You’re 13, and just before your bar mitzvah you get a card from your best buddy. “Mazel Tov on your Bar Mitzvah,” reads the front. Inside, this: “One day you’re gonna look back at this amazing day and this expensive party your parents threw for you and you’re gonna think to yourself, ‘Wow, I would rather have had the cash.’ ”
Ian Kalman, who once had a bar mitzvah of his own, came up with that and many other laugh-out-loud punchlines for Bald Guy Greetings, his line of sarcastic — but never caustic — cards produced in the Bay Area. Kalman writes the copy and Sean Farrell provides the quirky pen and ink drawings. Both live in San Francisco.
Kalman, 45, works in a sparsely decorated home studio, though he does have on display a photograph of John Belushi and an old magazine cover featuring Woody Allen. Do these kings of comedy inspire him? “Woody and John help very little,” Kalman says, laughing.
Some 1,700 Target stores and about 600 independent shops in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia carry the cards. Inspiration for Bald Guy Greetings came in 2005, after Kalman penned this homage for the top of a friend’s birthday cake: “Wow, 35 years old. If this were the 1700s, you’d probably be dead.”
People at the party laughed, and on an airplane trip soon after, Kalman wrote copy for 50 or 60 cards. His girlfriend at the time and now his wife, Martha, helped him make a list of occasions in need of cards. Later, at lunch with a friend, Kalman mentioned he needed a good name, something better than “Kalman’s Greetings,” a placeholder.
His friend proposed “Bald Guy Greetings.” At first, Kalman was kind of offended. “But within 20 seconds, I loved it and went with it,” he says. Kalman turned to Farrell for the art.
They had worked together at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco on several award-winning ads for clients such as the California Milk Processor Board (“Got Milk?”), the Oakland Athletics and Sega. For Anheuser-Busch, Kalman and Farrell created Frank and Louie, the memorable lizards in the Budweiser ads. Today, those lizards have their own Facebook page.
Originally, Kalman and Farrell had a specific market in mind. “Our plan was to make cards for guys to give to other guys, cards that are funny and honest,” says Kalman. “It turns out that 80 percent or more of our sales are to women.”
The company’s logo is a combination of Kalman’s bald pate with Farrell’s own healthy head of hair. “We view the logo as the voice of Bald Guy Greetings, an old curmudgeon who tells it like it is,” Kalman says.
Bald Guy Greetings currently has 214 different cards in the original line that feature Farrell’s pen-and-ink drawings. Target sells a second series, licensed through Recycled Paper Greetings. “We needed a different look for Target, so we took the edge off the art, softened it,” Kalman says. “But it’s the exact same prose as our original line.”
The first 16 cards Kalman and Farrell produced were suitable for customers of any faith. The Jewish themes emerged later. Today they sell cards for bar and bat mitzvahs, Passover and Hanukkah. They also have a generic card, perfect for so many of the Jewish holidays. The front reads: “I’m sorry this card isn’t more specific.” Inside, it says, “I bought it awhile ago and didn’t know which Jewish holiday I would give it to you for.”
Kalman routinely gets email from fans. One wrote about a heated competition among family members to find the funniest card, and said Bald Guy Greetings never disappoints. For some cards, Kalman writes copy on the inside of the envelope flap, lines such as “Ouch — you ripped me” or “Why are you reading the envelope? Read the cards — they are so much funnier.” So far, he says no other company has “ripped off” his idea.
Most of the cards are sold wholesale, but 10 percent come from online sales to individuals. On Mother’s Day this year, Kalman offered those customers a special deal. For $19.99, he would call a customer’s mom personally. He got 17 requests. “It was great talking to the moms. Several of them said they love our cards,” he says. “That was good for my ego.”
His career choice also is likely good for his ego. Kalman’s grandparents wanted him to be an actuary. He grew up “all over,” with stops in Foster City, the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, San Diego, Belmont and Stockton. At San Jose State University, he earned a degree in advertising with a minor in psychology.
When he began penning copy for Bald Guy Greetings in his spare time, Kalman did not imagine the work would turn into a full-time job. Just last year, he was able to turn his full attention to the greeting cards. “Now we want to grow the brand,” Kalman says. “We have a voice that is distinctive, and we need to expand to other products.”