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Life & Business

Life & Business: Sara Berks

by Sabrina Smelko

SARA-BERKS2-Life&Biz
A true artist at heart, Sara Berks has always been been drawn to patterns, textiles and creative processes. After attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City and receiving a BFA in Graphic Design, she started her career at various interactive design agencies, but found herself longing to branch off on her own and grow something herself; authentic, creative and on her own terms. After experimenting with tapestry weaving using simple frame looms and whatever fibers she could get her hands on, what she was meant to do became obvious, and, in 2013, MINNA was born.

MINNA is a home textile brand which Sara named after her grandmother, who — upon arriving to America from Germany in 1940 — chose to drop the name as a way to reflect the shedding of old and embracing of new. Much like the name and the story behind it, MINNA’s offerings stylistically bridge the gap between nostalgic and timeless, and a bit rebellious and daring. With unexpected color combinations, patterns and designs, Sara draws inspiration for her pillows, rugs, blankets and wall hangings from traditional craft techniques and the various master artisans in Mexico and Guatemala whom she personally gets to know before they handcraft each piece.

Her distinct, contemporary aesthetic combined with nostalgic practices has landed her products in various stores across America and online, along with a fan base that reaches far and wide. Today, we’re thrilled to have Sara join us to share more about her business, how it came to be, and what’s in store for the future (including a home tour to keep an eye out for soon)! –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

Starting MINNA was a complete accident. I didn’t wake up one day and think “I’m going to start a home textile brand.” It more-so started because I realized I didn’t want to be a graphic designer anymore. I wanted to actually make physical, tangible things, instead of websites. I wanted to find a different way of supporting myself that felt fulfilling and authentic. After a few years of working in the graphic design/web design industry, I was completely creatively drained, and to be honest, depressed. I had several experiences in the industry that left me questioning why I had decided to be a designer in the first place. I decided to leave my very cushy, full-time agency job to freelance. I didn’t know what I was searching for, I just knew I needed to give myself space to find something else.

MINNA-blankets

Image above: MINNA blankets handwoven in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photography by George Underwood, Styling by Katie James

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work?

I began weaving as an extension of my art practice in 2013. Without sounding cheesy, it truly felt like something I was meant to be doing! I finally felt like I found an expression that made sense. I was always an artist, drawing, making zines, creating things and I was always drawn to textiles, but I could never find the right medium until weaving. Weaving made sense to me: it’s repetitive, a little obsessive, but also meditative.

Instagram allowed me to find a community interested in weaving and eventually people began buying my pieces. The practical part of my brain knew that creating one-of-a-kind woven textiles wasn’t a very sustainable business model. I also wanted to create a separation between my woven art pieces — that I could pour myself into — and functional textiles. The separation between “artist” and “designer” is very important to me.

So I began to explore ways of translating my designs into functional textiles that were made by hand. I did A LOT of research on sustainable textile production, and reached out to several organizations that help source this type of production. From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to work with a factory. I wanted to find a way to produce contemporary designs without compromising social responsibility or quality. I took a trip to Mexico where I met three families that I developed a working relationship with. It’s so exciting for me to know the people I work with, and learn about their life and process.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

I didn’t really get that much practical business advice in the beginning. I tried to research the brands and women-run businesses I admired to see if I could find a common thread. I did a lot of cold e-mailing asking for advice. I’m an incredibly shy person, and face-to-face interaction is often extremely hard for me. Luckily, these “cold e-mails” actually worked and I was able to talk to people that I otherwise thought would be completely inaccessible. Luckily, right at the start, I was able to connect with women like Marlee Grace Hansen of Have Company, Maryanne Moodie, Harper Poe of Proud Mary, Ashley Brown-Durand of Secret Holiday Co, and Aelfie. They were extremely helpful to me at the beginning, before I even knew what I wanted MINNA to be.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Not having the money or the general business know-how to get things off the ground. My logical and creative side of my brain were constantly fighting. I’d spend hours worrying about things like how to pay sales tax instead of focusing on the actual designing or figuring out the best way to launch my collection.

MINNA-pillow-stack

Image above: MINNA pillows handwoven in Guatemala. Photography by George Underwood, Styling by Katie James

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

It’s not really business-related, more life-related! Starting a business has made me feel like I have a sense of agency over myself I didn’t have before. Working for someone else left me feeling completely disheartened and uninvested in my own career path. MINNA is by no means where I want it to be, but we’re on a path now! I’m also extremely lucky to have an incredibly supportive partner. My girlfriend’s family started a company in her basement when she was a kid, and the business is now quite successful. The fact that she watched her parents do that is really helpful for me. She often reminds me when I’m sitting in a mess of yarn, boxes, bad rug samples and invoices (that is a common scene at our apartment!), that it is possible to make things happen, even when they seem impossible.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

I’m extremely self-critical, so I often see daily setbacks as massive failures, which then leads to self-doubt, anxiety and questioning why I am trying to start a business to begin with! For example, I’ve had to learn that samples never come out right the first time. Shipping will always be a complete nightmare. And it’s almost inevitable that colors will never be consistent. I am trying to be more gentle on myself and my business.

