How These Founders’ Journal to Combat Toxic Hustle Culture Made Them $1.4 Million

Have you ever wanted to see your life as an epic adventure? Nick Vitellaro and Kyle Cole were tired of soulless productivity tools that treated them like goal-setting robots. A lot of planners play into the larger hustle culture that glories working harder, faster, stronger every single day, even if it means burning out in the process. You’ve heard all the catchphrases: Sleep when you’re dead, the grind never stops, go hard or go home, rise and grind.

And while this approach works for some people (a lot of successful entrepreneurs work that way), it does not help the average person become happier or more productive. Often, being more patient and kind with yourself will allow you to get a lot farther – and will help you become more productive in a healthier way. 

Embracing a kinder experience, these founders created The Hero’s Journal – and what’s kinder than an old wizard showing up at your door with an invitation to go on an adventure?  The Hero’s Journal reshapes your goals as a quest and makes you the hero of your own magical story. Instead of a drill sergeant telling you to work harder, wake up earlier, be better, you have a kind wizard guiding you along the way. 

And their philosophy resonates with a lot of people who love that they can become the hero of their own story. So far, the company has sold more than 50,000 journals and is expected to close the year at $1.5 million. 

Changing the Story You Tell About Yourself 

The founders met in college while Kyle was a collegiate cross-country runner and track athlete and Nick was studying Communications. They had a particular combination of interests that instantly made them friends. “We loved everything from Wes Anderson movies to nerding out about literary classics, and then we would go out and play basketball together,” Nick says. 

Besides their love of nerdy stories, Nick and Kyle were the more organized of their friend group. Kyle needed that structure in his life to keep up with the strict schedule of being a student-athlete and Nick had relied on planners to stay organized since high school. 

Nick says, “I grew up getting terrible grades in school and barely got into college. I spoke to a mentor of mine and he asked me why I thought I wasn’t doing well. I told him I was probably just stupid. He said: “You’re not dumb, you’re probably just unorganized. He was the first person to tell me to get a planner and write down when things were going to happen.”

“The result was almost immediate. My grades shot through the roof! It wasn’t like I was studying any harder, putting in more effort, or getting smarter somehow – all I did was get a planner. It was mind-blowing. Suddenly this narrative I had about myself being dumb and bad at school completely changed.”

Kyle had a similar experience, saying, “One of the things I learned from being a student-athlete is that when you start believing in yourself and seeing yourself as the person who can achieve your goals, your performance actually improves. So the idea of telling someone they are the hero of their own story and showing them they are powerful will help them accomplish what they set out to do.” 

These were some of the early seeds that led to the creation of The Hero’s Journal, following the belief that taking ownership and control over your life will help you change the narrative about yourself. Kyle says, “It’s one of the most powerful things you can do for someone and that’s why we were so excited about making The Hero’s Journal a reality.”

Creating a Journal That Inspires 

The Hero’s Journal is based on the common story template called The Hero’s Journey or the Monomyth and involves a hero who goes on an adventure, conquers a critical obstacle, and comes home transformed.

The journal is designed to inspire people’s imagination while functionally organizing their day-to-day life. It’s packed full of beautiful art and uses the story arc to bring the hero (that’s what Nick and Kyle call their customers) from beginning to end. The art and story progress with the user on every page. 

The Hero’s Journal is based on the story template called The Hero’s Journey, guiding people through a three-act story arc.

Nick says, “I remember specifically that after using a regular planner for two months or so, I wasn’t engaged with it anymore and I felt uninspired by it. I thought to myself if there was something new to look at every day, a way to re-engage me with my love for storytelling, that would be a much more exciting experience.”

Sprinkled throughout are also reflection sections that don’t just ask you about your goal progress, but bring you on the arc of the hero’s journal. Once you’re finished with the journal, you have not only accomplished your goal, but you also have a story about a time in your life when you went on a challenging journey. 

Embarking Upon The Journey

Fast forward a couple of years after college and Nick and Kyle were living together and also working at the same startup in Seattle. “We started The Hero’s Journal in May 2018 as a side project. Nick and I weren’t necessarily thinking that it could become our full-time job in the future, instead we just thought it would be a fun project to do after work,” Kyle says. 

