Jan Sapper is the founder of PaperLike, the manufacturer of an innovative screen protector for the iPad Pro that accurately simulates the feeling of paper. The PaperLike Two-pack has sold to thousands of customers in Europe and the US and currently boasts more than 1,400 five-star reviews. Jan lives in Hamburg, Germany with his wife and children. Jan is a delighted Judge.me customer.
Jan first picked up an iPad in 2014, partly with the aim to take better notes at his job, where he worked as a product manager. However, he disliked the way the stylus felt on the screen. "It feels artificial and alien. It's very easy to make mistakes."
Jan went to the Apple Store with a question, “Where’s the screen protector that makes my iPad feel like paper?”
The store employees looked confused. “We haven’t heard of anything like that,” they said. The Apple Store didn’t have such a product. In fact, no such product existed anywhere in the world.
But Jan wasn’t worried. He figured that somebody would soon develop this type of screen protector, and he waited. And waited. And waited some more. In fact, Jan waited for two years to see if a paper-like screen protector would be released on the market. But to his surprise, it never came.
So Jan took matters into his own hands, “So I said, ‘okay, nobody cares about this as much as I do, so let's see if I can fix it myself.’ And then I started contacting manufacturers of screen protectors and seeing if somebody would work with me.” Even though Jan made it clear this was only a hobby, one of the manufacturers agreed to work with him.
That’s quite surprising considering that most manufacturers aren’t in the business of supporting hobbyists. What this tells me is that the manufacturer also saw the need in the market and felt it was a juicy business opportunity.
Jan ordered a test batch of the product to try with a friend.
Upon arrival, Jan enjoyed the new screen protectors, but his friend didn't receive the product well. "I tried it out, and I was delighted with it," says Jan. "I gave it to my best friend, and he said, ‘oh no, that's terrible! It makes the screen look like shit. You can't sell it.' But I had been using it for one week, and I loved it. So I made a crowdfunding campaign to test it out further."
Jan’s goal for the crowdfunding campaign was to sell a mere 100 units, mostly so he could have the product for himself and cover the costs of manufacturing. "I thought it was just a problem of one," said Jan. "So I just want to make sure I at least have a set of five of those at my house, and I would be happy. That would have been a success for me.”
However, Jan was in for a big surprise. His crowdfunding goal was a meager 4,000 EUR. But he didn’t raise that amount. Instead, blew that figure out of the water, raising a whopping 60,000 EUR!
In particular, digital artists loved the product as it allowed them to create amazing digital art with the feel of paper, not to mention the added bonus of an undo button.
Even though Jan wasn’t a digital artist, the success of the crowdfunding campaign and adoption of the product by these artists proved that Jan wasn’t alone in his desire for a better digital writing and drawing experience. “We ended up shipping the product to around 3000 people,” Jan told me.
And what a fortunate turn of events that was! At the same time the crowdfunding campaign closed, the company where Jan had been working went bankrupt, and he was told he'd be out of a job in two months.
Then, with the success of the crowdfunding campaign under his belt, Jan continued to develop and sell PaperLike, and it has been his full-time job since October 2017.
Jan didn’t start PaperLike devoid of experience. He drew upon an extensive background in product development, both as an entrepreneur and an employee. In fact, two significant ordeals in Jan's past helped him prepare for PaperLike.
Jan's first gig was right after university, during particularly lousy job market.
Jan decided to try his hand at manufacturing his own product, a docking station for MacBooks. He structured the business based on Tim Ferriss's The Four Hour Work Week, a book that’s considered canon for many online entrepreneurs. However, it didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped.
As the book advises, Jan delegated as much as possible for his new docking station business. But he soon realized a glaring issue with his strategy, which he feels could be spelled out clearly in the book.
Part of the issue was that the team Jan had hired to develop the product wasn't a good fit. They were used to working with incredibly expensive components for brands like Boeing, Volkswagen, and BMW. After a lot of time developing the product, it turned out the team had used similarly expensive parts for Jan's docking station. The premium components meant that Jan would need to sell the product for more than 500 €, which was far above the market average.
Upon realizing this terrible news, Jan called it quits. He canceled the crowdfunding campaign he’d started for the product and abandoned product development.
But this would prove to be a valuable lesson for the years to come.
“I can say,” Jan told me, “that everything I learned in that process, which was like the worst moment in my life, I could reinvest. I would later reuse all these learnings in PaperLike.”
And the lesson was this. “If you’re just delegating everything, especially things you have no experience with,” says Jan, “you can't do quality control. You can’t question things. And that was my biggest problem with my first company. I just had to take it as it was and I was delegating as much as I could. But then the thing is, if you don’t think strategically in an area, the people you are delegating to can’t be your strategic thinkers either. They will only be doing what you tell them to, not thinking strategically.”
Jan learned that he must first know the various aspects of his business on a deep level before delegating to others. Which is why, to this day, PaperLike remains mostly a solo operation.
Jan’s next move was to join an eight-person startup called Protonet as a Product Manager.
In 2014, the startup successfully completed a massive crowdfunding campaign that raised 3.000.000 € in three days. Suddenly, the company exploded from eight employees to more than fifty.
But this massive growth spelled the startup’s doom. The company collapsed under the pressure within 24 months.
During the rapid growth, Jan questioned the strategies of senior management. “I went through the whole process thinking, ‘Oh, I would do that differently, but these guys are smarter than I am. So I will shut up and just listen and see.’”
But looking back at the situation, Jan now realizes that his gut instinct just might have saved the company. "I had many good ideas," said Jan, "and later on I'd be talking with the founders, and they'd say, ‘Oh, had we done it that way, maybe we would be still alive.' And that's where I realized that my intuition and all that stuff is not so bad after all." Jan is aware that hindsight-vision is 20/20, but still looking back at that experience makes him feel more confident in his gut instinct.
