No buttoned-down business: Busy Beaver Button Co.

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Christen-CartersmYou may not think of a button as being a powerful communications tool, but Christen Carter does — at least when it comes to the pinback (also known as a button badge or pin button).

“Almost anything can be covered by buttons,” says Carter, founder of Busy Beaver Button Co. in Chicago. She points to historical events, such as moon landings and world fairs, to social gatherings, such as family reunions and weddings, and to political and social causes.

“Buttons have a wonderful populist quality,” observes Carter. “They’re cheap, so anyone can afford them, and yet they’re a diverse medium for communicating and celebrating. A button can help us remember an important event, support a cause or express an opinion. It’s a very sweet form of word of mouth.”

Carter launched Busy Beaver in 1995 while still in college and operated it as a lifestyle business until 2008. Then Carter became intent on growth and began to introduce formal systems to help the company scale, which ranged from mission and vision statements to standard operating procedures and lean manufacturing practices.

Since then Busy Beaver has moved into second stage with more than $1 million in annual revenue and nearly two dozen full- and part-time employees. Clients range from large organizations such as Brooklyn Brewery, NBC Entertainment and The Art Institute of Chicago, to small businesses, rock bands and individuals.

Known for its creativity, Busy Button offers a wide variety of styles and finishes, and has an in-house design team to help customers. Each year the company curates a series of limited-edition pinbacks, asking 10 designers to create a button for a specific theme (among this year’s contributors was legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the “I love NY” logo). The buttons are then distributed via gumball vending machines at locations around Chicago and across the country.

Carter has also established a button museum, which is located at Busy Beaver’s headquarters and open to the public on weekdays.

“Buttons have a rich history that people don’t realize,” Carter says. For example, in America the pinback traces its roots to George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, although the first patented design for a pinback didn’t occur until 1896.

With the help of her brother, Joel, Carter has built the museum’s collection to more than 9,000 buttons. About 1,500 are on public display, with the remainder stored in archives in the company’s basement.

In addition to her passion for buttons, Carter is devoted to her community. Among philanthropic activities, she is a trustee of the Awesome Foundation’s Chicago chapter, a nonprofit that gives monthly $1,000 grants for individuals to advance ideas in a wide range of areas.

Improving the environment is also a major concern, and all of Busy Beaver’s buttons are made from recycled steel. Moving into second stage has given Carter greater financial resources, and when the company moved into its current building in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, Carter installed geothermal heating and cooling systems — and rehabbed the 1920s storefront with eco-friendly insulation, insulated glass, and flooring made from recycled tires. In 2012 she added solar panels to the roof, which now powers most of the building and the company’s machinery.

“We really care about what we do — and how we do it,” Carter says. “We want people to be around to enjoy buttons for thousands of years — or just be around, period.”

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Second-Stage Rockstars

Because second-stage entrepreneurs are so focused on their businesses, their contributions often go unnoticed by the media, policymakers, economic developers and community stakeholders. With that in mind, celebrating growth entrepreneurs and communicating their value is part of the foundation’s entrepreneurship mission, which it carries out in a variety of ways.

Among these is Second-Stage Rockstars, a series of online articles that examines the ongoing impact of second-stage companies. These stories chronicle not only second-stagers’ economic growth, but also how they may be transforming their industry, creating empowering workplaces or excelling as corporate citizens. Below are some recent Rockstars; others can be found in our archives.