By Founder and Creative Director, Jodee Stevens

It all started …

Our company name is a play on the word “cathartic,” that freeing feeling that comes from getting strong, often long-held emotions out into the open. (After writing their memoir, the author will often be 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 the eight-year-old agency we’d built to my business partner. My intention was to find something challenging and new to do living abroad. Then I learned my father was dying.

Throughout that spring, I stayed in Chicago, scribbling all my fond memories and wishes for him into blank cards. I’d then either send or read them aloud to Dad. I’d always loved blank cards and, into those, 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 that came out of nowhere! Then I must have tucked it 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 loved our father were beautiful, simple and profound. They truly honored our 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 doesn’t anyone publish real-life messages like these?!?” Not silly and top-of-mind trite, but rich and soulful. Then, I had to ask, “Hmm … why don’t I?!?” With that, all thoughts of life in Italy were put aside, and Cardthartic came to be. Well, the concept anyway.

Creating Passages

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 placing them in the memory box ~ you know how it goes ~ I started pulling things out! I found scores of cards and notes that my then alive-and-kicking Mother had sent throughout my lifetime. I loved reading gushy letters from long-lost boyfriends, and grinned at the notes scribbled in cards from crazy college friends. I took in all the great and different ways people had of honoring emotions, and there found the inspiration for our PASSAGES line. For example, there’s the message college roommate Laura Cendejas penned in a birthday card to me around 1990, and we publish to this day: “In a world that is 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 related to many more people than just me. In the days that followed that night, I was on a roll. PR is primarily writing, and my career had given me the opportunity to launch and promote products for some of the world’s most successful consumer marketers ~ McDonald’s, Miller Brewing, Motorola ~ so how hard could launching a fresh new product in the out-dated card market be?!?

I reached out to a childhood friend who, in the years since we’d gone off to college and lost touch, had become a well-respected landscape photographer with several books to his credit. Then I cold-called photo editors of Travel & Leisure, Connoisseur and Islands magazines; they all kindly introduced me to freelance photographers they published. I then paired the images I’d sourced with 48 initial messages that I’d found in my keepsake box (of course I had tweaked those messages a bit). Cardthartic launched 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 said, “They’re relevant and intelligent,” I said, then heard her giggling on the other end of the line. “What a concept!” she said, and went on to explain that she sadly believed “relevant and intelligent“ did not apply to this $7 billion card industry.

She was so right. In those days you could find mostly sappy, schmaltzy and tacky. Cardthartic’s reason for being was to raise the bar on what people could expect from cards. From personal experience, I knew what was sorely missing in the card marketplace: Depth and authenticity. Again, cards that honored emotions. Starting with those first sincere condolences from friends following the death of my father, our messages nearly always originate as some sort of interaction between my friends, family and me. Deep in our SoulsIt could be a note, an email or text, though more than likely it’s an everyday conversation about life’s joys and challenges. So, when someone comments that, “the sentiments sound so real!” it’s because they are. And, when people tell us, “You say what I would if I could,” we consider it high praise.

I’m often asked, “Which comes first, the message or the art?” and, “It depends.” Sometimes someone says something so inspiring that I go in search of an image. Other times, a great photographer will submit an image so engaging that it begs for a message. Because we always want a great image to have a message that lives up to it, we hold some photos for years until the right words come along. We received so many terrific kid and pet images ~ at the same time we were seeing the exponential growth of the pet industry ~ that we were inspired to create our Little Reminders line nearly a decade ago now. As the card backs 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.”

Growth is good

When it comes to product development, I was taught a great lesson by a former PR client ~ the brilliant branding guru Bill O’Connor of Source/Inc back in Chicago. “To create breakthrough products and packaging,” he said, “Look at all the products on the shelves and try to see what’s NOT there.” Our Meanings of Life line began that way about five years ago. I’ve always felt the power of symbols, and found that many other people feel likewise. Here, again, we were addressing the need for relevant and intelligent cards, fun and interesting little anthropological stuff. We began with shoes, ladybugs and dragonflies, and have covered more than 100 icons to date. Meanings of Life has given us the pleasure of hearing people say, “I never imagined I’d learn something from a card!”

So, here we are, with 600 designs, all Made in America using all-natural and recycled materials. Cardthartic is now carried by roughly 2,500 Retail Partners, and it’s because not all those Retail Partners can carry all 600 designs that we sell them online. It’s also why you’ll not find 2,500 stores listed in our Store Locator — we want to send you only to the stores that have a substantial selection there for you. As much as I shop online ~ when it comes to cards and gifts ~ I love nothing more than walking into one of our Retail Partner stores, seeing all the fabulous products they’ve sourced and their ingenious merchandising. Honestly, seeing what they’ve created really fills me up! We also 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 Director of Customer Care Reet Rawdin says it all the time, “It’s not companies doing business with other companies; it’s people doing business with other people. And we do love our people!”

It astounds me that only three percent of all US women-owned businesses ever generate more than $1 million in annual sales. And that we are proudly and gratefully among them. Looking back, I can’t believe how naive I was starting out, thinking, “How hard can making better cards be?” Now I know the answer is: “Very!” Back at the beginning, I clearly had no idea that creating a good, strong card entails putting people’s innermost emotions into words. Oh, and figuring out how to say Happy Birthday 1001 different ways. As our CEO Ana Behm wrote in a Thanksgiving email: “I feel blessed to be making a small difference in the world, doing work that I love, with wonderful people I enjoy.” Me too. For this, and so much more, I thank my Dad.