How greeting-card startup Thoughtful Human is rethinking its retail partnerships

Lesson No. 1: Take your time.
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Thoughtful Human

· 3 min read

Covid has taught retailers plenty more lessons than pivot to making hand sanitizer.

Prior to the pandemic, greeting-card startup Thoughtful Human’s biggest retail partnerships were with Paper Source and Papyrus.

When Covid hit, Papyrus had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (looking to shutter all its doors), while lockdowns closed most of the other stores that carried Thoughtful Human.

“Covid came and took us for a nice ride along with the rest of the world,” Thoughtful Human founder and CEO Ali O’Grady said. “We saw all of our retailers completely shut down. We saw all payments stopped flowing.”

Fast forward, though, to March 2021, and Paper Source too filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

  • London–based Paperchase, another big partner, also fell into administration earlier this year. (It was bought by Permira Credit, then Permira Debt Managers, while Paper Source was acquired in May by Elliott Management Corp., the owner of Barnes & Noble.)

“Across the board, it definitely shook my confidence. I didn’t really understand bankruptcy as a strategy,” she said.

But O’Grady took the challenge as a learning opportunity. She’s since reset Thoughtful Human’s approach for finding retail partners.

Lesson No. 1: Take your time. And assess the risks carefully.

“It’s made me slow down. I realized that anybody who’s moving at a very hasty pace...there’s sometimes a lot more going on and a lot of reasons for that—in a way that I used to just jump at every opportunity,” O’Grady told Retail Brew. “I’ve gotten a lot more critical about what’s happening and why it’s probably happening and why opportunities exist.”

She now vets potential partnerships on a few characteristics: the diversity of products a company carries; location and ownership model (i.e., whether it’s venture-backed or family-owned); its synergy with Thoughtful Human’s brand.

  • O’Grady cited a tie-up with Whole Foods Market—which is what initially got Thoughtful Human into brick and mortar in 2018 in the Bay Area—as a prime example of what works.
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  • The zero-waste startup also linked up with Barnes & Noble and Cost Plus World Market this year. It’s now crossed the 1,000-store mark across the US.

Change it up: “We’ve diversified among our accounts as well, so that we aren’t so susceptible to a hit like that. If you’re shipping a lot of product, doors have to be open and people have to be in stores,” O’Grady said. “I think we’re in a pretty good position at the moment, but I am much less naïve than when I started down this path.”

  • She said Thoughtful Human’s revenue is now up 3.5x, compared to before the pandemic, but declined to provide specific figures.

Help me out

But partnerships aren’t a one-way street. O’Grady noted that “retailers have an urgency to bring something that’s more personal, more relevant, especially to a younger shopper.” And Thoughtful Human, as a nontraditional greeting-card company that tackles difficult issues like mental health, depression, and addiction, brings something different to the aisle.

It also focuses on sustainability, another important draw for consumers.

  • Thoughtful Human’s supply chain is 100% plastic-free, and its cards are made from plantable seed paper, for example.

“[Retailers are] looking to us and are saying, ‘How do we take this ultra-sustainable lens and revisit all of these other products that we're working with?’” O’Grady said.—KM

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