Techniques: Microcases


Problem: The hassle of direct mailings
Solution: A do-it-all Web site
Payoff: No manual labor or mail-house costs

David Gerdner, sole proprietor of tiny Next Generation Software Inc., avoided mailings like a man mortally allergic to stamps. "It's enough of a pain just sending out invoices," he says. "It's one of those annoying activities that take me away from my real work."

From his Ridgewood, N.J., home, Gerdner tends to the needs of the Texas officials who purchase his shrink-wrapped software for tracking real-estate-tax collections. His "real work" for Next Generation is providing support services for his less-than-computer-literate tax-collector clients. Their need for his technical assistance intensifies whenever changes in the tax code necessitate changes to the software. Gerdner pledges to respond to customers' questions within 48 hours, so he really has no time for assembling 500-piece mailings to prospective customers.

Because mail houses spurned his low volume, and smaller mom-and-pop shops wanted to charge him nearly a dollar per letter, direct mailings had earned lower status on Gerdner's to-do list than scheduling dental appointments. Then, last April, he happened upon a USA Today profile of an Internet company called ELetter Inc. (408-918-9180). The San Jose, Calif., start-up asserted that by using its services, ELetter customers could "quickly and easily outsource a postal mailing." An incredulous Gerdner turned to his computer and started to "play around" on the site. Fifteen minutes later--for "about $250"--he had completed a 500-piece mailing.

According to Gerdner, the mailing required little "real work." He merely assembled a mailing list on an Excel spreadsheet and drafted a letter in Word. ELetter accepts that information in several standard file formats and even allows users to type their addresses in one by one, though uploading files is pretty simple. Following the on-site instructions, Gerdner entered the two files' names and formats and clicked on "browse." The Web site's software then opened up a dialog box that assisted him in locating the two files on his hard drive for uploading. After indicating that he'd be sending letters, Gerdner used the "cost calculator" page (which accounts for such variables as paper type, number of sides printed on, and destination) to determine his mailing's price.

Because ELetter applies postage and bar codes and presorts all its mail, the Postal Service charges it only 27¢ for an unadorned domestic letter. Such a low rate, explains ELetter CEO Manish Mehta, is normally reserved for "high volumes, but because we aggregate, our customers get the discount." A $10 minimum keeps bargain hunters from sending five or six letters on the cheap.

One option Gerdner did not use--he didn't know it existed--was uploading an electronic version of his letterhead, a feature that ELetter offers to make mailings seem more homegrown. And he could have used ELetter's free-sampling service to send himself a letter before executing an actual mailing. Instead he ran his own quality-assurance test by addressing one of his 500 pieces to himself.

Now Gerdner is considering doing regionally specific mailings and even invoicing through ELetter. His one small complaint--he has to reload his list for each mailing--isn't nearly as annoying as going to a post office, where, he says, there is always "a line of 15 people."