It all started …
If we were sitting together down by the sea ~ where many Cardthartic cards come to be ~ and you asked me how and why I created our company, I’d start by explaining our name. It’s a play on the word “cathartic,” that freeing feeling that comes from getting strong, often long-held emotions out into the open. (Celebrities who appear on talk shows after writing their memoirs are often asked, “Was that cathartic for you?!”) The name came to me in the spring of 1992 … having grown as much as I thought I was going to doing public relations in Chicago, I’d just sold my half of our PR agency to my business partner. My intention was to find something challenging and new to do living in Italy. Then I learned my father was dying.
Staying put in Chicago, over the coming months I scribbled all my fond memories and wishes for my dad. I’d always loved cards and, into dozens of blank ones, I poured all the things I still had time to say to this much-loved man ~ sometimes laughing, more times crying as I did.
One night, after a major card-writing-while-wailing jag, I sat back ~ completely spent ~ and sighed, “Whew. What a cardthartic experience!” I remember cracking up at the thought of what my plain-spoken Midwest farmer father would make of such a crazy made-up word like “cardthartic,” that came out of nowhere! Then, I must have tucked the word away somewhere deep inside.
When Dad sadly passed away that July, my siblings and I received cards that were absolutely amazing. Well, the cards themselves were pretty stinky, but the personal messages penned by people who clearly shared a love for our father were beautiful, simple and profound. They thoroughly honored emotions. And, written as they were by ordinary people ~ not trained writers, I mean ~ made the sentiments all the more extraordinary.
Reading such true and touching words, the career marketer in me couldn’t help but wonder, “Why don’t card companies publish real-life messages like these?!?” Having sold my PR firm and stayed in the States, I had to ask, “Hmm … why don’t I?!?” With that, all thoughts of moving abroad were put aside, and Cardthartic came to be. Well, the concept anyway.
As if it were yesterday, I remember sitting on a big closet floor back in my Chicago apartment, rereading that stack of condolence cards. I’d planned to tuck them away in the box dedicated to such keepsakes but, there I sat, reading and crying and smiling all over again. Instead of putting cards in the box, I started pulling other things out! (Given that you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a bit of a Cardie, so you know how that goes. 🙂 I found scores of cards and notes that my clever and, at the time, alive-and-kicking Mother had sent me throughout my life. I loved re-reading the gushy letters from long-lost boyfriends, and grinned at the notes scribbled by crazy college pals. Taking in all the great and different ways people had of honoring emotions, in that box I found the inspiration for our PASSAGES line.
Like this message college roommate Laura Cendejas penned in a birthday card around 1980, and that we publish to this day: “In a world so full of change, I’m thankful one thing is constant: Our friendship.”
Then and there, an exhilarating sense of purpose kicked in. As I culled through the scores of saved sentiments, it was clear that they would resonate with many more people than just me. In the days that followed that night, I was on a roll. My PR career had given me the opportunity to do so much and varied writing, and to launch and promote products for some of the world’s most successful consumer marketers ~ The Chicago Bulls, McDonald’s, Miller Brewing Company, Motorola ~ so I thought how hard could launching a fresh new voice in the out-dated card market be?!? (Haha, how naive could I be?!? The answer I now know is: Very.)
I culled 48 potential messages from my keepsake box, and then tweaked and asked the “authors” for permission to publish them. For images, I reached out to childhood friend Larry Kanfer, who ~ in the years since we’d headed off to college and lost touch ~ had become a well-respected landscape photographer. I also cold-called photo editors of Travel & Leisure, National Geographic and Islands magazines; they all kindly introduced me to their freelance photographers. Cardthartic had its PASSAGES line.
Keeping it Real
It was exciting to get a call from a trade editor saying she’d received our press release announcing the launch of PASSAGES. “So, how would you describe your new cards?” the editor asked, and I proudly replied, “Relevant and intelligent.” Nothing but silence, then giggling on the other end of the line. “What a concept!” she said, and went on to explain that she believed, “Sadly, ‘relevant and intelligent’ hardly applies to this $7 billion card industry.” At the time, she was so right. Two decades ago, you could really only find sappy, schmaltzy and trite.
I felt I knew from personal experience what was missing in the marketplace: Cards that honored emotions with depth and authenticity. So, for our Passages cards, we continued to mine card messages from actual notes, emails, and good old everyday conversations about life’s joys and challenges. When someone would comment, “Your card sentiments sound so real!” we could say, “It’s because they are.” And, when people told us, “You say just what I would if I could,” we considered it high praise.
Growth is Good
With the Passages line going strong, a decade ago we began seeing an uptick in the submission of terrific images of kids and pets, so could not resist launching our Little Reminders line. As cute as they may be, they’re still very true to our core mission of honoring emotions. As the backs of these cards all say: “By their very being, kids and animals show us how to live freely and love fully. May these Little Reminders inspire us to follow their lead.”
Back in my Chicago PR days, I’d received a great piece of advice from highly-respected package designer Bill O’Connor: “To create breakthrough products and packaging,” he said, “look at all the products on the shelves, and see what’s NOT there.”
Our Meanings of Life line began that way about five years ago. I have always been intrigued by symbols and their significance, and knew many other people are, too, yet there were no cards that attempted to do what we wanted to: Run with all the interesting, accessible little anthropological stuff. We chose to begin with a few of my favorites ~ shoes, the spiral, and dragonflies ~ and, with Joanne Friar’s great illustrations, have covered more than 150 icons to date. Of our Meanings of Life line, we’re always proud to hear people say, “I never thought I’d learn something from a card!”
Today, we publish 600+ designs, all Made in America with soy ink on recycled paper. Our cards are carried by 2,600 Retail Partners in the US and Canada. Because we choose not to be sold everyplace (just the best places (:-) and not all our Retail Partners have space for a half-dozen each of our 600 designs, you’ll find everything we offer here.
As much as I love our online store, and building this community for Cardies online, it’s so inspiring and such fun to shop in our Retail Partners’ stores, seeing all the fabulous products they’ve sourced and their clever merchandising. And boy do we admire the tireless way our wise, independent Reps provide service and counsel to these store owners and buyers, as if those stores were their own. Our Customer Care Manager Reet Rawdin says it all the time, “We’re not a company doing business with other companies; we’re people doing business with other people. And we do love our people!”
On We Go
One of my favorites is the Passages birthday card featuring the little girl jumping hopscotch. It reads, “It’s when we get into the higher numbers that the game really starts to get interesting.” That, of course, can go for business as well as birthdays! It astounds and frankly saddens me that only three percent of all US women-owned businesses ever generate more than $1 million in annual sales. That said, we are proud and grateful to be among them. Looking back, I chuckle at how clueless I was starting out, thinking, “How hard can making better cards be?” When it is so very!
Back at the beginning, I clearly had no idea that creating a good, strong card entails nothing less than putting people’s innermost emotions into words. Oh, and figuring out how to say Happy Birthday 1001 different ways! As our CAO Ana Behm once wrote our colleagues in a Thanksgiving note: “I feel blessed to be making a small difference in the world, doing work that I love, with wonderful people I enjoy.” For this, and finding work that is truly best done while sitting by the sea, I thank my Dad. One day I hope you’ll come have a Cardthartic Experience with me. (:-j