Human beings have been giving each other gifts since the dawn of time. Before the advent of civilization, cave dwellers would give gifts to express affection and appreciation towards family members or friends, and tribe leaders often appreciated dutiful service by bestowing gifts. However, as the human species has evolved, the art of gift-giving has become so common that it is fast losing value.
To focus on the meaning of giving, National Philanthropy Day is recognized annually in mid-November, highlighting the generous contributions that make the world better. Institutions like Learning to Give and other platforms have set up programs to help youth develop generosity and agency year-round. They hope to instill a framework to connect with the important needs of communities and empower them to take action towards giving for the common good.
The simple art of giving, often demonstrated during the holiday season, provides an opportunity to bring thoughtfulness to the giving process. Witnessing a more creative, thought-filled practice by adults can be an example for youth to learn.
According to Rob Patterson, cofounder of LoveBook, an online platform that enables people to express their love for loved ones in a creative and unique way, it’s all about thoughtfulness. “The two ingredients that make a gift unforgettable are thoughtfulness and personalization,” he says. “These two ingredients turn gifts from mere gifts to lasting memories. Love is nothing if it’s not expressed, and the best gifts are those that say exactly what you want to say.”
The platform allows users to create customized content, printing and binding it into a hardcover or softcover book. After creation, the service sends the book to the designated recipient as a gift. LoveBook was founded by four friends, Kevin Zalewski, Rob Patterson, John Baranowski, and Chris Sonjeow. In the 14 years since its inception, the company’s hyper-personalized approach has played a part in redefining choice in the gift-giving space.
I sat down with one of the co-founders, Kevin Zalewski, as he shared with me why personalization is so important in relationships and how it is key to the success of his company.
Rod Berger: I’m intrigued by what you all are doing with LoveBook and curious to know how LoveBook came about.
Kevin Zalewski: It’s an interesting story. One of our cofounders, Rob Patterson, was having dinner with his wife one day, many years ago, and his wife asked him the dreaded question, Why do you love me?
Now, for men, this is not an easy question to answer on the spot. So Rob didn’t have a quick answer ready for her then. However, he decided he would answer that question as beautifully as possible. He sketched out a little notebook and wrote everything he loved about his wife. It became her favorite gift of all time, so he kept making it for her over the years.
Rob and I were both mechanical engineers and co-workers at the time, so he shared the idea with me. I didn’t understand the concept immediately, but he convinced me of the importance of expressing love as beautifully and genuinely as possible.
One thing was clear to me; but often struggle with knowing what their significant other wants, and Rob seemed to have hit the jackpot with his wife with these gifts he was giving. So, you figured, why not? We started it as a side gig, then we got validation from gift advisors and others, and it just took off from there.
Berger: It’s interesting when an idea comes from a real-life experience. What has the journey been like for LoveBook since the early days and how has the idea taken hold?
Zalewski: The four of us embarked on a journey to create this personalized experience for people, and we didn’t know where it would end up. Each of us brought unique skills to the equation, from product design, graphic design, marketing, information technology (IT), and software development.
Not long after we started doing this as a side gig, we were invited to the Today Show, which validated everything. I remember it was mother’s day in 2010, and the Today show was our first press, so that was huge. After that, things just took off, and we knew we had to go full-time.
Berger: Story is the oldest form of communication and a significant element of your company that provides a platform for people to express themselves and tell their unique stories. How have you evolved this concept over the years? And have you seen a change in your customers that reflects the power of your offering?
Zalewski: Our customers have helped evolve our product, content, and overall book-building experience. Initially, the LoveBook platform focused on letting people enumerate all the reasons why they love someone. Then it evolved into people telling their love stories, going through their past, and sharing little things throughout their lives and things they want to do together.
Our users have gone from creating stick figures to illustrating their LoveBook to what we have now, avatars. People can create a representation of themselves and their loved ones and use it to illustrate the books so that it is super personalized and creative. We call them “LoveMoji’s,” which can be made to the customer’s liking.
All these changes have widened our customer base as we now attract more people with different tastes for what they want in the perfect gift.
Customers can build their books using our technology, put in characters, pose the characters, and design the pages. We have developed everything in-house and maintained control of everything from design elements to the tech and user experience, so that’s amazing.
Berger: How much more of a difference would you say you are making in the gift industry and relationships for families with this hyper-personalized tool? Overall, how have people responded?
Zalewski: People have absolutely taken to our personalized gift-giving approach. Just reading our testimonials tells you that we are making a huge difference in people’s lives with these personalized products. It works for every kind of relationship and is as thoughtful as thoughtful can get.
You can make the books as simple as you want using our wizard approach or create pages entirely from scratch. Either way, it looks like you put a lot of effort, consideration, and thought into it, so the gifts always hit people differently.
The ability to customize and personalize every aspect of the product has been a game changer. It’s not just a standard story – it’s your story. It’s deeper than just adding your name to the product.
When we started, the personalization industry at the time was just about adding your name to products and building whatever you wanted. We wanted to take personalization a step further, so we introduced our character engine. This allowed people to put themselves on the products and let people type whatever they wanted in the story.
It gave us a huge advantage early on in the personalization market. It’s like when you buy a card, you look for something that fits your relationship, but with LoveBook, we allow you to build a specific product to your experience and your love for whoever receives it.
I love the age-old question of what love is. Only you can answer that for yourself and your relationship. Our product allows that exploration. Beyond just receiving a gift, it’s also going through the process of exploring your relationship and thinking about things you’d love to do with the person you love. Going through that process is such a rewarding experience that’s a gift to the giver and the receiver.
Berger: It sounds like this it’s much more than a business in terms of motivation for your company.
Zalewski: It’s ice cream. We feel incredibly fortunate to be involved with a company with such a great mission. And to be involved in touching the lives of millions of people in a way that most products can’t do. Being a part of forming relationships and helping people express love is one of the most satisfying things. We consider it a social service in some ways, and we are constantly evolving to meet the relationship needs of society.
Berger: Did working with others and forming a company change your perspective on the confluence of an idea merging with business? What impact has this nexus had on your overall outlook on life?”
Zalewski: It’s about starting with an idea, executing, and pivoting to stay relevant. Ultimately, we are capable of working together as a team while building off our individual strengths. It’s very fulfilling being part of each other’s life stories and sharing special moments with each other and our customers.
Giving or the act of philanthropy may exist as an innate inner drive to make a difference in the world around us. However, it is also an attribute that can be fostered and emulated from observed behaviors.
Kevin Zalewski and his team at LoveBook are betting on their platform’s unique and creative aspects in perpetuating the idea of giving through personalized and lasting expression. Ultimately, indelible life stories lift the concept of gift-giving past the fleeting into higher appreciation, opening an environment that provides learning for all.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.