One of the recurring themes in my interviews with Shopify entrepreneurs is this development of a gut instinct. It’s built on years of experiences, both good and bad. It’s the thing that you can’t buy, can’t hack, and that all entrepreneurs must continue to hone every day.
Jan is no exception. He continues to learn valuable new lessons while at PaperLike, which have been just as instructional as his past experiences in product development.
People often say that we should fail fast so that we learn more. I have a problem with that. There are a billion and one ways to fail, and only a few dozen ways to succeed in any endeavor. While past failures can provide great experience, I believe it's when you latch onto something that works that you really begin to learn.
That’s why some of the most valuable insights from Jan come from his time running PaperLike.
When Jan opened his Shopify store, he had one major concern. “PaperLike is a product that people really need to try out to see if they really want to buy it,” Jan said.
Of course, this is impossible for online shops. "So one of the first things I did was implement reviews, and I can definitely say that, from the beginning, Judge.me has been essential for that. Because if somebody can't try out the product, they have to rely on other people's opinions."
Now, with nearly 2,000 reviews and more than a 4.5-star average rating, customers can learn from other people’s experiences and better inform their decision to buy. “The PaperLike screen protector does have its drawbacks,” Jan told me. “It does make the screen less clear, and some people don’t like that, but it’s not like we’re going to advertise that fact. Reviews let people learn some of the downsides of the product without deterring people from buying.”
For example, many people have complained that PaperLike causes a refraction effect on the screen. It’s actually the biggest concern when considering buying the product. But reviews have allowed people to point out the flaw and still profess their love for the product.
Jan explained, "People say things reviews like, ‘It's awesome. It just has this real refraction effect, but still, it's worth it.' Reviews like that are perfect at the checkout page because then people know what to expect."
Jan has also implemented a 100% satisfaction guarantee. This lets Jan convince customers to try the product, even those with concerns about the refraction issue, with no risk whatsoever.
This tactic has paid off. Often, Jan would have customers request to cancel an order mid-shipment because they'd read a review about the refraction issue. But Jan was quick to bring up the satisfaction guarantee, "I said, no, no, no, wait for it. Try it out because that's just an opinion. It's not a fact. You know, everybody's opinion is different and you might like it. And so many times I've got the answer from them: ‘awesome. I love it. So glad that you didn't refund or cancel the order.'"
It just goes to show that, with a great product, your best sales tool is getting the product in your customers' hands, risk-free.
During Jan’s first shipment, he knew he’d need to gather as much feedback as possible from his new customers. Implementing reviews definitely helped with this, but so did keeping an eye on private customer feedback.
One key issue that Jan hadn’t anticipated was that people might make a mistake while applying the screen protector to their iPads. He had people emailing in anger, asking why he didn’t include a backup.
From that point forward, PaperLike has only been sold in two-packs.
Now, all of Jan’s customers get a second chance if they mess up the application process.
As in all my interviews, I love asking people what their biggest roadblocks or issues were running their businesses. Jan’s was Chinese New Year.
"China is sort of offline for a month," Jan told me. "Yeah. So when your inventory is low at that time, and then you're like, ‘okay, let's order a ton of product,' you're in trouble. I was always running a minimal amount of inventory to reduce the risk because I was always thought this is just a hobby. I was regularly ordering, once a month. Then suddenly the manufacturer was like, ‘okay, we're off for a whole month!' That was a real challenge."
If you want to be successful, you need to know what you’re doing. That sounds obvious. And yet, we have so many online entrepreneurs waking up one morning and saying, ‘hey, you know what? I’m going to start a shoe store and be a billionaire.’
The better approach is another recurring theme in my interviews with Shopify entrepreneurs.
“It doesn’t matter if you are doing something small or solving a problem for yourself,” Jan says, “just get really good at it.
And it’s with that mindset that Jan approaches product development.
"Many times people have asked why I haven't made this product for other tablets," Jan said. "I focused on iOS, on Apple devices, because they are super focused. They don't have a billion different sizes, and I know how to talk to people like me. I know how to talk to Apple users. So, I'm actually selling this product to myself every time."
Based on his past experiences, Jan knew he wanted to run PaperLike as lean as possible. He didn’t want to grow quickly because he saw what a disaster that could be. What’s more, he really wanted to know every part of his business, instead of delegating things he didn’t know.
At the moment, Jan isn’t interested in launching a bunch of new products or hiring a ton of employees to scale.
“PaperLike makes enough for my small family and me," says Jan. "And that's, let's say, an unfair advantage. I can live and make a company with such a small revenue that bigger companies would never want to do that."
“Many people think you need to have a huge product or company,” says Jan. “I understand that, but it’s not true. If you make it super lean, super small, even this small niche of PaperLike, yeah, uh, it's not big enough for a Belkin to go after, but it's a nice niche for a Jan Sapper to do.”
It's clear that Jan sees his lean-ness as a defense strategy, preventing big companies from going after the market due to his small size. And he may be right. Perhaps the market is just big enough for Jan Sapper and nobody else.
Jan has big plans for PaperLike in 2019 including some additional products that are already in the works, but Jan wouldn’t say what they were just yet. They’ll also focus on improving their existing product by making the process of applying the screen protector easier for customers.
Another goal for this year is to create stellar content for the digital artists who are the primary users of PaperLike. This content will include tips and tricks for digital artists, as well as interviews with artists on the PaperLike blog and highlights of artists on PaperLike’s Instagram profile.
At Judge.me, we look forward to seeing where Jan takes his business in 2019, and are excited to work alongside him to keep the trust alive at PaperLike.