biz ladies

Biz Ladies Profile: Paperless Post

by Sabrina Smelko

Biz Ladies: Paperless Post

Paperless Post brings together the charm of a traditional stationery card with the innovation of technology and customization. Since their launch in 2009, founders (and siblings) James and Alexa Hirschfeld have collaborated with dozens of talented fashion and lifestyle designers such as Kate Spade New York, J.Crew, Marimekko and the late Oscar de la Renta to produce online and paper stationery for any occasion with personalization and communication at the helm.

As a customer and recipient of their cards, they’ve made me chuckle and smile with their both timeless and on-trend design. Today James and Alexa are sharing a bit about the importance of confidence and insight to know what people want, success and sacrifice, and their personal journeys as individuals, siblings and co-founders. – Sabrina

Read the full interview after the jump!

Why did you decide to start your own business?

James: One: I always wanted to work with my sister because she was the smartest and most capable person I knew. And two: I didn’t want to work in investment banking, which was what all of my friends were doing.
Alexa: It’s really, really, really hard to be creative and make money doing it. One of the ways around that is setting up an infrastructure around yourself that allows it.

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

Alexa: From the beginning, the idea for Paperless Post was always about creating a product that users would want. It wasn’t a “market-driven” approach or a “revenue-driven” approach or a “technology advancement-driven” approach—it was about what people wanted.
James: I had very specific vision of a beautiful, engraved invitation with gold lettering and a rich paper texture on a computer screen. I believed that we could use technology to bring the beauty of stationery to a more accessible medium with this product.

Biz Ladies Profile: Paperless Post
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Alexa: Some of the best advice I got was from a book by a professor named Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational. He overturned the popular belief at the time that consumers (as opposed to businesses) behaved “irrationally” online and that you should not rely on selling to them to support your fledgling company. In fact, he said, consumers have their own rationale, it’s just different from the economic rules that we’re used to. Provided that you as an entrepreneur are interested in understanding how consumers perceive value online, you’ll be just fine.
James: We got a lot of negative feedback from people who were experts in our field—one potential investor went so far as to say that anything online could never be beautiful. Discouraging though it was, it was this type of “advice” that gave me confidence that our idea was different and innovative.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Alexa: I sacrificed two full years without my social life, including my friends. It may have been extreme, and yet it was what was called for. I was really inspired by our vision and, to be honest, I didn’t mind. I was happy.
James: Keeping your confidence through the everyday challenges that threaten the existence of your fledgling start-up can be really hard. Between hiring, keeping an eye on competitors, and courting investors, there is basically danger on all sides. You have to wake up every day and insist on success.

Biz Ladies Profile: Paperless Post

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

James: Choose your partners well. When you’re starting a business, your management team is your basis of support in a difficult time—you spend all your time with them, sharing responsibility and giving them ultimate access. Good ones grow with you. Choosing people who are great can make it a lot easier.
Alexa: More than anything else, what makes people do good work is having ownership over it. People do actually like working when they feel like it’s their own. The time when people don’t like to do work is when they feel like they are serving someone else.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

James: When we first launched, we thought we were going to be a platform for online ticket sales for small nonprofits. We spent months building a robust ticket sales platform, just to realize after a couple weeks that most avid users were consumers using our designs for personal events like bridal showers and holiday parties. We closed the platform down and quickly pivoted our focus to consumer’s celebrations. At the time we chalked it up to a misstep, but in hindsight I wouldn’t think of it as a failure.
Alexa: I had to learn not to doubt my instincts or to compromise on something I believed in just to maintain harmony. There were moments when I failed to communicate my ideas and was pushed to near-tears in my frustration. The key is to encourage healthy debate and to have enough confidence not to worry if people don’t understand you the first time around. Sometimes the problem isn’t your idea, it’s how you are communicating it, and it’d be a shame to drop any good idea that couldn’t be expressed perfectly the first time around.

Biz Ladies Profile: Paperless Post
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

James: When you’re growing a business from scratch, you have to go incredibly deep and incredibly narrow with a single team, a single product, a single market. You lose your mobility and ability to explore. Friends who work in other industries move from project to project, travel around the world, and can pick up and leave at the drop of the hat. They approach their careers with a freedom that, ironically, I have never known. Obviously I feel very lucky to have a career worth such a high level of commitment, but it’s funny to think about the fact that I’ve only ever had one job.
Alexa: I basically decided that this company was going to be my main source of inspiration for a third of my life. That’s not the choice everyone makes. Some people partied; I worked.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

Alexa: Hiring, connecting with, and synthesizing the ideas of some really talented people.
James: Attracting brands and designers that I’ve admired from afar for so long, like Oscar de la Renta, Kate Spade New York, Bernard Maisner, Mr. Boddington’s Studio. Working with these brands and getting inside the heads of these category-defining designers has been a real honor.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

James: That’s definitely a question for my sister.
Alexa: Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside by Seth Godin; Pricing on Purpose by Ron Baker; Buyology by Martin Lindstrom; Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
James: Product vision, market size, and co-founder.
Alexa: Does the world want it? Are you the best person to build it? Do you really want to do it—not do you want the end product, but are you will to go through the process?

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  • I’m a big fan/user of Paperless Post, so it was a nice surprise to read about the founders today. Especially after getting some negative feedback on my own business idea just yesterday, it’s great to read about persevering through it and understanding that maybe it’s a communication issue or maybe it is just too creative for people to get — but either way, sticking to it. I also appreciated their point about pivoting from the service initially envisioned; a nice example of planning, but being able to switch when necessary. Great post.

  • I always look forward to the BizLadies Profiles but this was a real treat as I have used Paperless Post for years. Thanks for sharing your story. It is nice to know that it is not just me who is working ALL the time– that success does not come without handwork.

  • I have been a huge fan and customer of Paperless Post from the very beginning. We splurged to send customers thank-you emails on their custom online stationery and I think it was well worth it. So it was a great treat to read this interview with Alexa and James, thank you!