Daily Mini Interview: Hobby Builders Supply and miniatures.com

Get to know the teams behind Hobby Builders Supply and miniatures.com 

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So, tell us, who’s the family behind miniatures.com and Hobby Builders Supply? 

In 1975, Benamy International, founded by the late Mickey Benamy, was a going and growing importer. A Texas customer came to see Mr. Benamy with a concept of miniature furniture of Early American design. The designs were similar to what you would see in Ethan Allen furniture stores. The customer gave the drawings and specifications for the miniature furniture (1:12 scale), and they wanted us to quote a price. Mr. Benamy went to Taiwan and contacted a reliable maker that he had known for several years in the craft industry. After more than a week of negotiations in Taipei, he reached a price, which he quoted to the customer by telex. The customer accepted our price and placed a significant order with a letter of credit.

The maker was told that each item must be made exactly as specified and that there would be zero tolerance for variation. We had to source machinery that did not vibrate and soft wood lumber that would not warp. Within a month, production was started. Within the next two months, the customer called to say that they were going out of the craft and hobby business – that they would accept the orders placed but would not reorder. Mr. Benamy was told that he could have the rights to the designs that they had created, and that was it.

Mr. Benamy took a good hard look at the miniatures business to see what was currently available and found that there was really a “Cottage Industry,” but no mass production. There seemed to be several artisans making miniature furniture, selling their wares at small shows and in magazine ads.

He found that there were several makers of dollhouses, but no one was producing authentic 1:12 scale components, such as doors, windows, hardware and roof shingles. He gathered a small group, and HOUSEWORKS, LTD. was formed.

Our first product was a 5-piece set of 1:12 scale clay pots. We printed a flyer showing the clay pots and a nickel standing on edge to illustrate the size. We then went through every publication on miniatures that we could find and mailed a flyer to every advertiser. Nutshell News, a digest sized magazine to which practically every miniaturist subscribed, was the first publication for us to place a small advertisement. Within a week, orders started pouring in for the clay pots, and we had a mailing list.

We listened to advice from miniaturists from all over. We were told many times that miniature collecting was the world’s third most popular collector hobby – surpassed only by stamps and coins. This seemed like a real opportunity for us to make a positive impact on the hobby. Mr. Benamy’s son, Paul, contacted people building dollhouses to show them our doors and windows and convinced them to size their openings to accommodate our components.

In the meantime, production was started on windows, doors, dormers and shingles. Many times, Paul and Mr. Benamy would be in the warehouse sanding and gluing components to make them perfect before being shipped to our customers.

In Atlanta, we bought machinery, hired operators and started to produce a Williamsburg dollhouse in a leased space next door to our offices. This dollhouse venture was a big mistake because Mr. Benamy didn’t have the temperament to manage a factory. If it wasn’t perfect, it was not Houseworks quality, and it would be rejected. That was the way it had to be. Excellent quality was our standard. It didn’t take us long to realize that we were not meant to be manufacturers, and we proceeded to outsource the dollhouse production.

Within 18 months, Houseworks was off to a flying start. We established a network of wholesale distributors and dealers worldwide. Our product line was growing and was the leading source for the miniatures industry. In order for our business to grow, we realized early on that we had to do something to perpetuate the hobby. A gathering of local miniaturists in Atlanta was organized, and this was the start of the Atlanta Miniature Society, which Houseworks initially funded. Shortly thereafter, we arranged a meeting in Chicago with other manufacturers and importers to form a trade organization for miniatures and to run an annual trade show for our industry. We co-founded the MINIATURES INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION of AMERICA. Several years later, Paul became president of this association.

Houseworks needed to expand its product line. Our business plan was to grow 25% a year for the first five years. When Mr. Benamy went to the bank to talk about our needs, the banker thought we were crazy. He had never heard of dollhouse miniatures being a business. So, we did it without the bank’s help. After three years, the bank was calling us to offer help.

When Houseworks felt the consumer demand to expand into the direct-to-consumer business, there was some objection from our wholesale customers. Wholesale customers didn’t want to sell a Houseworks-branded product that consumers could now go direct to Houseworks to buy. Given these objections, the Hobby Builders Supply brand was born as a way to sell a variety of miniature brands direct to consumer via mail order catalog without compromising the Houseworks wholesale business. And as the demand for online shopping began, miniatures.com was launched in 1995 to offer our miniatures customers the ability to shop when, how, and where they wanted.

Today, the company is run by Mickey Benamy’s two sons, Dean and Paul Benamy. Dean’s daughter, Heather, also works in new business development and marketing for the company. Several of the 30 employees have been with the company since its inception, or close to.

Over the years, a fun business that was creative, profitable and fulfilling was created. Customers and vendors became close friends that we cherish to this day. It’s these realities that make it all worthwhile, even now. Thank you for your interest in Houseworks/Hobby Builders Supply/miniatures.com, and here’s to the next 40+ years.

How did Hobby Builders Supply (HBS) come to be? 

