So, you think you need a big idea to start your own firm? How about an idea the size of a business envelope? That’s where Ann DeLaVergne started. Looking at the stack of used envelopes in her recycling, it occurred to her that a lot of small envelopes could make a big impact.

Back of the Envelope Math

Further investigation told Ann that indeed there are a lot of small envelopes. At least 81 billion return envelopes are produced and sent through the US mail each year. Tough on the environment, using 1.8 billion tons of wood, generating 1 billion pounds of greenhouse gases and requiring more than 71 trillion BTUs of energy to process and transport. Tough on the bottom line too, as return envelopes represent between 15% and 45% of a business’ direct mailing costs.

Bulk Post

As an organic farmer with a philosophy of reuse, Ann already saved large envelopes to send out again herself. But what if she could apply that thinking to 81 billion return envelopes? With that idea, Ann founded EcoEnvelopes, a firm built on the simple goal of using one envelope instead of two for round trip business mail transactions.

“My purpose is to take e a product that people use everyday and make it more environmentally responsible; it’s my passion. It drives me forward every day.”ù ?Ann DeLaVergne

Pen Pals

Figuring out how to transform her small idea into a big impact, however, was not obvious. So Ann, who had also worked as a graphic designer, sat down at her kitchen table with some office supplies and a sewing machine (to make perforations in paper) and prototyped her reusable envelope idea. Her first effort yielded ten envelopes, which she mailed off to friends around the country. When all ten came back, she knew she was on to something.

Direct Mail Community

Partnerships and communities can provide the critical mass for an entrepreneurial idea. Ann began extending her community beyond her friends to include businesses that both use the mail and have an environmental mission. The first were The Land Stewardship Project, and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. In addition to feeling better about their direct mail efforts and saving money too, these organizations have increased response rates using EcoEnvlopes to as high as 8 percent, roughly 10 times the average for mail campaigns.

The Check in the Mail

Today, EcoEnvlopes produces and markets a range of patented zip-close reusable envelopes, manufactured with paper from managed forests and containing up to 100 percent post-consumer waste content. In January of 2008, EcoEnvlopes received a $570,000 investment from TC Angels, the largest single investment the group has made to date, to help her hire employees, secure patents and take her invention to companies around the globe. Just a month later, the US Postal Service granted Ann a National Consumer Ruling, making EcoEnvlopes the first reusable envelope certified for standard mail. Here’s to the small ideas.


Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Nick Dew, assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

British Airways Business Life
Stuart Read