We meet Rocker and multi award-winning founder of the wonderful personalised prints, gifts and decorations company that is www.betsybenn.com
So Betsy, when did you set up the business and what were you doing beforehand?
We launched Betsy Benn in March 2010 and I’d kind of been doing a couple of things before that. My “big job” was as an events manager for Zurich in Swindon, but after I’d had my baby I really couldn’t figure out commuting from Cheltenham, and all the overnight stays and travelling involved in my role when my husband was also doing a lot of travelling. We’d waited a long time to start a family and I’d always planned to take a career break anyway so I was in the middle of that break when I realised I was surrounded by adorable babies pretty much all the time.
I took my love of photography and launched a small baby portraiture business. It was doing okay, but my clever husband pointed out that there was a healthy gap between commissions and my photographic printer needed cleaning between each job and this wasted a lot of expensive ink. So I thought I’d design a few prints to sell in between commissions to keep the printer clean – and then the prints side literally exploded and the photography business was history!
Did you choose your office location for any particular reason?
Um – have you seen this door? Talk about kerb appeal.
Before we moved into the Royal Crescent there were three full timers working in my house, and sometimes two part timers as well. We were literally falling over each other at some points and at Christmas time it was beyond daft to try and manage that.
We’d already converted the loft and built a garden studio to maximise the house space, but when I walked into the building we are in now, I fell in love! So big, so spacious, it was more than we needed, but you know we have filled that to its limits and we need to think about how we take the next step and where that might be.
How many people do you work with and what do they do?
We have two full time Betsy helpers – Catherine, who is the office manager and basically makes sure the place doesn’t fall apart and reminds me to pay the bills whilst also giving excellent customer service and Rachel, our resident graphic designer who designs everything I ask for and also solves practical problems like “how will we engrave these aprons without unfolding them”. They were both off at the same time for a week once – I sort of enjoyed the challenge of being back hands on again, but the post only went out on time twice, there were large piles of things for them to look at when they got back and my wine consumption that week doubled.
Then we have Stuart, a freelance graphic designer who helps us when we get uber busy and when we have techy questions about a particular issue. He and I have really similar music tastes so when it’s just the two of us in the studio I get to play very loud 1990s grunge!
We have an open door it feels like when it comes to other floating helpers. We always get busy at Christmas and try to find some local graphic design students who want to earn a few bucks. And we offer internships in the summer when we are quiet and can spend some time sharing our skills and learning all about what’s new from the student’s perspective.
What’s a fairly typical day for you?
I drop the small one at the school bus stop at 7.20 so I’m normally in the studio by 7.30. If it’s not too busy at work I might sneak in a quick swim or gym session first and then rock up at 9 like a normal person. First I go through the new orders and see what the day’s workload looks like for me and everyone else. The beauty of a small team is that we all work so well and in harmony together and most things are understood by most people.
There are some graphic design things that my office manager doesn’t get involved in, but that makes sense! We joke now that we work on a telepathic level and we don’t actually need to say most things out loud, and it’s kind of true. I might start a job and then get pulled away but Rachel or Catherine will seamlessly move in and finish it without me asking. The reverse happens too. I’m very lucky that my team love the jobs they have and are totally engaged in the success of the company. It makes working together very easy.
I try not to get involved too much in the actual orders these days, I need and love to work on new designs and also the bigger strategy for the business, the comms plans, the commercial direction all of that. I get drawn back into the orders every Christmas which keeps my skills sharp and my finger on the pulse. So my day could involve writing blog posts, working out a social media plan for the months, developing new designs and products, reaching out to other creative businesses for the creative hub plan I have for the future (!) or even making and photographing new products.
How do you get to work?
It’s a quick drive. I wish I could do it another way a bit more regularly. On Fridays in the summer I will often walk in because I don’t have to do either end of the school run, but every other day I feel like I’m squeezing the absolute maximum amount of time in the office as I can before I have to head off and collect my son from school in Stroud. And even then I’m quite often late!
Every spring I say that I will cycle in a bit – but (big secret here) I never actually learned to ride a bike when I was young and although I have a bike now, I’m still very much not in control of where it goes – so there’s some work to do there!
Where would you recommend to eat during your lunch break?
Star Bistro is right next door which can be both awesome and dangerous. We have a great relationship with them and they have been known to deliver sausage sandwiches to my desk. That takes some beating. Cheltenham is full of eateries though, we are very lucky.
SO Wagamama on a Friday, Huffkins or Swallow bakeries for any day that needs soup and cake, Bottle of Sauce for a half price burger on a Monday, Gianni’s for anything with loads of garlic, Boston Tea Party if you haven’t had breakfast yet, The Stable for Pizza, Turtle Bay if you need heat or have a cold coming and I can’t wait to properly try out Kindness & Co – I’ve walked past a couple of times and it looks soooo good.
What’s been the most challenging and most rewarding part of Betsy Benn to date and why?
Wow, the answer to that will change on an almost daily basis. Challenges apparently help you to grow, right? Like forcing rhubarb? I’d say that launching and growing two businesses in a recession has been a fairly big challenge in and of itself, whilst still trying to find time to do other life stuff (tell me we all have days when we forget to eat, yes?).
But I think the biggest challenges are in keeping on creating new designs and collections that resonate with our ethos and our customers and then, of course, finding our customers – especially the new ones – and telling them about these great new products. We’ve had huge levels of success with notonthehighstreet.com and they have a great customer base, but we also need to be independent and support ourselves in that way.
