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A mouth-watering selection of felt products, including sheets and bolts of felt in 90 colors. Benzie Design also carries kits, embroidery thread, pom poms, notions, and accessories.
Like so many makers, Renae Bradley’s business, Benzie Design, started with a hobby – and an obsession with felt.

A decade later, even Bradley can’t believe how far she’s come, from selling felt sheets from her 700-square-foot basement to opening a 1,000-square-foot retail store, where a rich kaleidoscope of color and textures makes you want to stroke and fondle just about every piece of merchandise in sight.

Ten years ago, Renae Bradley opened Benzie Design, selling felt pieces from her 700-square-foot basement. Today, she has a retail store and a growing collection of felt in several forms.
Among the 90 colors of felt are three custom-dyed colors. There is also metallic felt, printed felt, and now a 100 percent wool felt.
Bolts of felt – blends of soft Merino wool and rayon – strut their stuff in 90 colors, including custom-dyed peony, coral, and sea foam. The blend, Bradley says, makes the felt easy to cut (using scissors, a rotary cutter, or a die cutting machine) and resistant to pilling.

Or try metallic and glitter felts that, despite the glitz, are still soft and pliable. Or the heart or stripe designs printed onto felt. There are also pre-cut felt shapes – flowers, stars, hearts and more – and 36 colors of pom poms. Doing needle or wet felting? Benzie carries wool roving from New Zealand Corriedale sheep, a cross between Merino and Lincoln breeds.

Searching for quality

Ten years ago, Bradley was a stay-at-home mom who did some freelance design work and yearned to craft. Maybe, she thought, she could make things to sell on Etsy.

Felt drew her in. Maybe it was the texture, or the ease of use. Maybe it was the rainbow of colors and the reasonable price. Or maybe it was the variety of project possibilities.

Her first project was a huggable, pillow-sized stuffed monster for her toddler. Using craft felt bought from a big-box store, the red rectangular huggie had ribbon hair, button eyes, and pockets to hold love notes.

Renae Bradley, owner of Benzie Design, was looking for a higher-quality felt when she started her business 10 years ago. She is celebrating her 10th business anniversary with a rebranding, which includes a new logo, website, and a design team.

“My excitement at making this turned to shock and disappointment when only a few days later, the monster started to pill and shred,” Bradley says. “I knew there had to be a better felt product out there.”

She combed the internet, but retail felt sellers were scarce. She bought samples to test, including a 100 percent wool felt, which she loved, but thought was too expensive to appeal to crafters.

Bradley had already opened an Etsy shop in 2010, selling a few handmade items such as hair clips. When she found higher-end felt suppliers, Bradley added 9×12 and 12×18 felt pieces in 24 colors to her store, and sales shot up. “I was flabbergasted,” she says. “We grew super quick.” By the end of the first year customers were requesting felt by the yard, and Bradley complied.

She worked from her basement, “which also housed my kids’ bedrooms and play area, and a washer and dryer,” she says. “It was crazy crowded.”

Pulling a business up by its bootstraps

In 2016, Bradley opened a retail shop in a historic area of downtown Plainfield, Illinois. The storefront takes up about half of the 1,000-square feet, with the other half used for her office, storage, a photo staging area, and a small kitchen.

Growth has been slow and steady, which is just fine with Bradley, who took no loans to finance her business.

“I totally bootstrapped Benzie,” she says. “I honestly thought this was going to be a side hobby. I was hoping to fulfill a few orders a day and craft on the side. The growth of Benzie was surprising. I didn’t go into to this thinking ‘I’ll own a store some day’. If I knew that, I probably would have run the other way.”

Bradley’s financial approach to running Benzie helped the shop sustain success. “I started out small and only paid for labor, products and services that Benzie could afford. Most years I did not take a salary and put the profits back into the business.”

At first, she wore all the hats – financier, tax filer, inventory manager, website builder, photographer, customer service rep, and order-filler.

A felt leaf garland adds a festive touch to Benzie Design, which also sells pre-cut felt sheets and kits.
Wool roving, perfect for needle and wet felting, comes from New Zealand Corriedale sheep, a cross between Merino and Lincoln breeds.

“I learned how to do things I didn’t like or didn’t want to do. I pushed through until I had the funds to hire it out. I know most businesses do not survive past five years. I feel that much of my success has been because of careful money management in addition to slow but continual steps forward,” Bradley says.

“It’s easy to take out a loan but still not be able to generate the revenue needed to pay your staff and pay your loan,” she adds. “It’s been important that I have a close relationship to cash flow and a tight handle of what goes in and out. I also move at a speed that feels right to me — slow but consistent, in which I can grow and mature. I want to be fully behind every decision I make for Benzie.”

Having a company savings account, she says, “is vital for Benzie so we can weather tough times (such as the coronavirus pandemic) or invest in new products.”

Although she had no specific business plan when she started, “I had general one, three and five year goals, but never anything in writing. I fear that if I write it down I will become boxed in and inflexible when presented with new opportunities or challenges. This allows me to shift and change with the seasons.”

Keeping up during the coronavirus

One major challenge was the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The brick-and-mortar store closed and while some employees worked from home, Bradley did all the shipping herself. Meanwhile, online orders increased as people across the country stayed home.

While grateful for the influx of sales, she says, “I found it difficult to keep up. The team provided some support from home but the daily shipping operations could only be done from the shop. I was working overtime.”

Getting stock was also difficult, she notes. “International companies stopped production and had shipping bans. Domestic manufacture also slowed, making it difficult have product for customers. For the first time in 10 years, I closed wool blend felt sales on the website to allow me time to catch up, rest, and restock.”

Piles of felt wait to be shipped to loyal Benzie Design customers.
Wool roving, perfect for needle and wet felting, comes from New Zealand Corriedale sheep, a cross between Merino and Lincoln breeds.
In 2016, Bradley moved out of her basement and into a 1,000-square-foot retail space in the historic downtown area of Plainfield, Illinois. About half of the retail space includes an office, photo area, and storage, while the rest is devoted to in-store shopping.

A new decade and a new brand

With a decade of growth under her belt, Bradley is now focusing on rebranding, including a bright, festive new logo “that is more reflective of our product, an updated website with better user interface, and a 12-person design team to provide more content,” including online tutorials, which help drive sales.

“The growth in social media numbers, marketplaces, customers and sales has been super fun and exciting, but has also made it difficult for us to mature as a business. We are finally stabilizing and finally have the opportunity to really grow roots. These roots are essential to weathering economic changes and solidifying longevity in the market.”

Significant changes include hiring a bookkeeper. “It was the best thing ever to hand that off to someone more skilled then me.” She has also re-defined the roles of her eight employees and passed the general management reins to someone else. “My roles (marketing, finances, new product development, photography, creative director, etc.) were taking up so much time that I was failing the team in leadership of their own roles and responsibilities,” she explains. “It’s been a huge blessing on my stress levels to hand over something I wasn’t very good at anyway.”

Before the pandemic, Bradley had been looking for a larger retail space and more warehouse room. “I had big visions for product expansion and growth, which I still see happening, but I am so thankful I didn’t move forward. Staying in the shop we have now will allow us to work harder on internal operations, build relationships with others, and keep us well within budget, which will allow us to withstand any economic downfalls.

“Benzie has really grown and matured me as a person and a leader,” Bradley adds. “It demanded that I keep up with its growth and I met the challenge. I’m still learning, but it’s been the best ride.”

Roberta G. Wax

Roberta G. Wax

contributor

Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader.   www.creativeunblock.com

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