Back in 2011, Steven Chan was attending the University of Queensland, studying mathematics – well, at least trying to. One thing in particular was getting in his way of success: note taking.
“Studying math, it was easier to handwrite notes, given you’re writing equations a lot, but I used too many papers because I would often make mistakes working on math problems,” Chan said, speaking with Gizmodo Australia. “What I would do is peel the pages off and then throw them on the floor.”
But then, in 2010, a little object by the name of an iPad came out (when Chan was just about to start his final year of uni) and the screen size was similar to a standard notebook, which he thought was actually perfect for going paperless. After trying all of the note-taking apps that were available at the time, he couldn’t find one he liked.
So, he did what anyone would do – made his own.
“During my last year [of uni], I decided to write my own app to solve my problems,” Chan said. “I was almost full-time on the app during my last semester, what I did was I skipped all the lectures and only did assignments and exams. I got the worst grade, but I finished the app.”
Steven worked on what’s now known as GoodNotes.
GoodNotes 5 is a free-form digital paper, or app, that allows you to handwrite, draw, take notes, doodle free-form notes.
He worked on it alone for the first five years – coding, customer support, etc all fell on him.
It also wasn’t a sustainable sole-employment option, until, that is, the Apple Pencil came about. Touching the iPad with your fingertip to write and draw is, in my opinion, an absolute punish, especially with long nails.
“The moment for us really came when the Apple Pencil was launched in 2015, because it made handwriting on an iPad a viable alternative to pen and paper,” he said, adding: “It was really the moment I had been waiting for, for many, many years.
“It was a real turning point for us because it turned GoodNotes into … a mainstream product.”
He then started hiring because he had so many ideas he couldn’t execute on.
I got the opportunity to speak with Chan after Apple crowned GoodNotes one of 16 apps that “inspired users to engage more deeply with the world, expand their imaginations, and stay connected to friends and loved ones”. The App Store Awards are handed out annually and GoodNotes 5 walks away with the title of iPad App of the Year for 2022.
As a GoodNotes user, I’m not surprised. I’m also not surprised that users of the app have made 1.6 billion notebooks this year alone. The app also has 19 million monthly users.
“Our mission is to make work and study more efficient and enjoyable for our users,” he said.
Chan shared with me a few new features coming in the future to GoodNotes – but I also took the opportunity to ask for something I’d love to have (transcription from audio recordings). He laughed and said they’re trying many machine learning models at the moment, so I guess I have to wait until the team fine-tunes that.
I like to ask founders of startups if what they’re doing is where they saw themselves even a few years ago. For Chan, I believe it was.
“I wasn’t sure what to do after I graduated because I was in kind of a panic – I was studying math but my actual interest was programming,” he said.
It seems like he’s where he should be.