Memes, emoticons and 140-character messages bombard us every day in a digital world, making handwritten messages all the more special. If Tomer Alpert has his way, handwritten cards will be the wave of the future. The CEO and co-founder of Felt spent three years working without pay and invested $90,000 of his own money to build an app that creates handwritten greetings.

For me it’s about having Freedom,” Alpert said. “So being in the hole was fine as long as I felt like it was getting me closer to that dream. And in fact while I was in the hole I was free. So it was worth it and now it’s even more stressful, and still worth it. Freedom over money. Freedom in the face of fear. Freedom is worth it all.”

Felt, only available for Apple devices, lets you create handwritten cards using your finger or a stylus. You even personalize the envelope by handwriting the to and from addresses with the app, which also stores your addresses. You add your own photos or choose one of its designs.

A boutique print shop in Dallas prints your custom-made card on premium Mohawk paper, stuffs it into a craft-paper envelope, applies a first-class stamp by hand and mails it via the U.S. Postal Service. It costs $3 per card or you can mail up to four cards in one envelope to one recipient for $6. Felt also offers a subscription service in which customers can send three cards a month for $5.

Seeking Stamp of Approval on Shark Tank

Alpert appeared in the season 7 finale (May 2016) of ABC’s hit business reality show Shark Tank in the last ditch effort to save his cash-starved company. He sought a $200,000 investment for 6% of the company, valuing it at $3.3 million. Felt was “out of cash and out of steam” after going through two major product changes.  Money from other investors including the Foundry Group in Boulder, Colo. had apparently dried up.

“Shark Tank was my hail mary to save Felt,” Alpert said. “I was so stressed because I couldn’t afford to screw it up.”

Preparing for my appearance on the show was the most stressful thing I have ever done,” Alpert added. “And I was evicted from two apartments while building my first company so I know stress.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban dismissed Felt’s 60,000 app downloads as a pittance especially given that many other online competitors offer customizable greeting cards. Alpert said he wanted to target professionals and brides, who send 75 handwritten thank notes on average after a wedding. Felt could partner with online wedding registries. It also provides a marketplace for designers to sell their card designs. Cybersecurity king Robert Herjavec passed, contending that there was nothing proprietary.

Then the heavens above answered Alpert’s prayers. O’Leary Ventures founder Kevin O’Leary said he could decrease Felt’s customer acquisition costs from $8 to zilch by incorporating it with another one of his Shark Tank companies, The free registry lets couples collect money from friends and family to pay for their honeymoon. O’Leary, aka Mr. Wonderful, offered $225,000 for 10% equity.

Mark Cuban, real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran and QVC queen Lori Greiner all said they’ll make Alpert’s decision easy. They all bowed out and insisted that he take Mr. Wonderful’s offer. Accepting the deal was a no-brainer. Afterward, Alpert called his wife with tears of joy and relief.

“The one single thing that led to my success was being authentic to myself on how I was feeling and to everyone else, including the sharks,” Alpert said. “I leaned into my true self and let everyone else in despite being totally afraid of what other people thought of me.”

A Story to Write Home About

Alpert launched the Felt iPad app in May 2013 in time for Mother’s Day and rolled out an iPhone version the following year. He released a complete version in January 2016 and started marketing it. Apple began featuring Felt in its iTunes app store a month later.  The Telluride, Colo.-based company sent 30,000 cards between launch and May 2016. Alpert hopes to mail 30,000 cards a month and blast to 1 million cards a month within five years.

Following on the success of Felt’s Mother’s Day and Mother-in-Law card collection, it’s working on a Father’s Day collection. The Mother’s Day cards were shared more than 4,000 times on Instagram, got more than 30,000 likes and 4,000 comments.

Android apps are much more widely used given that iPad and iPhone have 25% of the tablet market and 40% of the U.S. smartphone market. But Alpert created Felt for iOS because it has more users who shop on their devices. While Alpert had ample experience in business-to-business software development, he had no experience in app development or business-to-consumer software. He learned as he went along and by asking a lot of questions. He partnered with David Little of Humanaut, an advertising and design firm in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Alpert grew up in Dallas, he started a software business right after high school with his father. They turned it into a multi-million dollar software company that created car commercials for used-car dealers based on their inventory data, photos and car specs. After 10 years, he felt he needed to move on.

He moved his family Telluride, Colo. in June 2011 to live closer to the mountains and ski.  He worked remotely for a software company based in Austin for two years. One day his employer gave him an ultimatum to move to Austin or be laid off. He chose the latter. Two weeks into unemployment, he came up with the idea for Felt while driving home from a dinner party with his wife, Gracie.

“Gracie said: ‘We should send them a thank you card.’ But it was late and the stores were closed so I thought, ‘There must be an app for this.’ Turns out the apps that existed only let you type your message, which didn’t feel personal enough.

“We wanted to send a personal note saying how much we appreciated the invitation and that we had a great time. And that sentiment felt like it needed to be handwritten by us.

“Instead of typed. So we were off to the races. And a year later we had built a beta version. And just this January we released our feature-complete version.”

Making an Old Ritual the Wave of the Future

In a world full of typed messages and printed greeting cards, Felt would stand out by providing a way to create handwritten cards, Alpert reasoned.

A handwritten note feels so much more important, and has so much more personality. And I think that is the beginning of what sets us apart,” Alpert said. “But that’s not enough. People want to send great cards. They want to incorporate their photos. And they want to use cards to send gifts. People want a way to make their loved ones feel loved.”

Felt also lets users send real gifts and create four-panel, accordion-style cards that recipients display on their on mantel or coffee table like a one-of-kind-piece of art.

“Early on we knew that we wanted you to not know the card came from an app, meaning that we wanted the mailed product to feel 100% authentic and amazing,” Alpert said. “So we spent a ton of time designing and sourcing. We decided to mill our own envelopes because no one made a 5-inch by 5-inch square envelope using Kraft paper with a baronial back flap as opposed to a squared-off flap, which felt businessy.”

Alpert specifically chose to print the cards on high-quality Mohawk paper because of its special feel and it didn’t crack when folded. Artizen Studios in Dallas fills the orders.

“Every detail of printing, to folding, to the micro-perforations between card folds was key to nail,” Alpert said. “Artizen’s eye for detail and their desire to reach hundreds of thousands of people made them the perfect partner as well.”

As far as business advice goes, Alpert recommends Product Hunt, an online mall of digital products. He insists entrepreneurs attend Pathways in Dallas read Good To Great by James Collins.

“Those two things combined will change your life,” he said.

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