Betsy Benn – A Design for Every Story

Adding colour and joy to the world!

“Find another female founder, or even better a gaggle of them, and support each other, challenge each other, and laugh and cry with each other. No one will understand your journey like another on the same path.”

Hi Betsy! How are you? It’s been SO long since we caught up AND im pretty certain we’re still trying to book in tea and cake – once I get off this renovation roller coaster! I’m so excited you’re here for a chat with me for the Gather and Grow series. As one of my past clients I’ve dived into your business before so let’s show everyone else how wonderful Betsy Benn is!

Lets jump straight in!

In one sentence can you encapsulate what it is you do:

Gah – I’m the kind of person that uses 15 words when one will do – do you know how HARD this is for me? I could not pull off a “Keanu from John Wick” move. Okay, here goes – we sustainably add colour and joy to the world via the medium of personalised notebooks, prints, and gifts.

What path led you to pursuing a career in designing and producing personalised homeware / gifts?

Like most creatives, it was a long and winding road that included a corporate job with a tricky boss, a new baby, a camera, and a printer. I really fell in to this business accidentally as I was pursuing portrait photography at the time and designed a few prints to sell inbetween commissions. We launched on Notonthehighstreet in July 2010 and by Christmas I needed to quit the photography business and just focus on this.

What do you really love about what you do?

Love is what I really love about what we do. Think about it, when was the last time you searched for the perfect gift for someone you didn’t love? Admittedly, obligation gifts are bought all the time; a box of chocolates for your husbands’ bosses wife at Christmas maybe. But not personalised, well thought out gifts. We reserve those for the people in our life that we adore, or have huge respect for, and we want them to know that we’ve really thought about who they are and what they will like. That we have truly “seen” them. And through Betsy Benn, I get to be a part of that expression of love. Grandmothers sending first Christmas decorations to their new grandchild; partners creating the perfect anniversary gift full of memories of a life well lived; best friends sharing life’s big moments together. When I’m having a rough day I look through the gift messages on our orders and can feel all that love.  It’s the stuff of life. What beats that?

How do you tackle the idea of product creation and innovation? Where do you look for inspiration on your collections? I bet it takes a lot of market research and audience listening to nail the launches?

A lot of the product innovation comes from a need to create something for me or someone I love. For example the paint chip wall planner was something I needed. I can’t use a wall planner that’s on your average size poster paper. So we quadrupled the size, made it look like a paint chip selector dream, and it’s a goddam work of art! Then we made a pink and green version too (which came from a kitchen/interiors trend – because that’s obviously where a wall planner lives). It’s always a little nail biting because some of the stuff we make is a bit “out there” and I have to wait and see if I can describe it in a way that people will get it and love it and then buy it. Like with our Family In A Box product that we launched that first Christmas when we were in lockdown. I just wanted to create a way for families to be “represented” at the place they should have been going for Christmas, or a wedding, or a birthday. Everyone was so sad not to be able to be with their loved ones. So, we made a product where you sent us photos of yourselves, and we made tiny wooden versions of you – think lifesize cardboard cut out, but 12cm tall and made of wood. Then you just post yourself, or your whole family, to wherever you should have been and you can still “be there”. It might be the longest product description we have ever written trying to explain the concept and what we need to make it work. Helena Bonham Carter bought 12 mini versions of her Mum and sent one to every part of the family. #claimtofame

How long does it take to determine what products your designs make it on to? Do you start with a product or the design?

Ooo good question. It really does vary. Now that we have such beautiful notebooks (and believe me we have tested A LOT of notebooks) we have the perfect product, so we create designs that we know will engrave well. We engrave the notebooks, so the finished effect looks a little like embossing. In theory we can print full colour designs on them too, but we’re still testing that process. In design terms we create something for the notebooks that suits our audience. We have teacher notebooks that do incredibly well at the end of the school year, we have diaries and gratitude journals, and most recently, milestone bucket list birthday notebooks. They’re just really easy gifts! Sometimes I won’t know what the finished product might be when I’m creating a design. A lot of my illustrations or watercolour paintings go straight on to greetings cards that I sell through Thortful. And then I look at the assets and realise they would make great Christmas tree decorations, or downloadable bunting. Nailing the product is where the quality lives. And then getting the logistics of how the product is made, stored, shipped and used. The design is aesthtics.

Funny story, as you know we can be a bit eclectic in our product range, which just means that the team never know if I’m going to walk in one day and say that we’re going to start making dog collars or something (oo – dog collars…) Anyway, once when Catherine was on holiday, we’d just bought a fabric heat press to have a play with and we thought it would be the most hilarious prank to pretend to Catherine that we were going to start selling personalised Christmas pants. We knocked up this awful design with mistletoe on some plain white knickers we’d bought from Primark and an inappropriate suggestion for where the wearer may want to be kissed. Absolutely not our brand at all, but bless Catherine, she so wanted to be supportive that she started quizzing what we were going to do about returns policies, or how much stock we wanted to hold in what sizes, and how on earth we’d get a “lifestyle” photograph of this very dodgy offering. Luckily, I couldn’t keep a straight face for long!

