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!


  1. Sounds like good advice - and to the point. BTW a good source of marketing advice for artists written by Alyson Stanfield . I attended a weekend workshop she gave which provided very useful advice on marketing with an emphasis on using the internet and social media. Had the added benefit of adding to my support network.

  2. GREAT post and GREAT advice. I suppose my first thought was, is the person who wants to start a pottery business even a good potter or are they looking at doing a Gallery thing? I was thinking #2 would be my #1 and that means not only being exceptionally talented but making that "something special" over, and over again. I would also recommend that your 5 points can't be selected a la carte but must be done all together -throughout the life of the business!

  3. I have spent the past year trying to get a ceramics bussiness off the ground and that is excellent advice, I wish I had seen it a year ago!

  4. This topic is so important, and so many artists can't accept "business," but their is an art to being a successful business, so now I am following your blog . . . nice post!

  5. Great Post!
    Great advice!

  6. Your post is so thought out and well
    written and it goes without saying that your pots are beyond beautiful. It's no wonder you are so successful. You go girl!

  7. Anonymous2:57 PM

    Hi Whitney,

    Thanks for the great post on starting your own pottery. I just finished reading the current issue of "The Studio Potter" and saw your work featured through Christa Assad's article. So went to your website and blog. You have some nice work, and I like your thoughts about biz, selling. I have been a potter for over twenty years and have had many students and a couple of apprentices walk through my studio doors wanting to give up the day job and live the dream job of a potter. They quiclky learn it's not all they dreamed about. This current issue of Studio Potter, "The Money Issue" is a great place to start for learning some realities of making a living. Even though it is such hard work, with little money, the rewards are great! It is something I could never give up! The clay grabs us potters and doesn't let us go!

  8. Funny...I was just having that pep talk with myself this morning. You know the one where you keep saying, "I really love what I do" over and over and over again until your forget that feeling of paying every single bill late. The, "I hate cubicles" chant works pretty well too. I actually found your post to be reassuring. It took me 3 years to make the leap to full time potter, and oddly enough, I think it took completing your list of advise to finally do it. I suppose the list would have come in handy 3 years ago :)

  9. What a great advice! Thank you so much for putting it all together.
    What I do like most about your writing is the brutal truth and no sniggering around the facts. The hardest for me has been the fact that successful business means to become a businesswoman. It was n't on my "to-do" list when I started....

  10. thank you so very much for this post!!
    i am a burned out graphic designer who's really excited about planning the switch to pottery. yikes!!
    i'm a total newbie (been studying for just under 2 yrs) so i'm eager to learn anything and everything about the business of being a potter.
    your advice is invaluable to me, i especially appreciate your candor on areas most people don't ever talk about and one wishes someone would.
    thank you for telling it like it is!

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  12. Thank you for your excellent blog! It's so useful getting advice from people who are in the business already.

  13. Thank you for taking the time to share your advice.

  14. Thank you very much for posting such helpful information. You have been doing this a lot longer then me and I have come to realize from an early age that you can always learn so much from others who have been doing this long before you. I really appreciate your information and I am trying to keep the potter breed alive and will do everything in my power to do this until the day I die! Thanks again and best of luck to you.

  15. I REALLY appreciate you writing this blog. For some reason it just hit me that I finally knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life - pottery. Even though I really have no formal training except for the few lessons i got in high school. I really want to try to teach myself so I have no artistic influence from someone else in my work. In other words, I really just want it to be an expression of me and only me. However, because of the liability issues in high school i never learned anything about firing and working kilns as far as cones and everything else. Any advice on what to do?

  16. Thank you! this came at the perfect moment...

  17. Anonymous6:52 AM

    If anyone is interested in pottery classes in Hampshire, UK... do not hesitate to take a look at the pottery courses at Vinegar Hill Pottery, and let David work his magic on you!

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  19. Kathrina10:06 PM

    This is all I need to hear. Being an artist. Great advice, thank you so very much.. I'm already a subscriber, I did so right after reading your blog. Thank you

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