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Among tech crowd, the paper business card endures

Belmont’s Alex Marthews took his business card to an event at the Venture Cafe in Cambridge recently.
Belmont’s Alex Marthews took his business card to an event at the Venture Cafe in Cambridge recently.Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

They came from tiny startups and established high-tech behemoths. They were mostly young and full of energy, part of a culture raised to embrace electronic devices of all kinds.

But the employers and job seekers gathered at this recent Boston networking event also carried something in their pockets a century apart from Androids and iPhones: business cards.

Yes, business cards — as in the small rectangles of thick paper — filled with phone numbers, Twitter handles, and other contact information.

Of the many things swept away in the outgoing tide of an increasingly digitized economy, the lowly business card has been an odd and unlikely survivor. At conferences, trade shows, and private meetings all over the region, new-wave technology is regularly juxtaposed against the swapping of those old-school communication tools.


“It’s actually faster to just hand you a card,” said Robin Johnson, cofounder of Boston app maker Storytime Studios.

Daniel Ruby, a marketing manager at Boston-based cloud computing startup Stackdriver, said he prefers to leave a networking event with a pile of business cards that remind him of whom he met and where he met them.

“Also, there are often raffle prizes if you drop your card in a box,” he added.

Keith Spiro, a marketing guru who serves as the entrepreneur in residence at Kendall Press, a Cambridge print shop, said the old-fashioned paper printing business is thriving, thanks in part to the demand for business cards from employees of nearby technology firms.

Because they frequently change titles and employers, tech workers often need to update their business cards, Spiro said.

“I’m right here at ground zero for every kind of company, from biopharma to high tech, and every one of them has business cards,” he said.

Spiro said Kendall appeals to entrepreneurs by offering same-day service and recognizing that people who demand precision in the lab are equally particular about color, font, and finish.


A case in point: Kendall Press sells business cards in 67 shades of white.

There have been attempts to use technology to upgrade the traditional business card. Some entrepreneurs have taken to printing barcode-like patterns on their cards, which can be scanned by smartphones to add contacts, visit company websites, and view videos.

A multitude of apps purport to input new contacts automatically by reading photographs of business cards, but the accuracy varies.

A few offer the option of a human typist who will transcribe photographed cards for a small fee.

Then there are three-dimensional cards. At a recent Uncubed event in Boston — a job fair for tech companies and workers — one person generated buzz by distributing small, 3-D-printed replicas of his own head, engraved with his Twitter handle.

It’s not like there aren’t high-tech ways to bypass the need for any kind of physical card — including apps that allow people to share phone numbers and e-mail addresses simply by bumping their phones together.

But “bumping” can be a nuisance. No single service has emerged as the standard for all devices, so your phone might not be able to share information with that human resources executive you met over Harpoon Winter Warmers.

The most common touch-to-share app — Bump — can run on Apple and Android devices, but it requires both parties to download the software.

Other phone makers, like Samsung, offer touch-to-share services that work only among their own devices.


The obvious alternative to bumping is to manually type people’s phone numbers, names, and addresses on the spot. That can be cumbersome, and also kind of rude.

For all of these reasons, many people find it more efficient to slip a card into someone’s hand. Sure, the data have to be input to a device later, but some consider that extra step a plus.

“You’re going to walk home and pull out all your business cards from the night and say, ‘Oh, right, I remember that
guy,’ ” said Ryan Traeger, who passed out his business cards at the Engadget+gdgt Boston technology trade show in October. Traeger is chief executive of Achvr, an app designed to help people set and achieve goals.

Cards also offer greater control over who receives your contact information.

After an awkward conversation with someone you would rather not meet again, you can always pretend to have run out of cards to distribute, said Sean Grundy, cofounder of Refresh Water Technologies in Somerville.

“If you go digital, you can’t say that,” he said.

Grundy suggested, jokingly, another reason why apps like Bump have not caught fire — they make it harder for women to give fake phone numbers to men they really don’t want to call.

In addition, there is something more intangible that may play into the business card’s survival.

Entrepreneurs who must fight to be taken seriously by prospective customers and investors talk about the sense of legitimacy they get from seeing their names and titles printed on quality card stock. They say that in the startup world — where businesses often don’t last long — it’s nice to hold something that feels kind of permanent.


“There’s just something about the analog, the tradition of going into a meeting where everyone trades cards,” said Johnson. “And you better have yours, or else, what are you doing here?”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.