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Show HN: Postacard – Text a Photo to Send as a Postcard Anywhere on Earth for $3 (postacard.io)
218 points by traviswingo on Sept 5, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments

As a fun thing at steampunk conventions, I have the Aetheric Message Machine Company, Ltd. People at steampunk conventions can send in SMS text messages, which are printed on an antique Teletype machine in a brass and glass case. Recipients get a yellow envelope and a message on classic yellow Teletype paper, delivered by costumed messengers who call out "Telegram for ..." . We set up a full telegraph office, with signs, props, and staff.[1]

The system uses Twilio. Twilio sends the messages to a web server which returns an immediate SMS reply to the sender, then queues the message for typing. We don't charge anything for this. I considered getting an SMS short code and charging for messages, but it wouldn't generate enough revenue to be worth it.

We did a thorough job on this, with a web site, videos, code on Github, a modest social media presence, and some press coverage. Zoominfo thinks it's a real company, with revenue of $2,400,000 and 12 employees.[2] One wonders where Zoominfo gets its numbers. They didn't come from us.

[1] http://www.aetherltd.com/volunteer.html

[2] http://www.zoominfo.com/c/The-Aetheric-Message-Machine-Compa...

That is very neat! What kind of volume do you get in a convention day? How do your couriers know where to deliver the message? It seems strange that the recipient doesn't need to visit the telegraph office; I imagine the best part of the experience would be actually seeing your setup.

Since someone asked...

How do your couriers know where to deliver the message?

Senders have to send messages in the form "name@location : msg". "Location" has to be in a list of known convention areas ("VENDORS", "AUTHORS", "BAR", etc.) There's an autoresponder to help them get this right, and piles of postcards around the con with instructions. We didn't have that the first year we did this, and the messengers were run ragged calling out names over and over again in various locations. About 80% of the messages get successfully delivered now. We do about 200 messages a day.

It seems strange that the recipient doesn't need to visit the telegraph office

It's in a highly visible location. The first year we were in that location, we made the office look so official that attendees didn't think they should go in. We had to rearrange the place, adding a few chairs for visitors, a water cooler, and "please come in" signs. Now we're also an information center for the convention and get lots of visitors.

What makes this work are the two young people who staff the office. They're both experienced actors; one works Shakespeare festivals and the other is a stage combat instructor.

If you want more details, we have a manual for our operators.[1]

[1] http://www.aetherltd.com/public/othermanuals/operatormanual0...

Fantastic! The tape printer is a nice touch, too.

This service is probably using the Lob API https://lob.com/services/postcards

It actually costs $1.62 to do the exact same thing, of sending a photo with some text, international included.

At-cost version web version of this using Lob API: https://github.com/scott113341/post

This is awesome!

Is it the exact same thing, though? Can I send Lob a picture via SMS with some text and an address and have a postcard sent? If not, then maybe that's where the extra cost comes from.

It most certainly does not cost $1.38/customer to subsidize (minimial) server costs of an SMS bot.

It cost as much as they charge for their service. I am pretty sure it does not cost $1.62 for lob.com to send that mail too, business need to make money, unless you are spending investors money...

The brilliant part is that it does most certainly not cost that and that is the profit the site makes. I believe people will find it cheap enough to use this service. Buying postcards and stamps costs about the same.

I don't understand your issue with this. Are you opposed to making profit or are you jealous? I know that I am a bit jealous of not coming up with this.

Why are you jealous when you can easily create your own website that does the same exact thing. You can think of your own added bonus and charge a different price.

Too often we feel like because someone else did something first, or theirs already became popular, that the opportunity is over. That denies the world your variation, which might turn out to be much better.

True words. I think many of us, me at least, have a special appreciation of the original and part of the fun is to think of something yourself. That does not mean, as you say, that we couldn't do the same thing, if not better/more for you.

Maybe I will give it a go ;)

So what? White labels exist for all kinds of services. If they package it up into an easy-to-use app and market it well, and provide some kind of customer support, then who cares?

MMS, possible, not likely with SMS...

That's a healthy profit margin.

I figure theirs a dark basement somewhere with hundreds of people cramming out hundreds of post cards a day industrial revolution style.

Much less if its domestic US, also lob is charging $0.36 for printing/handling, not a ton (they charge $.70)

Seems similar to "thesimplepostcard" https://www.thesimplepostcard.com but for a dollar more. I used simple postcard, but the photo arrived damaged. I'd be willing to give this a shot if I had some sort of assurance that the photo would arrive undamaged.

I'm definitely not the first person to come up with this. But, as a side project hacked away over a weekend it was a lot of fun to build!

As for the damaged postcard...once it hits the route it's pretty much beyond our control. If your mail-person isn't careful with the mail, it'll get bent, folded, damaged...

Sorry I didn't mean to knock it/you in any way. its pretty awesome building something like this. Even if someone's done it before, as others have said this is a marketing game so you can totally make it into something bigger. You have their phone numbers, if you want you could send people text messages before christmas reminding them to send postcards.

thats fair. I figured higher quality card stock/printing might help prevent scratches.

