ali o'grady, thoughtful human, founder
Ali O'Grady, founder of Thoughtful Human, is reviving the paper card industry by tackling the challenges of real life. — Thoughtful Human

This is not your grandmother’s greeting card company.

Thoughtful Human is dispensing with saccharine Hallmark holiday messaging with cards that reflect life’s struggles and unvarnished moments, including ones about cancer, addiction, depression and grief.

And you won’t just find them tucked away in some edgy independent boutique. With messages like, “Keep your head up, or don’t. Whatever feels right,” they’re tapping a mainstream audience on Target.com and in Whole Foods’ grocery store aisles.

Thoughtful Human aims to fill the vacuum of emotional intelligence that underscores the U.S. greeting card market, dominated by giants like Hallmark and American Greetings, founder Ali O’Grady told CO—.

For these legacy companies, cards are a “seasonal formality for an elderly market, grandparents that send birthday and holiday cards that just say, “love, Grandpa.”

“What I see in the market now are a lot of one-off sentiments telling you how it’s going to be or how to feel, and trying to put a nice little bow on things that, in reality, might not get better soon — or ever.” Indeed, “not everyone is living these sugary sweet love lives and parent-child relationships,” she says.

Standard greeting card fare rings particularly tone deaf to Millennials, Thoughtful Human’s target audience, who crave authenticity, she says. Marketers take note: Generation Y has displaced Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest buying group, so for any business today, attention must be paid.

By contrast, O’ Grady, who writes all the copy in Thoughtful Human’s eco-friendly cards, which are printed on seed paper and plantable, doesn’t want “to tell people how they’re going to feel or how it’s going to be — I don’t want to prescribe feelings,” she said.

Instead, with card series designed to be sent to one person over time, “I want to tell stories that say, ‘How are you?’ ‘How can I help?’ and ‘Do you want to talk?’ in different ways that are comforting, to get a dialogue going and offer continued support.”

Another big differentiator: “We don’t touch on holidays pretty much at all — your life is the occasion.”

In a “direct, raw and darkly funny voice that is very Millennial-focused,” according to O’Grady, Thoughtful Human’s cards speak to the messy nature of the human condition, from strained relationships to loss and longing.

A birthday card intended for one half of a bruised friendship reads, “It's been a little while and a little rough, but like, I'm still really glad you were born…” Another offers up, “Something really sad happened on this day and we don't really talk about it a lot anymore, but I remember and I'm still really sorry.

Thoughtful Human’s very business model is a nod to the uncomfortable reality that the burden of suffering is ongoing, even if we live in a pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-move-on culture.

“What I see in the market now are a lot of one-off sentiments telling you how it’s going to be or how to feel, and trying to put a nice little bow on things that, in reality, might not get better soon — or ever.”

Ali O'Grady

O’Grady rejects what she describes as the one-off sentiment that the card business is built on and wants shoppers to do the same.

With topics including addiction, grief and depression to new motherhood and long-distance relationships, the startup’s core product is a five-pack, assorted card series meant to offer continued support throughout tough circumstances and relationships.

 thoughtful human, cards, bundle
In addition to individual cards, Thoughtful Human offers bundles covering more long-standing matters, such as cancer support. — Thoughtful Human

A business born from the ‘long road of grief’

O’Grady sees the cards as an “actionable tool” to deliver “radical empathy in the face of adversity,” while destigmatizing struggles with mental health, addiction and the like.

The business bubbled up from O’Grady’s own experience of suffering. At 23, she lost her father, “my favorite human,” to a 10-year battle with colon cancer.

Finding herself walking “the long road of grief,” she noted that in communicating with people, “They didn’t want to upset me, remind me or make me cry, while I was desperate for somebody to acknowledge the loss with me,” she said. “I wanted to create spaces for conversations over time about a difficult subject.”

That’s when she sensed an unmet need in the greeting card aisles. “I started to ask the people around me, ‘Do you have the experience that you want to say something about [subject matter], but it’s not available?’ The desire is there — we want to be honest and talk about things, and people need suggestions — how do we say it for a first and second time, and how do we say it for a third and fourth time?”