MINNA-studio-shot

Image above: Weaving on the loom. Shot for Madesmith.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I’d probably sleep for one, spend one with my girlfriend and spend one exercising.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Starting a business is a 24/7 job without a paycheck. I’d say the biggest sacrifice was watching my savings account shrink, as well as my free time. Before starting MINNA, I was extremely fortunate to not have many financial worries. My job was comfortable but I was completely unhappy. Now, I’m constantly worrying about money but I’m also a lot more content with my life. It feels REALLY good to figure something out from the ground up.

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

Every time somebody I don’t know buys something from the website! Ha! I’m kind of kidding, but that’s always a great feeling. I am really proud of myself for just following through. I was really fortunate to be able to launch the first collection at NY Now! The response was incredibly positive.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Google has been really helpful. :) I didn’t really look for books, I just studied the businesses I admired.

MINNA-collection

Image above: Photography by George Underwood, Styling by Katie James

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

Totally. I mentioned this a bit earlier, but if I hadn’t of quit my agency job, I wouldn’t have started MINNA. Quitting that job was really important and also really scary for me. I worked extremely hard to get to where I was at that point in my career. But, then I realized that I was completely miserable. There were many sides to why I was unhappy: I’m not the kind of person that can sit in an office all day. I didn’t feel invested in the ideas or the work I was making. The design world is very male dominated, which I think was my greatest struggle. My creative directors were always men and the office environment had this very masculine mentality. As a queer woman and a feminist, I found that my values and the things I believed in most didn’t align with my day-to-day experience at the office. I was incredibly depressed that this was my reality and my career. I was so worried that I wasted my early 20s working my ass off for something I ultimately didn’t want to do. I knew I needed to find a different way to incorporate more parts of myself into the work I do. I still freelance to support myself and my business, but now I know that it’s a means to an end, and not the end.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

I really don’t know how to answer this! I’m still starting my own business! But, I think the things I would have liked to hear are:

1. Reach out to people and make your own community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People will surprise you with how much knowledge they are willing to share.

2. Things that are rewarding often aren’t easy. Don’t give up. (I should listen to this one more!)

3. Make a plan, but allow yourself to be flexible. Sometimes things work out bettter when you don’t follow the plan.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

It’s tough to wear all the hats in a business and also stay motivated. Starting MINNA means I’m the only person who has a vision of what MINNA will be, so I’m the only person steering the ship, which is both hard and empowering!

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Comments

  • Loved this interview! The attention Sara is getting right now is so well deserved. She’s busted her ass! I was definitely saying to myself “girl, I know” a lot while reading. Congrats Sara! I too share your love of textiles and your work is gorgeous :)

  • Loved her interview! Sounds like my own story. Dreaming of the day when I’ll be able to show at NY Now. Have a lot of questions in mind and hopefully someone will be ready to mentor/guide me through. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  • This was a great story. I love these “Life and Business” posts, especially about those who are still starting out, like I am! Helps you to realize you’re not alone. Sara designs such awesome textiles I’m sure her business will go far. Thanks for sharing : )

  • Yup this was me too. I hated being a graphic designer. After a lot of soul searching and ideas, I too started my own company. Way to go Sara!

  • I’m feeling this interview so hard! I am a graphic designer too and felt disenchanted with it for years. There are many points I personally relate to and the amount of honesty Sara conveys is so refreshing. But, like Sara said, leaving a cushy job is scary! 6 months ago I quit my job after years of saving to travel for a year. But reality is starting to creep in and I find myself thinking about what I’ll do when I’m back. I don’t see myself going back to design for many of the reasons here: I can’t sit at a desk 9 hours a day, male dominated atmosphere that has made me adapt my personality to fit in, feeling completely drained from it. But I too am shy and self-critical, so starting anew is fraught with self doubt. Thank you for your tips and most importantly your honesty.

  • I’m also at the “quit the graphic design job and do what you love crossroad”, so I came to design sponge for inspiration and I found it in your story.
    I think for a while, graphic design jobs were the only ones out there for young artists that allowed them to actually make a living… I’m seeing that with the help of social media, this is all changing for many talented people. Congrats on your success!

  • Such beautiful work! Commenting almost a year after this article was posted, but wanted to say thank you Design*Sponge for running this series, and thank you Sara for speaking so candidly about your journey.

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