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.

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.”



New kind of note-taking

So, how exactly does Aha Notes work?

Aha Notes is a note taking system comprised of a notebook and an application. The notebook is dynamic with a patent-pending magnetic spine. Users can drop in a whiteboard, a transparent board, or traditionally bound paper. The whiteboards can be used as a blank slate for whenever inspiration strikes. The paper inserts work just like a traditional notebook, but can be added and removed easily for storage.

The Aha Notes App is where the magic really starts to take place, Rouse claims. “Once you finish your note, open the app and snap a picture. The app then prompts you to capture the most meaningful part of your note as the title, making it intuitive to find in your notebook feed. Having this personal connection to your notes is the difference between finding your ideas and never looking at them again.”

Notes saved in the app are easily searchable using one of two methods. First, the app offers traditional file organization into folders.

The second solution for organizing and searching saved files is through OCR (object character recognition, or image-to-text processing). Aha Notes does process the image into words, as well, but that’s only used for search since title recognition is significantly more effective at finding notes, says Rouse. Taking a picture of a business card or typed document works extremely well, and handwritten notes can be searched, as well.

Aha Notes is flexible in that everything in the system will work independently, but the system is definitely designed as a whole to align with the creative process. Users can use the notebook without scanning into the app, and the app will scan and store anything.

That’s ideal for business settings, Rouse notes, because creativity — capturing ideas, specifically — is messy and spontaneous. “We need to be able to take advantage of it when it comes and at any scale,” he says. “A full whiteboard is awesome for large diagrams and with groups, but overkill for a list that you need to take with you or a simple diagram you need to work out in the moment. We need to foster creativity to compete in the new economy and that means keeping all these tools and different scales of thinking in play and engaging all of them.”

Business is the primary environment Aha Notes has operated in so far. All of Rouse’s prototypes and beta testers have been used in business settings, which he believes is a natural fit.

Rouse says a perfect case study is Sandlin, Aha’s PR director. Sandlin just left Epic to join Aha, and he used the Aha platform for the last two months he worked there, says Rouse. “He says it really improved his creativity and management. Writing quick to-dos was simple, and expanding creative ideas is much better when done by hand.”

Notes on the future

While the immediate focus at Aha Notes is on its Kickstarter campaign and launch, Rouse notes the team still has a large, fun list of places they want to go.

Short term, that means adding lots of other cloud services. Evernote, Google Drive, and more are all going to be options within the Aha app. Beyond that though, Rouse also foresees a more robust desktop app.

Rouse says education is also a great next step. “My daughter just started middle school and came home with a huge, awkwardly designed binder half as big as her. I think there is a lot of potential to update the entire space, physically and digitally.”

Finally, Rouse notes the opportunity to fill a content space for users. “With an extendable notebook we have huge potential for selling inserts with content printed on them. This includes paper inserts for bullet journalists that span a month’s time, to specific fields with forms that can be slipped behind the clear acrylic, filled out, and scanned. Ultimately we want to build an app store for creatives to buy and sell content for inserts that fit in our notebook.”

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