Saturday, January 30, 2010

so you want to start a pottery business

I received an email the other day:
It has always been my dream to start my own pottery business. Hoping to do that in the next couple years. Any advice?

My first thought was to just send this person to my blog, but then I thought it might be hard-- even with my half-assed tags-- to ferret out the advice amongst the bitching, crying, and general angst that my posts are usually engaged in. A rational person would walk away from my blog realizing that they do not want to start a pottery business, but ceramic artists are not rational people, at least not when it comes to clay. Look, we take mud and turn it into a freaking cup, so many of us have this idea that we can do anything we put our minds to. Ceramic artists have wills made of steel.

So I thought about it-- what would I advise someone who wants to start a business in making clay objects and then sell them? I made a list.

#1- Get a mentor. Find a successful clay artist and ask them to be your guide, teacher, and mentor. If possible, work for them. When I was first learning how to make pottery, I landed a job with ceramic artist Sandi Dihl. She is a successful artist who has been supporting herself with her work for decades. I leapfrogged ahead in my career by many years because I learned from her firsthand what it took to run a business. What to do, and sometimes just as importantly, what not to do.

#2- Don't sell mediocre work just because you can. A quick peek through etsy will show you that there are many people making unexceptional pottery, and selling it. Don't add to that pile, it is not the path to distinguishing yourself. Brutally assess your work. Find other people whose opinions you trust to brutally assess your work. Make something special that shows who you are and hone that talent before putting yourself in the marketplace.

#3- Realize that when you make pottery for a living, you are sacrificing a part of yourself for money. Every artist struggles with this, and every person who wishes to survive in our society must do this, so don't fool yourself that because you are an artist you can skip by. If you are running a ceramics business, then ceramics is your job. Maybe your dream job, but still a job. I've spent years cycling in and out of burnout and psychological stress from running my art as a business. Recognize that you will need outlets to help balance your life, and put them into place.

#4- Create a support network for yourself of other artists and creative types so that you can struggle and learn together, give each other advice, cry on each others shoulder, and critique and advise one another. Your mother, best friend, and significant other can't do it all for you.

#5- Don't eff up the business end of things, and don't spend one second telling yourself that you are an artist, not a businessperson. If you want to be successful, you must be both. Get interested in running the numbers. Learn quickbooks. Read small business blogs that specialize in the arts. When you are done reading this paragraph, read it again and replace the word "business" with "marketing". Then get interested in promoting yourself. Learn how to use social media and avail yourself of all the online tools that are out there.

If you've been keeping up this week then you may notice a theme developing. I promise to take each point from above and write more extensively about it in the coming weeks, and as usual, some feedback from my readers to keep me on track is always helpful!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

making it, selling it

Yesterday, I was contacted by a local television station that wants to do a short segment on me and my pottery for an afternoon program they have. Being the publicity whore that I am, I said "yes" right away. As the producer discussed the segment with me, it emerged that she wanted the focus to be on how to market yourself and "make it" as an artist or craft person. She is a huge etsy fan with her own crafty inclinations, so she wants this to be an inspirational segment for people who are considering a different kind of life for themselves that involves making and selling stuff.

I've been considering for a while of running a local workshop for people who want to market their work online, be more visible or successful on Etsy, and deal with the ins and out of websites. I've had to learn most of this stuff from scratch-- including designing and building my own website-- and I'm still always learning something new on Etsy that helps me sell more work. And I love to share this stuff, I'm constantly bossing my friends around on how they should be marketing their work or making changes to their shops. Though, it must be said, they are quite successful without me.

My husband suggested I teach a workshop quite a while ago, but it has suddenly seemed more pressing. This month, I was elected President of the Association of Clay and Glass Artists of California, an organization of over 500 members. My election represents a big change in leadership just in terms of my age. I'm the first Gen-Xer to lead the organization, and in the weeks since my election, we now have a blog, Facebook Fan Page, and twitter feed. I feel that all of these things are vital to building and connecting our community of artists. At our annual retreat, it came up again and again: how do our non-tech savvy artists--many of them from the baby boomer generation and older-- compete in this web-based marketplace? Many of them are overwhelmed by the options and don't know where to start, but recognize that the way of relying on shows and gallery sales are not bringing in the bucks the way it used to. I want to help them.

I would love to get some feedback from my readers. What kind of information would you want from a workshop like this? What tips do you want to share? Are there things you wish someone had told you before you launched yourself into the web-o-sphere? All comments welcome!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

award season

Somebody out there who has fantastic taste nominated me for a "Poppie Award" for having the best ceramic shop. I swear, I did not nominate myself. At first, I was just honored to be nominated, along with some of my favorite pottery pals. Always nice to know that people are paying attention. But, I'm getting my butt kicked in the voting, which has brought out my naturally competitive spirit. If you think I have the best shop, vote for me right here!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

the way of the sloth

I have been easing myself back into work, not unlike how a three-toed tree sloth would get back to work. For those of you who don't know what a three-toed tree sloth is or how they act, their most distinguishing characteristic is the fact that they move very slowly and deliberately. It's quite comical to watch, actually. Years ago, I was on a beach in Costa Rica and a tree sloth fell out of a tree behind me-- something that happens all the time since they cannot react quickly-- and I was so startled my first reaction was to get up and run away. I am a total chickenshit when confronted with strange animals. I expected the sloth to be angry and maybe run toward me, but it just rolled over veeeeeeeery slooooooowly and began its crawl back to the tree. I felt sorry for being fearful when I realized it was terrified of me and was doing its own version of a flat-out run for safety.

