Clay Culture: Pottery Club

Making the most of online marketing options and considering revenue streams with an open mind can lead to a more sustainable, scalable business plan.

As I’m sure most solo potters will agree, making enough money just to survive is hard. Especially in the early years of building your business (not to mention against the backdrop of a pandemic).

Three years into my business I found myself working seven days a week, making things that I knew sold well rather than the things that necessarily interested me and truly nurtured my soul and stretched my creative muscles.

A Social-Media Following

Since becoming a full-time potter in 2015, I’ve been growing my social-media following. I’ve amassed over 35,000 followers on Instagram, alongside a regularly frequented blog, where I share my experience of being a potter. I have a highly engaged audience. People ask me lots of questions about my processes and how to set up a studio, as well as for help with their own pottery projects. At the start of last year, I was spending upwards of three hours a day on social media answering people’s questions and responding to comments, alongside fulfilling orders. I’d often work late into the evenings.

1 Kara Leigh Ford throwing on the wheel in her garden studio. Photo: Megan Heath.

Contrary to popular belief, a sizable social-media following doesn’t automatically equate to earnings. Despite a growing base of followers, I was barely making enough money to pay my share of the bills.

The community I have built on social media has been integral to my business growth, so I’m hugely grateful for their interest. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and feel it is important to pass it on to the next generation of potters, but the balance just wasn’t right. I needed to find a way to serve my community better while not becoming exhausted in the process.

I considered creating an online pottery course to provide some passive income, but the investment of time and money in the creation of the kind of high-quality content I wished to produce would take me away from making pottery for months on end—the opposite of what I wanted. I also had just built a new home studio and did not have the capital to put behind the production.

Finding a Solution

I first heard about Patreon when I was invited on The Potter’s Cast podcast, with Paul Blais (episodes 470 and 518). The Potter’s Cast is funded partially via Patreon. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Patreon is a membership platform. It’s a way to get paid for creating the things you’re already creating; this can include music, YouTube videos, artwork, podcasts, and even pottery advice over the internet—things that are generally extremely hard to monetize. After doing some research, it felt like a good solution for me.

It’s pretty easy to set up a Patreon page. They have a good step-by-step guide to help you, so the tricky parts are deciding on rewards and, importantly, marketing. Patreon takes a percentage cut depending on which plan you opt for, as does Paypal. You also have to consider currency conversion if you are based outside the US.

I decided to offer monthly video tutorials, asking my followers what they wanted to see and producing content around their needs. I already had a long list of things I knew folks wanted to learn just from their messages sent via Instagram and my blog. Filming and editing the videos has had a steep learning curve to say the least; YouTubers make it look easy, but it really isn’t.

2 Kara Leigh Ford’s Sea Salt Teapot with Brass Handle, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, stoneware, 2019.

There weren’t really any other potters creating tutorial videos via Patreon; there are plenty of pottery videos on YouTube, but not many actually offered the tone or quality I was looking to produce. I looked at a few YouTubers for editing techniques, but nothing beyond that. I wanted my videos to reflect me and my brand—calming and relaxing to watch, but packed full of useful information.

The Beginning of Pottery Club

I launched my Patreon account in September 2019 and I refer to it as my online Pottery Club. It now has over 140 members.

I aim for my membership to offer great value; for $11 per month, I reward my followers with a new tutorial video, learning resources, early access to my work, and seconds sales of pieces with slight imperfections. Members always get priority communication; I aim to answer all of their questions within a day and try to support them with everything from making through marketing and business. I even send out real pottery rewards such as mugs, bowls, yunomi, and bud vases for members at and above the $25 tier (after three months minimum support). The model I have built only works well if I have enough people who support it. I spend nearly 5 days every month creating and editing the videos, answering comments, and engaging with the community. By the time Patreon and Paypal fees are factored in, I only end up with three quarters of the revenue pledged. If I went below 100 supporters, it wouldn’t really be viable to continue.

Has the Pottery Club removed the need to post on social media? No, I’d say not. I would argue that the contrary is true. Using Patreon is not suitable for those who are wishing to reduce their social-media presence. The only way to get support for your Patreon account is to talk about it regularly. I still post on social media 2–3 times a week, but my time spent on these tasks has halved. There is a natural churn with memberships; people’s personal circumstances or financial situations change, they outgrow the club, or just move on. The only way to keep it going is for new people to join. The great thing is that now when I get questions from my audience, I have already created a resource that will help them. When anyone has questions or is keen to learn from me, I suggest they join my club—I mention it whenever it feels natural to do so.

3 Kara Leigh Ford’s Lulworth Plate Trio, 6 1/2 in. (17 cm) in diameter each, stoneware, crystalline glaze, 2019.

Building Relationships

If anyone is looking for a quick fix on how they can spend less time marketing, unfortunately Patreon isn’t it. What it does offer, though, is a way to build deep relationships with your most avid supporters through direct connections and tiered membership rewards. What you choose to offer your supporters is based on your interests and goals. It’s been a lovely way to get to know my supporters personally, see their own work, and to have a small group of like-minded folks who are always ready to chat clay.

In the current climate of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, my Pottery Club community has been absolutely key in supporting me. Without them I would be really struggling right now. I have inevitably lost members due to their financial situations changing, which is completely understandable, but I have had others reach out to me over the past few weeks expressing their loyalty and letting me know that they will continue to support me as long as they’re able.

The beauty of my Pottery Club—the thing that will truly provide value as my following grows—is that it’s scalable. It doesn’t matter whether I have 200 or 500 members, the workload is pretty much the same. Scalability is difficult to achieve in pottery without employing people—that isn’t off the table for me either, but right now the business model I’ve created using Patreon means I can get to the point of being able to afford a part-time studio assistant.

the author Kara Leigh Ford maintains a studio outside of Bath, Somerset, UK, and creates stoneware pottery inspired by the southwest coast of the UK. To learn more, visit https://karaleighfordceramics.com, patreon.com/karaleighceramics, or Instagram @karaleighceramics.

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