I think the most rewarding stays the most constant and there are two biggies. It was a challenge to build the right team and get the right working environment, but we got there and we all really enjoy rocking up to the studio each day.
We’ve all come through personal disasters the last few years and having each other on a daily basis has helped pull us through! The second huge reward is the feedback we get from our customers. The things we create are so personalised and really all about a person’s story and their relationship with the gift receiver. They make the best gifts and we are constantly hearing how a print made someone cry, or was the most loved present of all. It puts a massive smile on my face every day.
Any new products we should be looking out for this Christmas?
I am always guilty of falling a little bit in love with our latest products and actually (although that can be dangerous) I think that’s a good sign. If you don’t love your product, why would anyone else? And we really want to create products that people love and will carry on loving for a long time.
So our latest products are our personalised denim aprons which have been flying out! Thankfully other folk love them too. They are these gorgeous hipster style dark denim aprons with a tan leather look pocket on the front that we can engrave with pretty much anything. They’re fabulous.
In Christmas decorations we launched a new decoration called Lasso The Moon which was inspired by the film It’s A Wonderful Life. It was a labour of love to get the right materials and make it look the way I wanted, but I love it so much!
And in prints we are just about to launch these amazing designs which look like typical vinyl record sleeve artworks, but they feature your own photographs, so you can be “the band”. Brilliant fun for any music fan!
What’s your most popular? What’s your own personal favourite?
Well, see above, I love all my babies! But the one most dear to my heart will always be the bus blind destination print. It kind of launched my business and is still a classic best seller. We just made a video to promote it a bit more – wanna see? (click here). I just love the way you can tell a whole life story with this print, or just the highlights of one amazing year.
And every year we sell out of our amazing Balloon Advent calendars that are actually sold by our sister company, Luna Studio Designs. We were on TV a couple of years ago on Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas with them and they were also on the front cover of the Notonthehighstreet.com Christmas Gift Guide, so they have taken on a bit of a cult status now. Very cool!
If you could recommend one place to go in the Cotswolds to a first time visitor where would it be?
JUST ONE?? Oh that’s hard. The Cotswolds is such a draw for so many different types of people that it’s hard to choose a one size fits all. Let’s see…. (my brain is exploding right now).
Okay – you need to come to our house for a week whilst the Literature festival is on. That way we can show you the best bits of Cheltenham whilst it’s alive with clever types, we can treat you to a lunchtime steak at 131 and then a pint of Stowford Press at The Green Dragon which we will walk off all over Crickley Hill and marvel at the autumnal colours of the season.
Followed by an evening spa at Cowley Manor. We’ll also take in a craft course at the New Brewery Arts centre and maybe even a day of cookery skills and a wood fired pizza at the Daylesford Organic Café whilst you’re here.
You see – there’s too much to choose from!
How do you unwind after a day at work?
I’m sorry, UNW…..what? I’m not familiar with that concept.
You might want to roll your eyes a little, but I’m one of those annoying people that lives up to that motivational quote print that you see in an insurance sales office “If you find a job that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. Newsflash – it’s kind of true. I’m answering these questions at midnight, with a glass of wine at hand, because I’m in “work” mode and enjoying it.
The big thing that no-one ever really shares with you when you decide to work for yourself, and it’s kind of obvious, is that you’re in charge and you get to decide how busy you are. You might think I’m talking rubbish, because as a retail business you are dependent upon people placing orders with you and buying your things! And then of course you will be busy fulfilling those orders, but you have to wait for those orders to come to you?
Running a successful creative business is not the online equivalent of having an honesty box on the side of the road for the apples you’ve just harvested from your garden trees and this can be where a lot of craft based businesses let themselves down.
There is always something that you can do in this world to be telling people about your business, your products, your ethos, your story, your dreams – anything! And in that way I say you get to choose how busy you are – you get to choose your bus-y-ness! If you’ve told a great story and people are beating down your door to get your products, then you can be a little quiet for a while.
But if that’s not the case, there a million ways to share what you are doing with your potential customers. And, like most entrepreneurs I’m sure, my mind is like a pinball machine on multiplay, with little silver balls hitting targets and lighting up lights right left and centre.
I’m currently in the process of reaching out to every creative person in the county in the hopes of building an online creative forum where we can all support each other and chat about the things that are getting in our way, or the latest brilliant thing we have discovered that makes life easier.
And maybe one day that online forum might lead to a physical cooperative work space – who knows – but get in touch if any of that sounds interesting!
Our tagline at Betsy Benn is “a design for every story”.
Well, here, we’ve collected together our little promotional pieces that tell the stories of our designs, how they are made, what our customers love about our products and their stories which we translate into our personalised prints and designs.
Betsy Benn’s Awards to date
Best New Product: notonthehighstreet.com Make Awards 2013 – Winners
Entrepreneur of the Year: notonthehighstreet.com Make Awards 2012 – Winners
Best Customer Service Award:notonthehighstreet.com Make Awards 2011 – Winners
Business of the Year 2014 – Gloucestershire Women in Business Awards – Winners
Rock the Cotswolds is a not-for-profit campaign created to promote the talent and creativity of the area.
It is sponsored by Crowe Clark Whitehill in Cheltenham – their belief in what we’re doing and generous support helps keep the campaign alive and kicking!