The first six months were spent on the product – they didn’t do much market-fit in the beginning because the goal was to create the MVP first. They hired an artist to design each page with their input because neither of them were designers. Kyle says, “That was the first go-ahead moment for our company, where we actually started investing real money – not just time. We invested about $1,000 in getting the first couple of prototype pages for our journal.”

A prototype of The Hero’s Journal.

Once that was done, they were able to shift their focus to how to get it to market. One of Nick’s dreams was to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. He says, “There are so many cool businesses out there that made their start on Kickstarter. There’s a special nod that a successful Kickstarter business gives another, just because there’s such an effort into getting it done. We wanted to be part of that club.” 

The founders also wanted to battle-test the journal before they entered the market for real. Putting it in one of the more brutal grounds, like Kickstarter, was a way to prove whether there was any interest in it. Kyle says, “You basically ask for money and if you don’t raise enough, you can’t launch your product.”

“I think we wanted to do it the hardest way possible because, in a way, we were a little afraid for it to work. If this is a good idea, are we going to have to quit our jobs and make it happen? We didn’t know how to run a business, so we would have to learn along the way.” 

By the time they launched their Kickstarter campaign, they had invested around $7,000 in total. The campaign goal was $10,000 and they surpassed it with $15,733 in total money raised. “I had factored in all the money we had already spent and all the money that we were going to need to get everything ready – and somehow we still lost $70 on the whole thing! We didn’t really know what budgeting was at the time,” Kyle says, laughing. 

The money they raised allowed them to produce 1,000 journals and sell them through their website. “And even though it was kind of funny that we lost $70 after our crowdfunding campaign, I remember the moment that the first order of journals arrived at our house. When we opened that box, it was a big moment for us. We were surprised by how high-quality the journals were and by the fact that it was something that people would definitely want to spend money on,” he says. 

After the Kickstarter campaign, their first goal was to sell just 50 journals. Kyle says, “I thought it was going to take us three months. The mountaintop goal was getting enough money for both Nick and I to afford rent for the house we lived in. If we could pay for one month of rent with the money we made from the business, then we would be rolling it. We ended up selling 50 journals in a week!” 

Learning On The Job

Once they started shipping out The Hero’s Journal, the pair got hit with every single obstacle along the way. First off, they didn’t budget well for shipping. But they were lucky enough to be able to use the Media Mail shipping system that allowed them to ship their journals for cheaper through USPS. 

But they still needed to be as cost-effective as possible. Kyle shares a funny story, “During college, I worked at a running shoe store and we would take the recycling trash from the store. We would take the paper that’s always used in a shoebox and pack our journals with that to save money. But we ran into a problem. It turns out I was allergic to something in those trash bags I kept reaching into and my entire body got covered in hives. After that, we had to rethink our shipping process, ” Kyle says.  

It also took them a long time to ship out the first load of journals from their Kickstarter campaign. “I would get up at 5 am and fulfill orders and then Nick would come in at 6 pm and do the rest – and we’d both work in the middle hours between that. It took us about a month to fulfill 200 orders, each with a handwritten and wax-stamped thank you note. Our shipping system was a tumultuous process to say the very least. But once the heroes got their journals, everyone was really excited. We got a great response!”

Kyle and Nick packed all the orders in their own apartment and included a handwritten thank you note for each hero.

Besides shipping, Kyle and Nick had to learn everything else on the job too. “We had no background in eCommerce or experience with building an email list. It was all new for us. We taught ourselves how to run social media ad campaigns to start selling The Hero’s Journal through our website.”

To this day, Facebook ads are still the most effective way of acquiring customers for The Hero’s Journal. Kyle says, “It’s both a blessing and a curse for our business, as for most online businesses I think. That’s how we were able to grow after our initial Kickstarter campaign.” 

