Pushing The Envelope

Entrepreneurs get their messages across with specialty greeting cards.

Carla Ventresca was a young copywriter whose budget was so pinched, she made her own greeting cards to save money. Her lighthearted approach and whimsical, twenty-something characters were so popular, friends began asking Ventresca to make cards for them to give.

In 1993, she took samples of her work to a local card shop, and the owner agreed to put them on her shelves. Carla Cards was born. "I do fun cards with a positive spin," Ventresca explains. "My cards are humorous, but people won't crack a rib laughing." Now living in Boston, the 32-year-old entrepreneur is one of a growing number of designers who've turned creativity into cash by tapping into the market for specialty greeting cards.

After years of settling for traditional mass-market cards with impersonal, crass or overly sentimental greetings, consumers are demanding--and getting--an array of cards that cater to virtually every group and taste imaginable, from ethnic groups and divorced people to businesspeople and pets. Yes, pets: Animal lovers can now receive cards that look like they were sent by Fluffy or Fido.

While big boys like American Greetings and Hallmark dominate the market--and have launched niche lines of their own--most of the nation's more than 1,800 greeting card companies are sole proprietorships, like Ventresca's, or small firms. While it can be difficult for smaller ventures to compete with the giants, there's little chance card-crazy Americans will ever lose their appetite for sending and receiving friendly messages. In 1998, Americans purchased 7 billion greeting cards, most of which were sent around the major holidays, according to the Greeting Card Association.

Niche cards, though, aren't confined to the traditional. Ventresca's line includes "missing you" greetings, celebrations of motherhood, and a humorous card for the seriously stressed-out. Cards designed by 34-year-old Miga Rossetti, owner of Rossetti Cards in Portland, Oregon, celebrate the solstice. Greg Zedlar, 32-year-old owner of Conceptual Thinking Inc. in Burbank, California, hopes his business-to-business cards smooth the way for deal-making between businesspeople. And the in-your-face cards from Los Angeles-based Spice Rax--run by Penna Omega Dekelaita, 29, and L.T. Blassingame, 31--will help give a former flame the boot or let everyone know the sender is out of the closet.

"We looked at the greeting cards that were out there and were bored," Omega says. "There was a lot that wasn't represented. I wanted a line my friends and I would buy."

Technophiles don't have to bother sending something so archaic as paper greetings. New York-based Activegrams, founded by Aaron Shapiro, 26, lets computer users zip out greetings and animations via e-mail. Activegrams cover topics like romance, humor, insults and business-related sentiments. "We didn't do any market studies before launching," Shapiro says. "We just knew there was nothing like this online."

Pamela Rohland, a writer from Bernville, Pennsylvania, wishes someone would design a greeting card to ease those days when your computer keeps crashing, the fax goes on the fritz, and the printer plays games with your head.

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Pushing The Envelope.

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