Don't Say it with Flowers
In a sappy industry, Bridget Hobson succeeded by taking an unsentimental journey. Has she pushed the envelope too far?
(FORTUNE Small Business) – The economy sucks. Be glad you got this card," reads a birthday greeting designed by Bridget Hobson. Getting married? "This better be the only wedding card I ever give you," warns another of her acerbic cards. Clearly Hobson, 33, is not interested in choking her customers up with sentimental Hallmark moments. Instead of hearts and flowers, she prefers graphs and charts. One of her bestselling cards this year shows a pie chart with "drunk," "naked," and "drunk and naked" sectors that reflect how the sender would like to celebrate a birthday with the recipient. "Drunk and naked" is the biggest wedge of the pie, of course.
Yes, Hobson makes cards for every occasion you can think of--and some you can't. Her breakup card lists several reasons its sender couldn't sever ties in person, including "My lawyer advised against it." That, she concedes, has the harshest tone of all the items she makes. The folks who buy it generally use it as an amusing decoration rather than for its intended purpose--or so Hobson likes to tell herself. Says Jackie Long, owner of The Last Say, a specialty store in Boulder: "Her cards say everything you really want to say, like 'I better not catch you regifting.' " Long cites Hobson's "image-driven, big, bold format" and her originality as the cards' main selling points. Her hottest-selling Hobson item is a graduation card that says, simply, "Smart Ass."
Hobson's inability to find greeting cards that reflected her sensibility eventually led her to produce her own. "There are so many warm and fuzzy cards out there," says Hobson, who is based in San Francisco. "I felt there had to be a niche for these drier, sarcastic cards." Indeed there is. Hobson launched her company, Quiplip, in 2002. She expects to end this year netting $240,000 on revenues of $400,000, doubling last year's haul. In 2001, while working as a freelance copywriter, Hobson turned out some offbeat card designs, using check-off boxes and fill-in-the-blanks so that senders could choose whether they wanted to be sarcastic or sincere. Encouraged by her artist friends, Hobson soon began hawking her creations at art shows for $3 apiece. Soon she dubbed her enterprise Quiplip, a name that referred to both "a witty retort and someone giving you lip," Hobson says. She quickly found ten stores--half were local San Francisco shops, and the rest were in her native Chicago--that paid her asking price of $18 a dozen to stock them. In May 2002, at the National Stationery Show in New York City, her cards won over Kate's Paperie, an influential five-store chain in Connecticut and New York. Getting on the shelves at Kate's, which began ordering from her a month after the show, generated roughly another 20 accounts.
Since coming out with her first collection of cards, Hobson has designed three more under the Quiplip mantle, including the one-liner "Blunt" cards and this year's "Graphitudes," decorated with graphs and charts. Hobson has a studio and an office in her home, plus a spacious basement in which she stores about 150,000 cards. Not one of them is a sympathy card, despite many requests from retailers. "No way," says Hobson. "Death is a line I do not want to cross."
WHAT SHE MAKES, WHERE IT GOES
BRIDGET HOBSON'S get-well card reads, "Can I try some of your painkillers?" Sound sick? Here's how such cards paid off in 2004.