Drew Bartkiewicz’s employees go to the local post office on a daily basis and mail as many as 100 letters. They sometimes wait in line before buying stamps and completing the startup’s signature service: old-fashioned letters facilitated by an app.His company, Lettrs, charges as much as $49 for a handcrafted artisanal message handwritten by a calligrapher with Turkish ink on rice paper from Asia, which Bartkiewicz describes as “a beautiful artifact. People get a letter that they will want to frame.” Lettrs’ printed products start as low as $2 each and travel by mail, requiring those daily post office outings, but the startup also allows users to create digital letters on virtual stationary sent for free via e-mail.
The New York company is trying to use technology to revitalize the dying art of letter writing. Armed with $750,000 in venture-capital funds, Bartkiewicz’s eight-person staff has created an app that enables iPhone users to send either digital messages that look like letters or paper correspondence. “I think letters will survive,” he says. “We just need to craft a way to make the U.S. Postal Service accessible to anywhere.”
The idea of using the Internet to facilitate hard-copy communications isn’t a new concept. The USPS already has partnerships with companies that allow people to send physical mail from their computers. But the continuing decline of first-class mail suggests it hasn’t really caught on.
That’s troubling for the USPS, but it could be mean opportunities for Bartkiewicz, an affable 47-year-old with degrees from Yale University and West Point. He describes letter writing as a form of “slow communications” that many might appreciate as an alternative to dashed-off text messages or Twitter bursts.
Last week Lettrs released an upgraded app with a timer that forces iPhone users to spend at least 90 seconds on their messages before sending. “We did some research on how the brain works,” says Bartkiewicz. “We found that on average it takes about a minute and a half for the mind to focus in on a subject or a thought.” He set a default minimum while allowing users to opt for even longer mandatory times: “Four minutes, five minutes, or two hours, if they want.”
Bartkiewicz learned to appreciate a thoughtful letter while serving overseas in the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Storm. He says he drew up the idea for Lettrs on a napkin in 2008 but didn’t get it off the ground until 2012. Even then, he says, the service remained in beta throughout most of last year.
That would seem to explain why Lettrs doesn’t have a slew of users yet. All Bartkiewicz will say is that the company has “ten of thousands” of them. But his customers are prolific. According to Bartkiewicz, they have sent ”hundreds of thousands” of letters so far. Most have been the digital, but nearly a quarter have been paper-based, turned by the Lettrs crew into actual paper messages sent with postage. “There’s a keen interest,” Bartkiewicz says. “Technology doesn’t have to be the death of letters.”
Unsurprisingly, Bartkiewicz hopes Lettrs will be a source of new income for the USPS, which lost $5 billion in 2013, and he says there have already been “really interesting conversations” with the national postal service. If so, USPS isn’t ready to talk about them yet. “We are grateful for all those people that continue to see the value of writing and sending letters,” said Darleen Reid, a spokeswoman for USPS who declined to comment specifically on Bartkiewicz’s business.
It’s difficult to see Lettrs becoming a voluminous business in an age when people are often more interested in speedy communications than old-fashioned time-consuming ones. But don’t write Lettrs off yet. Bartkiewicz is encouraging his customers to write public letters and share them on Instagram. He’s integrating Lettrs with Yelp so customers will easily be able to write letters of praise or admonishment to local merchants. He has plans for some sort of Lettrs subscription service.
Bartkiewicz is also pushing a special letter for Valentine’s Day. It’s scented, and he might even sell a few. Ever tried to perfume a text message?