In the beginning, they thought their main audience would be “nerdy professionals,” but they have learned a lot about their customers since then. They have a wide range of people who use The Hero’s Journal. Looking at the Facebook data, the people who click on their ads are usually 25 to 45 year old women.

They also get a lot of educators who like to use the digital version of the journal in their classroom. Nick says, “We let all educators use it for free because what better thing to tell a child than that they can be the hero of their own story. We also have counselors and psychologists who will use it in their practices to help clients create a positive narrative about themselves.”

And they also uncovered a different segment of their audience this year: people who are neurodivergent. “We often get reviews or messages from people with ADHD thanking us for creating something that resonates with the way their brain works. That has been really cool, because it was a demographic that we weren’t expecting to meet the needs of,” Nick says. 

Making Lockdown Survivable 

Towards the end of 2019, The Hero’s Journal was picking up steam. “We would both be sitting at our desks at our day job, getting notifications from the Shopify app that someone bought a journal. That started happening so much that it became confusing why we were even at our job. We were working hard at our full-time job, but in the meantime we were making way more money online with less effort – and our side business was much more exciting.”

It all culminated during Christmas. The Hero’s Journal had such an influx of orders for the holidays that the founders were up to their shoulders in stacked packages. Kyle says, “At one point, we looked at each other and said: What are we doing? That’s when we decided it was time to go all in and see what this could become. We quit our jobs at the same time in February of 2020 – right before the pandemic hit. But it was a blessing in disguise, honestly.” 

So how did COVID affect their business? According to the founders, there was a cultural shift during COVID. Kyle says, “When the world closed down, I think people lost a sense of freedom and purpose. A lot of those people responded by turning inward and focusing on mental health. They were buying planners and journals to organize themselves and give a little more structure to their life.”

“And that hustle culture we talked about, I think that people experienced the negative effects of that lifestyle. Rising and grinding doesn’t really resonate when you’re working from home every day in your pajamas, when you don’t know what day it is, and you are just trying to make it through a difficult time.  Especially when you’re not leaving the house daily, you have time to think about what’s important to you.”

Their journal became even more popular during this unfortunate time for the world. It was the perfect thing for people who needed a kind reminder that just taking care of yourself is good enough, even if that just means waking up and drinking enough water that day. 

COVID did complicate a lot of things as far as supply chain management. “But the interesting part about lockdown specifically was that it allowed us to get close to our customers. We were live-streaming four to five times a week in their Facebook group,” Kyle says. 

“We started a lead generation campaign called Quarantine Quest, where we gave free journal pages with side quests on them. The quests included things like clean a room in your house, make a new recipe, drink 5 cups of water, film a video thanking a healthcare worker, and so on.”

Unexpectedly, it blew up their business. In one week, their Facebook group, The Hero’s Quarters, grew from 70 to 11,000 members and their email list expanded by 30,000 emails. Their artist worked on it for about five hours in total and they put about $5,000 into the campaign. Nick says, “At the time, we didn’t realize just how big of a deal it was. And the best part was that we were genuinely helping people during a difficult time, at no cost to them.”

The company was actually out of inventory at the time of the Quarantine Quests, so they didn’t have anything to sell. When they launched an updated version of the journal on June 1st, 2020, they made $50,000 in one day!

The newest version of The Hero’s Journal, Legend of Istoria, turns your goal into a magical adventure.

Growing Within Your Means

The founders have focused on steady growth over the years. In 2019, The Hero’s Journal did $92,000, including the Kickstarter campaign, and then in 2020, they made $1 million. They’ve also built out a team of more than 10 people, including designers, support staff, social media experts, who are all contractors helping Nick and Kyle bring the journal to life. This year, they are expecting to close with $1.5 million. 

Kyle says, “When people ask me about starting a business, I always tell them if you want to create something, then let it grow at the level that it can handle. One of the reasons we’ve been successful is because Nick and I didn’t put any unnecessary pressure on the business to grow. I think that is what has allowed it to bloom, by letting it be a side hustle and letting it be a fun project. We’re not extremely pushy when it comes to selling our product because we know that it’s supposed to be a kind tool to help somebody, and we let it organically grow into that.”

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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