What advice would you give to a business looking to carve out their position in the market? What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started out 13 years ago? 

People will tell you that X is a saturated market. Art, stationery, weddings, baby clothes – and it’s true – but humans do not have an upper capacity for beauty or fun! When was the last time anyone said, “I have seen enough gorgeous things in my life, I don’t need to see anymore” or “I have laughed too much, I have no laughter left?” There’s room for you, and if you find a way to express your work in a way that is true to you, it will be interesting to someone else. If you are just starting out it can be a bit like fishing, not that I’ve ever been fishing, but you start out chucking a few bits of bait into the water and seeing who bites – that’s how you fish, right? Once you’ve been going a little while TALK TO YOUR CUSTOMERS. Ask them if you can phone them and chat about what they like and don’t like and who they shop for. Especially if you’re an online business and don’t actually get to see humans very often.

Walk us through a typical day in your design studio! I read somewhere on your website that there’s always cake?!

Catherine and Rachel rock up somewhere between 8 and 9, we all have flexible work schedules. I’ve normally worked through some orders before then in between the 300 times I’ve had to call up to the teenager to get him out of bed and off to school. If I’ve been for a swim first I might get to the studio at about 10 and we spend the first half of the day processing and making orders. Both the lasers will be going, and if we run out of orders we get on with pre-cutting and pre-engraving Christmas decorations (we start that in January!). Elevensies is snack time. There’s normally something, even if it’s not cake, but between the bakers and the bargains we sometimes spot at M&S, we don’t go hungry! After lunch we might discuss upcoming projects or pick up on Christmas planning. We always have at least two or three products in development, or in improvement. The post gets collected at 3.30 so there is sometimes a rush to get that out of the door. We lock up before 4.30 unless it’s sale time. After Black Friday we might still be in at 8pm.

Which piece is your stand out favourite product you have created and why?

No fair, this is like asking me to pick a favourite child! Whenever we make something new it’s exciting and for a while, with all the energy in the launch, it becomes the favourite. There will always be a special place in my heart for the destination print that made us. I get excited everytime I see one out in the wild! Also our whole Moon range. I have a soft spot for the Moon – I think you do too from your photography images you share – and my particular faves from the range are the Super Moon (because there’s just nothing else like it in the world) and our Christmas decoration – Lasso the Moon. That was inspired by the film It’s A Wonderful Life. Oh, and our notebooks, I’m obsessed with our notebooks. They are made just for us so we got to add all the beautiful touches like printed fly sheets, and two ribbon place markers, and the edges are the same colour as the cover – just YUM. And the paint chip wall planner. Okay, I’ll stop.

I absolutely DO love the moon range! She’s so magical and enchanting. I love the lasso the moon and the cushion – give me time to finish the renovation and I’ll be buying some bits!

Is there a particular story from a customer that stands out to you in the years you’ve been doing this?

So many. Quite early on, before I had a team, I remember receiving an order from a woman called Nicky for a framed destination print. These were the days when I did everything myself from artworking, to framing, to customer care. A few days later I was artworking another print and I had massive dejavu – all the places seemed familiar. The order was from a chap in the same town, but not at the same address, and they had different surnames, but it seemed really odd. I snooped around facebook and worked out they were husband and wife, she was just using her maiden name for the order. They had both ordered the same thing for each other’s anniversary gift. It would be really funny when they first opened their gifts, but the fun might be shortlived when they decide where, or who’s, to hang. So I contacted the first person who ordered, Nicky, and she laughed. Apparently this was the third time they had unknowingly ordered the same things as gifts for each other. They decided to just have one print and have been loyal customers ever since.

Another one of note was just last year. It was coming up to our 12th business birthday and we decided to make a massive fuss about it, as both the 10th and 11th birthdays had been during lockdowns. We found our top 100 customers and sent them a birthday gift. A notebook with their initial, a star print, a keyring and a Betsy branded chocolate bar along with a note thanking them for being stars in our sky. One chap called us to say how much he had needed that token. He worked for a Russian bank and that day he had been told to go home as the invasion of Ukraine had resulted in sanctions and the bank couldn’t trade anymore. His Russian colleagues were already devastated about events in Ukraine anyway, and now, through no fault of their own they might not have jobs anymore. He spoke to a lot of scared people that day and he might not have a job anymore either. There was a lot on his shoulders and opening a box of gits just lifted him for a while. I loved that.

What does a day off look like for you – how do you decompress from work?

I don’t really take whole days off unless I’m “going somewhere”. Like most small business owners, I feel like I’m always working on something. I take inspiration days though. I’ll take a day or two out of the business to head to London mostly (home town!) and wander round to get a feel for colours and design trends. If I was going to book a day out just to chill then it would need to include a dog walk, a hot chocolate and a nibble of something naughty, and then a massage to unwind.

What is the biggest struggle you’ve had to overcome in your business and what advice would you give to someone else in this situation?

Without doubt, becoming an employer. It’s not why I started this business, I didn’t have any desire to become an HR expert. I don’t enjoy conflict and I want everyone to like me which has the potential to make me a really crappy boss! I probably was a really crappy boss to begin with, I hope I’m okay at it now!

