bringing snail mail back

Houston entrepreneur has big plans for his art-driven, storytelling card company

Tellinga creates artistic and personal cards for every occasion. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski can't count how many times he's gone looking for a greeting card — before some holiday, birthday, or special occasion — and found nothing that suited his recipient. He doesn't remember when he started editing them, either. For a few years now, he's been taking markers and pens to the greeting cards, blacking out words and scribbling new ones to say what he wanted to.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

But he can remember a few moments that changed that for him — and for Houston. When he started sending his family cards he'd sketched that depicted scenes from their lives, his classmates in the Rice University MBA program told him that, despite his pharmaceuticals background, this might actually be the right business for him.

Tellinga is hardly just a maker of greeting cards; it's in the business of storytelling, and customers can have personalized artworks delivered right to their mailboxes — a site for reclaiming, Kurkowski says, from the dread of bills and marketing materials.

"I'm trying to tap back into the tangible, physical and real side of life," Kurkowski says.

A year ago, Kurkowski sent his first Tellingas — short for "Telling a Story" — as an official business. He made the initial cards himself, but soon couldn't meet the demand on his own. Today, Tellingas are crafted from a cohort of more than 20 artists who are mostly Houston-based and, as Kurkowski says, make his work look like garbage.

Customers can select a few purchase options for customers, ranging from a one-panel story to 12 scenes. They upload a photo of the people they want drawn and submit their idea for the artwork on the website — they can create renderings of real-life events they want to remember or they might tell a wacky, fantasy story. For Kurkowski, the most important part is receiving the art over time — for example, the 12-panel pieces are sent over a one-month period.

Currently, Tellinga's only full-time staff is Kurkowski, but he's looking to hire a CTO to manage the growing demands of the website, where orders are placed. He also wants Tellinga to grow into the Airbnb model, with artists posting their works on his site and setting the price of their commissions themselves. Kurkoswki will be raising funds in the next investment round.

Until then, he's hoping to grow Tellinga's ability to turn stories into keepsakes — by offering ways to frame and preserve them, and by introducing a subscription model, so that customers can select days from of an entire calendar year to send their personalized artworks—constantly tapping back into that physical side of life like Kurkowsi wants.

"It's just cool because it's different," Kurkowski says. "It's getting away from the digital media world."

Young professionals can dive into fun travel with this Houston-based company. Photo courtesy of Here and Now Travel

Work-life balance for a young professional is hard. There's the dream of travel but the nightmare of planning. Then there's the challenge of working with limited vacation days and finding a friend whose schedule lines up.

To the rescue comes Houston-based Here & Now Travel, which aims to create a vacation free of stress and full of memorable experiences and offers adventurous group travel specifically for young professionals.

When discussing the inspiration for starting their company, cofounder Alex Coleman tells CultureMap that he and his wife and fellow cofounder, Elise, were caught between the benefits and drawbacks of individual versus group travel.

They loved the freedom of solo traveling but not the potential feelings of isolation and vulnerability. When it came to traveling with friends, they enjoyed the bonding and security in a group but not all the work involved with navigating everyone's schedules and preferences during planning.

"We decided to create a travel company that combined the best of both worlds," Coleman says. "A company that gave people the flexibility of going to their desired destinations at their desired time, without losing the experience of traveling with a group of awesome people."

As young professionals themselves, the Colemans also wanted their company to consider the typically low number of vacation days their target clients have. That's why Here & Now trips take advantage of weekends and holidays so participants only have to take a maximum of three days off from work.

Here & Now Travel currently has six trips planned for 2020: two to Costa Rica, two to Colombia, and two to Mexico. On these trips, the itineraries lean towards adventure activities and cultural experiences.

For example, their next trip scheduled for January 9 to January 13 to Costa Rica includes exploring Juan Castro Blanco National Park, zip lining through the rainforest, learning how to make tortillas with a local family, and more.

"We shy away from crowded tourist attractions. We pride ourselves on showing travelers hidden gems of our destinations, be it the hidden Mayan cenote in Tulum where we have to be blessed by the community's Mayan Shaman before entering, or one of the region's largest waterfall in Costa Rica which sits on the land of a small farming family," says Coleman. "Through these tucked away, amazing places, we get to see things others typically don't, and have true interaction with the communities we are visiting.

Each Here & Now package includes private transportation to and from the airport and for the duration of the trip, shared three or four-star accommodation, all breakfasts and lunches, and all entrance fees and itinerary activity costs. Flights, dinners, and the required travel insurance are not included.

If you decide to join one of their trips, you can expect to be in a group of between six and 14 young professionals — with 14 being the absolute max as Here & Now Travel doesn't want to overrun the visited communities or contribute to the overuse of their resources.

"Large groups in charter buses feel clunky and seem like you are trampling or disrupting the destinations you are visiting," says Coleman. "We cap our trips at 14 people, allowing us to be good stewards of the communities we visit, and maintain our feel as a small group of travelers...and not tourists."

Each travel group is also accompanied by a Here & Now host who handles all the logistics as well as a local guide, which is a feature that Coleman believes sets their company apart from others.

"Travelers on Here & Now trips are always led by someone who calls that destination home," he explains. "Our guides have an emotional bond to the places we explore. Their passion and connection to their homes is something that can't be replicated."

Along with employing these local guides, Here & Now Travel works with local drivers, restaurants, and lodging as a way to ensure the money they spend in each community stays in that community.

As a further testament to their commitment to sustainable tourism, Here & Now Travel plans to offset their carbon footprint, which is mainly caused by airline travel, by donating to the nonprofit Trees for Houston in 2020.

The company also has plans to increase their number of trips to once per month and to eventually include European destinations.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.