Jay Blumenfeld: Smart Alex Makes Good

This article originally appeared at www.deafprofessional.net.

“Where people go, I go the other way,” Jay Blumenfeld says with a playful smile.

Blumenfeld, 52, is the owner of Smart Alex, a Chicago-based manufacturer and wholesale distributor of greeting cards and party items. Smart Alex – which bills itself as having “smart humor with attitude,” has sold over 16 million cards that are usually sold at small, quirky family-owned shops.

“At first glance, you’d think we were a company that produced greeting cards, party coasters, bachelorette gifts, party hats and gift tags. When you look a little closer, though, you see what we really do,” Blumenfeld says. “We make people smile. Quite often I’ll be in a store and see people pick up one of our products, read it, and then chuckle to themselves.”

A Humble Start
Blumenfeld and his late brother Richard, both deaf, were born and raised in St. Paul, Minn. Mainstreamed for most of his school years until his 1972 high school graduation, Blumenfeld attended the Rochester Institute of Technology. He graduated with honors and an associate’s degree in photography, in addition to winning several awards for his photography.

It was during his childhood that Blumenfeld discovered photography. “My father was a commercial photographer of some note. I grew up in and around his studio, and often accompanied him to outside photo shoots as well.” After college, Blumenfeld began dabbling in freelance photography and became fascinated with photographing female impersonators, taking hundreds of photographs in various cities. He returned to Minnesota to put his work together in book form, and eventually moved to New York City with the intention of finding a publisher.

“I saw art director after art director, publisher after publisher, and I always heard the same two things: ‘Great book, just not the right time,’ and ‘You should really think about incorporating your work into a fun, alternative line of greeting card. It’s the hottest thing in the market,” Blumenfeld remembers. “I did a little investigating and found out they were right. It was pretty much an untapped market and the possibilities to be creative, clever and fun seemed unlimited. That was 1980, and I jumped in feet first and have never looked back.”

However, 1980 was long before e-mail, fax machines and relay services were on the scene. Unable to pick up the phone and make calls to operate his nationwide business, then known as Innovisions, Blumenfeld traveled constantly to meet with potential representatives, in addition to handling designing, printing, packaging and mailing. “Customer service was another big challenge for me. All orders and communications with customers had to be done via mail,” Blumenfeld explains. “This put me at a four-day disadvantage compared to my competitors, something that bothered me a great deal.” Even so, one good thing came out of this experience. “I developed the habit of answering all of my mail and filling all of my orders immediately, something that I still do to this day and something that has served me very well.”

Lessons Learned
Maintaining this work schedule for the first three years of his business is something that amazes Blumenfeld today. “I honestly couldn’t tell you how I managed to keep it up, but I’m glad I did. One of the most important things I learned was the value of a relationship that is formed face-to-face. Once I had established myself and was able to hire employees, I started to take the standard route of engaging representatives, suppliers, customers, and so on. Those relationships never seemed to develop quite as fully, and after a few years, I went back to my practice of meeting people in person,” he says. “I’ve found that people genuinely appreciate the effort that it takes to travel to them, look them in the eye and shake their hand. No telephone call or e-mail can ever replace that.”

By 1988, Blumenfeld found himself in a quandary. The greeting card industry was changing, especially with Hallmark entering the alternative scene with its Shoebox line and driving many small companies out of business. Blumenfeld, who was friends with many small company owners, believed he was next in line. “I attended a party and I met a gentleman who worked in the field of marketing. We hit it off, and it wasn’t long before we became good friends. One day I was telling him about my plight, how I was pretty sure this was the end. He looked right at me and said, ‘Jay, you’ve got a great head on your shoulders, use it. Think of something new, something different. At this point, you really have nowhere to go but up.'”

With this piece of advice that Blumenfeld calls a “wake-up call” and a renewed belief in himself, he began to re-examine what worked and what didn’t. “Once I did that, I could clearly see what it was we had been doing, and it was easy to go in a new direction. The ideas flowed, and the turnaround was quite dramatic,” he says.

Within a short span of time, the business made a comeback, and was more successful than ever. “I learned just how important it is to be honest, brutally honest, when assessing what it is you and your company are doing. If it seems stale, it is. If it seems tired, it is. If you wouldn’t buy it yourself, why in the world would someone else? Figure this out before your customers and respond accordingly. Subsequently, growth is almost automatic.”

