Chirply Brings Crowdsourcing—and Good Art—to Greeting Cards

In this era of Kindles and iPads and cloud-based data storage, the idea of an Internet startup that’s actually focused on paper is more than an anachronism—it’s almost a contradiction in terms. But that’s Chirply, a Y Combinator-backed company in San Francisco that sells high-end greeting cards—and soon notebooks and wrapping paper—printed with designs from independent artists. The six-employee startup runs a website where artists submit designs and random fans and customers vote for their favorites (that’s the Internet part). And the designs themselves are fun, hip, and edgy. But in most other ways, Chirply would be as at home in Peoria in 1935 as it is in San Francisco in 2011.

To find out more about the startup, and what inspired a pair of brothers with background in cloud, security, database, mobile, and video technology to launch something so retro, I biked into SoMa in April to visit Chirply’s office at 153 Townsend. (They’ve since moved.) The building contains a warren of rental offices occupied by early-stage Web startups, including other Y Combinator alumni like Convore and Rapportive. So it’s probably safe to say that Chirply was the only company in the building whose office was stacked high with boxes full of actual stock—greeting cards, on the day I visited.

“My brother and I both come from artistic backgrounds,” Gagan Palrecha explains. “I ran a record label for 10 years. My brother [Neel Palrecha] was a professional musician in a touring band. We both grew up screen-printing T-shirts and concert posters in our parents’ basement. So we’ve been in that world, and a big part of what we set out to accomplish was to work closely with designers and give them a serious outlet for their art.”

Laudable enough—and as for why the Palrecha brothers chose greeting cards and wrapping paper as the medium for their mission, I’ll get to that in a minute. But it’s an interesting fact that Chirply didn’t start out as a crowdsourced paper goods company. “Pivots” aren’t unusual for young startups, but Chirply’s, which came just a month before Y Combinator’s summer 2010 demo day, was more dramatic than most. The original idea for the company was all about the Internet, befitting Gagan’s background at early cloud services company Loudcloud, security startup Vantu, and Oracle, and Neel’s history at mobile video companies MobiTV and Quickplay. The Palrechas wanted to turn Twitter into a platform for e-commerce by writing software that would translate a retweet into a purchase. “Let’s say you were Capital Records selling a new Coldplay album,” says Gagan. “You could put out a message saying ‘retweet this message and get the new Coldplay record for $5.99’ and then all of your followers, to get that price, would click the retweet button.”

Gagan Palrecha (left) and Neel Palrecha

A neat idea—and “we still have the code,” Gagan says. But the brothers realized that profit margins on such an operation might be small, and that mitigating fraud would be costly. “We made a decision that this wasn’t going to be big as big as we wanted.” But they already had a domain name that was “cute, short, memorable, happy, and cheerful,” in Gagan’s words. So for their second act, the brothers picked something closer to their artistic passions.

Gagan says he and Neel are both big fans of Etsy, the online marketplace for small independent craftspeople, and Threadless, which sells T-shirts with crowd-sourced designs. They’re also the kind of people who will gladly spend $20 on a leatherbound Moleskine journal when a $2 spiral notebook would do. “The reason we use really nice notebooks in the office and at home is because we just feel more productive and more driven and happier when we’re using stuff that we have an emotional connection to,” Gagan says. “That is what we want to do, help people create meaningful artistic connections with the things they use every day.”

But Threadless already had a corner on artsy clothing, as Etsy did on jewelry and other crafts. The Palrechas wanted to find a market where they could spotlight cool independent designers, but in a way that that would guarantee recurring revenues. “The question was, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Chirply Brings Crowdsourcing—and Good Art—to Greeting Cards”

  1. Jules PieriJules Pieri says:

    Wade, I think the big trick for Chirpy is matching the population and tastes of the design submitters to the best universe of paper goods buyers. Traditionally that would be women 35+. Chirpy’s VC-backed competitor addresses that population very well, also with a crowd-sourcing design model–and a very different sensibility. I am hoping Chirpy can push the appeal of these products to wrap in a younger consumer, and ride the general DIY and “back to basics/real world connections” trends in the zeitgeist. I’m rooting for them!

  2. oops….Chirply..not Chirpy. Sorry!