Pick up a pile of post from your doormat and you’ll probably sift through to gauge what’s worth opening first.
If there’s a handwritten envelope tucked in between the takeaway flyers and generic rubbish enticing you to take out a credit card, the chances are you’ll open that one first.
In fact, that’s a definite according to 26-year-old Charlotte Pearce, who has stopped tracking open rates of the letters sent out by her business as they were consistently at 100 per cent.
We’re bombarded with junk mail from every angle, whether it be through the letterbox, via your email inbox or popping up on our social media feeds. That’s why it unsurprising to learn that we’ve done an about-turn when it comes to communicating.
Although email is fast and free, we’re now turning back to handwritten letters to get our messages across – and London-based Inkpact is leading the charge by combining tech with tradition.
“We’re a unique mix of tech and people that allows us to give a personalised service,” chief executive Pearce, who was at university when she came up with the idea for the business and now counts the likes of Santander and Unilever as clients, tells BusinessCloud.
Entrepreneurialism was in her blood – “I’ve started businesses for as long as I can remember,” she says. At the age of 13 she ran simple ventures like buying make-up online and selling it for a profit, but her turning point came at the University of Southampton when she became president of the Southampton branch of Enactus while studying for her BA in management with entrepreneurship.
The not-for-profit organisation encourages students to change the world through entrepreneurial action, and Pearce led 150 other students in 13 different projects around the world, including one to build toilets from recyclable materials found on the streets in Kenya.
There was another where people were supported in turning human waste into fertiliser to be sold on to farms. “That taught me you can literally change people’s lives and make money from rubbish on the streets,” she says.
Later, she attended two business coaching sessions run by a family friend who worked with chief executives and the lightbulb moment came during an afternoon session on marketing. One of the people there said he liked sending handwritten letters to get customers’ attention because email didn’t work, but he struggled to write the amount he needed.
Joining the dots in her head, Pearce seized the moment and approached him when the session ended.
“I was there to learn as much as I could and I’d been thinking about tech start-ups that use people,” she says. “I went over to him and said why don’t I write 100 letters for you and let’s see what happens.”
She completed the 100 letters with the help of her cousin, they were sent out to customers and 33 got in touch with him about his service afterwards. “He said he didn’t usually get 33 people even opening his emails, so I knew clearly if I could scale this I was onto a winner,” she says.
At first Pearce was writing the letters herself, yet she concedes her writing “isn’t great”. However, having the need to take on outside help was actually a bonus, she says, as it forced her to create a scaleable model from the beginning rather than working as a one-man band.
From her first office at her university, she provided handwritten letters for small business owners in Southampton via a workforce of five and then 20 students, yet she still wanted something that would make a bigger impact.
Cue a tweet about a London entrepreneurial programme that fast-tracked young people into the tech scene, which popped up on her feed at just the right time. Through this, Pearce was able to chat with the UK’s best business people, including the founder of Skyscanner, and she met Andrew Martin, then head of product at a start-up, who became her chief technology officer and co-founder.
Though it started off literally with pen and paper in hand, Inkpact became a ‘tech business’ two-and-a-half years ago. Clients have a simple platform they can log into to input the text they want, upload any company logos and choose the stationery and handwriting style as well as a wax seal for the envelope. They can also upload recipients or integrate their CRM system to do this.
There are ways of personalising each letter even more. The system also allows you to add information about particular customers, such as the last item they bought from you, which can be mentioned in the letter. Then there are triggers that can be set up to send a handwritten letter out after a customer has bought a high-value item from you.
The business now has 200 writers, known as the scribe tribe, who log in to view available jobs and then pledge to take on a certain number of letters. The stationery is mailed out to them and every letter is written out in ink before it is sent with a first-class stamp to your customer.
Small businesses tend to order 500-1,000 letters at a time, while larger organisations can need anywhere between 5,000 and 50,000 – and each one really is written out separately.
For the businesses opting for handwritten communications, the results speak for themselves. Open rates are 100pc and engagement rates are 80pc, while one retail company reported an increased shopping basket of 30pc for those customers that had received a handwritten letter.
There are also benefits at the opposite end of the chain. Reflecting her experiences with Enactus, Pearce’s goal was always to run a tech business that could have a social impact and that’s where the writers come in. Working from home, they range in age from 18 to 80 and come from a variety of backgrounds, something Pearce was keen to encourage.
“Some are just students wanting to earn more money, the majority are mothers at home but we also have people who have been in prison, people who have been homeless and some who are recovering from cancer,” she says.
“It’s a win for us and a win for society because we can give these people, who are not able to earn a traditional income, an amazing opportunity to earn money.
“For me, it’s always been about helping people at the same time as building a business – there was no question really that that was what we’d do.”
All writers go through an online training programme to ensure their writing it up to scratch and then they control how much work they take on. While she has received several accolades – including being named in Forbes’ 30 under 30 and the Maserati 100 during 2016, it’s clear the biggest reward is the difference she can make to the lives of others.
“One of the most amazing stories I heard was about a young writer who’s had cancer for the last five years and hasn’t been able to leave the house,” she says. “We saw her mother and she said it meant so much to her to be writing.
“It gave her a reason to get out of bed in the morning and earn some money and move her life forward. She was so grateful and that’s inspiring for me and the whole team. Hopefully as we grow we can change the lives of thousands of people.”
Although the model can be replicated overseas, the Inkpact team is concentrating on the UK for now and recently raised £800,000 to expand the business, develop the tech and move into offering gifts alongside the handwritten letters. That goes with the initial £100,000 to get the business off the ground from an angel investor she had met through Enactus who told her he’d back anything she did.
There’s also been an offshoot, a business consultancy born out of the data Inkpact has collected in communication. “We’re becoming experts in behavioural science and what makes this thoughtful communication so powerful for marketing,” Pearce says.
“We can help businesses communicate with their customers in a personal way, and it’s understanding the science behind it.”
She’s achieved a lot at 26, but Pearce says she laughs at the awards hailing her as inspiring the next generation – “because I am that generation”.
The rewards are a huge testament to the team, she says, who all love their jobs in a business where fun is linked to productivity – there’s even a trampoline in their office.
“One thing I’ve learned is to just try and go for things because you never know where they’re going to lead,” she says. “I’m a problem solver if nothing else.
“There are always obstacles but it just needs clever thinking. It’s all about going for something and I had no idea I’d be here today. My philosophy has always been JFDI – just f***ing do it.”