Do you have a box full of saved letters under your bed, like I do? Did you find decades-old love letters in your relative's bedroom closet, as we did when my grandma died?
Drew Bartkiewicz, 47, of Canton started thinking six years ago about how to help people organize and share those old letters once they'd scanned them into a computer.
The company he ended up launching in 2012 is a variation on that theme, and he took a winding path to get there.
Bartkiewicz, who used to be a vice president of The Hartford, launched a different startup in 2010, with his brother. That company, Cloud Insure, in New York, provides specialty insurance to companies to deal with the risks of cloud computing.
That was a gamble, Bartkiewicz admits with a laugh. "There's not a lot of people in insurance in Connecticut that would be crazy enough to take that risk."
But Bartkiewicz is bold enough to risk not once, but twice. After leaving Cloud Insure and briefly working for a California app firm, he decided to start lettrs.
Lettrs is still aiming to tap into the emotional power and intimacy of old-fashioned letter writing, but it's not the archival service he first imagined.
Instead, it's a website and an iPhone app (coming to Android this summer) that gives people the opportunity to write letters on virtual stationery, in dozens of fonts, including some that look like handwriting. If the writers are on an iPad or iPhone, they can even use a stylus to scrawl their own signature at the bottom. Most of the letters are read on the web, like e-greeting cards, but there were 30,000 physical letters mailed through the service last year.
While 90 percent of the letters that the company's users write are sent to one recipient, there is an ever-changing home page of public "letters to the world." Some are poems in Portuguese — Brazil is the second-biggest market — but more are anonymous missives, about lost loves or loneliness.
I do believe with our Lords help, all things are possible. I am hoping, believing, and keeping faith that one day you will love me in return.
The company's slogan is "be indelible, write lettrs."
People told Bartkiewicz that he shouldn't use the world indelible in the tagline, that many people wouldn't know what it means. In some places, "indelible" has an asterisk, and a brief definition below.
When advisers said indelible was above their target market's vocabulary, "We said: 'They should know it!'"
He chose to call the company "lettrs" because it seemed more original, and because leaving the second "e" out helps distinguish it in Google searches.
It's like he picks a fight so the subject will change and I look like the bitchy crazy one. this is why I hide everything from him. He doesn't know I love to write, or that I have a twitter, tumblr, or even a lettrs account.
For most people, who are using lettrs as a way to send a personal note to someone instead of posting their thoughts publicly, what's the draw of lettrs? Why not just send an e-mail?
Bartkiewicz said his mother "always describes e-mail as functional, but cold."
"We started this company thinking a lot of us would be 35 and older who miss letter writing," he said.
Now he sees lettrs as something more evangelical, a way of saving teens and twenty-somethings from the shallows that he says social media, texting and chatting have wrought.
"They barely use e-mail," he said. "They have no patience to write something."
A little more than a month ago, lettrs started a minimum-time rule, where the writer is supposed to take at least 90 seconds to craft the letter. You have to wait that long before the site accepts your submission.
"If we set the clock at what a real writer would do, say, 20 minutes, we're isolating that kid who's 16. Twenty minutes would seem unachievable," he said. But he expects the minimum time will grow.
I fell and i fell again
In and out of love,
On the pavement and into many walls
Then one day i accepted that i had a purpose.
I gripped loosely on the handle bars and began this beautiful journey.
This start-up, which Bartkiewicz said has $750,000 in private investors' backing, is strangely similar to the main character's employer in the movie "Her," which won the Oscar for best screenplay. The main character in "Her," Theo, works for "Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com."
Like in the movie, lettrs customers can hire the company to print out and mail a letter. A basic letter costs $2, adding a wax seal costs $4, and having the letter folded inside a handmade card, $6. Drew's wife, Ari, prints them in the living room of their tastefully decorated Canton home, and drives to the Collinsville post office. For $49, customers can buy a letter written with calligraphy on rice paper.
The only difference is that on lettrs, you have to find your own words, where Theo and his coworkers write a heartfelt letter for you based on a few things you tell them.
Lettrs capitalized on the "Her" Oscar buzz, writing letters from Theo, and offering people the chance to add a mustache and glasses to their selfies, to emulate Theo's look.
But while Bartkiewicz employs artists to create stationery designs, and he can imagine hiring someone to proofread, he said, "I don't see us from scratch, authoring people's letters."
In 2013, gross revenues were less than $50,000. This year will greatly exceed that, Bartkiewicz said.
One idea is to contract with businesses, who would pay $350 a month to send paper letters. He invited 10 businesses to do so already, but said he wanted to start small, by invitation, to make sure they wouldn't be overwhelmed by demand before they could hire helpers to manage the load.
Charlie Cichetti, a principal at a green buildings consulting firm called Sustainable Investments Group, is one of those customers. "I'm literally at LaGuardia right now, heading back to Atlanta," he said in a phone interview recently. "I can get on the phone, I can type up a letter, the next thing I know it's emailed to the client."
Cichetti can also send lettrs a link to an article, and Ari will print out a paper copy of the story and include it in the letter. "We think it's good value for what we pay," Cichetti said.
While Bartkiewicz said signing up 1,000 businesses for the service would be a success, it's not the top goal this year.
The metric that most interests us is new users," he said. "I'm just as excited by a mobile-to-mobile user as I am mobile to postal."
And of course, repeat users are important. He said the drop-off rate is dropping. He didn't want to say how many people have downloaded the app or visit the website.
Neither he nor his backers have a goal for when the company should start breaking even. He employs four people in New York, and two programmers in China. He said the company will have a technical staff in the United States within the year. He expects to have 12 to 15 employees by the end of 2014. He said the fact that all the employees are in New York is partly because the city is a hub for digital advertising and mobile apps, but he acknowledged he doesn't know how to find those workers in Connecticut. He travels to the New York office several times a week. "My preference, long-term, the more done in Connecticut, the better," he said.