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But when Alexa Hirschfeld and her brother James started Paperless Post in 2009, she never imagined that it would be used by everyone from celebrities to university departments. Or that it would grow into actual paper invitations and stationery (originally given the cheeky name "Paper by Paperless Post").
"A lot more people use it than we honestly ever thought," Hirschfeld says, "We did not make a business plan that said that we thought it would get this big." Paperless Post began because the siblings wanted a modern, efficient, and beautiful way to express the vibe of a party to their guests, and they thought other people who grew up with the internet would want that too.
The founder and self-described "product person" talked to Racked about how the company partnered with big-name designers like Rifle Paper Co., Kate Spade, and Vera Wang, why you shouldn't get discouraged by negative feedback, and what’s next for Paperless Post.
How did Paperless Post get its start? You and your brother had this idea?
Yeah, so James and I were speaking and he had this idea, actually. I remember it was a very specific vision that he had. It was very visual and it took me years after to unfold it and realize how smart of an idea it really was.
He called me, he had been planning his 21st birthday at university, and when it came to the invitation, there was no way to express how much effort he put into it online. But he was going to send an invitation online because that's how we communicate. It was only three weeks ahead, which is like an eternity in 21-year-old years, but still too little lead time for a proper printed invitation and he wasn't going to be able to spend like $500 or $600 on the invitation.
He was like, 'What if we built something where it had the looks of paper but the efficiency of the Internet?' He was describing exactly what it would look like and actually it was crazily similar to what we ended up doing, with all the steps that I didn't even know we would take.
How did you split up the workload?
It's not what you think, it's basically the opposite gender roles, he's the one who envisions and designs the product. The graphics, it's his thing. Because of its initial vision, he leads the direction of the company, and I was always about the user experience of letting the user create that product. The ability to easily customize the graphic design card without refreshing the page and typing a custom font and doing it instantly and automatically and making it almost feel fun, like a game.
It's funny, when you're young, like we were, it's almost good not to know how hard what you're going to do is.
It was quite a difficult thing to build technically. It's funny, when you're young, like we were, it's almost good not to know how hard what you're going to do is. Because you might not do it with the same gusto or fearlessness if you did.
It was a really big lesson in how doing anything really well, even something that sounds as small as online invitations, can take so much effort and work. [But] it can open up so much in life too. When you zoom in and choose to do something really well, it can just take up so much effort and thought, but it's worth it.
What do you think is the coolest innovation you've designed around the user experience with cards?
To be honest, I could say lots of things, but I think the most inarguable thing that we've done that's valuable is create technology for design that allows non-designers to appropriate the creativity of really talented designers. You can use something that a designer made but then you can customize it to be yours. You can make changes that make it look like you, but it's as if you had an art director sitting next to you.
Is that what differentiates the site from other online invite companies?
No one's focused as much as we have on the intersection between graphic design and technology. We have an in-house design team, in-house development team, everyone's in-house. We're doing really hard work to enable mass customization and design by lots of people on lots of different devices.
You can make changes that make it look like you, but it's you if you had an art director sitting next to you.
We also have an in-house graphic design team, and we've been able to partner with people like Oscar de la Renta or Vera Wang. It’s not just technology, it's also graphic design and the two teams work together to empower people to customize design.
How did you court these big-name designers?
I think Kate Spade was the first big one. The way that we courted them, it's so funny, it's just that we worked at the things we knew we needed to work at for users, which was you know everything from having great design to choose from to making it easy to customize the text and the font and the line spacing and the coloring.
Through doing that, when users used us, some of those users would send to people that were in the industry. Those people would use us personally. A lot of investors as well as partners came through being users, whether they were senders or receivers.
Is there any holiday you feel like you haven't quite mastered in terms of creating the card for it?
Well, we're doing an international push starting in the spring. We're starting with English-speaking countries like the UK, Canada, and Australia. Hopefully, a lot of the designs that we have can work for them. But once we start to get into other countries, with slightly different aesthetics, then I think it's going to be really important to lean on this partner model.
Why did you use the coin system on the site? How do you turn a profit?
The reason why we started with any kind of virtual currency is it just made sense to our users. If they were going to pay, to pay based on how fancy it was and how many people they were going to send it to. And it's less than the tenth of the price of what paper would be and the reason we charge at all is because people, in our opinion, [wouldn’t] — or we wouldn't and we think our users wouldn't — want ads on their invitations.
Their email addresses are always going to be super private, locked down. We’re never going to have another boss other than the user, and in order to have that relationship with the user, we needed to be paid by that user. What ended up happening is we have this nice freemium model in that you don't have to pay but a lot of people like choose to because the thing they're paying for is more design, more customization. For things that they want to pay for.
We turn a profit by acquiring users for free through the receiver experience. More than 50% of the people that send started out as receivers and at some point they had the need to send. By virtue of someone using [our product], they're bringing in other people who can use it.
What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
You have to know who to listen to, when to listen, and when to care. You have to have an open mind about feedback about your idea, but you shouldn't take everything that everybody says as the truth either.
For us, there was this guy that we were trying to pitch to raise money and he was in a bad mood the day we were talking to him. He got flustered and was like, you know, "I gotta pass on this deal. No offense, but no one's going to pay for a pretty jpg." I said, first of all, it's a PNG, not a jpg. Second of all, whatever.
We didn't let that us get us down because he wasn't the intended user anyway. You can imagine if you thought that everyone knew what they were talking about, you might lose your gut. But you should never lose your gut. Not everyone's going to get it. You want to think about why they're not right or make sure they're not right.
Do you like to throw parties personally?
I do, I love to throw parties and I love to go to parties. I'm not a stationery designer, James is a good designer, I'm more of a UX designer, but what we do have in common is that we love parties.
Do you have any yearly ones that you host?
I have a small birthday party every year that's 30 or so people. We had a winter Olympics-themed party that wasn't yearly, but it was a big, dress-up themed party in a warehouse in Brooklyn, it was super fun. It's more ad hoc, I guess. I live in Manhattan and have people over a lot. Often times it's for no reason, but I have sent an invitation based on what the theme is.
What's next for Paperless Post? Besides expanding to other countries?
We're working on a product that you could easily create from your phone or from your desktop. It's going to be a little more casual than the classic product, for people who have parties but they don't have fancy parties. It will have the self expression of Paperless Post. The product's going to be more digitally focused, it's not going to look like paper. It's hard to explain but it's going to be really cool.