Robert Thomas, 24 year old inventor of Noteboards, white boards that fold to fit the pocket

Finally, it’s time to set the ball rolling.

Today, I have with me Robert Thomas, the inventor of Noteboards. He is an accidental entrepreneur and has already sold his business of folding whiteboards some time back.

He has a really cool story, which I am sure you’ll enjoy reading. Here are the questions I asked him which he happily replied to.

Q: Hey, Robert. Thanks a lot for giving out time for this interview. I’d like to start with a very common question for you, How did you get the idea for the Noteboards?
A: In March of 2011 I dropped out of my Junior year at Stanford University to enlist in the Marine Corps. I went to Boot Camp in May and graduated in August. During the training that followed some events led to me being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, which runs in my family and is a dischargeable condition in the military.

I was awaiting discharge at Camp Pendleton near San Diego and was thinking about how to get back to Cincinnati, which is where I grew up and where my parents lived. Hitchhiking sounded interesting. I knew it would be useful to carry a sign to show my destination to passing motorists. The obvious choice for sign material was cardboard, but it’s single-use, not very durable, and difficult to carry. A dry-erase board would be perfect, but they’re heavy and also not very portable.

So I scoured the Internet looking for a folding whiteboard, thinking that it was such a simple concept they must already exist. After a week of looking I gave up and decided to make my own. Junior Marines use packing tape to “laminate” all kinds of things and I had noticed it made a dry-erase surface. So I used packing tape to laminate a bunch of index cards together and found it made a nice folding dry-erase board.

The concept was so simple that I didn’t think anything of it, let alone imagine turning it into a business. The impetus for that came from lots of random friends and coworkers seeing my Noteboard, wanting one for themselves, and strongly encouraging me to start selling them.

Q: So, How did you initially get the product ready for market?
A: The idea of a laminated “grid” of sheets of paper came from laminated maps I’d seen. After starting to seriously think about trying to mass-produce and sell Noteboards, I walked into a Barnes & Noble one day to look through their map section and see what companies were manufacturing laminated maps. The first company I e-mailed ended up being the one I chose, and they’ve provided excellent service.

After borrowing $2000 from my parents and cleaning out my tiny savings account, I had a thousand Noteboards manufactured. They sat in a stack in a corner of my bedroom and I hoped to maybe sell them all off over the course of a year.

Q: How did you get first your 1000 customers?
A: Drawing on some very, very, very basic web design skills I’d learned, I cobbled together a very simple little website to sell Noteboards via PayPal. I’d learned about Reddit during my last few months at Stanford, and on a whim linked to my website on the “Gadgets” subreddit, not expecting anything to happen. Suddenly, orders started pouring in. The next day, TechCrunch and Gizmodo ran articles on Noteboards without my knowing. The stack of a thousand Noteboards sold out during that first week, and I was up all night for several days packing them up, driving them to the Post Office, and filling out the paperwork to establish myself as a legal business so the IRS didn’t come banging down my door.

Q: If you would not have managed to get viral on reddit, what would you have done to get initial customers?
A: Great question. I don’t know. I’m fully aware that this business ever existed only because of Reddit. An embarrassing amount of my time goes to Reddit, but there’s no other medium through which I learn as much, have such interesting discussions, and connect with total strangers so personally. I love that community and am incredibly grateful for it.

Q: What do you believe helped you grow after getting those initial customers?
A: Noteboards are small, useful, simple, and cheap, and they sold themselves. I spent literally nothing on marketing during the 13 months I managed them. What I did to help grow the business was be as friendly and responsive as possible to everyone. Any time an e-mail came in about Noteboards, I would respond to it within 5 minutes if at all possible, even if my response was just letting the person know (never using automatically-generated e-mails to do so) that I’d gotten their message and would get them a response ASAP. I tried to ship every order within 24 hours of it being placed.

