The story of Napkinisms

Billy Ivey has spent his career in advertising trying to influence people. Little did he know, his greatest influence would come from sitting down at his kitchen table and writing notes of encouragement for his kids.

Video Transcript

Jon Henshaw: This is Billy Ivey. For as long as he can remember, he’s been getting up early on school days to make lunches for his kids, and he’s been doing one other thing. He’s been writing them notes on their napkins. Not too long ago, he decided to take a picture of one of the notes and post it on social media, and something very unexpected and special happened.

This is the story of Napkinisms.

How did you come up with the idea to write on napkins for your kids?

Billy Ivey: The writing on napkins happened because I have kids. I have a 19-year-old daughter, and when she was four she would go to preschool. When she would go to school, I would put a note in her lunchbox. It just was something that I did. It would usually say something like, “Daddy loves you,” or, “Have a great day.” As they grew older, I got to be a little cheekier with them, writing things that I thought was funny, not just that I thought would make them go, “Aww, daddy loves me.”

As they began to start to understand that I was taking a minute of my day, or some intentional time to do something for them, I wanted to give them something, I guess, a little extra. I don’t think I realized how much they appreciated it until I realized that … I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter. Mary keeps all of them. She has hundreds and hundreds of notes.

JH: What was it like when you posted that first Napkinism and you got the response that you got?

BI: For a long time I asked the same question, how in the world have these stupid napkins gained so much attention? Why would anybody choose to follow this guy on social media, or follow this guy on Instagram, or share what he’s posting, the notes that he was posting that he had sent to his kids? Why in the world are people doing this? Napkinisms started because I started taking pictures of the notes and posting them to Instagram. Now, why did I do that? I really don’t know. There was a particular note that, it’s so absolutely ridiculous that a dad would write it to his kids, and people reacted like, “Really? You put this in their lunchbox?”

JH: Billy didn’t just put them in the lunchbox. He put them online. Hundreds of them. As the note count grew, so did Billy’s followers.

BI: As other people started posting them and or sharing them or liking them, I was just really fascinated by the fact that people were liking the stuff that I was putting out there. When you’re used to getting 12 likes on a photo of the food you ate last night for dinner, and then you get 150, or 200, or 300, or 600 likes on a picture of a paper towel, it makes you want to … I’m going to see if that happens again.

She evidently had something going on that day.

The reaction that I was getting from these notes is the reaction that I had been searching for almost 20 years through advertising.

JH: As Billy’s online success grew, he discovered that people were discovering his notes in ways he never imagined.

BI: Probably the most impactful message that I got was pretty early on. Napkinisms wasn’t a thing yet, it was just social media postings of the notes that I was putting in my kid’s lunchboxes. But I got an email from a lady in Houston. She wrote, “You have single-handedly made me reconsider my decision not to have kids.” You kind of want to cock your head and go, “Okay, lady, you’re a crazy person.”

But then she shared her story, and her story was, it wasn’t pretty. Her father was abusive, her mother was an addict. She grew up in foster homes that did not treat her well. Her picture of a family, her perspective of a father was a tyrant. Through these stupid notes, she started getting a picture of a dad who loved his kids. I just found that fascinating. Surely people realize that their particular circumstances aren’t the norm, right? But for her, where she grew up, how she grew up, it was normal for her to have a father or a father figure who was mean. So she shared this story with me and said, “Thank you so much for giving me this picture.”

JH: The stories he was being told got him thinking a lot more about how his dad had impacted him as a person, and as a father.

Is there a particular instance or event of you and your dad that kind of stuck with you, that’s influenced how you approach what you do with your kids, what you write to them?

BI: I absolutely think there are similarities between how my dad treated us and felt about us and handled us and showed us that he loved us, and the way that I do that with my kids through Napkinisms. My dad was always very forthcoming. He was always very open with his emotions and with his love for us. Looking back, there are certain times where I can see the same kind of intentionality or need that he had to show me that he loved me, to tell me that he loved me, in a way that I never really realized was as powerful as it was.

