The founders of Paperless Post have changed the way we party

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

As Mr. Hirschfeld examined the collage-like plates, he remembered a meeting about designing new invitations for children. “Someone said, 'Dinosaurs are out, owls are in,'” he said. “And I thought, is this my life?”

For the last 15 years it has been.

Mr. Hirschfeld, 38, with his older sister Alexa Hirschfeld, 40, founded Paperless Post in 2009, when they were 23 and 25. He was a senior at Harvard and she worked at CBS as second assistant to anchor Katie Couric. .

Since then the company has sent out about 650 million invitations, by its own metrics, grown to employ a full-time staff of 110 people and, as of last year, was immortalized in a “Saturday Night” sketch Live”. Paperless Post also won fans at the legacy stationery companies it sought to disrupt, partnering with brands like Crane and Cheree Berry on digital products.

Its approach of combining the flourish of physical invitations with the ease of digital correspondence has been adopted by several younger companies, including Electragram, a digital stationery company developed by editor 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, freer sensibility that he resonated with members of Gen Z.

But when Paperless Post debuted, in some 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, an author who was editor of Town & Country magazine in 2009, told the New York Times at the time that Paperless Post's digital stationery brand was representative of “an increasingly uncivilized world.” Ms. Fiori, now 80, said in an April interview that while she still preferred to use physical stationery, she couldn't deny the impact the company has had in the years since its founding.

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

Marcy Blum, a wedding and event planner in Manhattan who has worked with clients such as basketball player LeBron James and interior designer Nate Berkus, was also among those who initially quickly canceled Paperless Post.

“We thought, 'This is convenient, but it won't change much,'” Ms. Blum said. “We were absolutely wrong.” She added that her business has benefited from the service over the years because it has 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 blanket term for digital correspondence in the same way that Kleenex has become a blanket term for tissues.

The Hirschfeld brothers began developing what would become Paperless Post in 2007. Mr. Hirschfeld had now begun his second 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 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 Mr. Hirschfeld called her with the idea of ​​starting an online business.

Neither had studied technology; Ms. Hirschfeld majored in classical and modern Greek studies, and Mr. Hirschfeld had a minor in English. 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 Ms. Hirschfeld — who started Facebook with his college roommates.

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

The brothers and younger brother Nico Hirschfeld, who does not work with Paperless Post, also grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Their maternal great-grandfather, Raphael Caviris, after coming to America from Greece, opened several diners with his brother, including the now-closed Burger Heaven chain in New York.

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

The two brothers used their personal savings to develop a prototype of their online business, which always involved a combination of free offers, to attract users, and paid premium services such as personalization. (Nowadays, sending digital invitations with personalized touches like special artwork and lined envelopes to 20 people can cost around $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 good they looked, Hirschfeld said. But they convinced Ram Shriram, an early investor in Google; Mousse Partners, an investment firm for the Wertheimer family, owners of Chanel; and others to contribute nearly $1 million to their fledgling venture.

“They gave us a chance,” Ms. Hirschfeld said. Mousse Partners even set up the Hirschfelds with their first workspace: a vacant row of cubicles at the New York office of Eres, the French lingerie and swimwear brand, owned by Chanel.

When the Hirschfelds started the business, it was called Paperless Press. But a web address with that name already existed and its owner didn't want to sell it to the brothers, so within a few months they switched to a new name: Paperless Post.

Meg Hirschfeld, the Hirschfelds' mother, attributes her children's success in part to “courage and grit,” qualities they inherited from their ancestors. Ms. Hirschfeld, who gave up her career as a lawyer to raise her three children, is now the chief administrative officer of Paperless Post. Her husband, John Hirschfeld, is a real estate investor.

He said Mr. and Mrs. Hirschfeld were close siblings growing up, but had different sensibilities: He was creative and artistic, and she was outgoing and a computer whiz. Ms. Hirschfeld recalled visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her son when she was in kindergarten, and how her daughter became “absolutely hooked” on an Apple computer at age 7.

The brothers' yin-yang brains are reflected in their duties at the Paperless Post. Ms. Hirschfeld oversees the operations and technology aspects of the company. Mr. Hirschfeld is responsible for business development, marketing and design, a role in which he has worked with fashion brand Oscar de la Renta and retailer John Derian.

The Hirschfelds, who each serve on Paperless Post's seven-member board of directors, are less involved in running their business today 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. Mr. Hirschfeld, who lives on the Upper East Side, also spends time on Long Island restoring an 1895 house he recently purchased.

In recent years, their 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 “eye watering,” explaining that sales were down between 50 and 80% in several months of 2020 compared to the same months in 2019. “Except in Florida and Texas,” he added , noting that during that time the company shifted its marketing to focus on locations 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 there was only paper and email,” Hirschfeld said. “Now it's DM, WhatsApp.” As a result, the company introduced products like Flyer, an informal, text-message-friendly form of invitation that's typically less expensive than Paperless Post's traditional offerings.

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

Then he started using the platform and, more recently, started receiving wedding invitations via email via Paperless Post. “This simply wouldn't have happened before,” she said. Now Ms. Malle also receives digital invitations through competitors like Partiful. But she thinks Paperless Post, just like print media, will always have its fans.

“There's room for both,” he said.

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