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.
Getting into the greeting card business is relatively easy, Ventresca attests. All you need are graphic design skills and a computer. Entrepreneurs often start with less than $5,000--sometimes much less, if they already own a computer and printer. Many designers gain experience by freelancing for the major card companies. You can create samples on your computer and take them directly to stores, pitch them to potential sales representatives or display them at trade shows such as the National Stationery Show held every May in New York City.
Maureen Waters, former editor of industry trade publication Greetings Today, suggests sidestepping card-store chains, which rarely take chances on newcomers. Instead, look for creative outlets for your work: small gift shops, flower shops and airport shops. "If you find a place that isn't selling cards, ask the owner if you can set up a spinner rack in a corner to sell your cards--which, most often, are an impulse buy," Waters says.
The tricky part is staying in business. "Retailers want a guarantee of success," says Waters. "They're reluctant to take chances on new lines." Because creating cards is so easy and getting into the industry so inexpensive, unseasoned entrepreneurs often jump into business impulsively, without a business plan or a definite sense of direction--common mistakes that can prove fatal.
Ventresca's business took off with ease in 1993, but a couple of years later it slowed dramatically. "I met with friends to examine my cards, and we noticed they had no sense of direction, nothing to hold them together as a line," she says. So Ventresca decided to create a set of recurring characters--a few young women, a man and a dog--who pop up repeatedly doing aerobics, going shopping, working on a computer or eating chocolate. "The competition is more brutal than I thought it would be," she acknowledges, adding that she's taken some courses to hone her business skills.
The Art Of Business
Ventresca is one of the lucky ones. Her cards are now sold by 20 sales reps to retail stores around the United States and Canada. Even so, she's not getting rich. After five years in business, Carla Cards grosses only $50,000, and the owner still accepts occasional waitressing gigs to make ends meet.
Ventresca's experience is fairly typical of entrepreneurs
selling cards through traditional channels; Rossetti brought in
$15,000 in 1998, her first year. Entrepreneurs earning more tend to
be in specialized markets. For example, Zedlar, who made high
profits in 1998, targets corporate clients for his business-
to-business cards. Shapiro, who started Activegrams a year ago, can attribute his revenues to the advertising space sold on the company's Web site; individual customers aren't charged for sending cards.
Whether it's a labor of love or a cash cow, a successful card line can ultimately evolve into other profitable arenas. Rossetti, for one, has already expanded her business through the creation of magnets and covers for blank books.
But greeting card entrepreneurs say the rewards are more than financial. "I came to terms long ago with the fact that there will be about 12 well-known artists per generation," Rossetti says. "Another aspect of art is to make beautiful things that enrich people's lives, and that's what I'm doing."
Play Your Cards Right
The Greeting Card Association (GCA) sells a variety of books, CD-ROMs and audiotapes to help entrepreneurs succeed in the industry. Here are a few:
- Greeting Card Industry Directory: A complete guide that features the names and addresses of more than 1,800 publishers and suppliers. GCA members are cross-referenced by geographic location, product types and licensed characters. Each listing also includes information on personnel, production and distribution. Regular and international publisher members are listed, as are associate members in allied industries that provide services and products to the greeting card industry. (296 pages, first copy free to members, $95 for nonmembers.)
- Directory of Greeting Card Sales Representatives: A detailed listing of nearly 175 U.S. companies and individual sales reps that represent greeting card publishers. Each listing includes full mailing address, contact information, showroom locations, trade show participation, areas covered, types of retail outlets served and kinds of cards handled. This alphabetical listing is also cross-referenced geographically and by card product. (262 pages, $50 for members, $95 for nonmembers.) Combine this with the previous volume, and you've got everything you need to know about the industry.
- Forecasting the `New Reality' for the 21st Century: Don Reynolds, business consultant, forecaster and speaker, describes the "New Reality" in a fast-paced overview of major trends impacting our world in the next 10 to 15 years. (Audiotape, $20 for members, $30 for nonmembers.)
- Facts, Figures, Findings: Staying in Touch With Industry Changes: Ray Kenny, former vice president of planning and research for American Greetings, delivers timely information on today's greeting card industry. (Audiotape, $20 for members, $35 for nonmembers.)
To order any of these products, or for information about membership in the GCA (which starts at $325 per year), call (202) 393-1778 or visit http://www.greetingcard.org. Please note: Product availability and pricing may have changed since this article was published. Please contact the GCA for the most current information.
Carla Cards, (617) 242-4478, firstname.lastname@example.org
Conceptual Thinking Inc., (800) 501-0116, http://www.conceptualthinking.com
Greeting Card Association, (202) 393-1778
Greetings Today, (913) 362-7889
Rossetti Cards, (503) 235-1179, email@example.com
Spice Rax, (323) 464-6800, http://www.spicerax.com