If you think that sending a good old-fashioned snail-mail postcard is hopelessly retro, better think again. With his new startup, Sincerely, Matt Brezina (co-founder of the address book management app, Xobni), marries the digital and physical worlds by allowing users to turn their digital photos into personalized postcards. His company, co-founded with former Xobni colleague, Bryan Kennedy, has created apps that have been downloaded more than 5 million times.
Timing is Everything
Brezina had left Xobni in 2010, and starting another company was the last thing on his mind. He was determined to take a break and decided to travel in the U.S. before packing up and moving to Spain with his girlfriend. But a funny thing happened on the way to his new life as a carefree ex-pat. “I was kite boarding in Hawaii and I took a day off and drove the Hana Highway, taking pictures with my iPhone 4,” he recalls. It struck him that the point and shoot camera was quickly becoming obsolete and he wondered what kinds of businesses could be built around that trend. Instagram was just a few months old and gaining traction but not making money.
“I tried to force myself not to think about starting another company, but I’d find myself sitting in Yellowstone looking at buffalo and thinking about the Internet,” he says. That’s when he contacted Kennedy with the idea of creating an app that would turn digital photos into postcards. The two started brainstorming and soon enough, the move to Spain was postponed indefinitely.
First Mover Advantage
By the fall of 2010, the two partners had created a small demo app that allowed parents to send postcards from Santa to their children. The cards sold well enough to give them confidence in their concept. They went on to launch a public app called Postagram which allowed users to send a postcard of any Instagram photo for just 99 cents. “Instagram had only been out for six months,” says Brezina, “and their API had only been out for a couple of weeks.” He says that Postagram was the first app of its kind, which helped the company land $3 million in funding from Spark Capital.
The company now has many competitors. “We’ve even been copied by the Samwer brothers, which is a badge of honor,” Brezina says, referring to the trio of German brothers whose business model involves cloning successful Internet companies such as Zappos, eBay and AirBnB. “But we differentiate ourselves because we’re a trusted brand with great customer service. We’re a five-star app.”
Another differentiator: Sincerely is now powering a pilot Facebook program that enables the social network’s members to send postcards with photos from their own, or a recipients’ account. “To my knowledge, we’re the only people powering Facebook postcards,” Brezina says.
Sincerely also has partnerships with more than 100 other apps such as Pic Collage, Halftone, Cartolina and Lonely Planet, which use Sincerely’s “print and ship” functionality to offer their own users the option of turning any digital photo into a postcard. Sincerely handles the billing and fulfillment and shares revenues with its partners.
According to Brezina, the fulfillment part of the business can get sticky. Sincerely works with five printers in three countries—an industry that Brezina and Kennedy know very little about. “Our biggest challenge is that we’re dealing with something physical,” he says. “Most startups don’t do that.” For instance, the founders came up with an idea to send a 3-by-3 Instagram photo as a perforated pop-out within a 4-by-6 postcard. It was a clever idea but not one that worked well with mail sorting machines, which popped out the photos before they landed in recipients’ mailboxes. The problem was fixed by making the perforation stronger, but Brezina laments that this is not the kind of problem that other Silicon Valley startups must cope with.
Since launching in 2012, Sincerely has added more products, including larger templated, customizable cards sold under the brand Sincerely Ink. While Brezina says that the company’s original goal was to make it as easy as possible to send a simplest, personalized gift—a postcard—his ambitions are much bigger. “We’re building a gifting network,” he says. “And we’ll be launching more non-photo products soon.”
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Donna Fenn is a business journalist and co-founder of Y.E.C. Mentors, an initiative of the Young Entrepreneur Council. She is author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success and Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack.