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Stephen

Pottery Back To A Sideline

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Just thought i would post this to give advice to someone thinking of doing pottery full time at regional/local shows, don't do it lightly.

 

After a few dozen weekend shows and tons of one day shows I just don't see it as viable doing run of the mill arts & craft shows and festivals to make much more than supplemental income. 

 

Marks approach of spreading a wide 1000 mile net and building up a slate of producing shows and growing customer base over years and years and Mae's approach of only working high end juried shows obviously works for them but first you have to be the potters they are and both of those approaches take time and if you plunge in full time like I did, time is not something you have. Time is in years and you have to pay bills in between. It's so easy to say I will tough it out but when the pantry gets bare that approach is just wishful thinking.

 

Was it my pottery, maybe, but ya know at every show I saw every other potter, mostly with perfectly solid work probably not doing much better than me and often less. The south is brutal but even in the NW, where it was often twice the revenue, it was not a living, at least not a decent one.

 

If you want to do this my advice is keep the day job until you have a solid 8-10 shows that you are doing that gross 5 grand. Plenty of people here claim that this is a perfectly doable number with good pottery, at good shows. I never saw anywhere near that or ever saw another pottery coming anywhere close to that so if you think it will happen for you, prove that it will by finding those shows before leaving your paycheck behind. Consignment? Wholesale? same advice, prove it first.

 

I spent a number of years part time and i thought If i was doing it full time I could cycle through shows quickly and find the right ones but the reality of road expenses and the reality that most local shows are not going to do more than add a meager paycheck puts you in a no win situation.

 

Yes if that road show that cost $1500 to go do and grosses 5-6k it works but if you go do a half dozen of these and drop $9000 and the gross is less, and its very likely it will be for most, then after a couple of months of work you have less than you started with, maybe much less. Rinse and repeat and you are just digging a hole deeper and deeper. If you do find a couple of 5k shows they meaningless on making a living because of the piled up losses. I never found any so I just lost my a$$,

 

In short listen to Mea, Mark and others and build up the pottery revenue BEFORE quitting your job. 

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I will say this, I didn't quit, I failed. With the losses mounting I just doubled down and worked harder until I was broke and scrambling to save my credit and eat. I stopped because there was simply no choice and literally no way to continue. 

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Stephen, I hope the word "sideline" means you aren't quitting altogether, just scaling back. You have all the equipment already, so keep going as a part time business.

 

I've described this on the forum before, but it's been a while and it bears repeating. I kept my day job for EIGHT YEARS after I started a pottery business. At first it was full-time designer and part-time potter. It didn't even occur to me that pottery could provide a livable income. Years later when I caught a glimpse of the possibility, I pushed ahead, and for several years I had two full time jobs. It wasn't easy. There are no easy paths to get here. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I closed the design practice AFTER the pottery was generating enough income to support myself. 

 

In hindsight, I would totally do it again. I had the luxury of developing my pottery work without any financial pressure.

 

Stephen, you still have a chance to do the same thing. 

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so sorry for your experience.  i spent my career working for AT&T and know i was very lucky to be working at that time, many years ago when jobs were easier than now.  it was painful to miss out on so much because of working 9-5 and i envied other people getting into places like the Torpedo Factory and Baltimore Clayworks.

 

but the reality is that if you have to support a family a weekly paycheck is paramount.  i could see that the only potters i saw who seemed to be making a living from pottery were actually supported by a spouse who had a good paying job.  a closer look revealed that the happiest ones were those who were permitted to do the shows and have studios because of that support.  they never could have made a living as only a potter. at least not in this area where cost of living is sky-high.

 

so many people were buying back then it sort of did not matter what you made, it would sell.  today, those buyers are older and they already have whatever they want in the way of crafts.  they can now be very picky about new purchases.  their children form the new buyer group and seem not to be as interested in crafts as their parents.  

 

timing seems to be very important.  when the "country look" came out, everything sold, people filled their houses with tons of stuff.  baskets were everywhere.  wood, metal and soft goods just sold as fast as they could.  today, much of that "stuff" is in thrift shops.  the style today seems to be minimalist and rooms look empty compared to the crowded spaces of a few years ago.

 

i realize i have been the most fortunate person i know.  but it was not due to me, just the luck of timing.

 

maybe the pendulum will swing back for you, stephen, do not give up your love of clay, just hold on until you can do more.

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Have you considered running some classes to recoup some costs/earn some dollars?

