Starling Portrait Series – Mean Mail: Saying the unsaid

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

Our next entrepreneur is Starling business customer Vicky Simmons, founder of Mean Mail.

The UK is undoubtedly a nation of greeting card lovers. Birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, new jobs, new homes, illness – you name it, there’s a card for it. And yet, how many of us can say that the cards we buy for our friends and family truly reflect the relationships we have with them? 

That’s exactly the conundrum Londoner, Vicky Simmons, has faced for several years. She launched Mean Mail 2017 “to create an antidote to the aesthetically pleasing but sentimentally challenged greetings card market”.

“I started Mean Mail because I couldn’t find a decent Valentine’s card,” she begins. “So, I wrote one that said ‘I’d like to keep this when we split up’. It started a conversation about all the things I wished a card could say but didn’t and it grew from there.”

They’re still together, in case you’re wondering!

Mean Mail makes greetings cards that reflect the way we speak to our closest friends and family. “They’re about saying the unsaid,” Vicky explains. “…about creating a smile inside, about making someone’s day by sending a card that shows you totally ‘get’ them.”

‘When’, not ‘if’

For many, starting a business is something they almost stumble upon. A decision to roll with something they started as a hobby or a side hustle. But for Vicky, owning a business has been a long time coming.

“Starting my own business has always been a case of ‘when’, not ‘if,’ she says.

“My experience from advertising has taught me a lot about branding, strategy and originality. I’ve got to work with some incredible brands over the past 10 years and interestingly the bigger brands get, the more fearful they become of making mistakes.

“I’ve always had side projects on the go throughout my career and Mean Mail is the one that I couldn’t stop thinking about so I decided to make it happen.”

For Vicky, being her own boss after a 10 year career in advertising offers a thrill and satisfaction that is a direct result of the hard work she has put into the business.

Originality in a dying market

Since launching with just 16 cards in mid 2017, Mean Mail has been stocked in over 100 stores internationally from Liberty in London to Compendium Design Store in Australia. It has worked on collaborations and commissions for brands like Nike London, Shiseido and Candy Kittens and has been featured in publications ranging from The Sunday Times, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, The Evening Standard, Elle and on BBC Radio 1Xtra.

The UK’s greetings card market is worth more than £1.75 billion to the economy. And despite the Covid-19 pandemic bucking the trend, like many other traditional industries, it’s in decline. 

Mean Mail has seen a steady increase in sales since launch. And Vicky attributes the business’ success to its originality. Its cards are based on the way we speak to our closest friends, for those with a sarcastic sense of humour. They’re not for casual acquaintances and show how well you know someone.

She says: “I’m driven by originality and believe this is one of the main contributing factors to our success. If you’re going to enter an incumbent market, you need to do things differently.”

Mean Mail’s originality of design and messaging is also forming new trends in the market. Traditionally, more than 90% of greetings cards are purchased by women. Mean Mail, however, sees nearly 40% of its cards bought by men. 

No compromise

In her quest to grow a truly unique business, Vicky refuses to compromise on her ambition of building something really value-driven. 

Since launching, Mean Mail’s customers have identified a number of copycat businesses since launch. 

“It’s a sign to us that we’re doing things right.”

“We are single minded and have not diversified our product for the sake of it,” she adds. “It is only now in our fourth year of business that we’re looking to diversify our income streams into other products.

Mean Mail’s values stretch far beyond originality and creativity, however. All cards are produced in small batches, and only upscaled for bestsellers. Most of its cards are occasion-neutral, meaning seasonal ranges can be sold all year round. 

Aspiring to secure B-Corp certification, Vicky believes that sustainability and transparency should be at the core of every new start-up. 

“Each card is made using FSC certified and recycled materials. Website orders are packed ‘naked’ – without the need for cellophane. We give wholesale customers the option to receive their orders ‘nested’ with the envelope inside the card or wrapped in biodegradable open-top cellophane that can be reused. There’s no compromise on this for us,” Vicky explains.

‘2020. WTF’

The Covid-19 pandemic caused unprecedented challenges for entrepreneurs across almost every industry within the UK economy. The greetings cards industry, however, bucked the trend and witnessed strong growth. 

Still in the start-up phase of business at the start of the pandemic, we caught up with Vicky to find out what it has meant for Mean Mail and what the future looks like.

How have you and the business fared since the start of the pandemic?

Since the start of the pandemic our business model has turned on its head. Pre-2020 the majority of Mean Mail’s business came via wholesale. In March 2020, these orders briefly stopped dead and orders in progress were cancelled. Despite COVID-19 having a massive impact on our wholesale orders, our website has seen healthy growth. Rebuilding our consumer site at the start of lockdown with new product offers including bundles and a handwritten direct-to-recipient card service has helped boost our sales massively and increase our average order value. 

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 2020 were a big success with so many customers opting to get us to hand write their cards and send directly to the recipients. One of my favourite customer messages said ‘Dear Mother, Please stay inside and learn how to use the internet.’

Christmas 2020 was our best performing year ever with our pandemic related Christmas cards selling out multiple times over. Our ‘2020. WTF’ card really struck a chord.

Since March 2021 and the start of unlocking we’ve seen a decline in website sales and an increase in wholesale. Right now, wholesale is really strong for us and the website has quietened down. This will all change again in a few weeks as we approach Christmas. 

What has been the biggest factor in your success?

I think the biggest factor in our success has been the timeliness of the products. We wouldn’t have had such a successful Christmas if we hadn’t acknowledged what was going on in our designs. Mean Mail is based on the way you speak to your closest friends and relatives so cards that echoed the sentiments that everyone was feeling at the time really had an impact. It makes it tricky because traditionally products start being designed around nine months to a year, then go into production around six months before the date. However, we need to work with much shorter product development times if we want them to be really reflective of the mood at the time. 

The convenience of our hand writing service has been really helpful for customers as it provides a personal touch you can’t get from a card with a typed message. 

What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?

The time out of the pandemic gave us the opportunity to build our wholesale website with Orderspace, which has made the wholesale process so much more easier and efficient for both stockists and us (it integrates with Xero too). 

We’ve taken on a new studio that has a great shared space that we’re planning to use for events. 

We’re currently exploring new products, some of which will be launching later this year. The focus for 2021 will be about growing our international wholesale.  

With Mean Mail, Vicky really is bringing an industry that is nearly two centuries old into the modern age. And she’s doing it without compromising on her values. Like many entrepreneurs, she has adapted to the challenges of the pandemic and is in a stronger position for it, setting up for a bright, bright future ahead.