He was very sick. He was 15 months into an 18-month disease. I’d got cut from the basketball team. I wasn’t a good basketball player, but I wanted to be on the basketball team, and he knew that. I came home and was crying, and I just remember him consoling me in a way that at the time I didn’t realize was as powerful as it was. That night, he went and he wrote me a note. Looking back, it was a powerful, powerful thing that he did. He had lost the use of his right arm. He was right-handed, he had lost the use of his right arm because of the disease, and so he had to write this note with his left hand. That in and of itself is an effort that, looking back on, it’s like, man that had to take an awful lot for this guy to scribble a note to his son. He willed himself down the hallway with his left hand and taped the note to my door so I’d see it the next morning.

I got the note, and I read the note, and it meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me that day. I remember it meaning a lot to me that day, but it certainly means a lot more now. The powerful thing that I’ve realized is that my dad was not trying to change my life when he wrote me that note. He was just trying to change my day. That kind of set the course for my career, and my parenting, and really this whole idea of maybe I have an opportunity to do that with people I don’t even know.

JH: Billy has taken that opportunity and has used it to share his notes of encouragement with thousands of children.

BI: We started a program at The Children’s Hospital. More than 135 kids receive a Napkinisms message every single day of the week on their lunch tray.

JH: How do they do that? Are you writing them? You’re writing every single one?

BI: I’m writing almost all of them. I learned pretty quickly that I can’t do this. This is not my job. I can’t spend two or three hours every night writing messages to be sent. What we’ve decided to do with Children’s, and it’s a really smart idea, we don’t need 135 different messages every day, because that’s a lot of messages. The average stay for a kid at Children’s Hospital is three days. What I’ve done is I have sent them about three months worth of messages that they then take Monday’s message and they put one on every tray, and then Tuesday they do the same.

So far so good? You think the patients are enjoying them? Families are enjoying them?

Hospital Administrator: Yes. Yes, yes. Patients definitely love them, and-

BI: Being here and seeing these things in action, seeing how Napkinisms is taking on a life of its own, in a certain respect it’s taken on a life of its own and has become something that I never intended it to be. Not only do I want kids to feel loved and kids to feel special and for me to be able to provide, perhaps, a moment of relief or a moment of release even, through laughter or tears, even, to these families. That’s great, and that’s wonderful, and of course, that’s priority one, but I want other people to feel like I do right now. It’s a good feeling, and I think people will catch onto that. People want to be involved in things that make them feel good, and so this is an opportunity. I really do hope that as word spreads, as other organizations catch on and start to implement the program with other kids that it can just continue to grow and multiply and become something even bigger.

JH: Where do you think Napkinisms is going to go from here?

BI: My goal would be to partner with like organizations, whether it be philanthropies, or summer camps, or school districts, and offer this program. I would like to figure out how to template this Napkinisms program where kids in need, whether it be in financial need, or health need, or crisis, or whatever, where kids in need can be reminded or given a message of hope, or inspiration, or encouragement, or just joy, every day. What’s the monetary value of that? I don’t know. I’m most interested in expanding this to reach more kids.

What I realize throughout all of this is that regardless of where you find yourself, what career you’re in, or what career path you’ve chosen, or whatever, you have an opportunity to influence somebody. Whether you believe it or not, it’s there. I didn’t have any idea that these paper towels were going to influence people, but they certainly did. Being able to talk about influence from the perspective of a guy who’s been searching for it his entire career, going from job, to job, to job, to job, to job, and title, to title, to title, to title, to title, and next client, to next client, to next client trying to figure out how to influence people. Make them feel something, or buy something, or do something. Through advertising, I’ve been trying to do that for 20 years, and lo and behold, my particular brand of influence came from sitting down at my kitchen table and doing something for my kids.

You don’t have to do something grand to do something great. I think we believe that we have to do something world changing to change the world, and I thought that too until I realized you can write stupid stuff on a napkin and change somebody’s world.

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Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @henshaw