Alex Kurkowski is the founder of a greeting card startup called Tellinga. He was born and raised in Houston, TX. After completing his undergraduate degree from Texas Tech University, he started a career in the alcohol industry. After three years of drinking for a living, he decided to transition his career to the pharmaceutical industry. After eight years of working in this space, he decided to pursue his MBA, where he graduated from Rice University in May of 2019. While attending Rice, he launched Tellinga in September 2018.
Where did the idea for Tellinga come from?
In 2018, I started attending Rice University as an MBA candidate. Already equipped with a career, and now maintaining a new MBA workload proved to be a tall task. I noticed that all my free time started to slip away, and so did a lot of my relationships with friends and family. To keep in touch, I started snail mailing them epistolary (literary/artisanal work in the form of letters) style illustrations. I would draw pictures in story form and snail-mail them out to loved ones piece by piece over time. Imagine a comic or any book with images being taken apart page by page, and then those pages snail-mailed out one by one throughout weeks or even months! For my friends and family, it was always a way to stay connected and create fun, personalized stories so that they could look forward to checking their mailboxes every day. My family and friends always enjoyed these stories because they were always goofy, consistently sent over time, and they were always drawn as the main characters in their own personalized “mailbox movie.”
For example, I sent the first two to my brother and mother when I started attending Rice University. The story about my brother was based on a running joke we shared about a trip to see the Kansas City Chiefs training camp in Wisconsin; my then-teenage brother asked tight end (Tony Gonzalez) to autograph his ball while fake crying about having come all the way from Houston to get his signature. The one to my mom referenced one of her nicknames: “Queen Mamadala,” a play off of Queen Amidala from Star Wars.
After telling a few friends at school that I was sending art stories through snail mail to friends and family, they suggested I turn my hobby into a business, so I decided to start Tellinga. Tellinga (like telling a story) is a Houston, TX-based start-up that creates personalized hand-drawn greeting cards that tell your story through snail mail. Story recipients receive illustrated stories about themselves based on unique preferences. It can be fun, dramatic, thoughtful… anything!
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
-6 am – 7 am: wake up and work on startup – Tellinga
-8 am – 5 pm: Career
-6 pm – 11 pm: back to working on startup – Tellinga
No day is ever the same.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Like every other entrepreneur. I naively dream big and bite off more than I can chew, fail, iterate, fail again (not as bad the second time), iterate, fail (getting closer to success), iterate, and then finally get it right.
What’s one trend that excites you?
1. Traditional greeting card disruption through small hipster startups like Tellinga.
2. Automation and the gig economy.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I type in a task/objective on a “to-do” list on my phone every time I think or hear something that sounds beneficial to the brand.
What advice would you give your younger self?
1. Care less about what people think (especially those that have never done it themselves).
2. Take more risks and fail as much as possible but learn from my mistakes.
3. Learn programming skills – coding.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Tellinga will reimagine and improve the traditional greeting card and the process in which it is delivered.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Spend less time researching and more time doing. Yes, it is important to research your industry, competition, business functions, etc. but sometimes I feel like aspiring entrepreneurs research their way out of starting a company because they develop paralysis by over-analysis. I feel like sometimes people research their way out of a great idea or spend way too much time and are late to the game.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Our distribution of sales:
-40% Press (Blogs, Magazines, Newspapers, Podcasts, Television, Radio) – all free
-25% Organic search (SEO)
-25% Word of mouth from previous customers
-10% social media (Equal between Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest)
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I regret not understanding the power of SEO and website optimization. As I started Tellinga, I had no clue how to build a website but I learned over 3-4 months of rigorous self-taught training. I also did not know how to use keywords or the power of backlinks so once again, after building the website, I had to go back and spend 3-4 long months of learning the trade. I would like to attribute a lot of success in listening to YouTube videos as I work and drive, so use my time efficiently.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Coffee Syringe – A personalized mobile “syringe” like dispenser that inserts all desired condiments into coffee without making a mess.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I paid a programmer $125 on Fiverr to integrate an automated email system that’s integrated into our operational platform and website to automate customer orders in an efficient and time-saving way.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Marketing (Hootsuite, Canva, Buzzstream) operations (Trello), and accounting/payroll (Quickbooks).
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
This is such a pretentious entrepreneurship question – it’s almost annoying to answer. The only things I read were my textbooks and case studies during my MBA. I would much rather learn by listening to podcasts while I work/drive, listening to mentors, and, most importantly failing. I just don’t have the time or energy to read as I am doing a million things all at once. I believe it is very inefficient to read books when you can learn the same thing while multitasking or faster through another medium.
I believe that if you have the time to read books, then you are not working hard enough on/in your business.
What is your favorite quote?
Walt Disney: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
- Assemble the right team and assign roles/responsibilities (numbers guy, marketing, legal, tech).
- Put together a pitch deck/business plan and then raise capital.
- Ideas are easy but the execution is hard. It’s a lot harder than one would think because of all the little things that quickly become the big things.
- If it were easy, then everyone would do it so get ready to sacrifice. Sleep for 6 hours instead of 8. Stop watching Netflix or picking up new shows. Still have a personal life but be prepared to go out less. Stop spending so much time online. Do everything faster and embrace exhaustion by the end of the day.
- Feel comfortable being uncomfortable because this is where the growth happens. Put your ego to the side, hustle your tail off, and quit talking about it and start being about it.