Benzie: Handmade success in the not-so-soft felt market

By Ryan Sachetta

Renae Bradley vividly remembers a 2010 brush with flimsy fabric. She made her son a stuffed monster with felt purchased from a local big box craft store. The monster lasted less than a week before the felt began pilling, but in its decline, Bradley saw the threads that would stitch her now thriving Etsy business.

“Other sellers on Etsy have things made out of felt,” Bradley, 34, said of the “aha” moment. “They can’t possibly be selling this stuff that’s pilling immediately, it’s gross.”

The Joliet, Illinois-based Benzie Design is the brainchild of Bradley, and it’s become a thriving supplier of craft felt in the creatively crowded Etsy marketplace that houses more than one million storefronts across 200 countries. In four years, Bradley has sown an initial investment of $500 into a business that is projected to reap more than $80,000 in revenue this year.

Etsy has been a haven for handmade goods since its 2005 founding. The Brooklyn-based, privately owned company attracts sellers with supplies and creatives who imagine said supplies into infinite possibilities.

Before putting any feelers out on the felt market, Bradley made and sold hairclips on Etsy. The creative outlet provided respite from the pressures of parenthood, but it wasn’t a sustainable business, resulting in a handful of sales each month. That’s when stuffed animals and one felt monster with a short shelf life shifted her focus to felt.

“I started buying all of this felt and it seemed like the people on Etsy who actually made money were selling supplies,” said Bradley, who identified two competitors that sold similar wool blend felt at the time.

At the end of 2010, its first year in the felt game, Benzie Design grossed approximately $12,000 in revenue by processing 620 orders. Twelve months later, Bradley realized this was already more than a hobby when revenues and orders quadrupled.

“There’s been a general push in the last five years to make your own things,” said Bradley, who credits her success to timing and the soaring popularity of felt among crafters.

The typical Benzie Design buyer, according to Bradley, is a female between the ages of 22-50. Buyers shop among 90 colors of felt sold by the yard or pre-cut sheets of 6”x9” and 9”x12.”

What’s done with the cuts once they make it to the hands of the buyer varies, but examples of items created from the felt include baby mobiles, banners, costumes, doll clothes, garlands, pennants, and, recently, a Halloween mask realized with Benzie Design’s felt was spotlighted on ABC World News Tonight.

Lauren Cooke, 27, owns and operates the Austin, Texas-based Etsy store, Little Skunk Co. Cooke counts Benzie Design as her primary supplier, crediting the extensive inventory and personal shopping experience. “I like that I know who I am talking to,” Cooke said. “I know if I have a problem with an order, I can message Renae on Etsy and she will get back to me right away.”

Following the second year’s breakneck growth, Benzie Designs needed to make a decision: raise prices in order to lessen its customer base or hire additional help for processing orders. Bradley chose the latter, and currently employs two part-time assistants who prepare and ship orders.

The business has expanded to include such items as felt pom-poms, felt-fetti and floss, but Bradley admits that true growth is hamstrung until she completes the top two items on her to-do list: develop a website separate from Etsy and establish a workspace bigger than her 500 square foot basement.

Bradley could find a warehouse to rent, but she doesn’t like that it would separate her from home where she can balance working and parenting. “I’d rather put my money toward a mortgage,” she said.

In October, Benzie Designs paid Etsy more than $500 in fees associated with operating a store on its platform, which doesn’t even take into account other monthly fees for credit cards and shipping. That includes such standard charges as 20 cents per listing and a 3.5 percent fee for each item sold that Bradley describes as “sucking away all of my money.”

“I think of Etsy as the perfect starting point because it’s like riding a bike with training wheels,” said Cooke, who shares in the goal of transitioning to her own stand-alone e-store. “You can get where you’re going, but you have to take the training wheels off to really push your business to the next level.”

Bradley doesn’t know the source of her business acumen. Maybe it was her parents, including her father who emigrated from the Netherlands and owned his own business. Maybe it’s because she’s doing what she always felt called to do: creating beautiful items with her hands. Or maybe it was impeccable timing. In truth, she’s not that interested in finding an answer.

“Benzie is like a game,” Bradley said. “I like to see how much we can grow.”