This month Annie interviews Sara Berks, founder of Minna Berks, a leading brand within the artisan sector. Her company creates ethically-made, socially-responsible home goods rooted in traditional craft techniques. Sara believes “contemporary design should not sacrifice social responsibility or quality – your home should be a reflection of your values.” She’s been putting that belief into action through her business since 2013 so she has a wealth of expertise to share. Enjoy!
How did you first get into this field? And what made you take that leap of faith to start MINNA?
I fell into MINNA! In 2013 I quit my job in the digital design industry. I was burnt out, exhausted, and needed a change of scenery. I left to freelance and 'figure out' what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do my own thing, but I wasn't sure what that looked like. I started a little stationary brand first and that quickly went nowhere. Then I taught myself to weave and things fell into place. It never really felt like a leap of faith because I was freelancing the whole time to support myself. I guess my leap-of-faith moment happened three years in when I finally stopped freelancing, but by that point I already had two employees and knew MINNA was going to be something I could actually do.
What’s your strategy for managing different sales channels?
We started online and quickly jumped into wholesale. We then launch a brick-and-mortar presence and are always balancing trade sales in there. It's definitely a juggle and I think all streams are necessary for us to have a healthy business. Our breakdown is currently 40% wholesale, 30% brick-and-mortar, 20% online, and 10% trade sales. We're working on nudging that balance around quite a bit over the next few years!
Some say that "wholesale is dying”. What are your thoughts on this?
I'm not sure this is necessarily the case! In fact, our wholesale business is our strongest revenue stream. But that doesn't mean I don't think about the possibility of MINNA without wholesale. I have been loving the whole direct-to-consumer movement and the transparency that comes along with it, as well as the control you have over when you launch new products and pacing out product development in a more sustainable way. For now, wholesale is the best model for us because it's the most consistent and allows us to create sustainable, long-term relationships with our artisan partners.
Others say that “retail is dying”. Do you agree?
I also don't agree with this, ha! Our brick-and-mortar is our second largest revenue stream, right behind wholesale. It was very surprising to us to see it surpass our online sales in year two. Especially given that we are not in a major metropolitan area, however, we do have a lot of city visitors and tourism. Opening the brick-and-mortar shop was huge for the brand. It gave us a physical space to show people how we envision living with MINNA products and allowed us the space to tell our story face-to-face.
Do you find trade shows to be essential in growing your business?
Yes, absolutely. Tradeshows allowed MINNA to become a business. The launch of the artisan collection coincided with a NY Now show and allowed me to see that wholesale was a viable business for us. We've continued to show every trade show season at NY Now, and now that we're with our showroom Aesthetic Movement, we show at their tradeshow Shoppe Object.
Have you invested in marketing? If so, in what ways?
We have a little bit. Up until last year, everything had been really organic: we already had a following on Instagram, we sent out semi-regular newsletters, etc. I started playing around with Facebook ads and Instagram ads and seeing what sort of impact we could get. I am by no means a marketing person, so it was really an experiment and there's definitely a learning curve. One of our major goals for 2019 is hiring for a marketing/communications position and really building out a thoughtful marketing plan.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Oh, that's a really hard question. I think I would have made stronger manufacturing contracts. We had a lot of struggles with production issues and copying in 2018. Had I thought things through with that in the beginning, I don't think a lot of that would have happened. I was a bit naive when we started in that respect. I actually haven't spoken about this publicly at all (until mentioning here!) because I'm really against the calling out that happens on social media. It was a huge struggle for me personally and made me re-think a lot of how I approached the business and continue to grow it!
What's on the mind of Sara Berks these days? Where are you looking to take MINNA? What's next?
Lately, I've been really focused on the business end of things and less spending all of my time designing. That said, I'm still the only designer so it's a lot to juggle! The business is about five years old now — starting a business and growing a business are two completely separate skillsets. I've been spending a lot of time reading books about business, communication, and leadership in general. Some I recommend are Radical Candor, A Lapsed Anarchist's Guide to Building a Good Business, Non-Violent Communication (I think this book might be changing my life, actually!) and The E-Myth. Of course, I'm still thinking about designing and weaving and techniques and products and all things I want to make! I tend to be very ADD with my approach to, well, everything — I always want to do all the things at once. So, I've been trying to be very conscious of that and am learning to be more strategic with what we're bringing to the brand in terms of new products, new suppliers, and new team members!
Where do you go for inspiration when you hit those creative blocks?
Our production trips are some of my biggest sources of inspiration. I try to get to museums as often as I can, and just outside in general. I was feeling pretty drained creatively last year and have made a big effort already in 2019 to spend more time painting and weaving, outside of my design work for MINNA. It's important for me to have an art practice to balance myself out personally and for the sake of the business!
For more info, please visit: www.minna-goods.com