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Avoid “bought then binned” for the festive period, says Starling customer Betsy Benn



Betsy Benn's studio

Stepping into the Betsy Benn studio is the closest I’ve come to understanding what Santa Claus’ workshop might be like. I heard the hum of activity before I saw it: printers swishing from side to side over purple and teal notebooks, scissors gliding along hand-printed wrapping paper, fingers pattering over keyboards to write out the names of someone’s favourite songs to add to a poster.

Almost everything Betsy Benn makes is personalised, from prints to stickers, calendars to cushions. When I open the door to the design room, Betsy is wrapping up a present for day five of a personalised advent calendar. The calendars include personalised gifts, such as a notebook and personalised Christmas tree decorations, and a whole load of other little treats to brighten cold December mornings.

“Everything in the calendar is either made by us or sourced from other small British businesses,” says Betsy, placing the present she’s wrapped in a box. She radiates warmth and confidence and clearly loves what she does.

She’s been running the Cheltenham-based business for more than 12 years, taking it from a one-woman show to an award-winning company that customers return to again and again. Awards for Best Customer Service and Best New Product can be spotted amongst the frames of multi-coloured prints that cover the walls of the design room, hall and printing room.

Founder Betsy Benn
Founder Betsy Benn, photo credit: Emma Jackson
As we move to the kitchen, painted in bubblegum pink, Betsy explains that the whole space used to be dark grey and that they’ve been tackling it one wall at a time. While we wait for our tea to brew, she shows me the printing room – noisy, bustling and painted in primrose yellow. Katie, the fourth to join the Betsy Benn team, and Jon, an extra pair of hands for the run up to the festive period, are hard at work organising and wrapping personalised notebooks.

“Notebooks make up about 50% of our business,” says Betsy, 48. “There’s no limit to what we can engrave. You can send in a child’s drawing or a logo for a new business your friend’s starting. One customer asked for a handwritten recipe to be printed on the front. They told us it was their grandmother’s fruitcake recipe, written in her handwriting.”

This level of personalisation is typical of Betsy Benn. Customers can send in a photograph, which can be transformed into a silhouette and printed in bold, block colours. Or highlight their favourite stretch of coastline, which can be made into a piece of art.

“Most people buy what we make as personalised gifts. Customers put lots of thought into the personalisation to make something really meaningful and unique, which then means that the person receiving the gift appreciates it so much more than something mass-produced.”

A photo map of Edinburgh
Betsy Benn designers make each coastline print from scratch
Betsy is determined to make personalised gifts that people will treasure. One of her favourite pieces is the decoration they make for a baby’s first Christmas. “I was swimming when I had the idea for it and I actually got out of the pool and found my phone to write it down so I didn’t forget it.”

The decoration is shaped like a gift tag and stamped with ‘North Pole Telegram’. Each one is personally addressed to the new baby and reads “From: Father Christmas. The Man in the Moon sent me the wonderful news of your arrival. Welcome to your very first Christmas! When you get big enough, do write me a letter. I love letters! Grow well little one, I’ll check on you from time to time. Merry Christmas.”

A wooden Christmas tree decoration
Betsy Benn Christmas tree decorations are made from sustainably sourced cherry wood
Betsy started the business as a new mother. “I had worked for ten years managing corporate events in financial services. When I had a baby, I couldn’t get my head around the logistics of working there and being a mother, so I took voluntary redundancy,” she says.

“Photography had always been a passion and I started taking photos of friends’ children and families. It became a small business and I used some of my redundancy money to buy a really nice printer. I decided to design a few prints and sell those between commissions. I got some second-hand frames and upcycled them and sold the prints in local shops.”

Not long afterwards, she started selling her prints on the online marketplace Not on the High Street. Within the year, she was producing the highest selling product on the whole website: personalised prints naming various destinations or places of significance, inspired by the old bus blinds that were manually turned by the bus conductor to display the next stop.

Destination bus blind
Each destination bus blind is made to order
As we make our way back to the kitchen with our empty mugs, I notice the ‘wreaths’ hung on the door. “We find forgotten vinyl records that have lived at the bottom of charity shop boxes, then print them with an image of a wreath and leave space for a name and a message. It’s another thing that can be dusted off and used every year – not bought and then binned,” says Betsy.
A tree wreath on a vinyl record
Christmas ‘wreaths’ made from upcycled forgotten vinyl records
Just before I say goodbye and get ready to leave the warm comfort of the colourful studio, I ask what she likes best about running Betsy Benn: “The feedback we get from customers. There’s a woman who’s ordered a lot from us over the years. It seems she’s the person that’s called upon to do everyone’s wedding speeches. Every time she writes a 40 or 50 line rhyming speech, she asks us to print it as a personalised wedding present. She always lets us know how much the couple loves it, which makes us so happy.”

Five huge Royal Mail sacks by the door hint at how much the team has already prepared since the start of the day. “You should see how many we fill in the week before Christmas,” Betsy says with a smile. Her words make me imagine a sleigh laden with presents, the reindeer impatient to set off. And with that, I leave the team to their work, merry and bright.