I met James Hirschfeld, Co-founder and CEO of Paperless Post , last summer at a Cycladic Museum Young Patrons party, in Mykonos. Obviously, like so many of us, I’ve been a fan and a user of Paperless Post, a company of immense success that over the past eight years, has re-established the standards of modern correspondence, combining beautiful design and seamless technology. I mean… there is slim to no chance that anyone of us hasn’t sent or received a Paperless Post invitation for a birthday party, wedding, christening or dinner at some point or another!
What I didn’t know, however, was that James Hirschfeld & his sister Alexa Hirschfeld managed to create this incredible start-up at such a young age (a feat greatly inspiring and kind of intimidating at the same time!) and also, that they were both half-Greek! Our mutual and amazing friend, Aliki Lampropoulos, who knows my passion for writing all kinds of Greek success stories, suggested I should interview James while in New York and put us in touch. A few weeks later, I found myself visiting their new offices, in Lower Manhattan. The entrance of the building alone, with marble corridors and gold-gilded elevators, was so reminiscent of “Old New York”! The offices, located on the 11th floor, were contemporary, luminous and super spacious. And then, there was James, a self-made entrepreneur, who has worked really hard, combining his youth’s restlessness and sheer professionalism. He is incredibly cool and has such a positive special energy about him! I was also impressed by the way he spoke about his sister Alexa, whom he referred to as the smartest and most capable person he knows. He is an extremely eloquent speaker, I loved the way he narrated his Paperless Post story and handled our interview.
Q & A
Tell me about your Greek origins and what connects you with Greece.
My mother is Greek, a Greek-American from Chios, my father is from New York. Naturally, we’ve been to Chios, but we go to Paros every summer. As my mother didn’t want to raise us in New York, she would take us to Paros every summer! So, when we were kids, the day school was over, we would go straight to JFK, get an Olympic Airways flight and go to Paros, where we would stay from like June 1 to August 31 basically – which was really fun!
How did it all start and how fast did it grow?
I was still at Harvard, just before my graduation and wanted to throw an amazing party. I had rented 80 palm trees and made this cool sort of oasis in Boston—it was a lot of effort, but when it came to the invintations part, I realized there was no way of using online communication that reflected how much I cared… That’s when the idea for Paperless Post hit me! I turned to my sister Alexa, a senior Harvard student, as well, with a business proposal and together we started working on it in 2007, it took us two years, in 2009 we launched the Paperless Post.
The wonderful thing about our product is that it is a product that gets sent to people as it is being used; there is a natural viral loop about it. It grows very well in small communities, it started with one event in Harvard and then, all of a sudden and within three weeks, the President in his office was using it himself – it was really cool! From there, it spread to Washinghton DC and further on, but the really big launch piece was an article at The New York Times style section, about a month after we had launched. That really got it distributed and we sort of grew from there. It grew pretty quickly. We launched in April and in December, we were already doing / sending a million invitations. And we have had a steady course throughout the years.
What are the philosophy & goals of Paperless Post?
As my sister and I are not traditionally technology founders and we come from a more humanistic background, what we were interested in was to combine beauty and function. We sort of always have felt that you can either use technology to make people less human or less personal, or you can use it to make people more human and the world more personal. We wished to use this next phase of web browser-based-technology and high-speed internet to help people express themselves more and be more connected in the real world.
Even though the company and technology itself have changed a lot since 2009, our guiding principle remains to use techology to help people spend time in the real world with people they like. We spend so much time looking or connecting to people through instagram or snapchat and all these things, when you feel you are connecting to people but you really aren’t. All these other apps are amazing. They have helped us – facetime makes us feel closer, but they are only just approximating the real thing, which is when you spend time with someone, that’s when you really become closer and it’s rewarding. We believe there is something so important about organizing a dinner or a birthday party and being in the room with people you like, forging these emotional connections.
What was it that actually made Paperless Post decide to use paper?
We started with online invitations that felt formal, so that you could use an online platform for organizing weddings and other types of events, such as bridal showers, baptisms, holiday parties etc. In 2012, we launched a paper product, from which 40% of our revenue comes today. Paperless Post has rapidly become one of the biggest paper / stationery companies in the US.
It is still smaller than our digital one, because if you think about it, it so much more rare that people actually buy paper these days. We did it, though, as we had built this large user base of people, who loved throwing parties, loved the creativity of hosting an event etc. Which is why they turned to us for their digital invitations and then, they would say “I love Paperless Post, but I’m getting married and I want to have printed invitations” or “I want to use Paperless Post for the invitations, but I want to send written – Thank You – notes”, or “I just had a baby and I want to send a Christmas card, but I want to send it in paper.” Inevitably, it was more a way of extending, of being more useful to our users, so that we would continue to be the company they turn to, whenever they are celebrating something important. Despite the obvious oxymoron for a company, called Paperless Post, to be sending invitations in paper… I must say that I like the contradiction!
What about your feautured designers collaborations?
The idea is that our user base has grown to a size, where it would be impossible for us to create designs catering to every type of user. Particularly when you think that we are moving into other markets, like the UK and Australia, we ‘d have to have a gigantic team of designers to create different styles and fit all the tastes of our user base.
We really want to provide the best quality design, as we think this sort of social communication is very important . So, we decided that, rather than trying to do everything in house, we would also outsource. We have our in-house design team, because that allows us to be creative and try things only we want to try – and it is an excellent in-house design team! It is also essential that we work with people who are the best at what they do. We apply this philosophy in every collaboration we’ve had, whether it is a big designer, like Oscar de La Renta, or a small designer, like Kelly Wearstler. And we’ve got some really exciting new collaborations coming up! But I can’t talk about them, yet…
What are the company’s future plans?
This year, we are focusing on some really interesting product extensions around mobile event planning, on the casual end of the market. As there is a dramatic rise in mobile web usage, this has become a huge area of growth. In order to “take advantage” of all the traffic we are getting on mobile, we had to go back to the drawing board and think more creatively, more deeply about what “event people” wish to do from their phones! I don’t think it is about organizing a 150-person conference, nor is it about organizing a wedding or even a birthday party of 50 people… It is much more about small scale events, more casual ones, more loosely organized. Maybe you don’t even have the time or the place set, but you want to create a group conversation and plan it together.
We believe that, when people are making the effort to bring people together, they care about self-presentation, in other words, they care about setting a tone (if not, then you can always use a calendar invite or facebook event). We are convinced, though, that many people do. An invitation is the beginning of the event! I won’t speak too much about it, but there are some really exciting things to follow…!
Had you envisioned that big of a success at first place?
No… I hadn’t really. To me, success is a weird thing, it’s like the story of Tantalus, where he is constantly going after the water and the water goes away! It’s pretty much the same; you keep moving forward and feel that success is always further up. However, I believe one should stop and remember at specific milestones. That there was a time, when we were 3 people and I couldn’t imagine having more… I was the first designer, because we didn’t have anyone else. And then, I remember my business partner Lucy, when we were building our finacial model, saying: ” By 2012, you are going to have 4 designers” and I was thinking “What could I possibly do with 4 designers?” and now, we have a team of 20 designers!
So, it is important to remember. For instance, we moved into this office and it’s 35000 square feet and it’s huge and it has space for 250 people… in the beginning, we were just at my parents townhouse! It’ s important to remember and appreciate success, but you also have to continue setting your ambitions higher and higher.
Talking about the current situation in Greece, do you think things will get better?
I believe in the resilience of the Greek people, in their ability to find reasons for joy. I really hope that things will turn around soon.