Holding a 90 minute clay class on Saturday afternoons covers my studio rent & utilities for the month (plus some). Every time I add a new class time, it fills up within 2-3 weeks. If I need more money, I add a class to the schedule. If I am financially comfy and want more time for my own work, I phase out a class. It's working well for me.
 

You would be surprised how many people are thrilled to pay for studio time, and it really helps balance things. It's more fun to create when money isn't a worry..
I am booking two months off of classes for my own personal production, this July & August. That way, I get to focus on my own growth, creativity, and production for a while. In the meantime I've earned enough from classes over the past few months that the studio will be paid for throughout the summer.

Sorry you are feeling frustrated. I hope you find a way to feel excited and inspired again.

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On another note I have evolved slowly to get to the point I'm at. It was never a thought about what I may end up doing it just happened-the starving years where in the seventies. I got thru that and in the 80s I started to get it dialed.-I also early on did summer side jobs off season to help.

I would hate to try these days to start again. Back in my day you could improvise just about anything -my first gram scale was a wooden teeter totter balanced on a nail with known counter weights .I could not afford a scale-no body these days would consider doing this.Same was try with kilns-find bricks for free and build kiln-never thought twice about that for a few decades-no one does this much these days.The inpections where very loose back then -not anymore

I started doing whatever venue  I could-one we set up our display in a vacant lot on main highway 101 in Eureka and made sales during a weekend without any local hassle . This days the cops/tax folks/city folks  would  jump on you in minutes.

Keep your day job and work slowly towards this if you want or just have fun with it.

I will say I did have financial pressure on me and thats really what helped me get it dialed.

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I can relate greatly with Mark's comments above.   It was MUCH easier "back in the day" to get it all off the ground.  I too did "street selling" situations.... no hassles at all.  Worrying about insurance and getting sued...... nope..... people just didn't DO that very often back then.  Building a fuel kiln on a property with home-made pipe burners (with no safeties) and hard bricks scrounged from old industrial boilers was no big deal.  Energy costs for things like natural gas and propane were pretty darn cheap.  Shipping costs for clay and glaze materials were low too.....because gasoline was cheap.  The "back to the garden" hippie movement had people thinking about 'crafts' of all sorts in a very positive light... and people bought a lot of that.  There were very FEW brick and mortar craft galleries in towns (and no internet)... so the traveling craft fair circuit was a very good way to sell with very low overhead (it is pretty much a 'dead horse' now except for the biggies).  Craft fairs were first and foremost "SALES events".... not entertainment events.

 

Starting out I always had two (plus) full time jobs.  One to make sure the wolf was kept away from the door until the pottery biz worked ... and the one plus was making and selling pots.  Eventually the non-clay job disappeared,.... but it was YEARS of doing that before it happened.  Then I decided that I wanted to so some teaching...... and I again had just about 2 full time jobs:   full time studio work... and part-time teaching most semesters.  After 11 years of that and a bit of 'burn out' on teaching.... I went back to full time in the studio only (which is really 2 full time jobs itself) for many years.  And then one day I got asked to fill in for a friend who was injured and could not teach her classes that year.   I had no intention of returning to teaching when I said "yes" I'd cover for her.  That was 21 years ago and I am still at NHIA teaching close to a full time load and working in the studio full time too.

 

It has been a long, long, tough road.  There were some LEAN times in there and a lot of soul searching.  I wouldn't change a thing.

 

best,

 

.................john

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It is a different world, now. Perceptions of what one has, cause others to want some of the same, at any cost. We have become a very contentious society, where it is easier to lawyer up than to understand that you should not have put that frozen casserole into a hot oven. Completely different world. At the same time, the 50's through the 80's were times of rapid growth in the arts, both in artists and craftsmen, and in those that cherished hand made. Again, an entirely different world.

 

 

best,

Pres

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stephen,  there is one other group that seem to be able to live on less.  they are the ones lucky enough not to have a mortgage payment.  whether inherited or previously paid off property, that huge debt is no longer in the way.  

 

just recently been considering retiring.  which really means converting the studio to a destination for people who want to do something different for a weekend, or week.  signing up with Airbnb sounds like a way to make the mortgage payments so my income is not stretched so far.  Airbnb is going down that road next, not just a place to stay but a place for doing something interesting while you stay.

 

just another thought.

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Stephen:

I would imagine " disappointing" does not really sum up how you feel. When I was a much younger man, I started my first business: which folded about a year later. I put my heart and soul into it; as well as very long hours and money. I thought I did everything right, I certainly did everything I knew how. About 20 years later I opened my second, which was very successful. Sold that one and opened my third; which grew to be the one of the largest development/ construction companies in our county.