One morning, Paul Benamy received a call from a consumer that was building one of the Three in One dollhouse plans that Houseworks published. The woman explained that she lived in Savannah, Georgia, and she was trying to build this dollhouse for her 11-year-old granddaughter’s birthday. She said she had gone to her local dollhouse and miniatures shop to purchase over $500 worth of our dollhouse building components and supplies, but her local shop didn’t have any of the items in stock and the store owner said she would not be reordering for several months. Frustrated and running out of time, the grandmother decided to call Houseworks to see if she could purchase what she needed directly from us to complete the dollhouse in time for her granddaughter’s birthday. Paul explained that at the time we only sold direct to dealers and distributors and that we couldn’t sell products to her direct. After he hung up the phone, he went to speak with Mr. Benamy about the phone call and told him that we were crazy to let this customer be disappointed. Paul said that if Houseworks could not sell to her then we needed a direct to consumer outlet to supply our retail consumers that did not have our products available in their communities. Mr. Benamy asked Paul to call the lady back and tell her that we didn’t want to lose her business, and that we would ship what she needed directly that very afternoon. Thus, Hobby Builders Supply was born, and we shipped the customer the dollhouse components and supplies the she needed. She was happy, and her granddaughter was extremely excited when she received this grand dollhouse made by her grandmother.

Tell us a bit about how miniatures.com was launched in 1995 and how it’s grown over the years.

In the summer of 1993, as much of Atlanta was preparing for the 1996 Olympics, Paul Benamy was introduced to a gentleman trying to organize Georgia businesses to get on the “World Wide Web” in preparation for the millions of visitors that Atlanta would entertain during the Olympics. At that time, the Internet was only being used by universities and the federal government. The WWW was a whole new world and we were about to embark as pioneers in this new industry. So, we registered the miniatures.com domain in 1993 and proceeded to post the book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dollhouses but Didn’t Know Who to Ask, written by employee Nancy VanHorn, online for the world to learn and enjoy.

Initially, we set out to educate the world about the incredible world of miniatures, and our first site was purely informational. It had the complete book online and a form where people could request our printed Hobby Builders Supply Buyers Guide. Within days of being online, we were receiving hundreds of requests for our catalog. Shortly thereafter, people began calling and asking if they could place orders by email and send in their credit card information. That was the birth of our online sales. We knew then that we needed an online site that would be able to take orders and process credit cards for payment.

At the time, this was all new stuff to the I.T. folks in Atlanta, Georgia, but we ended up finding a gentleman named Chip Dukes to help us build one of the first shopping carts on the internet. To this day, Chip still manages our site design, and our miniatures.com site is the leading website for dollhouses and miniatures with over 5,000 products for purchase. Today, in 2018, we now have about 30 employees that work as a family to sell quality miniatures from Atlanta. Our Hobby Builders Supply and miniatures.com brand is direct to consumer, while our Houseworks brand is for wholesale orders.

What advice would you give to new mini makers?

Don’t be afraid to just dive in. Opening a new dollhouse with all of the parts and components can feel very overwhelming, but take it one step at a time, and you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Also, find miniature bloggers online and seek out their tips and tricks. They’ve been doing it for a while, so learn the shortcuts or helpful hints from their experience.

What about advice you’d give to an online shop owner?

Take a look at the websites of various large online retailers and make note of where their search bars are, where and how they display their categories, where their logos are, and even what they put on their homepage heroes and any other product or content pods. Larger retailers spend millions of dollars testing and watching consumer behaviors on their sites, so benefit from what they’ve done on their site because chances are, everything on their website is in its place for a proven, tested good reason.

Also, learn all that you can about SEO (Search Engine Optimization). The more that your site is optimized, with links and content for search engines to read, the further up your site will appear in organic customer searches. This means customers are more often to see and click your site after an online search.

What’s your favorite time of the year for miniatures? 

Our favorite time of year is December/January when all of the Creatin’ Contest projects are turned in and judged. Year after year, our customers amaze and surprise with their creativity and attention to detail. It makes judging the contest harder and harder every year!

Does anyone in the HBS family collect miniatures? If so, any favorites in their collection?

She’s not blood family, but she might as well be, as Nancy Van Horn has been a company employee for 27 years. Before coming to Houseworks, she owned her own shop, selling Houseworks components as well as handcrafted items. After starting here as a receptionist, she worked her way up to Sales Manager and also helps with customer service for Hobby Builders Supply and miniatures.com.

Nancy acquired her first dollhouse as a child and fell in love with miniatures at that time. Over the years, Nancy says she has owned 200 dollhouses and room boxes! She had sold, donated or given away quite a few of them over the years, but still has a large collection.

“My favorite dollhouse is called The Karen and was built by Jack Nash from The House Jack Built,” Nancy says. “It is a Second Empire Victorian and stands four feet high and has over 8000 hand-applied shingles,” according to Nancy. Nancy estimates that the house itself is worth more than $15,000 and it is furnished with more than $10,000 worth of items she has collected over the years.

