Handwritten cards, signed by technology

Mr Sonny Caberwal, chief executive of Bond, which uses writing machines to create personalised, handwritten notes for people who want to send something special but do not have the time.
Mr Sonny Caberwal, chief executive of Bond, which uses writing machines to create personalised, handwritten notes for people who want to send something special but do not have the time.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Communication today is faster and more ephemeral than ever. People fire off e-mail, skip the punctuation in their texts and watch their photos and messages vanish in seconds on Snapchat.

Digital tools have made communicating with others easier, but not necessarily more thoughtful, and this bothered entrepreneur Sonny Caberwal. "We're in a rush to make everything disappear," he said.

Receiving a physical, handwritten thank-you note or letter these days feels special, but it also requires some work.

"You have to assemble all the pieces," he said - including paper, a pen, the recipient's address, an envelope and a stamp - and then the note has to be written and mailed, all of which is time consuming.

He wanted to enable people to do that more easily, by harnessing technology to create a product that still feels very personal and worth keeping.

His company, Bond, harks back to a time of fountain pens, creamy sheets of writing paper and waxsealed envelopes. Mr Caberwal, founder and chief executive of the New York City start-up, describes it as "the opposite of Snapchat".

Bond was started in 2013 and has about 50 full-time employees and several high-profile backers such as Mr Gary D. Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, and rapper Nasir Jones (known as Nas).

Although handwritten notes and cards may seem like artefacts of the 20th century, greeting cards are still a strong business. According to the Greeting Card Association, Americans buy about 6.5 billion cards a year and annual sales are estimated to be US$7 billion (S$9.9 billion) to US$8 billion.

And despite a culture awash in digital communications, the greeting card and stationery industries have not declined precipitously, but have remained largely flat, said

Ms Patti Stracher, director of the National Stationery Show, an annual trade show and business event for stationery, greeting card and gift companies.

"One could say the digital age has grown connectivity and expanded the reasons for other forms of personal communication, for a tangible, experiential connection," she said.

At the Greeting Card Association's annual convention in October, nearly every presentation included a discussion of the intersection of digital technology and traditional greeting cards, said its president Carlos LLanso.

"We're finding that social media gives people another opportunity to identify card-worthy occasions," he said. "You can't save a Facebook birthday message and put it in a drawer."

That overlap of digital and traditional is where Bond lives.

The company built writing machines which can produce personalised notes for every customer. Designed by the company's chief technology officer Kenji Larsen, the machines have robotic arms that can hold a pen, paintbrush or marker.

The paper is moved around using static electricity, rather than a roller, so it stays pristine, with no wrinkles or marks. Bond also seals each envelope with wax, adds postage and mails it.

Customers can choose from a variety of handwriting styles or they can have their handwriting copied and digitised for US$500. Each customer's signature is uploaded to Bond via smartphone to be used on cards and notes.

Customers also upload recipients' addresses. If an address is unknown, the service will send an e-mail or text message to the recipient asking for it. An invitation-only premium service, Bond Black, costs US$1,200 a year and provides clients with a personalised mobile app to send notes in their own handwriting on custom stationery.

Mr Saneel Radia, founder and president of Finch15, a New York firm that helps companies develop new products and services, started using Bond's service early in his relationships with customers and business partners.

At first, he had his handwriting duplicated, but he then switched to one of the styles offered by Bond.

"I hate what my handwriting looks like, so I upgraded it," he said. "Now it's an odd mix of creative and energetic - handwriting I wish I had."

He said people often thanked him for the notes they received and he readily admitted that a robot had written them.

"People hire us because we are at the intersection of service and technology. Bond, like us, is also at that intersection, so using the service shows that our company has its finger on the pulse of what is new and useful in this space."

He said that although the cards created by Bond are not actually handwritten, they are still a far cry from an e-mail or mass-produced thank-you note.

"You're giving someone something that took time and is work - not the same amount of work as mailing a letter you wrote yourself, but more than a text message that says, 'Thanks for the meeting.'

"It's thoughtful and it is my sentiment. And it comes in an envelope with a wax seal, which certainly helps."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Handwritten cards, signed by technology'. Print Edition | Subscribe