A Potter's Journey: Part Five
Launching a Pottery Business Venture and Fighting to Keep it Alive
In 2010 I graduated college and embarked on my first year of business. Looking back now, it was an easy year. Working 40 hours per week maximum and spending 90 percent of my time making pots, I was truly living the dream. Each day involved only a smattering of business, like designing business cards or meeting with a lawyer to register as a Limited Liability Company.
This easy transition out of college was thanks to a post-baccalaureate artist residency program at my alma mater. It afforded me a fifth year to make art on campus and launch my business. I had full access to 20 pottery wheels, a clay mixer, a photography studio, and three gas-burning kilns... the works! This remarkable college facility gave my business a jumpstart. In turn, my business reflected this with strong sales that allowed me to repay my $8,000 small business loan within six months of starting my career. After breaking even, I took out the loan again in January of 2011 to provide consistent cash flow while I continued to grow my business.
By the end of my residency in May of 2011, I was up to 50-60 hour workweeks and loving every minute. For the next two years, I made pottery at a local art center while renting space in various local kilns. I remained in debt, but sales steadily grew at retail spaces, galleries, art festivals, and farmers markets, as well as online and through any opportunity to sell pottery in person.
Renting a small, local office space let me hire student interns. Instead of making pottery, the interns photographed finished pottery and sculpture to grow the business nationally through the Internet. They got my work accepted into exhibitions, published in magazines, generated online sales, and helped me gain management experience. The future looked promising.
To continue business growth, I optimistically doubled my debt to $15,000. Unfortunately, I had no inkling of the unfortunate circumstances that would plague my company in the third year of business.
It's difficult to share difficult stories. Suffice it to say that the perfect storm of unfortunate incidents simultaneously ripped through my business and personal life like a tornado. The main problems were twofold: dishonest management at a community arts center forced a few of us to find new places to make our art, and I got the short end of the stick (and suffered the heartbreak) of a failed relationship. By February of 2013, I had no studio, no kiln, about $1,000 to my name and business, and I owed the full amount on my debt.
“There is an economic reality that I've understood from the get-go... if you want to make the next pot, you've got to sell the one you just made. If you don't, you're dead in the water." ~Mark Hewitt in conversation with Ben Carter, Tales of a Red Clay Rambler (podcast) 2014
Money is to a business what oxygen is to the human body. Cash flow is the lifeblood of business. The bank pumps cash in and out like the heart pumps blood. Sales bring in money like the lungs bring in oxygen. In 2013 I experienced the terror of running out of money, which was akin to feeling suffocated.
Studio and kiln rentals from other potters, art centers, and universities are great short-term resources; however, you are left open to the risk of instantly losing access to these resources because you don't own them. This was the main reason my business got in trouble.
I fought tooth and nail to keep breathing, keep bringing in money, and keep the business alive. There were important single day shows that were milestones in my business (see fliers above). At each show I managed to sell between $500 and $4,300 in one day, and I share key reasons for the high spikes in sales in the captions above.
After saving enough money and receiving generous gifts from friends and family, I had my own electric kilns. Next, I implemented three general rules to increase pottery production:
- No trimming. By deciding not to trim the bottoms of my pots, I cut wet clay production time in half, while eliminating the need to recycle clay. See the gallery above for an overview of this process.
- Electric firing only. Wood firings required four to six days of strenuous work, vigorously stoking the kiln. Gas firings required 15 hours of constant oversight. Electric firings were automated, requiring zero time.
- No traveling to make pottery. By producing pottery in my small apartment and glazing in an old boat shed across the street, I could make all of my pottery without wasting time on travel.
Renowned Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie inspired these ideas about efficiency. In an MN Originals segment, MacKenzie basically says that clay is not expensive and glaze materials are not expensive – only your time is. If you can control your time, you can sell a pot for not too much money.
MacKenzie got a lot of guff for promoting low prices, but his philosophies worked for me. Low prices forced me to make tens of thousands of pots, let me sell them faster, and kept my business alive. More importantly, the immense amount of work grew my skills naturally, and my pots kept getting better through repetitive practice.
“Being an artist means not numbering and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer. It does come.” - Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1903)
Potters who aspire to be business people must accept the fact that the business world is naturally chaotic. Business is just one way to support artistic endeavors, and it's not for everyone. What's most important is that potters stay true to the pursuit of constantly improving their work. Your newest pottery from the kiln should be the best pottery you've made so far.