Running your own business while living on a Mediterranean island? It may sound like a far-fetched dream, but in this case, it’s Sarah K. Benning’s reality. When Sarah graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago with a BFA in fiber studies and arts administration, she could only have dreamt that in just a few short years she would find herself as a new resident of Menorca, Spain, let alone a full-time Designer/Maker for her online shop Sarah K. Benning: Contemporary Embroidery.
Of course, it didn’t all come easy. Before taking the plunge and committing to designing and running her business full-time, Sarah worked 80 hour weeks to meet the demands of her former day job as a flower specialist at Whole Foods and her growing Etsy shop. “I was so overworked and exhausted that I had to either leave my day job or close my shop. Since my ultimate goal in life was not to climb the corporate ladder at Whole Foods, the decision was easy.” Today we’re talking about why Sarah wishes she didn’t wait so long to quit her day job, her journey to Menorca, and the game-changing marketing tool that drives her business.
Name: Sarah K. Benning
Location: Menorca, Spain
Current Title: Designer/Maker, Sarah K. Benning: Contemporary Embroidery
Educational Background: BFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
Right after graduating, I left Chicago and moved to Albany, NY. My first job there was a three-month [unpaid] internship at the New York State Museum working with the curator of the Natural and Cultural Illustration Collection. I also worked as a nanny. It was all very unglamorous, as I think life after art school often is.
It was all very unglamorous, as I think life after art school often is.
Take us back to the very beginning. What sparked your initial passion for fine arts?
I grew up surrounded by successful artists and creative professionals, so my interest in the arts was sparked at a very young age. I never exactly expected embroidery to be my main medium, but I have definitely always known I wanted to be an artist. I grew up in Baltimore, MD and attended the rigorous visual arts program at Baltimore School for the Arts for high school, which solidified my desire to make things for a living and gave me the technical skills to do so!
Tell us about your time at School of The Art Institute. How did your time there guide you to where you are today in terms of your career?
I was drawn to the interdisciplinary structure of SAIC. After fours years of vigorous foundations at BSA, the conceptual emphasis of SAIC was incredibly exciting. I focused my studies in the Fiber and Material Studies and Arts Administration departments. Strangely, even though I took many fiber classes, I did very little sewing at school; I created large abstract paper works and installations instead.
The arts administration courses I took have been critical to operating my own creative business. It was so important to learn how to build a sustainable and lucrative practice for myself. Making is really only half of what it is to be an artist. The other half is knowing how to get your work out into the world and make people see it!
I attended the rigorous visual arts program at Baltimore School for the Arts for high school, which solidified my desire to make things for a living.
When you started embroidering did you think that you would turn it into a business? Tell us about selling your first piece!
I had no idea my embroidery would become my career! My first Etsy customer was actually my mom. She’s been amazingly supportive from the beginning. I remember my first sale to a stranger came a few weeks after I opened my shop. It was so exciting! I could barely believe that some wonderful person out in the world liked what I was making enough that they wanted to buy it. I continue to be incredibly grateful to all of my customers and followers. Their support allows me to live my dream life.
You are now the full-time owner of the Etsy shop Sarah K. Benning, where you sell contemporary embroidery. When did you decide to open your own business?
Being a working artist has always been the goal, though I never expected my Etsy shop to grow in the way that it has. I’m not the greatest business person. It has all come about in a pretty haphazard way and I’ve had to learn from a lot of trial and error. I love creating the work, but I feel like I am always playing catch up on the business end!
How did you balance running your shop with other projects before you went full-time?
When I first opened my Etsy shop I was working full time (40-50 hours a week) as a nanny and then later as a floral specialist at Whole Foods. I am not sure I ever really achieved balance. There were definitely many all-nighters to finish orders pieces and package orders. I wish I had quit sooner, but those pesky obligations of paying rent and buying food kept me tied to the reliability of a “real” job. It was a grueling schedule that I kept up for about a year and a half before committing to full-time self-employment.
How did you financially and mentally prepare to take the leap into full-time entrepreneurship? When did you know that you were ready?
By the time I decided to take the leap into full time self-employment I was so overworked and exhausted that I had to either leave my day job or close my shop. Since my ultimate goal in life was not to climb the corporate ladder at Whole Foods, the decision was easy. My Etsy shop was already pretty successful at that point and was getting regular requests for wholesale orders, so financially things were pretty stable. I still had doubts though, and sometimes I still do! I’m not sure there is any way to know if you are ready for big step like that until you do it. Plus, before I became a full-time artist I was working at a grocery store. I wasn’t leaving much behind and I told myself that if things didn’t work out, I could always go back. Fortunately, I haven’t had to.
