How We Launched A Book Subscription Service And Sold 40K Books

Published: June 16th, 2019
David Dewane
Founder, Mouse Book Club
Mouse Book Club
from Chicago, Illinois, USA
started June 2017
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Note: This business is no longer running. It was started in 2017 and ended in 2023. Reason for closure: Shut down.

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is David Dewane and I’m the co-founder and president of the Mouse Book Club. We make phone-sized physical books you carry around with you so that you have a decent alternative to reading your phone.

I’m an architect, professor, journalist, hustler, and the lowest form of tech junkie. I’m the kind of creep you’d see checking their phone at the dinner table when the baby is crying. That’s one of the reasons I started Mouse and am aligning our company with the movement towards digital minimalism, that is, a more limited and thoughtful integration of technology into our lives.

So far, we have mailed over 40,000 books to 60+ countries and all 50 states. We’ve done about $170,000 in sales in the first two years.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Mouse started as a genuine Eureka Moment. I was sitting on the bus and noticed everyone was on their phones. It was amazing to me that as a species we’ve effectively trained ourselves to read constantly.

Then, I simply asked myself the questions: what are they reading? Social media? Online journalism? Will they remember anything they read this morning in a day, month, week, year, decade?

Within an hour of coming up with the idea, I had got off the bus, ran to my office, and made a prototype.

I happen to be reading a Bantam “pocket” classic of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. In the inner leaf, it said something like, “If you like this book, you’ll like books by Twain, Montaigne, Dante, Melville,...”.

I asked a second question: why don’t people read great literature on their phones? I carry a small, passport-sized notebook to record these observations. I looked down and was holding the tiny notebook in one hand and the book in the other. I thought if you could make the book even smaller, people would carry them consistently (I carry my notebook religiously).

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Within an hour of coming up with the idea, I had got off the bus, ran to my office, and made a prototype. I showed it to the guy sitting next to me and he loved it. I immediately knew it was going to be a company and that morning I made a couple of calls to key people in my network I knew I wanted as co-founders.

This all happened around Thanksgiving and I decided to test the idea by making a hundred copies of Herman Melville’s Bartleby and sent them around to people for Christmas without telling them I made them. The feedback was genuinely positive. The following spring we built a Kickstarter campaign and got our first 1,000 customers and $50,000.

Mouse Books are not complex objects to make. Like most books today, they are laid out in Adobe InDesign. One of my co-founders was a graphic designer and we’d collaborated on a book publishing project in the past, so we knew the basic conventions of laying out a book. Still, there was a ton of trial and error as we experimented with type size, paper weight, paper color, cover design, etc. We use staples to bind, which is crucial because it limits the page count and keeps the spine flexible. Anyone can make a Mouse Book if they have a laptop, printer, and stapler.

It is actually not that hard to find a commercial printer if you go looking for one and they are interested in doing creative work when they get the chance. After the Kickstarter, we were approached by printers in China and Canada, which are good options if you are very price sensitive. Luckily, there is an absolutely world-class printer in Chicago and we developed a great working relationship with them.

Curiosity, networking, desktop publishing, crowdfunding, and grit all aligned just well enough to get something useful out into the world.

First 100 Christmas Books - December 2017

Describe the process of launching the business.

Launching a business is a multidimensional challenge. Some aspects of Mouse were relatively easy to launch while others almost broke the company.

Financially, we had it pretty easy. Each of the co-founders put in a minor amount of money to cover incidental expenses of the crowdfunding campaign. The style of Kickstarter campaign we ran was pure sweat equity.

In a 45 day campaign, we attracted the first 1,000+ customers and $50,000+ with no real money invested and minimal debts to pay back. There were one or two significant expenses in the campaign, which one of the co-founders just fronted the cash for as was paid back immediately after the campaign.

Nothing makes me feel more alive that working on something I find interesting, important and is highly relevant to the contemporary conversation.

Success in Kickstarter campaigns is tricky to define. Financial success is what everyone focuses on. The reality I’ve discovered is that the money is a lagging indicator and largely a byproduct of how much engagement you are able to create. You have to reach out to everyone and anyone you possibly can personally. You have to tap into other people’s networks. You need to turn every backer into an advocate for your company. There is plenty of tradecraft out there on “how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign.” In my experience, the best guidance comes from Kickstarter itself.

The people part of the business was much trickier. When the core team assembled, there was a small rift up-front that we tried to work through. This had to do with clashing work styles and fundamentally divergent visions for the company. We also had an early question about who was the best person to lead the team. After some tense conversations, two of the six co-founders walked away from the company without conflict.

