In a time where we spend most of our days plugged in, online, and in front of a screen many are embracing a more analogy way of organizing their days. When we can schedule our lives on a multitude of devices and have digital alerts chime in, the Bullet Journal method of keeping track of life’s happening on paper seems to be cutting through the noise and gathering a following with close to five million shares on Instagram under #bulletjournal.
Bullet Journal simply requires a blank notebook and a pen to start tracking the past, order the present, and design the future. As we welcome a new year and a new decade, we speak the creator of the Bullet Journal, Ryder Carroll on this week’s episode of Shopify Masters to learn how this methodology gained momentum, the process of creating a product, and the advice he has for those running a Kickstarter campaign.
A personal project turned business opportunity
Felix Thea: Before Bullet Journal became a business and before you created any products, it was simply a method to journal. What prompted you to start journaling?
Ryder Carroll: It was never designed to be a method originally. I grew up with pretty bad ADHD and at the time, there weren't a lot of tools available to me. The only platform that I had available was a paper notebook. So over the years, I started designing custom ways for me to become more focused and organized and productive.
I would try many different things and every once in a while something actually worked. Over the years I started compiling all of these different techniques into something that became a system. And then eventually as I became a product designer and a graphic designer, I started incorporating a lot of that thinking into the way I organize my own life. And then in 2013, I shared what I had learned with the public as Bullet Journal.
Felix: So you were already using the system for yourself. What made you take that step towards turning it into a product?
Ryder: I never really intended it to be a product. The Bullet Journal method is just that. It's a methodology, it isn't a product. It was more of a project. It was a way for me to give back to the online community that had shared so much of their learning with me over the years.
When I started designing digital products and sites, it was kind of the Wild West and a lot of people just shared whatever they learned for free and I found that immensely helpful because there weren't a lot of resources available. So when I had the time, I was like, "What project could I create that would give back in some way? What is unique to me that would help other people?" I take notes in a pretty unique way. So why don't I share that with people?
No matter where I worked, designers, product managers, accountants, even developers, all carried around a little black notebook. I just shared the different concepts of organization that you can use in any notebook. And then over a year, I just took a step back from the project and watched these communities start to develop.
In 2014, I decided to create a website that was targeted towards the users, leveraging the best content that they were creating because they started creating all these different ways of using my methodology that I hadn't thought of yet because I just have a different life from theirs.
So I created a Kickstarter campaign that was focused on servicing the best of the community content. And as a backer reward, I thought it would be really cool to have a notebook that was custom designed for Bullet Journaling with tiny little details that made the whole thing a little bit simpler. And it was designed to be a limited release backer reward. And when I launched the actual Kickstarter, that limited release sold out immediately. And then people start asked me, “Why are you creating a limited edition notebook? It should not be limited.” And they were right. And that's when it actually became a business. So that was the first product that I started selling.
Early fans and the loyal community that followed
Felix: You create something and all of a sudden the world takes notice, adopts it, and uses it for their own use case. Before the Kickstarter campaign started, how was the Bullet Journal spreading?
Ryder: Mostly, word of mouth. I released something that solved a whole bunch of different challenges for me and then it went on to solve a bunch of different challenges for other people. So people started sharing that with each other and I figured the best way that I could promote this was to promote other solutions that people were coming up with. For me, it's always about the idea of the Bullet Journal method. So it was all very untraditional, I didn't even try to market it. I just tried to help other people as much as I could. And that in itself turned out to be a way of marketing it, but that wasn't the intention.
Felix: When you were showcasing these methods, how did you educate potential customers on the methodology before they even considered buying the product? Technically, many notebooks can be used like a Bullet Journal.
Ryder: The product was always and continues to be secondary. The actual methodology is primary and that's free. And that is the first thing that I focused on. I focused on teaching people and how they can use it in their own lives. And then when people started using it for use cases that I wasn't aware of, I focused on highlighting their thoughts on this. So it was always about finding the best possible solutions, either my own or the community.
I think people appreciated the fact that they had access to this information because you can use any product you want, but when they buy into a product or service, I think it's because it actually adds value to their life. So I try to focus on things that create real genuine value to my community and once that happens, I feel like they're more likely to trust you in terms of buying your product.
So I think if I had focused on just promoting my product and put the methodology second, as a consumer myself, I wouldn't be as compelled to support that company, but when the real solutions are offered first and then you have the products to support those things, that's something that makes more sense to me.
Launching on Kickstarter and kicking off app development
Felix: Let's talk about the Kickstarter campaign. It sounds like that was a crucial moment for launching your product. What was your experience like?
Ryder: I'm glad that I did Kickstarter because those committed to Bullet Journaling now have a very special item that's made just for them. They bought into an idea and they were part of an experience and I think that's something that they'll cherish. At the same time, however, I feel like I learned a lot about the needs of my communities through that Kickstarter. Products do offer value if they're done intentionally and if they're done in a way that really respects the challenges that they're trying to overcome.
That's basically what I tried to do in the development of all products. And that's also how we ended up designing the Bullet Journal Companion App. That was something that came up from a lot of feedback. For example, people might forget to check in with the notebook. In Bullet Journaling, we have a section called 'daily reflection' where you check-in in the morning and the evening to review the things that you wrote down, and people sometimes forget to do that.
