March 27, 2005 
Low-tech, handwritten notes never out of date 
by Harvey Mackay 


Henry James said people read for two great payoffs: surprise and recognition. A few weeks ago in the Sunday New York Times I got both. I like to read the "Home Front" column in the "Job Market" section. That's how I came to read Louise Kramer's piece titled "For 'Simple Joy,' Please Make a Note of It." The column centered on Harvard MBA Lauren Marrus and her revival of Dempsey & Carroll, the hallowed stationery company founded in Manhattan in 1878 and temporarily out of business last year till Lauren came along. 


My surprise derived from finding a column on the snail-mail business, the exact business I'm in, and one falsely pronounced doomed to extinction by media sages. My recognition came from reading about Marrus, a young woman I really admire. She has taken a chance on an old stationery business, just as I did years ago when I bought a failing envelope firm. Her story reminded me of my days -- and nights -- in the old plant, sleeping on a cot, the obsolete machines popping, steaming, breaking, but me pressing on, buying new equipment, leveraging myself into a dangerous bind with my bankers full of more potential horror (if I went belly up) than a Stephen King novel. 


I could identify fully with Marrus when she described seeing the plant she was considering purchasing for the first time. There were hundreds of steel engraving plates and stationery samples strewn about in total disarray. Expired invitations were stacked in piles, never having been shipped and now worthless and unbillable. Undaunted, she bought the company, acquiring its name, trademarks, customer information and dealer listings, along with its inventory of elegant paper, expensive ink and distinctive stationery boxes. For now, she is running the company out of a design studio in Manhattan, with the printing and engraving done at a plant in Maryland. Asked why she bought the company, she said, "I saw the value of the brand." 


She also saw the validity of one of my pet theories: That new technology very often enhances, rather than eliminates, the old technology. It's ironic that Marrus spent years in businesses on cutting-edge tech, developing an online investment service and, before that, helping to set up ABC Online, Oprah Online and the Style Channel. Yet the new technology showed her the value of the old. She saw how electronic communications, especially e-mail, had "expanded the circle of acquaintances for most people." 


This business insight had led her to buy another midlevel-stationery business even before she acquired upscale Dempsey & Carroll. She bought the Chelsea Paper Co., whose motto is "All Stationery for All Occasions." Chelsea does lots of invitations and announcements. She noticed that the quantities for average customers for announcements and invitations had mushroomed significantly in recent years. She attributed this growth to e-mail's wider reach, its almost instantaneous and compulsively expanding networking capacity. 


That's how she knew the handwritten note would make a comeback. It also suited her personal style. As she proudly says, "I'm big on the short note." She even characterizes the writing of one as a "simple joy." 


As readers of my first book, "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," know, I'm big on the short note too. In fact, a lesson in that book details how beneficial the personal note can be. In sales, never underestimate the importance of the personal gesture, and right at the top of the list of effective personal gestures sits the handwritten note. 


I'm also very bullish on that other sales tool available at the end of your arm: the telephone. Lauren Marrus' great tip? "Things were quiet till I got the old Dempsey & Carroll 800 number re-established and up and running. Then the orders flooded in." Lauren had to go after the old number. It had been discontinued. She lobbied the phone company to get the old number back, so as not to have to start all over with a new one. If you buy an older company with great brand recognition, it's a safe bet it has a cadre of loyal customers eager to re-establish their connection. Make it easy for them. Get that old 800 number ringing. 


Remember, sometimes low-tech techniques only get better with age. 


Mackay's Moral: Short notes yield long results.