Top tips, I would say are:

1: To trust your instinct when you meet potential employees. Where I have ignored this it has been messy!

2: Pay an HR company to write a contract for you and sit down with you to discuss your legal obligations. Have the option to go back to them and ask for advice when you need it.

3: Recognise and get comfortable with the fact that you are the boss, and not a colleague, because if you ask your employees to do something they will nearly always do it (things like overtime and the less desirable jobs in the business), and if they need something from you they will nearly always ask for it (pay rises, exceptional leave). Of course you need to get on, and you can be good friends, but the bottom line is that the relationship is based on a contract, which is kind of how it should be.

If you want to be a good boss then start by remembering all the times you were pissed off with a line manager, and just don’t do the things they did! And remember all the times you enjoyed working for someone else and do that. Empower your employees to have autonomy, to be creative, and to take responsibility and acknowledge that the crappy bits of the job do exist – because there’s always a bit that is crappy or boring – and let them know you appreciate everything they do. If an issue comes up, pull your big girl pants on and find a way to talk about it sooner rather than later.

How do you balance your personal and professional life as a business owner? We all know too well how the lines get blurred – do you have a good balance?

I think I do have a good balance now because I’ve learned to embrace the blur. I know some people block out their evenings and weekends from any work and it works for them. Conversely, I can’t block out life from the hours when I should be at work, and I don’t want to either. Home schooling put an end to that idea! So, when my son has half term and needs nudging to revise for his exams, I do that. I work from home but maybe only get two or three hours done during the day. I balance it out by working a little in the evening. I work like a dog for a few weeks in December, sometimes crazy hours, but I’m trying to mitigate that by working a little extra some evenings now, creating my emailers and social media posts now for November and December. And if the sun suddenly blesses us with an appearance and I want to spend three days straight camped out at the local lido, then I do knowing that I won’t get that opportunity at Christmas. Making a life that works for you is probably the biggest draw to working for yourself.

What advice would you give to other female founders just starting out?

Find another female founder, or even better a gaggle of them, and support each other, challenge each other, and laugh and cry with each other. No one will understand your journey like another on the same path.

How do you prioritise your self-care routine and mental health as a business owner?

With great difficulty. There’s this voice in me that says I can do everything, I can do it on my own, and I can keep doing it even when sensible voices around me are saying REST. What the hell is that about? Some of it is fear. Fear that if you don’t push and push and push, that you will fail, and when you do, it was because you didn’t push hard enough. In March this year I came as close as I’ve ever been to burnout. I was working on some tough topics in therapy and I sunk into a hole. I couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone except my son, I couldn’t face going into work, and I spent two weeks on a sofa watching Greys Anatomy re-runs. Then I listened to a book called Burnout – Solving the stress cycle (Emily and Amelia Nagoski) and it resonated so profoundly. I knew that I always felt better after I exercised but hadn’t realised how essential it was to resolving the physical manifestations of stress in our bodies. The book also talked about how and why we need to rest and what it might look like. In case you were wondering – 42%. That’s how much time we should be engaged in restfulness. It was eye opening and I recommend it to everyone like a reformed smoker who bangs on about quitting the ciggies.

So now I swim twice a week before work, workout twice a week before work, and dance my socks off teaching zumba once a week and it’s not about losing weight, or being a certain shape, it’s about the whole mind and body. Self-care felt like something else I needed to be better at (“just be better at being better”) and like I could achieve it by just lighting a candle and drinking a smoothie. Reframing it as a lifestyle grounded in the science (the book was full of the science) felt more my style and I can still light candles and drink smoothies when I want 😉

What are some of your proudest moments so far as a female founder?

My son has ADHD and Dyslexia and sensory processing issues and had a pretty tough time of it in the state school system. Being able to afford to send him to a small private school that catered for his needs was huge for me. HUGE. I hate that our education system is so poorly funded and a “one size fits all” solution that really only works well for some.

We won a Notonthehighstreet.com award three years running and that was pretty epic and within a year of launching on NOTHS we had the biggest selling product on the platform – the destination bus blind. But honestly I’m proud of what we do every day. Every order is important, and everything goes out with care and attention, and even when things like Royal Mail strikes and Covid lockdowns come along to test us, the team rally and we get through and our customer still gets first class personal treatment.


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What’s your favourite part of what you do? We wear so many hats as business owners – which part makes you the most excited?

Creating a new design and seeing the first order come in for it. Always a thrill.

As we come to the close of our catch up let’s wrap up with some quick fire questions!


Favourite colour:

Prussian blue. Bang in some copper accents and I’m in heaven.

Favourite flower:

Peonies, I think because they are only around for such a short time. 

Favourite season:

Christmas – obvs

A wellbeing tip to share with other entrepreneurs: 

Move your body every day in whatever way you can. Take Vitamin D. Hydrate, laugh, sing, and sleep. Repeat.

3 things you would share with your younger self:

42% of our time should be engaged in restfulness

“Reframing self-care as a lifestyle grounded in the science felt more my style”

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