The oldest employee at the Minneapolis start-up Inkit is also its founder and chief executive, Michael McCarthy.
The 25-year-old leads a tech and marketing company that, in contrast to the youth of its eight employees, concentrates on a way of reaching customers that has been around for more than a century — direct mail.
The company, which started earlier this year, created a way for businesses to design and print customized advertising and get it mailed in one streamlined process online. Typically, direct mail marketing efforts have to be designed, printed and distributed by separate, outside companies.
“There is all of this talk about digital being all the rage, but at the same time we are taking this old school medium and essentially digitizing it, making it easy for millennials, or somebody who has grown up with Amazon and wants that convenient factor,” McCarthy said. “We are trying to cut down the friction of direct mail, making it seamless and convenient.”
McCarthy and Abram Isola founded Inkit in 2016, but the actual product launched four months ago. Isola, who learned how to code at age 6, was previously head of data science and security at Lead Pages, a job he was hired for at the age of 18. McCarthy was a marketing manager at U.S. Bank.
Both of them grew up in Minneapolis, met online and became friends.
McCarthy first realized the potential for a tech company that customizes direct mail after a conversation he had with his mother. She wanted to start a website to sell some products online and asked him to help set it up.
“I thought about all the steps required to set up a site: WordPress, Google analytics, copy, content, creative, and an e-mail automation system, used to send people automated e-mail messages,” he said. “But then it hit me, wouldn’t it be super cool to have a physical object [a postcard] triggered from an abandoned cart?”
Online shoppers routinely begin to buy something, place it in their virtual shopping cart and then jump away from the site without completing a deal. McCarthy likened his thought to the practice by Google and others of creating custom ads based on the search history of users.
His mom didn’t end up using the idea, but McCarthy pitched it to his friend Isola and they decided to start Inkit out of their own pockets. “We wanted to bring traditional marketing strategies in the modern age using software,” Isola said.
One of the big components of Inkit’s software is its automation feature. For example, if a company wanted to send a postcard to customers who hadn’t been back to the store in the last 45 days, a marketer at the business could use Inkit to quickly create one and get it sent. An order can be however many or little as a customer wants. Inkit contracts with print firms across the country to handle printing and mailing.
“We view the direct-mail industry as a huge opportunity that’s been left behind by the internet,” McCarthy said. “In the past, sending direct mail was a very manual process. If I was a marketer or a small shop, I would have to call up my local printing company and slap the stamps on manually.”
He said with the rise of digital marketing in recent years, direct-mail cost has gone down, making this the perfect time to invest in it. Jisu Huh, director of graduate studies in the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota, said the direct-mail marketing comeback is linked to the increasing advertising clutter in digital media.
“The advantage of a printed direct-mail ad is they provide consumers with the experience of holding something tangible, which tends to attract more attention and be much more difficult to avoid than a digital ad,” Huh said.
McCarthy said marketers are also weighing the rising cost of digital ads with uncertainty about their impact. “What we found was the idea of direct mail was resonating with people,” he said.
Most of Inkit’s customers are small and midsize businesses. The company is focused on developing new product features, adding employees and growing its client base. McCarthy said Inkit uses its own product to spread direct mail advertisements about itself.
“I think the biggest thing is knowing what you’ve built is something people will pay for,” McCarthy said. “We are going to be the best in the world at direct mail.”