Isn't that more likely a postal service issue outside of the control of the company sending the postcard?

It is, but your chances of getting the card through are reasonable if your card stock is adequate. I've used Ilford postcard paper (a wet-process darkroom paper) and it is thick enough for surviving normal postal processes.

At risk of hijacking this thread...

Try my friend's app! https://textmycards.com/

I tried your friend's app but I bailed out when it was unclear where my payment details were being sent.

Thanks for trying it--it's my service, launched around Mother's Day of this year. I should make it clearer--it's secured with Stripe. All payment info is stored on Stripe.

That's what I figured but it wasn't obvious so I stopped. Could your payment page also use HTTPS?

Yeah, it does use HTTPS, but I'll definitely make it clearer. Thanks for the feedback! Cool to see multiple versions of the same underlying service being built. Competition on price, UI/UX (slight differences) , and marketing is what it will come down to. :) Good stuff, Postacard--seriously mean it! Fun little hack indeed.

Awesome! ;)

That site days US only. So that's useless for most people.

Main postal service in Sweden (government owned) have run a similar service for multiple years (could not find exact number but would guess 5+ years)[0]. Lower cost at 2.10 USD (18 SEK). They also have apps for the service [1].

[0] http://rv4.posten.se/#page/index/sid=1473077144846 [1] https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/riktiga-vykort/id444458799?m...

Hey everyone. I'd like to thank you all for the feedback and for using the service. There is a tremendous amount of traffic coming in right now (I really didn't expect this to be on the front page, lol) and it's pointed out quite a few bugs which I've since fixed. If the service wasn't replying, please try again and it should work now!

If you have any issues, please send me an email at info@postacard.io and I'll follow up with you asap. Thank you!

don't worry, the traffic will stop coming pretty soon.

Isn't HN great for pitching your app??

isn't milk white and sky blue?

Kind of a silly comment, but is this really anywhere on Earth? What about Death Valley? Antarctica? North Korea? Syria? Siberia?

I'd imagine they use the profit from domestic shipments to help subsidize more costly international ones, if it's really $3 regardless of destination.

Global forever stamps are $1.20 at retail, so that's the upper bound on their postage expense and covers all UPU countries[1] (incl DPRK, Syria, Russia, etc). Antartica actually only requires domestic postcard rates ($0.34) as it has a domestic zip code (96598).

[1]: http://www.upu.int/en/the-upu/member-countries.html

I'm quite surprised to hear that! Thanks for sharing.

An an American living in Siberia, I can say that Siberia is pretty civilized. The government mail is pretty reliable for things that don't look "interesting". [1] I've personally received postcards from the USA without a problem. It's certainly not comparable to North Korea or Syria.

[1] The Russian post has a reputation for stealing foreign mail that looks like it might contain money, information about money, or credit cards. I haven't tried it myself: for important stuff I use FedEx or DHL.

Where exactly in Siberia?

"The postcard will show up at the address within a week"

In South Africa if I send a letter from one city to another, it can take a week to arrive. For international mail, I usually work on time frames of about a month. I've known stuff to arrive 6 months after being sent. So even if they are able to dispatch post cards from SA, I'd be surprised if the could keep this promise. Going to give it a try though.

At what stage and how do you supply payment details? I don't see that in the example.

Neat offering at a good price. International message rates could be high. It'll be great if you could integrate Whatsapp/Telegram/WeChat :)

Seconding Telegram here. I recently learned that making a Telegram bot takes no time at all, and the custom keyboards make them great to use.

I've always thought there should be more sms based services. It would be a lot easier for me to text the pizza guy than to call...

The local pizza and shawarma* shops are always a pain to call. Half the time when they speak I don't understand their broken Dutch and they always sound impatient and don't repeat back, making me wonder whether they know what I want. When I ask for confirmation they sound exasperated, as if I'm asking them to spell out a fifty item order letter by letter.

So yeah, sms based service would be great here (or rather, something that doesn't cost money when done internationally). On the other hand, this postcard service sounds like it's going to cost me 20 bucks when I take a picture from another continent, which is exactly the use-case here. A 160 byte sms already costs like a euro to send from outside of the EU.

* This is what google translate tells me "shoarma" is in English. I've never seen that word before, not sure it's a thing in America. They're everywhere here.

Gyros (Greek version) is more common in the US, in my experience, but that may vary by region. Arabic -> shawarma, Turkish -> doner, Greek -> gyros -- all the same basic idea of meat cooked on a rotating vertical spit, sliced off and served on flat bread.

Gyros we get in greek restaurants; döner is usually sold in the same place as shawarma. Then you do have similar places, okay!

Well... That's what they're called in Texas!

But yeah SMS services are more rare than they should be.

There are some SMS chatbots which answer questions, but few can handle a stateful conversation, even at the level of "do you want fries with that".

