Classes and universities are devoted to teaching and fostering creative growth. While some people enjoy some structure in their learning, others need a blank canvas to connect ideas in whichever way they see best. When the Unruled. team met in ENTREP 225: Principles of Entrepreneurship, and had to develop a business idea, their course project grew out of a personal need.
As Bennett Hensey, a McCormick sophomore, puts it, “Students use note taking to understand the material they learned in class, but when I came to Northwestern I realized that there’s a huge problem with my note taking experience and that’s because I don’t think in lines. When I think and take notes, I take complex ideas and I break them apart, play around with them on the page. Lines were just limiting. Notebooks are a tool I use everyday that go against the way I think.”
“So I had this idea to take the fundamental note taking tool, the spiral notebook, and remove the lines, which were distracting. Talking to other people, I realized that there’s a relatively large segment of the population that feels the same way. And now we’re at The Garage, we’re at the edge of a Kickstarter, we have samples, and we’re talking to manufacturers. Things are going really well.”
The Unruled. team demonstrates what it takes to transform a class project into a full-time entrepreneurial venture. Want to support the Unruled. Team? Head to their Kickstarter campaign!
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do users care about your product or service? What makes people so interested in it?
Bennett: “There’s a lot of people who think visually, that don’t have an outlet for that. Whether you’re the physics student who staples together online notepaper, or you use a small journal to take notes, or if you use a large sketchbook. Just by reaching out to friends, I realized that there was a large amount of people who said, ‘Yeah this is a problem, but I settle.’ ”
Jacob: “We’ve also seen a large problem in the stationary space as a whole, being that people won’t even buy paper products anymore because of the environmental impact. We see that as a big problem because digital options aren’t perfect; people like having physical pen on paper. We’re trying to alleviate the pain of environmental impact, while still providing this physical product, so we partnered with One Tree Planted. Every time anyone buys a pack of our notebooks, which we’re going to be selling in packs of 3, we’re going to donate to this company who’s going to plant a tree in South or Central America for us. This is something we’re going to be continuingly trying to further in our product, so we’re going to be reaching out to manufacturers see if we can get recycled products or organic products. Just whatever we can do to alleviate that distraction from the buying experience. People who take their note taking seriously and the way they think seriously, usually take their everyday things very seriously. So we’re trying to bring those together and give people a product that they can be proud of.”
What is your motivation?
Bennett: “It started as a personal problem, but it’s turned into wanting to help the people around us. We see people with a need and we think that we have the ability to alleviate that need.”
Ellen: “We’ve been getting feedback from people in our class asking when they can get these, that they want one now. So that’s been motivation to get the product down and get it in their hands.”
Cristina: “I think that’s especially true for Ellen and me because we never really had that pain point; both of us take very structured notes so lined paper works for us. So seeing their pain point kind of started that motivation, but then seeing other people, seeing them come up to you and say, ‘That’s such a cool product!’ is really motivating at this point of the project.”
Jacob: “I think moving forward our goal is hopefully designing other products that fulfill similar needs and that fit into people’s lives in a way that they don’t have to think about what they’re using. Instead, they have the complete freedom to unleash their thoughts, unleash their creativity, and not be distracted by what allows them to get it down on paper.”
What is your biggest failure so far? And what have you learned from it?
Jacob: “That it is not easy, there are a lot of steps involved. I know one that that’s been kind of hard for us to figure out is logistics: ordering from the manufacturer, shipping from the manufacturer, fulfilling. That’s something that none of us really wants as our primary task because we’re all really invested in other parts of the project, but that’s something that needs to get done in order to actually ship our product. It’s been hard to work all of these tasks into our roles, especially coming from the classroom where we’re all working together. Now we don’t have that structure in our lives, so we have to figure out ourselves how we delegate the different work so we can run efficiently.”
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Bennett: “I think for me it’s been that there’s only one-third of the population that is even remotely interested in our idea. So two-thirds of people that we talk to will probably come in with a negative idea and try to shoot us down. Since this is a really simple idea, it’s amazing to a lot of people that it hasn’t been done before, it’s amazing to even me. Just having the confidence that you do know your idea inside and out, being humble and listening to people and their concerns, but also trusting your intuition, trusting the people you’ve talked to and realizing I only need to reach a tiny fraction of these people. So the people that support you need to mean a lot more to you than the people that were really never on board.”
What do you think are your biggest barriers?
Jacob: “I think it’s what I said before: there’s just so much to do right now and it’s hard for us to figure out what needs to be done and who needs to be doing what in order to maximize our efforts, which we’ve figured out recently. But for the first two weeks of this quarter, we felt like we were doing nothing, even though we were meeting around four times a week, just trying to figure out who we are, what we do and how we operate outside of the classroom. When we were in the classroom, we thought we were treating it like a real project and we definitely were a lot more than the other groups in the class. But we realized that there’s a lot of things to do that we didn’t consider. So it’s been a lot of talking to other teams, other founders, talking to Melissa (Executive Director of The Garage), and people in The Garage to figure out how other teams do this and realize that other teams go through this.”
Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?
Jacob: “A big one for me is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia because he set out to do something he loves. He didn’t try to make a business or this huge outdoor apparel company. He just wanted to make better clothes for climbing because he wanted to climb better. If you listen to him talk, he still talks about fly fishing, rock climbing, and taking months off at a time to go out and do what he loves, even though he owns this huge multimillion dollar business. I really admire that because that’s what draws me to entrepreneurship; that you can follow a passion of yours and make it into something that other people can get on board with, as well.”
Bennett: “It’s probably pretty cliché but Elon Musk is pretty amazing; my reason for that is that I like having an idea, realizing it’s feasible and then doing it.”
Ellen: “I really like the founder of Under Armour, Kevin Plank. I like him because he was really scrappy and started it with a few pieces of clothing in his mom’s basement. Then, he was able to develop all this fabric technology on his own without any structure and create this huge company out of it.”
How has The Garage helped you with your startup?
Jacob: “It’s great having an office space to meet in. It’s definitely a lot better than meeting at Panera every Sunday, so that’s helped us a lot. Also I feel like my circle of entrepreneurs has grown so much since being here. Just being around other people who are likeminded and doing similar things has really helped by showing us what we’re capable of and how we can do things the same or do things differently from other groups.”
Christina: “The mentorship has been very helpful for us going through this process. It’s really nice to talk to Melissa and hear her ideas; she’s so willing to help us with our project. It’s a very supportive nature and I appreciate that.”
Bennett: “Definitely the support. Also, we only work on our business when we’re here so it is an office for us. It’s like a trigger and it makes us take it very seriously.”
Unruled. recently launched their Kickstarter campaign! Head to their website for updates and to support the team.