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Originally published Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 12:06 PM

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Paperless Post defies digital strategy with Crane

Paperless Post has defied its original digital business model successfully once. Now the online invitation and greeting card startup is taking that defiance a step further.

AP Business Writer

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NEW YORK —

Paperless Post has defied its original digital business model successfully once. Now the online invitation and greeting card startup is taking that defiance a step further.

The New York company launched Paper by Paperless Post in October after customers requested a way to get its electronic greeting cards and invitations in a more old-fashioned way: On actual paper. Starting Wednesday, Paperless Post is teaming up with stationery and card maker Crane & Co. to print wedding invitations. Users will be able to choose from 35 wedding invitation designs that they can customize and then print on Crane paper.

It sounds like an unlikely match: Crane has been printing cards and stationery on paper made of 100 percent cotton since 1801 in Dalton, Mass., while Paperless Post was launched in 2009 by 20-something siblings with no plans to ever print cards.

But it turns out people still want to walk to the mailbox and send the real thing, even though it's much easier and less expensive to send invites and greetings through a tweet, Facebook message or email.

"People might say paper is dead or dying, but actually, it's not at all. It's just more rarified," says Alexa Hirschfeld, who co-founded Paperless Post with her brother James Hirschfeld. "The choice to send paper has more meaning because of the fact that you don't have to."

The way Paperless Post presents its cards may have helped drum up demand for something more traditional. Its digital cards look like the real thing. When a card is sent, the receiver first sees a closed envelope. When it opens, a digital card slides out.

"One of our biggest help requests was `how can I print this card?'" says James Hirschfeld. About 30 percent of the nearly 11,000 cards on Paperless Post are able to be printed.

Some Paperless Post users say they are willing to send online wedding invitations, says Alexa Hirschfeld, but their mothers won't allow it. "We've heard that so often," she says.

Paperless Post proposed the pairing to Crane in the fall. The company wanted to work with Crane because of its reputation for high quality paper. The Hirschfelds' mother and grandmother told Alexa as a child that really nice thank you notes must be sent on Crane stationery. "I never forgot that," Alexa Hirschfeld says. "I think a lot of people have that memory."

Other digital companies have gone physical, too. Online retailers such as men's clothing seller Bonobos and handmade-product marketplace Etsy have opened actual stores or showrooms. Amazon.com has placed lockers in stores where customers can pick up their packages.

Even before working with Crane, the company's printed cards were a hit. Revenue jumped 49 percent in the first 30 days after the October launch. Part of the reason for the increase is the higher price. Customers pay an average of $1.75 for each paper card, while the digital ones cost about 25 cents each. The lowest priced Crane wedding invitations will cost $2.60 each, without a reply card, and $3.70, with a reply card, for an order of 500. The price increases with smaller orders. Save the date cards and thank you cards in matching designs are sold separately.

The main difference between the Crane invitations and the other paper offerings on the website is that they can be engraved or include letterpress printing, so that the printed messages have texture. When an invitation is engraved, the text pops from the paper. Letterpress means the text is indented into the paper. Engraved cards are more commonly used for formal weddings, while letterpress is used for more casual events, says James Hirschfeld. A third printing option is thermography, which creates a result that is similar to engraving, but costs less.

When customers buy a Crane invitation through Paperless Post, they can also get a digital copy to send to people online. Senders can then keep track of who they sent invites to and who responds through the Paperless Post website.

The siblings started Paperless Post when they were in their early twenties. James Hirschfeld, now 27, came up with the idea after planning his 21st birthday party. He didn't have the time or money to send paper invitations, but he says he felt the digital ones available at the time were lacking. "It didn't reflect how much I cared," he says.

That's when he came up with the idea of selling stylish digital cards. "If I have this problem and I'm a 21-year-old man," says James Hirschfeld, "there must be a lot of other people in America thinking that."

His sister, Alexa Hirschfeld, 29, liked the idea. She left her job in television news and they began working on the startup together. The company has raised $12.3 million from venture capitalists. It expects to be profitable this year and predicts revenue will nearly double. It has about 2 million active users, and about 40 million people have either received a card, have a Paperless Post account or downloaded the iPhone app, they said.

The siblings never expected to print paper cards, hence the name. So now that Paperless Post is no longer paperless, will they change the name? When asked, the Hirschfelds both laugh nervously. James Hirschfeld says, "Awkward!"

"We like the name Paperless Post," says Alexa Hirschfeld.

"So we're going to have to make it work," says James Hirschfeld, finishing her sentence. "The name is here to stay."

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ONLINE:

-Crane & Co. on Paperless Post: http://www.paperlesspost.com/crane

-Paperless Post: http://www.paperlesspost.com/

- Crane & Co.: http://www.crane.com/

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Follow Joseph Pisani at http://twitter.com/josephpisani

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