The first was a bitter lesson, but a well learned lesson none the less. Before I opened my second, I spent over a year carefully studying my market. To explain: I cannot project sales based on Mark's, Mea's, or Marcie's market: I have to know mine. I already know if Mark would get $35 for a mug; I would be hard pressed to get $20. The general mindset about pottery in this area is to view it as a commodity, not art. However, people around here will pay absurd amounts of money for designer tile: which is why I make tile.

I spent a fair amount of time going to art shows, consignment shops, and open market shows. I asked organizers, sellers, and shop owners specifically about ceramic sales. I asked how well they did, how many vendors, average sales prices. I talked to vendors: what they sold, how much they sold, and how much they sold it for. Sadly, at best in this area; you could make enough to supplement your income. In most cases, they sold enough to pay for their clay habits.

This does not help you I know, but i posted it for others looking into pottery for a living. When contemplating opening a business: most tend to be optimistic instead of realistic. Numbers are cold hard facts that are not open to interpretation, but give the reality; rather good or bad. You have to sit down with a spread sheet that outlines operating costs that are factual. I can tell you to the penny what any given tile costs me to make: which includes the costs to maintain equipment, as well as a percentage for anticipated growth. I have done time studies: I know to within a few minutes how long it takes me to make something: which includes loading and unloading the kiln, clean up, and the time spent boxing it up.

I know this is a very bitter lesson, but trust me when I say: one of the most valuable you will ever learn. Business is more than learning what to do right, it is also about learning what not to do at all. I would love to make vibrant colored tiles, but I would rarely sell any. I live in the midst of Neutralville. Market research is paramount, you have to know what people will buy. It does not matter what you would buy, or even what you love to make: it all comes down to what others will buy.

Tom

 

Side note: large sculptural work / mural work in this area does fetch big big money.
 

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never have figured out why and auto should try to correct somebody's spelling.  absorbent for exorbitant??  that auto has had too many diaper changes in it.

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Nerd's comments above are REALLY spot on.  Clay is clay.  Business is business.  The two can sometimes meet and play nicely.  Sometimes not.

 

A somewhat related reading list for artists that we share with the ceramic majors all the time at the college :

 

1)  Art and Fear   -David Bayless and Ted Orland

2)  The Outliers   -Malcolm Gladwell

3)  Writings on multiple intelligences   -Howard Gardner

 

1) What is maybe holding you back from success?

2) Sometimes 'circumstances' play a very important role. 

3) What are you inherently 'good at' and what are you less suited to do?

 

 

best,

 

........................john

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Here's another book you should read if you want to be self-employed:

 

The Millionaire Next Door

by Thomas J Stanley and William D Danko

 

Good financial skills and habits elude most people. But the self-employed cannot survive without them. It's easier than you might think, it boils down to common sense and discipline.

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Stephen, clay and I came together later in life.  There have been times I wished I had started earlier, but what makes it all possible for me now is that I retired first.  I saved up and bought my equipment a piece at a time before I quit working.  But I wanted my clay habit to pay for itself.  It is something I want to keep doing for quite some time.  And it does pay for itself and then some.  However, the business end of things has been the hardest for me.  Those have been skills I have had to learn and  I have had the luxury of time to figure it out. 

So to echo Mea, Mark, Nerd, John, use your day job to put food on the table and keep throwing on the side.  Pick up shows where you know you will do well in order to keep financing the ceramic production.  The only people who fail are the ones who don't try in the first place.   Stephen, you have learned a great deal the last year.  Use that to good measure.  Best wishes to you.

Roberta

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Never give up, never surrender.

With any luck this economic climate will come full circle at least to some extent and buyers will need their handmade goods again when the more intelligent ones get sick of wallowing in digitized soulless non-art. Also don't blame yourself, at least you had the courage, unlike myself, to have faith and throw your lot into your art whole-hog. I've always been an artist on the side working a full-time+ job that I totally hated (past tense now) and sucked my muse dry of energy and inspiration like a vampire.

The situation for artists in the world, as illustrated by others above, is just not good for us at the moment. Some places of the US are certainly much harder to carve out a survival living than others. My instincts tell me things will come full circle eventually, in our lifetimes even? Perhaps. Until then, what can we do but support ourselves as best we can, so we can continue to develop and express our gifts for our own sake?

For the record I've given up the idea of selling at physical locations entirely and plan to only be listing my work for sale at internet venues in future. It fits better with my lifestyle and semi-professional approach, but some people work it quite successfully into full-time careers.