Anyway, that's my totem right now, a three-toed tree sloth. And it feels pretty good to take it easy after holiday bedlam and plan for the year. Of course, I've had to do some work which can sort of ruin the sloth vibe. I had my first firing of the year last week, and I was very disappointed with the outcome. Cake stands, as usual, giving me problems. I really should charge $200 a plate. I found myself fuming around the studio and even throwing a couple of things. I haven't thrown things in a long time. It's not that I'm worried about what the customer is going to upset with their delayed order-- I've become expert in handling anxious cake stand customers-- I get so worn down by the persistent and ongoing problems with these pieces, it's hard not to feel defeated.

Then, there's a whole new problem that started showing its ugly little head, first every once in a while over the past couple of years, and now all the time. The plates have started popping away from the stands. Sometimes it's already happened when I pull it from the kiln, sometimes it happens after a couple of days. I don't know why this happens, and it only happens with certain glazes, my white glaze being the top offender, of course. I've done everything you can imagine to try and mitigate this issue, and I finally had to give up and re-design the way I make these things, not for the first time. I've always made the stands and the plates separately, so I can really pack them in during bisque firings. But now I'm attaching them while they are green, then bisqueing them like that. It takes up some serious space in the kiln, and I feel less efficient, but when I consider all the stands that get sent to the shard pile, I feel I have no choice. This is the best way to deal with this problem.

I'm finding, more and more, that the energy I spend on being stressed and upset in my work is energy I am totally capable of channeling into finding solutions and just moving on. I really am attempting to train my brain to stop having a panic response to stress; it is super annoying to get a surge of adrenaline when a problem comes up, which makes my heart pound and my hands shake. The three-toed tree sloth does not get panicked. The sloth falls out of the tree, and then immediately gets up and starts climbing again, in the exact same deliberate way he was before. He does not freak out and try to make up for lost ground, or throw coconuts around, or charge at the nearest person standing by. Watch me as I work on my sloth attitude.

Monday, January 04, 2010

ready... or not

I haven't done a lick of work in what feels like weeks, though it's barely been two. The days leading up to the holidays is a siege, which makes the whole season like fighting a battle. I know how to dig my trenches, lay in a huge supply of ammo, and train my troops. But by December 20, my little bunker was being overrun by a panicked and scattered populace. I was shooting-- I mean shipping out orders right up until December 23, when I finally turned out the lights and retreated to Southern California. Still, I got an annoyed sounding email from a customer 3 days after Christmas wondering where her Christmas present was. It's amazing how I can hear whining even through the impersonal medium of electronic mail. And this from an east coast customer who placed the order 4 days before Christmas. I guess Christmas brings out the child in all of us.

I don't feel ready to go back to work, but then, I never do. It's really a shame that I didn't marry rich, because if anyone was built for a life of idleness, it's me. I've refined lolling around to a high art, and the beautiful thing is, I can do it just about anywhere. Part of the reason I work for myself is because I would never be able to get to amount of vacation days I really need from a regular job.

While I'm thinking about getting back to work, I'm also thinking of the upcoming year, and how I want to make it different for myself. I'm starting by skipping the wholesale show in February, which means I don't have to spend January pumping out samples and coming up with new "product". This also means I don't have an assured stream of income from store orders during the Spring, but after last year's lousy show, I've realized I don't depend on that as much as I thought I did. In fact, the more time I spend selling my work at half price to retail clients, the less time I have selling the same work at full price to my own individual clients. Though my own clients can be a major pain in the ass on occasion (see above), I still prefer dealing with them over dealing with stores.

Skipping the wholesale show is about more than just trying to cut wholesale and increase retail. It has become increasingly obvious to me that I need a creative outlet that's not just about ceramics. For a while, I thought that what I needed was more "creative" time in the studio, making stuff that's about making art and pleasing myself. But I've come to realize that that is not what I need at all; what I really need is less time in the studio and more time making other kinds of art. I've spent 10 years building this ceramics business and I've gotten very good at it. Up until now I could rarely think about spending my creative energy doing anything other than pottery. And now, I have a nice little business that can support other projects and give me the time I need to do other things. Like writing, which I love as much as ceramics. And painting, which I used to be good at. Resolutions can be a bit ridiculous and a set-up for failure, but I'm ready to make some changes in 2010. What about you all?