You just recently moved to beautiful Menorca, Spain! What sparked the move and how did you prepare to make the move logistically (with your career) and financially?
I am in love with a man who has a magnificently adventurous spirit. He found an exciting teaching opportunity in Spain and I’m along for the ride. We are participating in a program sponsored by the Spanish government that places native English speakers in classrooms throughout the country. The only catch is that you can’t chose exactly where you will be placed—it’s more of a lottery system. So even though we’ve been saving up for about a year and vaguely making plans, we didn’t receive our specific placements in Menorca until the end of July. Since we needed to arrive in Spain by mid September, there was very little time for specific planning. Also, packing up my entire studio (not to mention closet) into a suitcase was no easy task! It has definitely been an exercise in flexibility and creative problem solving!
Prior to moving to Spain you were living in Albany, New York. What took you there after college? What was the creative community like?
That same adventurous man that has whisked me away to Spain also lured me to Albany after college. It was actually a wonderful change of pace from Chicago where I was living in the heart of Lakeview and taking classes in the Loop everyday. And after I settled in, I found and incredible community of makers in upstate New York. The Catskills and Hudson Valley are bursting with creative energy and Albany and Troy have a lot of emerging businesses and creative brands. Plus, Albany is only a few hours from the city. I found the supportive and uplifting attitude of fellow makers in Albany a welcome change to the hyper-competitive atmosphere of art school.
How has your shop evolved since you first opened it?
In the beginning, I only offered a handful of hand-stitched and drawn greeting cards. A few months later I added hoops, but they were quite different from what I am making now. That’s the great thing about being and artist and being in control of my own brand. I don’t like to restrict myself too much and miss any opportunities to grow and develop artistically. I am very excited about where my work is now. I have always felt a separation between work I am making to sell and work I am making as an artist. But lately that separation has diminished and my business and artistic practice have reconciled. I am having so much fun creating my current body of work, which is comprised of playful families of embroidered houseplants.
I think the key is to keep things fresh. It’s a tricky balance to find—staying relevant but not losing your creative voice in order to keep up with passing fads.
What marketing tools have you found to be key when getting the word out about your Etsy business? How do you make your shop stand out?
My Instagram is definitely my most effective marketing tool for directing people to my shop. It is such a great platform for sharing updates about new work and a peak into my process and studio. I try to stand out by maintaining a high level of craftsmanship and by pushing myself to continually grow as an artist. The Internet is fickle and trends change so quickly, I think the key is to keep things fresh. It’s a tricky balance to find—staying relevant but not losing your creative voice in order to keep up with passing fads.
What skills or characteristics are vital to your success as both as an artist and business owner?
Developing my photography skills has been key to my success. Being able to produce beautiful images of my products and build a visually cohesive brand is so very important for sales over the Internet. I invested early on in a nice camera and have worked hard to hone in on staging and editing skills.
If you really believe in what you are doing and are willing to take risks and work hard, self-employment and running a creative business is possible.
If you had to pick one, what has been the single most rewarding aspect of your career thus far? What has been the biggest challenge?
The most rewarding aspect of my career is having the flexibility to work from anywhere. As long as I have access to the Internet and a post office, I’m in business. I get to do what I love and now I live on a Mediterranean island…I’m pretty much living the dream!
The most challenging aspect of my career is staying positive in the face of poor customer feedback (luckily this hasn’t happened too often!) and allowing space for failures. At the end of the day, I am only one person and though I work very hard for perfection, sometimes things go wrong. Separating business failures (or rather opportunities for growth) from my personal happiness and mental health is an ongoing battle.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
Quit your day job sooner! I had a lot of anxiety about taking the plunge into self-employment for all the usual reasons, but I would have saved myself from months of exhaustion and the misery of working 80 hour weeks if I had had a little more faith in myself. If you really believe in what you are doing and are willing to take risks and work hard, self-employment and running a creative business is possible.
Sarah Benning is the Everygirl…
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
My mom. I miss her.
I love East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
I wish I knew how to___.
Ice skate really well.
What is your go-to coffee order?
I think I’m living it right now…spend a year on an island in the Mediterranean.
Favorite way to treat yourself?
A nap, even if I’m really busy (and probably the most mundane treat-yourself-answer ever).