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Another good book to read is by Keith Floyd, called.. - drat - can't remember offhand - something like Floyd in the soup?  He became a "TV Chef" but before that he ran a number of restaurants.

 

He said something like:  pay me 5 grand and I will teach you what not to do, and save you 5 million.

 

Sorry to hear of your failure Stephen, but sounds like you you've quit at the right time, always better to quit and run away, than get dragged right down.

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Stephen--you wrote "...I didn't quit, I failed."  Then you added "I stopped because there was simply no choice and literally no way to continue."  When I read and re-read your post, I nothing came through-absolutely nothing--about "failure". What I got was a clear picture that it did not work out--costly and painful, obviously--but still, that's all--it just didn't work out. When one is backed into a corner and one has to do something differently, that is not failure, that is common sense survival. I imagine you will do some grieving-sad/mad stuff-but I hope you don't play kick me-beat me with yourself over having to make such a hard change. 

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Thank you all so much for all the support and kind words. I ran out of likes for the day but it was very nice of you all to take a minute and wish me well. 

 

While I am taking a break out of necessity I will be right back at it soon and one day may strike out again. In the meantime the pressure being off trying to produce large numbers pots every day will be a good thing for my work in the long run. Have scores of projects there never seemed to be enough time for. Going to just relax and try to get a few hours a day of meaningful work and enjoy the work itself again. 

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Stephen,

 

Gaining an education typically has tuition involved.  There are many routes to an education. 

 

Some chose a college type approach.  You pays your money and you takes your classes. 

 

Some choose an apprenticeship type approach.  You work your butt off for someone else for little or no income, and watch and learn. 

 

Some chose to start a business right off.  You dive in and start investing time and money.

 

All have that rather large "tuition payment".

 

Step back and analyze what you learned from the endeavor.  Both from a makers perspective as well as from a business operations perspective.  What worked?  What didn't?  Why did X work?  Why did Y not work?  How could you keep the successful parts and change the unsuccessful parts? 

 

THAT is the "final exam" for your class.  It is a "take home final".  You have all the time you need to complete it.  And YOU get to grade the results.

 

Then you can decide what the next class you take will be.

 

best,

 

.....................john

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After thinking about this post quite a lot I think that 3 years is just not enough time before getting into it as full timer at least it was not enough for me.

I think that you could still hone all your skills as a part timer working towards the end goal of full time. I would keep any job as I kept up the making of wares thru shops and the like . Still doing a few shows as you build customers and a base.You could sell on the net as well anything to supplement income and grow as a potter.

My process was a very slow one that included art collage and full immersion in all things ceramic with fellow peers-I had the time to be a starving artist and see what worked-it took over a decade to feel I was making headway.

I developed a local market first before venturing further out. I took some chances on those distant markets and found what was working and stayed with those.It all too lots of time. Now as an older person thinking back on it I'm glad I'm not starting out as the market has shifted so much.

I'm fortunate enough to be one of the last in my area of product line producing potters who will supply shops and do all the local fairs with work on a large scale.This has been a very organic and slow approach that took decades to develop .

I have had som pitfalls along the way as well as highlites

One of my customers said about 10 years ago that they where waiting for a 10 story building with my pottery name it as I was building the empire and expanding. Now that empire is downsizing some and there is not a 10 story building in our county (Other than a long closed down pulp mill)

I started a slow process years ago that  finally saturated our local towns with my work and have done all the local shows for 40 plus years so expanding I had to look elsewhere as it was a natural progression.

All this took lots of time.

I would keep at the work and work on the plan at same time you are working another job to feed the family.It will all fall into place .

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Haven't posted in a while .. saw this and wanted to put in a word.

 

It's really hard for most people to make any business work.   In a craft, the product can be your differential advantage, but at the same time getting the "right" product can be your downfall.  I'm not sure what happened in your case, but it seems the "place" element seemed to pose your biggest obstacle.  Go back and reevaluate your entire marketing mix:  Product, Price, Promotion and Place.

 

I came from a background where I know my customer bases extremely well.  Edinburg, MS .... I won't publish my thoughts on my most of my immediate geographic base (I said most not ALL) .   But I know those customers are out there that will relish my pottery and drive to get it.  I just know what sells ... how they use it and what core values my product fulfills.  Example:  I know faith is a core value for most of my target market and my line is full of cross merchandise.    I attribute my success to knowing my customer base, better than they know themselves.

