From Journal to Business: How Entrepreneurs Used Journaling to Make Their Business Dreams Come True

By Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

“Using a notebook or journal is vital to starting a business,” proclaims Chicago-area fashion entrepreneur Amy Olson, designer and owner of Kuhfs. “A notebook is tangible. Having a well thought–out notebook or journal will keep you on track and heading in the right direction.”

Journaling — often associated with middle school language arts assignments — is all grown up and more popular than ever. Journals are now indispensible tools for entrepreneurs and small business owners who want to capture thoughts in a flexible and portable format.

Added bonus: The slower pace of writing by hand also allows journalers to sit with their thoughts, increasing evaluation. Joint research from Harvard, HEC Paris and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School shows that when we have the time to reflect, we feel more confident about our abilities and ideas. That often translates into putting increased effort in our work and our thinking.

Sketching Out a Business

“I sketched out all of my design ideas in my notebook, took notes on design flaws, and wrote out lists of goals and tasks to get me from idea to reality. Each notebook is dated, and has lists crossed off, all of my sketches and measurements of my product, and success and failures along the way.”

Olson also used the blank pages to brainstorm ideas for a name.

“When I was trying to come up with a name for my company, I wrote down everything that came to mind,” she recalls. “I just kept writing in my notebook until I arrived at the name. It was a step in the process that helped me be creative as opposed to typing out ideas on a computer screen.”

For her, the journals provide structure and perspective, while in use and long after.

“I can go back to my first notebook and see the evolution of my business from concept to present day,” she says. “You can see your progress, accomplished goals, mistakes to learn from. Computer-based systems delete the task when you have completed it, and I don’t like that. I want to be able to see what I have done and how I got there, success or failure.”

Getting Perspective on the Possibilities

Portland, OR–based Nate Hanson is a serial entrepreneur who’s launched two companies using journals. Despite being the founder of tech start-up Sumry, he relies heavily on handwritten notes and drawings stashed in a notebook.

“Technology is great, but for those of us who have built businesses around technology and use it every day, we can get in a bubble,” he admits. “Finding traditional ways to accomplish tasks is a stretch for us tech entrepreneurs, but we must break out of our bubble. That way we can try to solve real-life problems, not just tech problems.”

The old-fashioned approach helps him focus.

“There aren’t any distractions when you use a notebook,” he explains. “Nothing pops up, no notifications, no buzzing or dings or anything. It’s just you, your pen and a blank page. For an entrepreneur, this is scary and also exciting. This blank canvas allows me to make more creative connections in my head — things I may not have come up with if I used a to-do list application or Evernote.

“I have to see it all in front of me, and I need the satisfaction of crossing things off my lists,” Hanson continues. “As Sumry grows, I never know when a new feature or idea is going to strike. I keep my notebook by my bed to capture the ideas as they come in.”

Selecting the Right Journaling Tools

Ask your colleagues what journaling tools they recommend, and try a few before making a final decision.

Obviously, you need a terrific book to write in. Choose one that has thick paper — especially if you’re a Sharpie® lover — to avoid bleed-through. A sturdy cover that stands up to wear and tear and provides a strong platform when you’re writing in your lap helps as well.

If you want to integrate your journaling with productivity or project management software, consider something like a Moleskine smart notebook specifically designed to function with Evernote. In this case, you’ll also need an enabled pen, like a Livescribe.

The most important thing is to choose tools that are easy to use so you maintain your journaling effort.

Hanson offers these parting thoughts on using journaling to visualize and realize your business:

“We’re scared a great idea is going to hit us and we won’t be able to remember it. We’re scared that we’ll want to learn something and we won’t be able to research it. We’re slowly killing our minds. They need to be worked, just like any muscle. Entrepreneurs will find a scary freedom to dream up their own thoughts without checking the Internet to see if someone has already thought it. Just write it down.”

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