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The founders of The Paperless Post changed the way we celebrate| GuyWhoKnowsThings

One afternoon this spring, James Hirschfeld, founder of Paperless Post, was in the company's Lower Manhattan office inspecting mood boards for digital invitation designs. They included materials for future motifs such as New Victorian, a collection inspired by 19th-century decor, and a line by Annie Atkins, a graphic designer known for her collaborations with director Wes Anderson.

As Mr. Hirschfeld examined the collage boards, he recalled a meeting about designing new invitations for children. “Someone said, 'The dinosaurs are out, the owls are in,'” he said. “And I thought: Is this my life?”

For the last 15 years, that's how it has been.

Mr. Hirschfeld, 38, with his older sister, Alexa Hirschfeld, 40, started Paperless Post in 2009, when they were 23 and 25 years old. He was a senior at Harvard and she was working at CBS as host Katie Couric's second assistant. .

Since then, the company has sent out some 650 million invitations, according to its own metrics, has grown to employ a full-time staff of 110, and, as of last year, has been immortalized in a “Saturday night live”sketch. Paperless Post has also gained a following in the traditional stationery businesses it sought to disrupt, collaborating with brands like Crane and Cheree Berry on digital products.

His approach of combining the flourishing of physical invitations with the ease of digital correspondence has been adopted by several younger companies, including Electragram, a digital stationery company developed by the publisher. Graydon Carter and his wife, Anna Carter; HiNote, a similar business started by Alexis Traina, wife of a former U.S. ambassador to Austria; and Partiful, a platform with a faster and more flexible sensitivity that has resonated with members of Generation Z.

But when Paperless Post debuted, in certain corners of society its arrival was seen less as the dawn of a new era and more as a step toward the end of civilization as some knew it.

Pamela Fiori, a author who in 2009 was editor of Town & Country magazine, told the New York Times Back then, digital stationery brand Paperless Post was representative of “an increasingly uncivilized world.” Fiori, now 80, said in an interview in April that while he still preferred to use physical office supplies, he couldn't deny the impact the company has had in the years since its inception.

“If you say Paperless Post now, people will immediately know what you're talking about,” he said. “They do it right”.

Marcy Bluma Manhattan wedding and event planner who has worked with clients including basketball player LeBron James and interior designer Nate Berkus, was also among those who initially quickly dismissed Paperless Post.

“We thought, 'This is convenient, but it's not going to change much,'” Ms. Blum said. “We were absolutely wrong.” She added that her company had benefited from the service over the years because it allowed her to plan more events at short notice.

“It's like Kleenex now, right?” Ms. Blum said, referring to how the name Paperless Post has become a catch-all term for digital correspondence in the same way that Kleenex became a catch-all term for paper tissues.

The Hirschfeld brothers began developing what would become Paperless Post in 2007. By then, Hirschfeld had begun his sophomore year at Harvard after transferring from Brown and was planning his 21st birthday party.

“Paper invitations were expensive and inefficient,” he said, adding that digital alternatives at the time, such as Facebook or the Evite website, were “simply unacceptable from a design perspective.”

Ms. Hirschfeld, who had graduated from Harvard, lived with her parents in the family home on Manhattan's Upper East Side while she began her career in television. She had already begun to question that path, she said, when Hirschfeld called her with the idea of ​​starting an online business.

None had studied technology; Ms. Hirschfeld had majored in classical and modern Greek studies, and Mr. Hirschfeld was an English major. But they were motivated in part by what Hirschfeld described as a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit at Harvard in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg, a classmate of Hirschfeld's, starting Facebook with his college roommates.

“That's what made me want to start a company with Alexa,” Hirschfeld said. “I felt like it was possible because there were people around me who showed it to me.”

The brothers and their younger brother, Nico Hirschfeld, who is not involved with Paperless Post, also grew up in a business family. His maternal great-grandfather, Raphael Caviris, after coming to America from Greece, opened several restaurants with his brother, including Hamburger heaven chain, now closed, in New York.

When they were teenagers, Mr. Hirschfeld was a waiter at Burger Heaven and Ms. Hirschfeld was a hostess. “We were used to being in and around small businesses,” she said.

The two brothers used personal savings to develop a prototype of their online business, which has always involved some combination of free offers to attract users and paid premium services such as personalization. (Today, sending digital invitations with personalized touches, like special artwork and lined envelopes, to 20 people can cost about $70.)

When the brothers began pitching the concept to investors in 2008, some balked at the idea that people would pay for digital invitations, no matter how pretty they looked, Hirschfeld said. But they persuaded Ram Shriram, an early investor in Google; Mousse Partners, an investment firm of the Wertheimer family, which owns Chanel; and others to contribute almost a million dollars to his fledgling company.

“They took a chance on us,” Hirschfeld said. Mousse Partners even prepared their first workspace for the Hirschfelds: a clear row of cubicles in the New York office of Eres, the French lingerie and swimwear brand, which is chanel property.

When the Hirschfelds started the business, it was called Paperless Press. But there was already a web address with that name and its owner did not want to sell it to the brothers, so after a few months they changed to a new name: Paperless Post.

Meg Hirschfeld, the Hirschfelds' mother, attributed her children's success in part to “guts and boldness,” qualities they inherited from their ancestors, she said. Ms. Hirschfeld, who left her career as a lawyer to raise her three children, is now the managing director of Paperless Post. Her husband, John Hirschfeld, is a real estate investor.

He said Mr. and Mrs. Hirschfeld were close siblings growing up, but they had different sensibilities: He was creative and artistic, and she was outgoing and a computer genius. Ms. Hirschfeld recalled touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her son when she was in preschool and that her daughter became “absolutely hooked” on an Apple computer when she was 7 years old.

The brothers' yin-yang brains are reflected in their duties at Paperless Post. Ms. Hirschfeld oversees the operations and technological aspects of the company. Hirschfeld is in charge of business development, marketing and design, a role in which she has included collaborators such as fashion brand Oscar de la Renta and retailer John Derian.

The Hirschfelds, who each have a seat on Paperless Post's seven-member board of directors, are no less involved in running their business now than they were 15 years ago. But both described themselves as less frenetic. Ms. Hirschfeld, who lives in the East Village, is the mother of two young children. Hirschfeld, who lives on the Upper East Side, also spends time on Long Island restoring an 1895 house she recently purchased.

In recent years, his company has had to deal not only with new competitors but also with the tumultuous economic climate caused by the pandemic. Hirschfeld described that period as “watery” and explained that sales were down 50 to 80 percent in several months of 2020 compared to the same months in 2019. “Except in Florida and Texas,” he added, noting that the La The company changed its marketing during that period to focus on places with less restrictive lockdown policies.

Changes in the way people communicate (more texting, less email) have also posed challenges to Paperless Post's business model.

“In 2009, it was just paper and email,” Hirschfeld said. “Now it's DM, WhatsApp.” As a result, the company has introduced products like Flyer, an informal form of invitation that supports text messages and is typically less expensive than traditional Paperless Post offerings.

Chloe Malle, 38, editor of Vogue.com, was another skeptic of Paperless Post when it debuted. “I loved the printed invitations,” said Malle, who was a classmate of Hirschfeld when he briefly attended Brown.

She then started using the platform and, more recently, started receiving wedding invitations via email through Paperless Post. “That just wouldn't have happened before,” she said. Now Malle also receives digital invitations through competitors like Partiful. But she believes Paperless Post, like printed stationery, will always have a following.

“There is room for both,” he said.

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