 

I have offered advise to a couple of crafters and potters and one got the exact business they wanted.  But their pricing was a little off and not yielding enough profit for the time put in so they cut back.   I repeatedly told the to raise the price ....  The others .... didn't really listen and have either left or are floundering.  I think it comes down to business ownership and personal finances.    Recently did a little consulting for a business that I'm pretty sure will make it because they are well financed.  (if they fail it will be because they don't want to put in enough hours and you really can't payroll most small start up businesses, have to do the work yourself).  One thing I've always recommended is that one of the household maintains a job.  A job that will pay the bills and provide things like health insurance.  I think my personal health insurance is running about $800 a month now and being able to pay this from the business is MANDATORY.    If I can't pay that in 3 years, this business is a no go.   It does take 3 years to really get most businesses up and going.    Since this is my (10th or so ...would have to sit down and count them) business, I got to positive cash flow in the 2nd year.  The 6th year in, business is doing well.

 

All this said, don't be too hard on yourself.  Take what you've learned and try to restart the business, if it's your dream.   Let the business tell you when it's time to go full time.   Look at my business model (somewhere in my previous posts).  I stand by it as being successful.

 

What have I been up to?

As for myself, I have cut back to 2 full time employees and a Saturday employee to run the retail store.    Overseeing production was dragging me down, making it mandatory for me to put in 70 plus hours a week.   Sales dropped slightly last year but profitability was up more than 30%.  There is money to be made here ... an investor (my brother who does the accounting for the business because he sees the potential profit) wanted to put in $100K and expand.  And I said NO.  NO in NO uncertain terms.  Had 2 different companies want to buy my "designs".  One came through with a solid offer, which I accepted but they backed out. I was very disappointed.  Had an offer in the spring to produce this stupid amount of pottery for resale and I basically hung up on them.   Be very very careful in these type offers because I have watched 2 different pottery businesses fold when national companies get involved.

 

I've now split my time between the pottery and the jewelry business.  Added another building for the jewelry and the pottery has it's own building now.  And a complete e commerce website for the jewelry business.  Take a look on my website if you want (in my profile).  (really need to update the pottery website)

 

Good luck and keep pursuing your dreams ... even if it's part time.

 

Sharon Grimes

Edited by DirtRoads
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For what it's worth to the OP, Stephen,  it kind of depends on what you're trying to do/accomplish I guess.

JB's statement about how the craft faire circuit was an easy gig back in the day, that is so true. Entrance fees where as low as $15! Best part was one could eek out a living making stuff. You didn't need no day job workin' for the man!  Really a low overhead dealio.  Load up, drive there, set-up and sell. Sleep in the van.

Been there done that but, now I suffer from fear of what this new market holds. With social media and the resurgence of appreciation for handmade goods, it's become a real business, like it or not.  High overhead, lots of work even after all the work it takes to make stuff.  So much more work alone just doing the social media aspect!  I don't care what anyone says, making pottery is hard work! The well documented production of those like Mark or Mia shows that it can be done, but it's got to be a grind...

All power to those that are successful and survive.  It's the same value judgement as back in the day, not having to work a day job. Making a living making clay.

Me, I'm not so sure I even want to get out and sell stuff.  No, wait. I'm sure I don't want to...I think I like the studio sale and cottage showroom approach. This year I took off from the studio, part due to the weather, part due to other interests. Low count on the blogging and Instagramming (is that a word?),  but you know what...I'm not going to worry about it. I do have a day job. No interest in becoming a production potter for myself or anyone else. To my thinking, that's the opposite of why I make stuff out of clay. I like the process, and I like doing something I'm good at.  When the process becomes a grind it just becomes work.    But maybe I digress.

The working model is great for those that want that. Best approach I've seen is Mia's, subtle branding, succinct product line, minimal display. Very nice indeed. But the old days of hauling your wares in a van to a mall or street craft faire for cheap are probably long gone. (Marks been doing it for so long he's probably immune to the grind ;) )    I wouldn't expect to sell a dang thing except maybe a few coffee cups. I'd rather give my work away than sell it cheap...but then again I have fear of the unknown... 

Edited by Rex Johnson
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Thanks for sharing your experience. I just did a show a few weeks ago - I love my colorful pottery but no one else did. Sold lots of wind chimes and painted little bud vases but nothing else. I didn't have coherent sets of stuff, since I had been making a lot of jewelry all summer. Lost probably $600.

I looked at it as an experiment. I failed. I do sell urns but to make up my salary, I would have to sell 1800 urns a year. I like variety and that would drive me as crazy as my day job does.

Needless to say, I'm reevaluating any retirement plans.

Best to you. Keep doing it for the love of it. 

Nancy  

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