Ever since childhood, greeting cards have occupied a special place in Nicole Elizabeth’s world, and in 2011, her innovative vision of how handwritten cards could connect people in new ways manifested into her successful online business, Sent-Well.
Unlike most other greeting card companies that simply sell pre-made cards for customers to fill out and post, Sent-Well’s unique full-service business model incorporates individually tailored handwritten messages, addressing, and mailing into each card purchase.
A graduate of the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC and a New York City fashion design professional, Nicole’s appreciation for greeting cards as both a sender and recipient is layered with a maker’s perspective. Nicole is also a passionate animal advocate who has used her artistic gifts to assist animal rescue groups with creative design projects and curate an extensive selection of animal-themed cards in Sent-Well’s online shop; she and her husband have also adopted and fostered a variety of special-needs dogs and cats.
Nicole took some time out of her hectic week to chat by phone with Temporal Treasures about topics ranging from speedy scale-ups to fake-alibi cards.
TT: What role have greeting cards played in your personal life and why have they been important to you?
NE: Greeting cards tell the story of my life…I’ve saved cards from special people in a box ever since I was young. About 23 years ago, my mom passed away, and whenever I see a card she wrote to me, it captures a memory and brings me back to that particular time period. My grandma also passed when I was 12 years old, so her cards are all I have left of her. And as an artist, cards — especially vintage cards — are a very tactile and visual storytelling medium for me with their rich variety of textures, colors, and lettering.
TT: What inspired you to launch Sent-Well, and how did you come up with its distinctive business model?
NE: It all comes down to the old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Even once I was working full-time as an adult, I still strongly believed in staying connected with people through sending cards, and I tried to continue that as much as I could. But as my life became fuller, I had less time to dedicate to card-writing and sending. I was also storing everyone’s birthdays in my phone, so usually by the time I saw them, it was only a day or two before the actual dates, which didn’t give me enough lead time to find and mail a card.
I figured there must be some kind of service out there that could help streamline this process for me, but no! There was nothing like that at the time. To top it off, it seemed like with the rise of tech-based communications, sending handwritten paper cards was a dying art. Many kids had also stopped learning script in school and literally couldn’t even sign their own names. And most widely available cards were kind of generic-looking, made overseas, didn’t reflect the work of local artists, and couldn’t be written and mailed for me…there also seemed to be no easily accessible system in place to remind people about birthdays far enough in advance to actually do something about them. So there was clearly a void that needed filling, and it looked like I was going to have to be the one to do it! Life is demanding. Sending cards should be simple. That’s always been my motto, which was the foundation on which I built Sent-Well.
Another inspiration for me in starting the company was people in the military, who spend so much time far away from their families and rarely have anyone writing to them. While they may have access to computers, they often can’t physically get to a store that sells cards they can send their loved ones. We feature members of the military on our Facebook page and our blog, and we offer a nice military discount on our website to members of the military.
TT: In what ways has Sent-Well grown over the years, and what were some of the key strategies that have helped it to grow?
NE: Sent-Well has grown from what was basically a personal hobby nearly a decade ago to a business earning over six figures. We now have 21 card writers all over the U.S. and more than 1,000 different card designs to choose from on our website. It was tough in the beginning getting the word out – I tried using a publicist, advertising on a podcast, sending out samples to magazines, etc. – but none of that really panned out, and the response I got from editors was sometimes very dismissive. I knew my customers were out there, but couldn’t figure out how to reach them. The game-changer was when I paid a company to do SEO (search engine optimization) on my website, adding the right keywords to help people find me on the internet. Orders increased soon afterwards, and since then (until this year), my business has doubled every year with zero advertising and zero marketing.
Along with the larger number of individuals who found Sent-Well after the SEO enhancements, another big turning point was attracting corporate clients who were looking for services designed to meet their needs. Companies recognize that handwritten cards serve as a great connector – they mean a lot to people and add value to their business – but I hadn’t expected them to approach me, so I wasn’t initially outfitted for that. Requests started coming in along the lines of, “Can you send out 200 cards in a week?” My approach to something like this is that you always say, “Yes, I can do that!” and then figure out how. [Laughs.] When a new opportunity presents itself, that tells you there’s room to grow and dig in a little deeper.
In order to scale up enough to meet the new demand, I had to think about taking on some freelance help on larger projects. One expense we’re fortunate not to have as a company is overhead for a physical office; everyone has always worked from home. Apart from personnel costs, our biggest expense is shipping.
