Frances Ho knows gift cards. In addition to founding more than one startup that deals in them, the young Toronto entrepreneur made the media-savvy move of establishing herself as a go-to expert in the field.
Her first startup, CardSwap, is still helping people exchange store-bought gift cards foisted upon them by well-meaning aunts, rather than letting them go to waste.
It also put her in a pretty good spot to recognize another emerging niche in the gifting world: The rise of digital gift cards leaves givers in a bit of a bind. These gift certificates, purchased on a website and delivered digitally, without even a piece of plastic to show for themselves, are mighty convenient for the buyer, but leave something to be desired in the way of a personal connection. After all, it's hard to make a physical gift of something that's immaterial.
Some digital gift card services might go so far send their recipients an e-mail, but even these tend to have one line of hello at the top, with paragraphs of terms and conditions at the bottom.
So Ms. Ho set about finding a better way to package digital gifts. Her solution was Vello, a service that's very much a product of this modern video era. Groups of users – families or friends, for instance – can work together to build live video greetings that become a greeting card for a digital present.
"People want to see people's faces now," says Ms. Ho. "That's really what we're selling: The next generation of Hallmark gift cards."
It works like this: First, users download the Vello App (iPhones only for now, alas), record a greeting to the recipient, selfie-style, with their phone's camera. Then, they can invite others to join and record their own greetings, which the software automatically stitches together into one long message. Then, the originator can purchase a gift card through online retailers (who give Vello a cut).
At the moment, there are more options for American customers; Ms. Ho says the Canadian digital gift card market is still catching up.
The idea to package digital gift cards came in mid-2012, but only started work on Vello proper earlier this year, once the ground for short-form video sharing had been laid by Vine – in which people share 6-second clips – and its competitor at Instagram, which expanded its service from still photos to 15-second video clips.
"When I saw Vine come out, I was like: This is it – short form video. We're going to do collaborative Vines," says Ms. Ho.
The other half of Vello's pitch is geographic: The system allows far-flung relations and groups of friends to band together on a gift that comes from many points around the globe, and is directed at one person.
"Our communities now are not just in our city," she says. "We are global citizens now. We have friends and family everywhere."