Smart Alex and Grandma Ruth
In 1997, Blumenfeld made the decision to narrow the focus of Innovisions and to revitalize the company’s image. Searching for a name to communicate the company’s newer and fresher image, Blumenfeld spoke with a friend and local greeting card/toy store retailer, Ted Frankel. “I explained my dilemma to Ted and he commented that he had always liked the name ‘Smart Alex,’ a play on the words, ‘smart aleck.’ It was one of those lightbulb-over-the-head moments. I fell in love with the name on the spot, and even got the paperwork started to facilitate our name change that very day,” Blumenfeld says. “Truthfully, I can say it’s one of the single best business decisions that I’ve ever made.”

Today, browsing through the Smart Alex catalog offering “smart humor with attitude,” customers can choose from mischievous cards, coasters laced with insults, and other tongue-in-cheek products. Most notable are the cards featuring Grandma Ruth, a sweet-looking white-haired woman in various poses.

“My grandmother, Ruth Blumenfeld, started modeling for me at the age of 91 and continued to do so until the age of 96. This business is very much about tapping into the mood and tenor of society. A design that sold gangbusters last year may be a dud this year,” Blumenfeld smiles.

“Not so with Grandma Ruth. She seems to be impervious to the changing times and trends. In the last 23 years she has appeared on millions of greeting cards, and her cards have never fallen off my bestsellers list,” Blumenfeld says. “I don’t know how many times people have told me that she simply looks the way most people think a grandmother should look.”

Ruth, who passed away at the age of 101 in 1992, had an unbeatable sense of humor, Blumenfeld adds. “My family swears I inherited her humor gene. A perfect example is from when I was about 10. My dad bought an expensive sweater and showed it to my family. I said to my mom that it was a beautiful sweater, and she said ‘Ohh, it cost fifty bucks!’ That was back in 1964. I went up to Dad and said, ‘I don’t like your sweater…take it back!’ My family laughed, and this is how my Grandma Ruth would talk, also.”

The combination of humor, strong work ethics, and a willing market has proven successful for Smart Alex. The company has won six Louie Awards, greeting card awards that are the equivalent of Academy Awards. Smart Alex also received “Card of the Year” honors for three of its cards in 1991, one in 1995, and two in 1996, beating out thousands of companies.

Balancing Business with Pleasure
Even with his hectic work schedule, Blumenfeld makes sure to balance business with pleasure. Featured in Chicago Magazine for his cookie jar collection, Blumenfeld also collects Funko Wacky Wobblers, a line of bobbing head toys. But more important to him are the people he surrounds himself with.

Thomasina Seah, Blumenfeld’s best friend, knows this all too well. “Jay is a wonderful friend and an astute businessman. Jay has owned the business for 26 years, but he still possesses the same zeal and enthusiasm for his work as he did on Day One,” she says. “Despite his hectic and often stressful professional life, he never neglects to nurture his personal life.”

“Jay is a very gentle person who is not only creative but has a clever business mind,” Howard Rosenblum, an attorney in Chicago who is deaf, says. “Part of his success also comes from his intense loyalty to friends as well as colleagues and employees. A person who has Jay as a close friend knows that he can always be relied upon and trusted.”

Blumenfeld is quick to say, “Not only are friends important to me in my professional life, but they’re invaluable to me personally.” Equally important to him are his employees. Blumenfeld, who currently has five employees (all hearing, although he has often had deaf employees in the past), says his co-workers are like family, especially Austin Jones, a certified public accountant who has worked with him for 26 years.

Another co-worker who is prominent in Blumenfeld’s life is Mark Taylor, who has worked with him since 1992 as a commercial designer/illustrator. Taylor is also Blumenfeld’s partner of 18 years. “It’d be impossible for me to overstate the role that he has played in my success,” Blumenfeld says. “He’s someone whose opinion I trust completely. His perspective is often quite different than mine, and he provides me with a second set of eyes, allowing me to see things in a way that I probably wouldn’t have on my own.”

Looking to the Future
Smart Alex has no plans to close anytime soon. Blumenfeld is constantly working on new ideas and products for his company, saying, “Growth is the key to keeping it fresh and exciting, and that’s the key to maintaining your enthusiasm!”

“Jay’s greeting card business is essentially hip in that he and his network of employees and contractors have a cheerful irreverence for the norm,” Rosenblum says. “They continually reinvent their cards so that the business is always on the leading edge of the market. This is an excellent example of how a deaf person can be a successful businessperson without needing to focus on a deaf identity, but instead, marketing to the world at large.”

“The day I stop looking to the future is the day that I will give it up and look to do something else,” Blumenfeld says. “This is what I do for a living, and honestly, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.”

The Smart Alex website is at www.smartalexinc.com.

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