Another favorite in Nancy’s collection is a large room box she calls “Miniature Artisan Museum.” It has two stories and proudly displays items she has been collecting from well-known miniature artisans since the 1980s. Nancy says that recently, she has become interested in 1:48 scale. She loves the detail you can see in even these extremely tiny items, plus it is easier to find room for smaller-scale displays!

Do any mini makers work at miniatures.com?

Outside of Nancy Van Horn (above), we employ in-house miniaturist, Fran Casselman. Fran is tasked with creating the mini scenes for the front cover of our catalogs, as well as mini vignettes for use inside the catalog and online. She also creates a finished version of the Creatin’ Contest kit every year to help showcase the new kit and inspire customers to enter the contest, and seasonal mini projects throughout the year that we use in marketing and social media.

How can miniaturists and miniacs collaborate with the miniatures.com team? 

We’d love to create a network of miniaturists and miniacs that can help serve as a “brain trust” for the team to bounce ideas off of, provide ideas, provide feedback, and would be open to using products that we send to help us create small projects to feature in marketing, social media, and PR.

We’d also love to have those same folks provide tips and tricks that we can share with the miniature community.

Additionally, guest bloggers would be considered for our Small Talk blog on miniatures.com depending on topic, content, and products in the post. If interested, shoot us an email at hbs@miniatures.com.

What keeps the team inspired at miniatures.com?

Our customers by far inspire us the most! We love to see pictures of the projects that they’re working on or have completed. We love to see the unique ideas that they come up with during our annual Creatin’ Contest or Halloween Challenge. We love to hear what they’re working on and what they need. And we love feedback from our customers to ensure that we continue to meet their needs.

What is the most memorable miniature you have ever seen?

Our most memorable miniature was an exact replica of our corporate office completed in miniature for us by a customer in South Carolina! The replica of our building was built by a long-time friend and customer, Benny Roper. It is completely finished inside and out and is even landscaped and wired for lighting. Mr. Roper used Houseworks components throughout and we have proudly displayed it in our lobby for over 30 years.

What is your hope for the field of miniatures? 

Our hope for the field of miniatures is that we are able to continue to inspire and engage current customers and seek out new customers for the hobby. To inspire existing customers, our Buyer, Sue Johnson, searches for new and interesting minis to sell to our customers from new and existing vendors as well as miniature makers.

In fact, we just launched our Collector’s Boutique on miniatures.com which is a small, ever-evolving group of extra-special miniatures in very limited quantities, many that few have seen before.

Sue also works to create a new dollhouse kit every year specifically for our Creatin’ Contest so that it’s a new kit with a ton of imaginative possibilities. As a team, we’re always trying to brainstorm new project ideas to share with our customers that might compel them to finish an existing project or start something new!

To inspire and engage new customers, we attend DIY blogger conferences and partner with crafter and mommy bloggers to expose the hobby to those that already have an interest in making and crafting. With these partnerships, the targeted bloggers blog about a small miniature project, like an elf or tooth fairy door made with miniatures, to expose new audiences to miniatures and inspire them to take on the small project. We feel if we can get someone to create an entry project with miniatures, like an elf door, they may just be inspired to take on a room box or dollhouse as their next project.

What would you like to see replicated in miniature?

The International Space Station.

What’s to come from miniatures.com and Hobby Builders Supply? 

As for new miniatures, we launch new and “back by popular demand” miniatures about four times a year in our catalogs and online. New miniatures are designated in our catalogs with the word “NEW” on a red stripe across the top of the catalog pages, and online in the “New Arrivals” link located in the green bar below the homepage hero.

We kicked off the 2017 holiday season with a lot of great promotions on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And to round out the year, all entries were received for the 24th Annual Creatin’ Contest. Winners will be announced mid-February, and the 25th Annual Creatin’ Contest kit will be announced shortly, so stay tuned!

What do you want miniature fans to know about you? 

Our onsite warehouse keeps approximately 5,000 miniatures at the ready to ship to customers upon order!

Though we’re a “big” company by miniatures standards, we’re really a small, family-operated company that cares deeply about our customers, the products that we make available, and the industry as a whole. For us, behind the catalog and website, it’s personal.

Would you like to share a dailymini exclusive with readers?

Now through February 16, we invite dailymini followers to take $5 off of their order with code WDM2018 used on miniatures.com. No minimum order, one use per person.

We’d also like to invite them to sign up for our emails to get notified of new products, sales, and project ideas.

Hobby Builders Supply, Houseworks Ltd., and miniatures.com are some of the biggest names in the miniatures business. From online sales to interactive contests, wholesale shipping and blogging opportunities, the miniatures.com team has certainly made a name for themselves since their founding in the 1990s. Want to learn more? Follow along to see what’s happening in the miniatures world. Check out the Small Talk blog and HBSMiniatures social media: InstagramFacebookPinterest, and Twitter