Thoughtful Human’s business model seems to match the cultural moment. Millennials are favoring brands and shopping experiences that impart an aura of authenticity over company-fed style dictates and marketing messages. That’s given rise to lingerie brands like Lively and Aerie that eschew notions of model perfection for body positivity, to Glossier, the direct-to-consumer beauty retailer that espouses an “enhancing-your-natural-look” ethos.

But while beauty is a booming industry, greeting cards are not. “Paperless substitutes” have dampened greeting card sales, with industry sales expected to have declined an annualized 2.8% to $4.5 billion over a five-year period ending in 2018, according to an IBISWorld report aptly entitled, “Sending condolences: Industry revenue will contract as mounting external competition grows.”

So, launching a paper card business today in an increasingly digital world sounds like a fool’s game. O’Grady says not so, noting a counterintuitive trend. Millennials, it turns out, are placing more emphasis on handwritten messages than previous generations. In some regions in the United States, they spend an average of $6 per card instead of the $2 to $4 of the average consumer, she said.

 thoughtful human, cards, display
Thoughtful Human had to quickly scale to meet the volume demands of retailers like Target. — Thoughtful Human

Breaking into Target and Whole Foods

O’Grady credits her “entrepreneurial boot camp” bona fides to her time as marketing manager of urban farming startup Back to the Roots, which sells products like recycled coffee and organic kitchen herb gardens to retailers including Whole Foods and Target. It’s also where she learned the ropes of consumer products goods. The experience proved pivotal, as “they empowered me to launch something on my own,” she said.

In 2017, O’Grady officially transitioned from “mushroom marketer to cardpreneur,” when Thoughtful Human launched online.

With her sights then set on penetrating stores, she made an in-person cold call to a store manager at the Whole Foods on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California.

The cards piqued the manager’s interest, but O’Grady still needed the go-ahead from a regional buyer. Fortuitously, she was able to connect with that buyer via a former colleague; just as serendipitously, another Whole Food’s executive happened to have received a Thoughtful Human card and reached out.

In May 2018, 27 of Thoughtful Human’s 100-plus SKUs debuted in the Telegraph Avenue Whole Foods, expanding that fall to 10 Whole Foods stores in Northern California.

Breaking into Target.com was an entirely different process that required working with a certified broker organization to secure a meeting with the retailer.

At the same time, she flew from Oakland to the discounter’s headquarters in Minneapolis to pitch the concept of a five-pack support series, offering to design and produce four to five fixed-pack card bundles in three months. Target wanted more. “They requested all nine bundles for launch in one month,” O’Grady recalls. “This pushed us to rapidly develop packaging and create the actual products.”

Emotional rescue

O’Grady has found that when it comes to igniting the interest of retail buyers, it’s not a hard sell. The cards strike a chord. “The most valuable sales tool that Thoughtful Human offers is simple — emotional resonance.”

In pitch meetings, she begins with her own story. “This is my family. This is what happened to my family and we’re not alone,” she said. “From chit chat at a coffee shop or bar, to store managers, to corporate executives — humans are humans and we are all hurting and seeking connection in one way or another,” she said.

“From each of these interactions, the only metrics I really care about are the tears, the goosebumps, and the silence that follows.”

What’s to stop the greeting card giants from replicating Thoughtful Human’s strategy? Nothing, O’Grady says. And they certainly have “the distribution and power to do that.”

But it’s the authentic voice of the sentiments expressed in the cards, not just O’Grady’s, but also now the crowdsourced sentiments she’s culling from everyday people, that hint at Thoughtful Human’s potential to become a household name in the greeting-card industry, she said.

“I say this to buyers and it might sound cheesy,” she said. “The impact and response when people realize they're not alone. When they realize they might be able to touch that scary thing, whatever it may be. That they might be able to open a door that's been closed for a while. It's a really raw, powerful and beautiful thing to watch. It's how I know Thoughtful Human is going to succeed — people need it.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published February 25, 2019

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