How We Built & Launched Mod Notebooks For $22,450

Mar 24, 2014

Mod is a paper notebook that syncs to the cloud . We launched last week to rave reviews. This is the story of how we built and launched Mod for $22,450, without taking investor funding. (EDITORS NOTE: Mod was sold a few years after this and has since been shut down)

The pre-cursor to Mod was a Kickstarter campaign that we cancelled in late November. If you’re curious why, you can read about that here.

The feedback we received about the project was invaluable. In just 10 days, thousands of people saw the pitch video. 269 people backed the project. We received hundreds of emails from customers giving us feedback and ideas.

Our Kickstarter campaign was our minimum viable product.

It was clear people wanted it. Now we just had to make it.

Starting fresh

There were a couple of common themes that we noticed after reading all of the comments and emails from people who saw the original campaign. Some people were put off by the subscription model and some people wanted the option of getting their notebooks back. We got to work trying to fix these two issues.

Killing the subscription model

This, in hindsight, was a no brainer. We loved the idea of a subscription based business so we kind of shoehorned it in when it didn’t really work. Everyone fills up their notebooks at different speeds.

The problem was we’d designed it so people would send their old notebook back to us in the same packaging that we sent them their new notebook in. Without the subscription model, this would no longer be an option.

We needed to come up with a way of providing return shipping for people without expecting them to hold onto a shipping box for the duration of the time they were using their notebook. The solution we decided on was to include a hidden pre-paid shipping envelope in a pocket in the back page of the notebook.

Here’s a few pictures Jon sent to Marshall to show how the envelope could fit in the back page.

This way everything is contained in the notebook. If you’re out of the house or traveling and you finish your notebook and want it digitized, you already have everything you need.

Adding the option of getting your notebook back

The way we planned on scanning the notebooks (cutting them on the spine then feeding them into a scanner) rendered them basically destroyed after they’d been scanned. Our scanning partner also wasn’t setup to return notebooks. Luckily as a side effect of launching the campaign, a new scanning partner reached out who could both scan the notebooks in a non-destructive way and return the notebooks to users if they wish.

Changing the name

We both liked the name “draft” initially but after sharing the campaign with people we noticed there was some confusion. It’s also already the name of a pretty great web based writing app. We didn’t want there to be any confusion when we re-launched this either. It was going to be a completely new product with new features.

Changing the name would emphasize this. This was easier said that done though. We went through countless names before we found one that we were both happy with.

The moment Marshall pitched the name Mod Notebooks.

Logo and Branding

Now that we had a name, we started work on the branding. We hired our pals over at 3DROPS to help us design and build the app, marketing site, and packaging. Before we got on with it, we needed a logo to set the tone.

We wanted something simple and modern. We’re big fans of subtle logos that are the item shaped to be the first letter of the name. If you look at our SmartBedding logo, it’s actually bed sheets folded up to be the shape of an S. Below are the many iterations we went through for Mod.

Logo design progression.

Offline to Online

We now had the interesting challenge of designing exactly how this was all going to work. At some point during the process we needed to link a notebook to a specific user’s account. Here’s how we decided to do it…

We don’t link a notebook to a user until they’re ready to send their notebook back to us. This way if someone buys a notebook as a gift or something like that, it isn’t tied to their account in any way. It also means we’d have the option of selling these notebooks in other places than just our website (like a retail setting or other websites like Amazon).

Finally, another nice thing is you don’t need to decide whether you want your notebook recycled or returned until after you’ve filled it. The thought is, you might start with one intention for the notebook, and finish it with another. When a user has finished filling up their notebook they’re prompted to go to This page then asks them for a unique code that’s displayed on the back of their notebook.

The notebook on the left, the prompt on the website to the right.

Once the user enters that code, they’re prompted to take out the pre-paid envelope hidden in the little flap and send it to us for digitization.

The hidden envelope in the back cover

Sleeve design

The challenge here was to design the sleeve in such a way that would quickly explain to people who hadn’t heard of mod before how it all works. This is much harder than it sounds and something I don’t think we did a very good job of doing with this first pass. We’re going to work on improving the sleeve design for the next batch.

The final sleeve design we decided on.

The app

We decided to make this a fully responsive web app so we’d be cross platform from day one, then worry about adding native versions of apps later. It would also dramatically decrease development costs and since we were funding this ourselves now, that had to be taken into account.We already had a pretty good idea of how we wanted this to look and function.

We still went through a few iterations before we were completely happy.

Design progression.

Scanning management

A huge but unseen part of this project is the scanning management admin panel. Even though only a couple of people are probably ever going to see this thing we wanted it to be up to the quality of the rest of the app.

Once we receive a notebook we scan it which generates a super high quality pdf file. That file is then uploaded through the scanning management admin panel along with the code in the back of the notebook. Once it’s uploaded we do a little bit of automatic image processing on the pdf file to clean it up and generate a few different image sizes for the app, then the user is notified. It also keeps track of all the notebooks that should be arriving on a specific date which is very handy!

This is what our scanning management admin panel looks like.

The Store

We were super happy with how the app part of this was coming together but that wouldn’t matter if we didn’t have a great looking store that convinced people to buy a notebook. To simplify things we wanted to have the pitch and the store all on the same page. The store part of the website would run on shopify and be completely separate to the app.

Here you can see a few different versions of the homepage we went through. High quality version here.

The video

We wanted a really solid pitch video that we could use on the website. We found a great local company that specialized in startup pitch videos. We met with them and explained what we wanted. We could tell they completely understood our vision for the product and the brand. Within a couple of days they had sent over a proposed outline for the video that we instantly fell in love with.

Behind the scenes shot of the video.

We had worked on promo videos before for SmartBedding and the Draft Kickstarter but both of those shoots were pretty stressful. We were in the SmartBedding video and we had to direct a lot of the Draft Kickstarter video. After discussing and agreeing on the outline of the video Dan and co just got on with it. We had the fun job of sitting back and watching it all come together.

You can watch the final video here.

A lot of people have been asking about the desk featured in the video. That’s from Artifox, the same guys that did the video.


We need to preface this section by saying that the prices we paid for the app design, app development and video are by no means representative of what these guys normally charge for similar spec projects. We had to literally beg both 3DROPS and COE to let us post these numbers. We’ve worked with 3DROPS on a number of projects before and we agreed to do some consulting for them on some of their future projects. All that plus we’re really good friends with them so they ended up giving us an insane deal. The COE price is a similar story. We’re great friends with these guys and we share office space with them so they also gave us an amazing deal.

This shows the value of building long lasting business relationships.

That being said, both of these companies produce truly incredible work. We’ve worked with many design and development shops over the years and we can’t recommend these guys highly enough. If you’re kicking around an idea for something you want to build, these guys will be able to help.

App design & Development: $14,000
First batch of notebooks: $5,750
Video and photography: $2,500
Envelope samples: $50
Notebook samples: $150

Total: $22,450

If you found this post interesting, order a Mod Notebook of your own and experience it for yourself. We’re @Marshal and @Jon on Twitter.

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