TT: How has the pandemic affected your business? Are people sending more cards in quarantine?
NE: The impact of the pandemic from a business perspective has been mixed. On one hand, with so many companies under financial strain, we’ve had fewer corporate orders, which has hurt our business somewhat. On the other hand, we’ve had more individual customers – especially during the initial lockdown period when people simply couldn’t get to physical stores that sold cards – who found us online and placed orders that way. From that perspective, we’ve seen an increase in orders, but for a very sad reason.
Even with our corporate business down, I wanted to keep my card writers employed and support essential workers and the most vulnerable during the pandemic, so we sent 1,000 cards to EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and people in nursing homes and veterans’ homes.
About three months ago, we received a letter from a veteran saying that he had been in a really dark place in his life at the time that our card arrived, and that he was deeply touched by it even though it came to him randomly.
One of our card writers worked at a children’s day care center and invited some of the kids there to draw in cards going to EMTs, and soon afterwards, one of the EMTs posted a photo on Facebook holding up one of those cards.
It felt so rewarding and reminded me why Sent-Well exists in the first place.
TT: Is there a specific experience that stands out in the course of running Sent-Well that you found particularly surprising?
NE: I’ve gotten some very strange requests over the years. Women purchase about 80% of all greeting cards, but interestingly, about 75% of my clients are men. This one guy approached me who had gotten into a huge quarrel with his girlfriend and was looking for a “hate” card for Valentine’s Day. He had submitted this long spiteful message for the card that was full of inappropriate language, complaining about how hurt he was, but towards the very end, he said that he was willing to give her another chance if she promised to change her behavior.
Well, first of all, we have a company policy of not selling or enabling any messaging that’s mean-spirited, so that was right off the table. But I could see that deep down, he really wanted this to work out, so instead of just turning him away, I asked him, “Why don’t we think of another way to convey your feelings?” I worked with him to reframe the message, and in the end, he sent her an “I love you” card with language striving for reconciliation, expressing that he felt hurt but also wanted to repair their relationship. He later emailed me back to tell me what a wise choice that was and that they had since gotten back together.
I also once got a request from a guy to have us handwrite a note from a person who wasn’t him, referring to being together on a specific day and date, to be sent to his own address. We figured out pretty quickly that he was trying to use this hypothetical card as an alibi against an accusation, so we refused to do it.
TT: Why do you think that most of your clients are men?
NE: It’s hard to speculate and I wouldn’t want to generalize, but I know that in at least a few cases, it’s because some of them have really horrible handwriting and are the first to admit it. When they ask me to copy their handwriting from a sample they upload, I make it more readable while also capturing the feel of the original by just using my left hand to write the messages, which tends to work pretty well! [Laughs.] There are other cases where guys want to be more thoughtful toward their loved ones than they’ve been in the past, but they have a hard time managing that on their own and are self-aware enough to realize that, so the birthday reminders and other services we offer are really helpful to them.
TT: What is the most challenging part of running this business?
NE: As a provider of what I would consider a luxury service, the biggest challenge for me has been finding that sweet spot between what people are willing to pay for it, what I want to charge for it, and maintaining the integrity of my brand. One factor that is both a tremendous asset and a significant limitation for this business is that everything is done manually, by a human being, by hand. There is no automation – no high-volume printers, no database that can just plug into an enterprise system, no machines that can spit things out on demand – which would defeat the purpose of being thoughtful and would add quite a bit to our operating costs. For us, it’s all about the person behind the card. But the downside is that it hinders our growth and our ability to offer deep bulk-pricing discounts to places like car dealerships and real estate offices who ask for them. Ordering a large number of cards doesn’t make individual cards any less expensive to produce – each card is being handled by local/U.S.-based writers who have to put in the same amount of work for each card.
Another thing that’s hard is that ironically, helping so many people to stay connected with each other — on top of having a full-time job — makes it much more difficult for me to stay connected with the people in my own life, which was what I’d been aiming to do from the beginning.
TT: What is one of the most memorable cards you’ve ever received?
NE: I would say that everything from my mom falls into that category, especially because of her untimely passing. I also made a friend through the business who is paraplegic and loves sending cards and gifts. Our service makes doing that much easier for her, and she’s sent me penpal-style letters in cards expressing her appreciation and conveying tidbits from her life, so those are really special for me.
TT: So much great stuff to impart here! That was a foregone conclusion even before the interview, but now it’s even more exciting to publish. Thanks a million for sharing your perspective with us today, Nicole.