The Full Time Potter – What it takes for the creative maker to succeed in business

As a business person, I often look at potters with a mixture of profound respect and utter bemusement. How can anyone spend his or her life with their hands in mud, work for a minuscule effective hourly pay rate and then have the nerve to be happy?

In an article published by Studio Potter in 1990, American potter Warren MacKenzie gave me some insight into why professional potters do what they do. He said:

“The challenge is to do the thing you have to do because you’re in love with it and can’t do anything else. Not because you want to become rich or famous but because you will be unhappy if you can’t do it.”

Australia potter Paul Davis puts it more bluntly:

“While there is a difference between being a ‘maker’ and a business person, you still have to make enough to live on, even if making money is not the ‘driving’ motivation.”

This article is for people who yearn to take their love of the ceramic arts to the next level by becoming a full-time professional. I’ll try to outline some of the business considerations that can make the transition easier and more likely to be successful.

Always keep your eye on the money

In any startup business, cash is king. Charles Dicken wrote in David Copperfield:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result: happiness. 
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound and six, result: misery.”

The key to keeping your cash flow positive is to have a plan. It need not be a full business plan, but sitting down with a piece of paper and writing down the answers to the following questions can be helpful:

  • What am I going to sell
  • Who am I going to sell it to
  • How am I going to find these buyers
  • How can I pay myself

There are lots of other things you should consider, and maybe we’ll get to them later, but these four questions need solid answers before you begin. Let’s look at each in more detail.

What am I going to sell – or Range Planning

There are two ways people approach the business of selling – and yes, I said those two awful words: selling and business! While I know you are planning to be a full-time ceramic artist, if selling your work is going to pay the rent and put food on your table, then like it or not, you are in business.

The first approach is to look for a market niche that is not being addressed by anyone else and design a product that fills that need. It’s the build a better mousetrap approach – because even though mousetraps don’t inspire you, you know mousetraps will sell.

The second way is to look at what you love creating and find enough people who also love what you make, and who are prepared to pay you for it.

This “go with what you are good at” strategy is a more normal artistic approach that can be the gateway to fame and riches on the one hand (Picasso); or a lifetime of poverty and suffering (Van Gough), on the other.

Whichever way you choose, here are a few fundamental things that have proven to be useful time and time again.

  1. Choose to be the best at one particular thing and focus your efforts. Try not to be everything to everyone.
  2. Optimise the number of different things you sell, so that while you have a balanced range of items for people to buy, there are not too many variations within that range.   So three sizes of vases rather than six slightly different sizes. That way, you can plan the production and marketing of those items with quality, cost-control and efficiency in mind.
  3. Have items in your range at various price-points. That way, people who like your work can buy something regardless of how much money they have. However, don’t be afraid to have some items at a much higher price, because there are always people who are willing to pay well for something they like.

Who is going to buy my work – or Market Segmentation

If you are thinking of turning professional, you will have probably already sold your work to people other than family. So you already have some idea of the kinds of people who already like your work, what they are prepared to pay, and where they are likely to buy it.

Here is some simple homework. Sit down and create a buyer profile for each type of person who will be an ongoing supporter of your professional work. Give each of them a descriptive name that defines who they are.

For example “Quirky grandmother”, “Retired professional male”, “Lunching lady with taste”, “Young millennial just married” and so on. Think about why these people bought your work. What problem did it solve for them (a gift, home decoration, a statement about their excellent taste, the colour matched their curtains, and so on)?

Then write a brief narrative that describes how they might have found and bought your work; something like:

Quirky grandmother was looking for a present for her daughter-in-law. Everything she saw in the mall was just too ordinary until she saw my work in the popup shop I’d set up in my local mall. She went straight to my curious cow mugs and picked up the most colourful one. I knew I had a sale when her face opened up with a beaming smile. She bought one for her daughter-in-law and two for herself.”

Retired professional male always attends my openings looking for items to add to his collection. While his taste is eclectic, he looks for things that are not only well made and artistically rounded, he looks for works that reflect his interest in art history. He particularly likes the way my works take an established form and gives it a little twist that only the knowledgeable can fully appreciate. He’ll try to negotiate the price, but he will pay well if he likes something.”

Each of these little narratives contains insights into where people buy; what is driving them to purchase and why they choose what they choose to buy. You’ll find it surprising how much you already know about your buyers if you take a few moments to write down their story in this way.

Once you know these sorts of things, planning what to produce, where to sell, and how to market your works becomes a bit easier. Moreover, you’ll get better with practice, especially if you engage with your buyers either person-to-person or on social media.

How am I going to find buyers

  • Open a store
  • Studio open days
  • Online – website, Etsy, Facebook, Instagram, eBay
  • Galleries
  • Exhibition
  • Commissions
  • Direct to local stores
  • Direct sales at fairs, art markets and farmers markets

How can I pay myself

Your payment is what is leftover from your sales revenues after you pay for all your expenses.

These expenses include things like:

  • Sales Commissions
  • Packaging & transportation costs for sale items
  • Raw materials – clay, glazes
  • Studio rental
  • Equipment costs
  • Utilities like power water and telephones/internet
  • Employees and staff
  • Taxation, council fees etc
  • Accounting, legal and bank fees
  • Marketing, website and sales materials
  • Car and transport expenses
  • The occasional coffee and maybe lunch every so often

It is important that you do a basic budget where you identify all the costs in your business so you won’t be surprised when bills come in and the payment from the gallery is still a month or two away.

Remember that getting your pricing right, producing the right volumes of work AND controlling your costs are all keys to making your business cash positive, so there is money over to pay yourself a wage.

Most small businesses don’t make a profit for the first year or two, so you should plan how you are going to survive until your business takes off. There are many options to consider:

  • Have a supportive partner who works
  • Use savings, lump-sum termination payments or other nest eggs
  • Sell your house in the city and move where it’s cheaper to live and use any profit to fund your new business
  • Work part-time
  • Teach pottery
  • Develop a cash flow sideline; some potters pay the bills with a custom ceramic tile business for example
  • Open a coffee shop in your studio

With every startup business, it is wise to think long and hard about two things.

  1. How will you know when you have succeeded and what will you do when you have?
  2. What will it take for you to know that a pottery business you have tried to build, is not working and you need to move on?

Both of these things are uncomfortable to contemplate because anyone thinking about making a career from selling their work has to be optimistic.

“Success has no limits”. “Failure is not a possibility”.

You might say these things to yourself, but going into business with your eyes open and mind attuned to thinking about business realities is actually a very sound idea.

Peter Smith is a writer and software developer. He was the CEO of an international digital marketing company.