So I started designing this idea of a companion app that wouldn't replace a notebook but would be an extension of it and be able to leverage the technology that isn't available in the analog format. So for example, sending reminders, tracking how often you check-in, and giving out updated information that's not possible with print. Having a digital app that allows me to just flip the switch and then all of a sudden all the content is up to date. That's something that was really helpful and that continues to lead the evolution of the digital product.
In the Bullet Journal companion app, you can capture your thoughts, but they expire after 72 hours. The idea is that you write them down in your app and then put them back into your notebook and that way it facilitates the methodology much more effectively.
Felix: How do you know what features to add next so it remains flexible and can capture new uses cases that you come across?
Ryder: It's about paying very close attention to what challenges the user has. So if I start identifying very specific patterns, then the next generation of the product, I can start feeding that in. It's not about taking every single piece of feedback. In my own case, it's about finding trends of feedback or patterns in feedback.
The pipeline is very much based on addressing concerns and over time that's led to me tailoring both the brand as well as the product to align with the real needs of the community. So rather than having to guess, I let them tell me what's not working and what is, and then focus on clarifying the things that need clarification and refine the things that are working.
Give first, ask second: the role of educational content
Felix: Your approach was that anyone can do this for free on any piece of paper, any notebook—you don't have to buy a product. You emphasized this, right? Why do you feel that people still were willing to buy a product even though you actually told them how they can do this without paying anything for it?
Ryder: The Bullet Journal method is comprised of two parts. There's the system and the practice. The practice is a lot more philosophical approach to figuring out why you're doing what you're doing. When I released the Bullet Journal, I focused on the system. It was part of a larger methodology. So over time, as people have found it helpful, I have released more content and created more products around the full methodology, but I think that was really important to me to give people something that would immediately add value to their lives in a meaningful way and continue to support that. So when you create content that does connect with an audience, there will be questions, there will be a lot of questions and you can create a lot of content based on refining both the original content but also addressing all these questions that people have.
Giving away content that’s useful is really important; you become immediately relevant to your community in some way.
By listening to your community, you can start to create new content that addresses challenges that come up over time. A big part of the Bullet Journal method is designed to evolve and part of that evolution is based on the feedback that I get from my community as well as my own experience. The more I learn about this, the more I keep practicing it, the more I can continue to share. So I feel like giving away content that is useful is really important because you're immediately relevant to your community's life because you're providing a valuable service. Without you, that wouldn't be there. So once you start that pattern, it's like you give first and then you ask second.
The core service is always going to be free. You can go to bulletjournal.com and you can learn all about the basics for free and then in time there are different products that can add more like features that are added on top of that core that is available for premium and it works without it, but it becomes deeper and provide value only to those that really are interested in it.
Felix: For anyone out there that is fearing 'giving away’ too much, you’re saying there’s always an opportunity to go deeper. That many customers will need more specialized, advanced content and products to reach the outcome they want, in the form of paid products?
Ryder: As one example, I recently published a book and I wouldn't give that away for free. There's an incredible amount of work that went into it, but that book came as a result of listening to my community. They had all these questions that I wasn't answering and I felt that the best possible way that I could do that is by creating another product that would address all these different concerns as best as they could at the time.
You begin to learn, the content that you're giving away will age even if it's mostly evergreen. As you learn more from your own use case as well as the feedback from the community, there will always be new content that is needed and then there’s also a way of appropriately packaging that content.
If you put out a lot of content, sometimes the challenge is how people can the content, how it all links together, how to make it seem more seamless, how to have a thorough line of all that content and those are products that you can create in addition. So yeah, it's all free, but you can also get an ebook that covers this topic that we've covered over the last three years, but it's streamlined and repackaged to be significantly more effective.
Felix: Sometimes people are hesitant to monetize their content, whether that is sold as a product, an app, or a book. You've touched on all three of these. In the past, have you ever been hesitant to charge for your work?
Ryder: It's a hard debate and especially given that Bullet Journal was founded on the idea that the core is free, right? I give you something, I get to give you a lot for nothing, but at the same time, the way I view it is this, in order to keep creating, I need to be able to run my company. If this is providing value to people, the only way I can do that is by charging for various different things and by charging, I get to continue to serve them. That is the agreement.
That is the way that I always come back to it. That's why I always start with, "What problem is this solving? How will this help?" As long as I continue to stick to those edicts, I feel like charging becomes less challenging.
Life after Kickstarter and tips for future founders
Felix: After your successful campaign, what was the next step to taking this idea beyond the Kickstarter campaign?
Ryder: Fulfilling orders came right after. I didn't have a team, it was just me. I partnered with another company to actually produce the Bullet Journal planners, but production is only one step in a very complicated process of getting something from your computer into a factory, onto a boat, and into a home. There are so many different parts of logistics and I had absolutely no experience with logistics. So three to four months of my life was just taken and up to figuring out how to make sure that these books got into the hands of the Kickstarter backers.
