud Notebooks


Marshall Haas and Jon Wheatley are two serious entrepreneurs.

Their company Need/Want specializes in physical products. There are half-a-dozen ideas between the two of them, including a novel dice game, classic paintings like the Mona Lisa re-painted with your face, and their most recent product, Mod Notebooks, physical notebooks that can be synced to the cloud.

Jon and Marshall are radical, and not only for the number of businesses they work on. Along their journey starting these two businesses they’ve provided unparalleled transparency of their progress, and sometimes lack thereof. These posts included the detailed thought process behind cancelling a Kickstarter campaign, the profit from leasing apartments and listing them on Airbnb, and most importantly for ecommerce entrepreneurs, the costs and revenues of launching their businesses.

Mod Notebooks received press coverage from the likes of NPR, Gizmodo, and Uncrate upon its launch. After Jon and Marshall announced that Mod Notebooks generated $91,470 in three months, we decided to catch up with them to see if they would share their advice for other entrepreneurs.

Here’s the interview, spliced with a few of the choicest excerpts from our favorite Need/Want posts.

You’ve listed revenues and expenses for many for so many of your projects, from the amount it cost to launch a Kickstarter campaign to your revenues in three months with Mod Notebooks. We don’t see a lot of posts like this. What’s the strategy and the initial inspiration behind the transparency?

To be honest, at first we were just open about everything for fun! However, we’ve seen a lot of value come from sharing this kind of information. It has opened a lot of doors, increased revenues, and helped build the Need/Want brand. At times – by a huge margin – we are our own highest traffic referrer to our product websites. It has definitely become our “thing”, and will continue to be.

How did you first reach out to press? How do you recommend new store owners who have no relationship with press to reach out? On a similar note, how do you recommend new store owners to get traffic?

There’s a lot to it. In short, the best way to get attention is to have a novel product. Aside from that, you want to be really genuine when you reach out to people. There are no “tricks”. Unless you’re a massive brand, press releases will get no traction. You have to personally reach out (as the founder) to bloggers and journalists.

On a major victory for Mod Notebooks…

Something we hadn’t considered when we launched mod was B2B sales channels. We received a lot of inbound interest from companies that wanted custom branded Mod Notebooks for their staff or for conferences they were putting on. The idea of branded “swag” that would live on forever in the cloud really appealed to them. Companies like Google and NBC Universal all ordered custom notebooks.

Interestingly this sales channel has accounted for a large portion (roughly 35%) of our total revenue so far.

On a  major victory  for Mod Notebooks…

You’re well-known for making physical products, like dice, bedding, and notebooks. How do you come up with and validate product ideas?

Jon and I are both product guys, so we love to try new products and services. That said, we’re pretty deliberate about trying to have good ideas. I don’t really believe in the random light bulb moments. When I say we’re deliberate about things, I mean we’ll look at a space or product, and then start brainstorming how something can be better. In the case of Mod Notebooks, Jon brought home a notebook, which got us talking about paper notebooks and discussing how we could make them better. We have these discussions all the time. There’s tons of room for improvement in everyday products. We just try to be aware of problems with the things we use.

When you’ve hit on an idea, how do you go about looking for manufacturers and suppliers?

We're definitely not perfect at this, but our approach is to begin looking for manufactures that produce something similar. Typically we get on to start. We’ll email 100 companies, maybe 20 are able to realistically do what we want, and maybe 10 can meet our minimum order quantity requirements. We’ll get samples from everyone, and begin judging quality from there. Mod and Peel production has gone really well, while SmartBedding has had its troubles. So we’re still working on perfecting our approach to everything. From talking with other companies, nothing ever goes perfectly during manufacturing.

One specific piece of technology that has helped increase sales

“Exit intent” offers work. An “exit intent popup” is a popup with an offer displayed to people when they’re about to leave your website. A bit of javascript tracks the user’s mouse location and movement. When it moves outside the top of the browser window the script assumes that person is going to leave (either by hitting the back button or the close tab button) and quickly displays a popup with an offer.

We added this to trigger only when someone had added an item to their cart on our website, then went to leave. If this happens we offer them 10% off their order.

This has only been implemented for around 30 days on our website but 49 people have used the code . That’s 49 people who probably wouldn’t have purchased otherwise and an extra $1k in revenue. If you have a website that sells something I can’t recommend this enough.

Not everything you do is fully DIY (you’ve hired for example, professional videographers, designers, and a PR agency for various products). How did you decide that these are outside of your core competency and it makes sense to outsource? 

There are many reasons to outsource – not enough time, need professionals, etc. When we outsource something, we’re usually still very hands on with it. For example I wrote the script for SmartBedding’s video, and then we hired professionals to film and edit it. We “starred” in that video too. In hindsight I don’t know if that was the best decision in the end since people either love or hate us in it. I’m not that smug in real life, I promise.

We hired help (the PR agency) for our second Kickstarter campaign to increase manpower. Fulfillment was outsourced because we didn’t want to deal with it (and shouldn’t). For design, we think it's hugely important to have a great design, so we were willing to pay to do things right.

On their interesting shipping strategy

Returns aren’t worth the effort. On the rare occasion that a case arrives damaged or defective, we either send people a full refund or a replacement. Dealing with returns just isn’t worth the effort for us and it’s also a pretty horrible experience for the customer. People are nearly always pleasantly surprised that we don’t require them to return the item before getting a replacement or refund. That makes them happy. We chalk this up as a marketing expense and move on.

On their interesting shipping  strategy

Describe your social media strategy.

We’re actually pretty bad at posting on a regular basis to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’ve still been able to build a decent following on each though. A high traffic blog, and of course great products helps offset things. We try to be really responsive to anyone that hits us up on any of those channels. So in short, we’re still working on a strategy.

On the very best way to meet people

When you execute on ideas, you are forever associated with a tangible thing. People remember tangibles, not ideas.

Looking back and connecting the dots, I’ve realized that any big career advancements or opportunities that came my way were always linked to something I made, or built.

And so, the single best way I’ve found to meet interesting people is to make things, and then share them with the world. You’ll be surprised with who you meet along the way.

Which key pieces of advice can you offer to entrepreneurs who are looking to start amazing ecommerce businesses?

Make sure your product solves a problem. Don't ship things yourself. It's awful and a huge waste of time. Give great customer support. Be open and honest about your mistakes. Things don’t cost as much as you think to get started.

Which key pieces of advice can you offer to entrepreneurs who are looking to start amazing ecommerce businesses?

About The Author

Dan Wang is a Shopify Content Specialist studying economics and philosophy at the University of Rochester. Talk to Dan on Twitter.