Just as importantly, if not more-so, I was completely open about the fact that I was a 23-year-old with no business background working in basketball shorts in a basement all by myself. When you present yourself as a real human being instead of as a Business, people will want to connect with you on a personal level, and I loved connecting with them. A “responsible” businessperson would probably have gotten investors and employees and so on, but I made a deliberate choice to not play by the rules and keep working in my little basement. This made, I think, for a story that other people found really interesting and compelling. Had I gone a more “professional” route Noteboards probably wouldn’t have done as well as they did, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience anywhere near as much.

Q: What was your profit margin?
A: When I sold the business Noteboards cost about $1.65 to make. They sold retail for $10.

Q: How many did you sell during this period?
A: I sold about 20,000.

Q: How did you scale it to a sustainable business without hiring people to do everyday things?
A: I think it’s fun to figure out how to do things efficiently by myself. Running the business alone was like having a fancy Lego set all to myself that I got to rebuild to try to make it better. Also I have trouble focusing on one task for very long but love to be kept busy. So there was a lot of flitting around from task to task and staying up late to get everything done. Most of the time, I loved it!

Q: Did it ever get boring to pack boards everyday?
A: Sure! I listened to lot of music, several audiobooks (including all 65 hours of Atlas Shrugged), and plenty of podcasts. I also took very frequent Reddit breaks.

Q: Could you share the story of your acquisition? Any details which you feel comfortable sharing?
A: I don’t consider myself a businessperson at all, and from the start was hoping someone would come along and buy the whole Noteboard business. However, I really didn’t want to do much work to “sell” it — selling a business can become a full-time job in itself, and it’s not one I’d enjoy. So I put a note right on the Noteboard site saying basically, “I want to sell this business! Interested? E-mail me!” Fish started nibbling pretty quickly.

Mind you, because I didn’t aggressively try to sell the business I sold it for much, much less than I think the business was actually worth, and it went to a duo of small-businesspeople rather than some big corporation like 3M, who people often recommended. But I would rather see them go to someone who can only make a small financial investment and a large emotional investment than the other way around.

Q: What were some unexpected learnings out of your business?
A: I grew up with the assumption that starting a business is very complicated. Without ever really thinking about it too much, I figured that there were all sorts of rules and payments and people that needed to be involved.

It turns out that starting a business can be extremely simple. You can do it by yourself online in a few hours, paying maybe $100 in filing fees. Remember that every shoe-repair shop, every tiny Chinese food stand, every corner store is a business that someone started, and most of those people probably didn’t have particularly exceptional education or networks or money to start with.

Sure, there are rules and taxes, but a few minutes of Googling almost always answered my questions — and when it didn’t, there were plenty of people to call whose jobs were to give free business advice. Departments of Commerce want you to start a business and will help you do it; the IRS wants you to pay your taxes and will help you do it. Remember that every institution is made up of people; if you’re friendly and personable with those people and ask them for help (especially the customer service folks), they’ll usually do whatever they can to get you going.

I think wannabe-entrepreneurs often focus too much on the structure of the business — who will have what title, who their investors will be, where they’ll source their employees, how to appear professional. The more you try to structure your business before actually starting it, the more complicated it will become. If you want to sell a product or service, just start selling it. Get some momentum, and build your structure as your business grows.

Q: What plans did you have if you would not have sold the business?
A: The biggest obstacle to my business was the fact that Noteboards were manufactured about a thousand miles away from where I was. I had some ideas of how to start manufacturing them in-house, which would let me do custom-printed Noteboards and change the design much more easily. If the business didn’t sell, my plan was to buy an old used box truck, turn the cargo area into a mobile Noteboard office/manufacturing plant, and then move around the country making Noteboards wherever I pleased and delivering them myself instead of having to use a shipping service. I still find myself fantasizing about that.

Well, thank you so much Robert (or Robin?). I am a big fan of yours and couldn’t have picked a better person to start this little thing.

Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

P.S. If you found this story cool, and you’ve read it till here, you should really check out this reddit thread where he shared his thoughts and interacted with the community. Lots of great information is hidden there in comments.

P.P.S. Want to recommend someone for an interview? Tweet me at @shobhitic

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