Once the Kickstarter ended, things really started getting really intense. I strongly suggest to anybody thinking about doing this, to have a team around you because there are so many different components of this. Not only are you dealing with the production of a new product, but you're also now engaging with your community in a completely different way. And those are two full-time jobs on their own. So that was a mistake on my end. I had bitten off more than I could chew. I managed it, but it was a very unpleasant experience because how much of the information in the pipeline do you share with your community?
On the one hand, they have a right to know about what's going on, about this product they just invested in. On the other hand, you want content that's engaging and interesting. Conversations like, “The ink was too dark on the last sample, so it's going to take another couple of weeks for us to get another thing and then the next sample comes and the ink is too light.” That's a hard conversation to have on an ongoing basis over months.
I gave the community a date as to when they would receive the notebooks. I missed that day for about two months, which by Kickstarter standards is not that bad. But those two months were very intense because people didn't understand, “Am I going to get this product? When am I going to get this product? Why is it being delayed?” I wish that I had been more transparent, but honestly, half the time I was just waiting for information or something would be sitting at a port or something would be in transit.
So just balancing all of these different considerations at all times is something that really requires a team. I mean at the end of the day everything turned out just fine and people were really happy to receive their notebooks. But from the time the Kickstarter ended to the time that notebook showed up on the door, there's a lot of work to be done, especially if this is your first product.
Felix: What advice would you give for those starting their journey with a Kickstarter campaign?
Ryder: If I were to do it again, the first piece of advice that I'd give people is whatever you think your deadline is for delivery, times it by three. You're creating your own deadline. I took a number based on the estimates that I received, but there was no need to actually stake that claim. I should have given myself four extra months because nobody's going to be upset to get their product early, but people are going to be very upset if they get their product even a week late.
I think that the next time, I feel like I would let people in a little bit more on the frustration that I was experiencing on this really steep learning curve. I think that way, they would have been more engaged with my story and they not only know that I too am frustrated but, more importantly, I am making progress, solutions are happening and that sometimes it just takes time, especially with physical products. When you share a part of that, people become aware of it. There's momentum and trust. So I feel like it's a way for you to pull people into your own experience, which makes them more invested in the product as well.
Felix: How were you able to identify the manufacturing partner for that very first order?
Ryder: I needed a notebook that I could vouch for. So naturally, I chose the company that created a notebook that I was already using because I used them for a reason. I've used countless notebooks in my life from a whole variety of different producers.
One company in Germany called Leuchtturm made these notebooks that I really liked. So, I reached out to them and asked if they were interested in creating a special edition, and fortunately, they were. It became a partnership to create this entirely new product, but that was one thing that I'm glad that I did do because a lot of the production was handled by them.
I didn't have to find a company to make the paper and another one to assemble the notebooks. A lot of the infrastructure was already provided by them. That being said, this was a completely new product, so in some ways, we both had to iron out things. That's just a natural part of developing a new product. But with them, I was able to create a product line that I was able to ship internationally and I feel like having them there made it possible. I think without that, having to source all the materials myself and assemble everything myself, I don't think it would have worked out as well.
The toolkit that helps power BulletJournal.com
Felix: Let’s talk a little about your online store at bulletjournal.com. What are some details you personally enjoy?
Ryder: One thing I like about the website is that it has a very minimal quality to it and yet everything that's on the site is very, very intentional. It's much more about quality over quantity if you will. It's hard to populate a website when you don't have a lot of things to sell, right?
Right now we have three products, so I have a Shopify store that sells very few products overall, yet it needs to be incredibly informative at the same time. Striking that balance between being educational and yet commercial is an ongoing challenge, but I feel very happy with the fact that we were able to use Shopify to essentially unify all the different platforms, which was fantastic. Our blog used to be on WordPress and eCommerce on somewhere else.
Felix: What are the tools and apps that help BulletJournal.com runs smoothly?
Ryder: Shopify is our main business tool, and then we use Help Scout for all our customer support, which has been working out very well. Especially how it integrates with Shopify for our newsletter, which is a critical component of our business. We are currently using Klaviyo, but we've cycled through a bunch of different ones trying to find what works best for us. And then we're a lot of smaller integrations. We have geolocation redirects and make sure that people end up on the right store that they need to.
I would say the biggest addition to the website is our support software at this point. We used to have a basic FAQ section, but now we have something that's a lot more engaging and immersive. If you have questions, they can quickly find what they're looking for and if not, we have a support team to help people find exactly the answers that they need. And that's something that has removed a lot of friction in general and made us much more effective.
What’s next for Bullet Journal in 2020?
Felix: What has been the biggest lesson that you've learned from 2019 that you want to apply to go into 2020?
Ryder: Do less, but do it better. It's the lesson that keeps coming up over and over again when running a business, especially when you have a growing business. The good news is that you have new opportunities, but the bad news is that you still have exactly the same amount of time and energy. So for me, it's always about scaling back and scaling back and trying to make sure that everything that I create is something that I can really commit to with both my focus and my energy.
Right now things are going well, business is growing, and there are a lot of different exciting opportunities but I'm shutting down things that I feel can be put off till later to make sure that the things that I am working on right now get the time and energy they really need. Because everything is more complicated than expected, especially when you're creating new things.