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Noteworthy endeavor

Madison startup Aha Notes aims to taking note-taking into the future with a convenient system for blending handwritten notes with digital search and storage.

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How do you take notes during meetings with clients or brainstorming sessions with co-workers?

Probably the same way you took them in high school and college — by hand, on paper.

This is great for capturing free-flowing thoughts organically but a real pain any time you need to refer back to something from weeks or months ago and find yourself rifling through page after page looking for that one idea.

It also runs counter to our increasingly digital lifestyles that rely less on overflowing filing cabinets and more on the cloud for information storage. Of course, taking notes digitally, on your phone or laptop, has its drawbacks, as well. It’s not as intuitive, not to mention it’s distracting for you and anyone else in the room.

Scott Rouse is a Madison entrepreneur who believes he’s found the solution to modern note taking through a marriage of analog and digital innovation. His startup, Aha Notes, is the culmination of more than 20 years of his own personal efforts to make note-taking more effective and efficient.

Aha Notes is set to launch its Kickstarter campaign today, Oct. 3, and plans to begin delivery of its note taking system in February 2018.

Two notebooks will be included in that Kickstarter campaign: the Aha Pro at $70 (leather bound book), and the Aha Essential for $40 (traditional cloth cover). Both come with a choice of two inserts (a whiteboard insert, a clear acrylic insert, or two bound paper inserts), a dry erase pen, and six months access to the paid version of the Aha app, which includes cloud backup and OCR (image-to-text) searching.

Rouse says the past year has been a whirlwind of bringing his ideas to reality with co-founder Jon Alling, but he believes Aha Notes is primed to take on the big-time players in both traditional and digital note-taking and information storage spheres.

Aha moment

For a recent blog post, Rouse says he did some digging into when he started tinkering with notebooks and found some examples as old as 20 years. “I found a stack of photocopied paper sheets bound together in different ways. It’s been the past 10 years or so that I’ve made a much more serious attempt to hack together a new type of notebook.”

Rouse’s basic idea was to solve the problem of notebooks being intrinsically linear. By that he means your most recent note is probably going to be sandwiched between notes that aren’t entirely related. “It’s difficult to review and reexperience notes this way,” Rouse explains.” When you start to try to be more methodical about how you take notes, you lose a lot of the spontaneity that makes note-taking valuable.

For a couple years, Rouse says he took a regular notebook and tried to create ways to pull off pages and insert them into organized project areas. He used a large Post-it notepad for a while and had local shops create a notebook that had a Post-it notepad on one side and a regularly bound notepad on the other to stick the notes into. It was similar to folders, but more compact. Ultimately, Rouse says it was that prototype that lead him to the realization that a purely physical solution was just not going to work. It needed to be paired with a digital solution.

“A notebook is a very personal and emotional thing,” notes Rouse. “The simplicity and lack of distraction is what frees your mind to want to use it without hesitation. But when you start to obsess over the organization like my Post-it note prototype, it completely lost that emotional feel, and I didn’t enjoy using it.”

That led Rouse to integrate a digital solution. As a software developer with 17 years experience, he understood that digital was where it was at in terms of organization. “I walked out of paper entirely and bought a piece of white acrylic and some magnets from my local hardware store and went at it. It was awesome! Having a portable whiteboard was less distracting — I didn’t even have pages to open — and the ability to simply erase pieces of the note so quickly and cleanly brought me to a new level of iteration.”

Initially, Rouse used four magnets, one on each corner, so he could sandwich the board in clear acrylic and protect the whiteboard from being accidentally erased. When two magnets fell out from the same side, he got the idea to have it open like a book. The clear acrylic has become an interesting feature and was simply the result of having it around and using it to write on top of other notes, he explains.

“For digital I was using Dropbox to scan my whiteboards,” says Rouse. “Unfortunately, it just dropped my notes into a folder with tiny thumbnails and a timestamp name. I took and scanned hundreds of files for years with this system and I have probably only revisited maybe 1% of them. It’s a pain to have to open each and every file to just remember what it was, so I stopped looking. This was clearly a big flaw, so I invented a simple system that scans the note, but also captures a visual title to be used in a list just like any other digital list.

“It’s a very human solution, which excited me right away,” continues Rouse. “An image can capture so much more of the idea than a flat piece of text. The idea really started to become an experience. I knew this was important to try, so I made a prototype and now a fully workable beta app. I have taken 1,500-plus notes and am confident that I have revisited almost every one of them. It’s a totally different system now that embraces the creative process entirely but keeps everything simple.”

About a year ago, Rouse met Alling and showed him his cobbled together notebook design.

While Rouse’s background is in software — as a software developer and designer, he’s worked for large, established companies as well as startups like StudyBlue, Propeller, Shoutlet, and OpenHomes — Alling has 16 years of experience as a product designer and engineer working with large consumer product brands, including Cottage Grove-based Johnson Health Tech, where he established an internal innovation startup.

Alling also traveled extensively overseeing product manufacturing at sites throughout the world, and 18 months ago he founded Human Crafted in Madison to work on product designs of his own and help others move rapidly from idea to product.

“I came to Jon with a hand drilled and messily glued whiteboard and app prototype and simply pitched him the idea,” says Rouse. “I wanted the company to have just as much depth in engineering as I had in software. Jon brought that depth in spades! If I remember correctly, he actually pulled out a whiteboard he had just created that was basically a variation of what I had shown him except that it was for a refrigerator. A week or two later he created the design for the leather cover to hold the whiteboards just like a journal.”

Over the past several months, Rouse and Alling have further expanded their team. Josh Peot was brought on to help with software development, as well as Jared Burris to handle marketing, and Jared Sandlin for PR — “all of whom I have worked with before and have known for years,” says Rouse. “This is the team I wanted and would bring into any new project going forward.”

According to Rouse, the project has been entirely bootstrapped by the team, with no outside funding prior to the launch of its Kickstarter campaign.

Not including Rouse’s random experiments over the past 10 years, Aha Notes has reached this point in its evolution on about $10,000, all from members. In terms of hours, Rouse estimates he’s put in more than 2,000 over the past couple years. Alling has added at least several hundred, and the rest of the team has put in hundreds, as well.

Rouse notes Aha has also received help from the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic on its provisional patents, operating agreement, and IP agreements. “The UWLEC has been a huge help and I couldn’t say enough positive things about them, and Anne Smith (co-founder and director of UWLEC) in particular.”


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