I take several messages from the Mouse launch. As a product company, the combination of Lean StartUp methodology with crowdfunding was perfect for us. We hit the ground running and have never looked back. In terms of personnel, I would have proceeded more cautiously. Some of the co-founders I had worked with for a decade or more, while others I had known for just weeks or months. There should be a significant vesting period of some kind before there is even a conversation about equity. Another entrepreneur sets that timeframe at 6 months and I think that’s appropriate.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since launching, we have seen some behavior patterns emerge. Seth Godin talks a lot about how early adopters are extremely patient if you mess something up, but are hard to retain because they tend to prefer new things and jump to the next new thing. I find truth in that in the case of many early Mouse customers - i.e. they would be extremely patient and understanding with a delayed shipment, but were hard to get to re-invest. Kickstarter is full of customers like this. On the other side, there are people - albeit fewer people - who truly latch on to the mission and vision of the company and will be with us as long as we exist and provide our services in a professional manner.

What we discovered pretty quick is that marketing is the lifeblood of a startup. We also have a significant marketing gap in our team and, by nature of our company, are more than a little anti-social media. This was the most significant challenge in shifting gears from launch to ongoing operations.

There was no shortcut. We had to go to school on marketing and find great mentors who would patiently explain what we needed to do and help us build an effective strategy. We applied and got accepted to an incubator program at the University of Chicago and through that program connected with a few marketing professionals. One in particular, Melissa Harris (consultant who does great work for Cards Against Humanity), really stepped up and guided us. Melissa would recommend a book, I would read it, and then we’d have a critical discussion about how to apply the concepts.

After a few weeks of this, I wrote Melissa an email asking her to review our “comprehensive marketing strategy.” I didn’t have one, but through getting a date on the calendar would light a fire under me to pull everything together. She replied that she’d like to meet immediately and scheduled a meeting the following day. The morning of the meeting I sat down with notes form a couple thousand pages of assigned reading and hours of podcasts. I consolidated everything into a one-page marketing plan. It had two customer insights, one clear strategy, seven tactics, and a pledge to measure and adjust. Melissa read it and said it was exactly what we needed. This is the script we’ve been running the company on ever since.


How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are finally starting to see real traction. As I write this we’ve crossed the $170,000 mark in sales and have some working capital in the bank. As a team, we decided to treat Mouse Books as a lifestyle company for the next year or two. Focus on slow and steady growth, while constantly refining the customer experience.

Our marketing is not based on advertising. Rather, we focus on sales and word of mouth. WE equip each of our customers with extra books which they can pass on to the people in their network most sympathetic to the Mouse Books idea. So far that has been effective for us. We have serious work to do on the PR front and have hired consultants strategically to assist.

We have an ultra-simple equation on the production side. We need to design books, which get manufactured and shipped. This is fairly easy to streamline. The much more compelling and immediate concern of ours is wrestling with the experience of the customer once they have the product. How can we create more and more value for them once they are part of the club. Ratcheting up our approach to analysis and making in-person meet-ups with other customers are two examples of next level activity on the post-purchase front.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

For me, the most important thing about starting a company is the feeling of meaning that comes with acting with intention.

Mouse Books is an ideological project that critiques the way information is presented in society. It aligns itself with the movement towards digital minimalism and in that sense is a very timely enterprise.

Nothing makes me feel more alive that working on something I find interesting, important and is highly relevant to the contemporary conversation.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We’ve talked a lot about Kickstarter. I think it is one of the signature platforms available to startups of a certain variety. It is extremely useful for attracting the first batch of customers and getting you money without losing equity. The community of backers on the platform are generous and weird and wonderful.

We run our e-commerce through Shopify. Honestly, I don’t love the layout capabilities. We’ve spent a lot of money on a website I still don’t think is super sharp. But I am comfortable with the security of it and the out of box analytics are all we need.

For shipping, we used until it morphed into Shipstation. Neither are amazing, but Shipstation is less bad than was.

We are just tapping into the power of Salesforce and I wish I had more time to devote to learning the platform. I know some specific patterns that I am looking for but I still need to use my Upwork consultant to help me build the right kind of reports.

My mentor encouraged me to use a weekly, monthly, quarterly tracker that is very dumb but provides an effective and constantly updated “agenda” for the company.


What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Cal Newport’s books are all really solid, my favorites being So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, and Digital Minimalism. There gave me the language and practices I needed to be an effective worker.

For marketing, I read This is Marketing by Seth Godin and loved it. I also read Contagiousby Jonah Berger and got a lot out of it. Aspects of A Social Strategyby Mikolaj Piskorski helped a lot.

There is a lot of good stuff in the podcast realm. Godin’sAkimbo* is full of useful marketing material. In terms of inspiration, I am devoted to *Dissectwith Cole Cuchna and long-form interview masters like David Axelrod, Tim Ferriss, Cal Fussman. Dan Carlin is the gold standard for long-form teaching of classic material. I love the fact that he builds his podcasts for someone who will discover it five years from now.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Companies are creative processes. For the best advice I’ve ever seen on creative work, I am going to provide a long quote by Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years, you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’d love to add a marketing professional to the team. Someone who is interested in marketing beyond social media. Who is interested in figuring out how to take someone who has already bought our product and 10x their experience of it. See the one-page marketing plan up above. If that appeals to you write me an email.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!