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Gift-giving with a personal touch via BOND for iPhone

The rapid growth of the app-centric ecosystem means that it's possible to do almost anything with a few taps on your iPhone. Unfortunately, one of the things that's gotten harder is building and maintaining a personal connection with clients, friends and family -- particularly for on-the-go professionals for whom the idea of sitting down and writing a stack of thank-you notes is probably as remote a concept as skipping the day's third cup of coffee.

The folks behind BOND, a new gift-giving app hitting the iOS App Store today, think they have a way to change that. By pairing the power of e-commerce with the power of a hand-written note, BOND founders Sandeep "Sonny" Caberwal, Angelo Bruno and Andy Ellwood are trying to put some of the person-to-person contact back into our daily digital experience.

If you were to visit a typical mobile/ecommerce startup with a few days to go until the product launches, you'd probably take away an impression of frantic activity and last-minute load testing. When I stopped by BOND's offices last week, rather than being greeted with whiteboards full of feature lists and assets to be located, I was greeted instead by the office dog, Rivington. After a brief detente, he proceeded to curl up on the couch next to his master Sonny Caberwal while I chatted with both co-founders about BOND.

The experience of the BOND app is straightforward but luxe; users, who are reminded of upcoming special events and birthdays via their calendars (and optionally from Facebook's friend info), select from a curated list of intriguing gifts sorted by cost. Some gifts, it should be noted, are a trifle risqué; shop like a grownup. If you only want to send a note, that's in there too, for US$5 (but read on for a limited-time deal).

Select the recipient, type out your note -- you can send a note without a gift, but not a gift without a note -- and check out. If you don't know the gift recipient's mailing address, BOND will ask on your behalf with an email or SMS. The whole process only takes a few moments, but on the receiving end the package includes a handwritten note (robot-written, technically, but with lovely penmanship), a beautiful box and a great opening experience. The gift offerings are curated by co-founder Bruno, former merchandising lead at designer shopping site One Kings Lane.

The overall vibe at the BOND office was far more high-end boutique than far-out startup, and that's the way Caberwal and Ellwood want it; both have been through the crazy times of entrepreneurship (Caberwal at India's Exclusively.in fashion site; Ellwood at Gowalla and Waze) and both are looking for at least a measure of balance in this latest venture. "We want a sustainable organization, where we like what we're doing," said Caberwal. "We don't want to sacrifice our relationships on the altar of a company about relationships ... We have not quite figured that out yet," he admitted somewhat ruefully. "Launching a startup is like having a child," he notes. "You try your hardest, but you never have everything completely figured out."

Ellwood and Caberwal are a visual odd couple -- the taller Ellwood sporting a jacket and pocket square, the bearded and lean Caberwal in a traditional Sikh turban -- but they're aligned on the value of relationships and on effective messages of thanks. "I started my career cold-calling billionaires," Ellwood says, referring to his days as a sales rep for Warren Buffett's business jet venture. "I had to distinguish myself somehow." He developed what turned into a lifelong habit of sending handwritten thank-you notes to prospects and clients, and always uses a Mont Blanc pen he received as a gift from a manager in his early days. "I use that pen for two things: signing contracts and writing notes."

Caberwal believes that the underlying anthropology of giving, the "why" of the gesture, is part of what brings us satisfaction and pleasure as a giver. "Everyone loves to get gifts, but everyone also loves to give them. True happiness comes from making others happy," he says. "As busy professionals, we want to send notes to follow up and gifts to show we care, but we often don't have time" to get all the ducks in a row. Giving a great gift that makes sense for the recipient is awesome, but the fallback position for harried givers is... well, not. "Gift cards are not awesome," Caberwal jokes. "Step up your game a little bit."

Cracking into the $300 billion global gifting market may not be easy for BOND, or for other mobile-first gifting plays like Sincerely's Sesame and Ink apps, or Cleverbug's Facebook-centric photo greeting card app. But the opportunity is too big to ignore. "There should be a user-friendly destination focused on the gifting space, and that's what BOND is," says Caberwal.

Want to try out the BOND app for yourself? For a limited time, you can download BOND and send a handwritten note for free! Just use the code FREENOTE when checking out, and the normal $5 price for the card will be waived.

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