Sending pictures as "text", isn't that a MMS (multi-media SMS)? Which, as far as I know, is hugely expensive; I'd much rather upload a picture to a website, Telegram bot or email.

No, no.

When they say "text a photo," they mean "describe the photo in your own words," then somebody from their staff goes out looking for a postcard that matches the description and mails it for you.

TBH, I think they could just use Google Images to find a picture that matches the description and print that. No need to pay someone $3 to travel to the other side of the globe and buy a postcard of that Japanese temple, in this day and age. But what do I know of business.

On the website it clearly sends a picture via a messaging application, and it says "text message" above (I assume as opposed to imessage).

I think your sarcasm goggles are broken ;-)

A few comments:

Can you offer international numbers for this, or is your main market the US?

You don't specify on your site where the postcard is being sent from. I assume the US?

It may be an idea to ask specifically for a country to send to, unless perhaps it's in the US. You don't seem to mention this in the text instructions but have Surrey as an example, which is in the United Kingdom. Perhaps a bit confusing? :)

Photo examples of how the finished postcard looks (particularly the back - font, size...etc.) would be helpful I feel.

Just a few comments/ideas, feel free to ignore!

Too bad I can't send it from anywhere on Earth. Which is probably a more common use case.

Let me be a bit of a stickler about your security statements. This assumes you have to text your credit card information to use this service, which it appears is true?

It's not correct to say it's "about as secure and encrypted as it gets". GSM/CDMA networks do employ encryption to and from towers, but it's weak encryption by modern TLS standards, and who knows what happens to it when it leaves the tower? It's certainly not end-to-end encrypted between your customer and your server and could be silently eavesdropped at multiple points.

And if you're receiving and processing the SMS that contains the card details it's disingenuous to say "[we] have no idea what your credit card numbers actually are". Yes you do. You may discard that information after you trade it with Stripe for a token, but you had access to it, and the customer has no guarantee that you've discarded it.

We actually don't ask for you to text your credit card number. When the time comes for a first time payment, we send you a secure link and you need to fill out a form (card number, exp date). After that, we use the card on file unless you say otherwise.

Payment form and saved card details are all handled by Stripe, and the info never even hits our servers.

Oh, great, carry on then :) Might try to be clear about that on the website.

Is there some mechanism for instructing you to forget my credit card details (destroy the token on Stripe)?

Did you see the simplepostcard post from a few months ago when you built this?

Yours is an exact replica fwiw.

Email would be better than text since most places have wifi/data and then it wouldn't matter if you are using your home sim or a temporary away sim.

It would also solve the "what if someone else inherits my phone number" comment also in this thread.

Perhaps I'm just old and crusty, but the "joy" of a postcard is that I took the time to hand write something on the back of it. For $3, I'd rather the person sending me this share the picture over a cup of coffee.

How is this different from http://sharktankblog.com/business/postcard-on-the-run/

and that closed last year.

Products like these mostly depend on marketing. Just because one of the similar type closed doesn't mean another product will fail, since the product itself is only part of the equation.

Postacard isn't an iPhone app to download. You text the photo to our number and we send it as a postcard.

That's pretty smart! I can totally see myself using this service. Using an SMS interface instead of an app or a website is great, as it is inherently cross-platform, and reduces time to market and maintenance work.

Neat! What's the tech stack? How do you parse the addresses?

How do you text photos? By url? MMS?

this is pretty slick! I like how the entire interface is SMS based


Just tried texting a photo to +1 650 285 1713 - getting a "Message not sent error". I'm able to MMS photos to other people in the +1 650 area code, so not an issue on my side I don't think...

It's basically a copy of https://getcourier.co/ but through SMS instead of chatbot. Pricing is the same as well.

nice work - I've been wanting a service that sends the picture in an envelope, instead of postcard style. I think opening an envelope is more fun and I don't like that anyone can see your picture when it's sent in the open.

I've been using Bill Atkinson's app for postcards (~$1.50/postcard) and it has worked great! http://www.billatkinson.com/Pages/aboutPhotoCard.html

How do I fill in my payment information through a text message?

Scroll down and it says they use Stripe and "We will send you a link to a payment form and save the new card for future postcards."

For a first time payment, you will fill out a very short form. After that, card info is saved for later use.

(how) do you handle the case where someone gets a new number, and someone else gets their old one?

It's a bit far-fetched, I know.

I'm guessing they send a Stripe link for you to fill out your payment information

This is a great implementation. You should ask people to opt in and then robo tweet their photos as a they come in as a marketing tactic.

Sent a MMS to +16502851713 from AUS and haven't received any form of response as yet (20 mins ago).

Just curious, what did that cost?

Also the owner responded elsewhere in the thread that they had some issues and you should try again.

Are you related to a Dennis by chance? Cool service, definitely adding the number to my contacts!

Anywhere? North pole? ISIS?

What a great service!

I can't find the source code.

Are they going to add other planets as well?

Awesome Article. Did not thought that it would be so cheap and easy to setup exit node. Thanks very much.

Wrong thread?

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