Profiles: Betsy Benn

Betsy BennHomegirl London pays homage to Betsy Benn.  The maker of London destination prints which are styled to look like bus blinds.  Betsy uses her distinctive technique to create personalised pieces like listing your favourite holiday places, good things about your dad and celebrating the arrival of a newborn baby.  It’s evident from her work that Betsy just loves London buses, the underground and street signs.  Her work is largely in prints and canvas but she has also branched out to mugs and tea towels which are all witty and wonderful.  I caught up with Betsy to ask her a few questions …

Q: Where did your love of London and signs come from?

A: I grew up in London so it will always have a special place in my heart, but I think to have a childhood in a capital city like that, you don’t appreciate just how amazing that is until you leave.  My Mum would take me all over the place.  We lived in Walthamstow, right at the end of the Victoria line, but we’d go shopping in Brent Cross or Oxford Street, have late-night visits to Regent Street to see the lights at Christmas, or just take a drive down the Embankment on a lazy Sunday.  I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the tube and as soon as I was allowed to go out on my own I went everywhere on it. One of my jobs as a student was selling t-shirts at Brixton Academy – totally the opposite end of the Victoria Line – so I spent a lot of time travelling!  Then there is the Cinderella effect – pretty much after midnight tubes stopped running so then you had the joy of night buses home.  So I guess the destination artwork is an intrinsic part of my youth something that was omnipresent and marked out the keystones in my early life – London is full of beautiful signs pointing you this way and that to new destinations

Q: Tell me what you did before you started your company.

A: My career pre-child was as an event organiser with a large financial company, which was fab as I got to channel my OCD tendencies in a creative way and I saw lots of beautiful venues in lots of great cities!  Post munchkin (baby) I spent a lot of time crafting, photographing and printing and sort of drifted into this incarnation, which has me now hook, line and sinker.

Q: Why did you start up your company?

A: I’d always planned to have a career break when we started a family.  We budgeted for a period of me earning nothing and my husband was very supportive and never asked when I intended to go back to work, but there came a time when it felt right.  I’d made lots of things as gifts for family and friends, and everyone always said they loved them, but you never really know if people are just being kind!  So I tested them out in a few local shops, knowing it was a case of carving out the kind of new career I wanted or go back into a corporate environment that didn’t fit my goals anymore.

Q: Tell me about your first business break.

A: We had a series of small breaks that were very exciting.  Our first designs were snapped up by the oh so lovely Bodie and Fou and quickly attained best-seller status, that made me smile a lot!  Then we were invited to join Not On The High Street and that was equally thrilling!  But after only 4 months with them, Not On The High Street approached me about having a front cover on their Valentines gift guide.  I knew that was an amazing offer and I was so apprehensive that we wouldn’t be able to cope, we’d only been trading for about 8 months at that time.  My account manager talked me into it and it was the best decision we could have made, it propelled the business to a level we’d only dreamt of before.

Q: What have been your achievements to date?

A:  To date, we have appeared in lots of fabulous interiors magazines.  Our work has also been featured in some pretty amazing blogs, present company included!  In my second year of trading, I won the ‘Make Award for Best Customer Service’ from Not on The High Street and was a finalist for the Personalised Product of the Year.  This year we won the top accolade of Entrepreneur of the Year.  We’re proud of every little milestone that we reach or recognition that we gain as we know exactly how much work has gone into it.

Q: What’s the best thing about running your own business?

A: One massive draw is that I really can construct my own days and weeks and work the hours that I need to around family life. That means that I stop work every day at 3 pm to pick up the little one from school, and then start again at 8 pm when he’s in bed (sometimes working until the wee small hours).  It’s not perfect, but for the downside of the evening working, I get to take him to his swimming lessons and have a swim at the same time myself.  If we feel a desperate need for a swing at the park or a pizza in town, I can do all that! The next best thing is that it’s my company and I get to decide everything from our environmental policy, to who we do business with, to how we talk to our customers and look after our staff.  Coming from a multinational blue-chip world, that is a very refreshing change!

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to anyone wanting to set up their own business?

A: Seize the moment!  I’m well known for being able to juggle 50 things at once, but with the annoying ability to procrastinate over one or two little things for months!  Very occasionally that will be over a new design or product and then wouldn’t you know it but someone else comes up with the same or similar idea and beats me to the jump!

Q: Where is your favourite place in London and why?

A: Oh that’s hard, that’s like saying what’s your favourite food or country because London really does have it all – whether you want serenity or chaos, high fashion or vintage grunge.  As a teenager, I spent pretty much every weekend and most Tuesday nights between Camden and Tufnell Park, so that will always hold a soft spot for me.  Nowadays, every time we hit the capital we have to go to Covent Garden so my son can visit the London Transport Museum (trams, trains and buses and the odd vintage sign – what’s not to like!).   We held our wedding reception on a boat that went from Cadogan Pier in Chelsea, all the way down to Greenwich and back.  We repeated that journey recently but stayed a while in Greenwich, and that is a bit of London that takes some beating – the Thames and Greenwich!

Q: Tell me more about your personalised designs.

A: They all start life in pretty much the same way.  I need to make a gift for someone I love, I ponder over it for a few weeks and try to capture something about their personality, their interests or their life story.  At some point in the making process, or just after having given it, I realise it would make a wonderful addition to our range and work out the practicalities of offering it for sale.  My poor husband has never had Valentine’s gift in February, I always have to give it to him January so that he gets to see it first and then I list it on the website!  The way that the personalised products naturally evolve is important to me.  They would feel forced and less genuine otherwise.

Below is a selection of Betsy Benn products which you can buy from Betsy Benn.  Credits: Text by Homegirl London, images courtesy of Betsy Benn, special thanks to Betsy Benn.

Large Personalised Destination Canvas

Large Personalised Destination Canvas, £590

New Baby destination Print

New Baby destination Print, £55 unframed

Personalised Quote Print

Personalised Quote Print, £55

Personalised Remind Me of You Print

Personalised Remind Me of You Print, £38

Personalised Cassette Play List Print

Personalised Cassette Play List Print, £38

Quintessentially British Tea Mug

Quintessentially British Tea Mug, £12