Under the Sun

These Phoenix Robots Want to Write Your Thank-You Notes

Pawn those thank-you cards off on a machine.
Pawn those thank-you cards off on a machine. Handwrytten

David Wachs was giving a tour of Handwrytten, his robotic writing company in midtown Phoenix.

“Every note this robot is writing is different,” he explained. “Our client is sending notes to Carmen, John, Susan — each one is personalized.”

The robot, which closely resembled a small desktop laser-printer, clutched a gold metallic pen in one tiny arm, bobbing and jabbing at a thank-you note to someone named Triana.

Wachs reached over and touched the robot, which beeped and went still. A Handwrytten employee hurried over. “I don’t know what I did,” Wachs said. “I shouldn’t have touched it. Sorry.”

All the robots are custom-built here, Wachs said. He programs them, then turns them over to a staff who oversees them, fixing paper feeds and checking on their progress.

The robots were numbered 1 through 115, but some of Wachs’ employees had given them names. “We have robots named Sandy and Phil and whatever,” he admitted. “I don’t call them by those names.”

Handwrytten was built on the principle that no one has time to write notes or letters anymore. But his business didn’t make those printed mailers that were meant to look handwritten.

“A lot of those are laser-printed, and they look like crap,” he said. “We’re the high-end version of that.”

Clients visit Handwrytten’s website and input a message, then choose a card stock and a handwriting style — their own, or one of the 25 different scripts named for Wachs’ employees.

“Jammin’ Justin is named after one of our engineers,” Wachs said. “Lucky Lindsey is our graphic designer. Fancy Jenna is way too perfect. Joyful Jennifer is my favorite because it looks so real and it’s good for both men and women. The two Ss are different, the slant on the T isn’t always the same.”

Handwrytten clients are Realtors and insurance agents and car dealerships. “You buy a car, and the dealer sends you a thank-you note, an oil change reminder, a birthday card. All of them were written by our robots,” Wachs said.

The company has smaller clients, too. “Your Aunt Alice is also someone we work with,” he said, “because she wants to send out 300 Christmas notes, but she doesn’t have time.”

He allows that what he does could be replaced one day by really good laser printing, but laser printing won’t pass what Wachs calls “the smudge test.”

“Our clients want their customer to lick his finger and run it over the ink to see if it smudges. They want their customer to say, ‘I can’t believe you took the time to send me a handwritten note.’”

One client hired Handwrytten to replicate her children’s handwriting.

“She has unlimited funds,” he said. “She wanted her 6-year-old and her 7-year-old to send out thank-you notes to their friends and family, and she knew they wouldn’t. So we’re doing it for them. It’s weird, but God bless her, she’s willing to pay full price.”

Handwrytten makes almost everything in-house, from its stationery to the robots themselves.

“These are robots building robots,” he said, pointing to a bank of 3-D printers. “Over there is our digital press. This is a laser cutter that cuts and scores our cards. We get asked all the time if we’re not handing human jobs to robots, but we wouldn’t have jobs if it weren’t for these robots. This business doesn’t exist without them.”

Wachs stepped into a room where there were no robots, just people sitting at desks. “It’s quiet in here,” he explained, “because they’re reading the notes the robots wrote. They’re comparing what was written to what was supposed to be written. Then they stuff it and feed it through this machine over here, and it goes whoop! And comes out the other end, stamped and sealed.”

He held up a completed piece of mail. “This is a real postage stamp.”

A handwritten note means you’re giving someone your time and attention, Wachs said. “But no one has time or attention anymore. Your phone and your computer are beeping, and you’ve got emails stacking up. So you come to us.”

A recent visitor to Handwrytten wondered if the company’s clients couldn’t have written the note themselves in the time it took them to input the message. “Yes,” Wachs supposed. “But now they don’t have to worry about screwing up and wasting a card or having to find a stamp or an envelope. We do all of it.”

Wachs thinks of his company as a combination of art and engineering.

“The way I describe Handwrytten is pretty simple,” he said. “We’re what you do when you care almost enough to send the very best.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela