Probably every artist who has fallen in love with clay has thought the following at one time or another: How do I open a pottery business? There are many things to consider when pondering that question from whether you just want to make and sell your own pottery to whether it makes sense to teach ceramics classes. And going into such an endeavor without a good ceramics business plan is not a good idea.
So today I am sharing some advice from a couple who took on this challenge and now have a thriving pottery studio. In this excerpt from the September 2016 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Kris Vagner shares the lessons Sutter and Samantha Stremmel learned when they started their ceramics business in Reno, Nevada. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Starting a Ceramics Business with Staying Power
by Kris Vagner
Sutter Stremmel wanted to get his hands dirty. It was 2010, and he and his wife, Samantha, had both just earned English literature degrees from the University of Montana. He’d been studying pottery off and on since age 7, and he was ready to take up a serious studio practice and become part of a ceramics community.
The couple moved back to their hometown of Reno, Nevada, and bought a retail business, a specialty garden-supply store in a quiet, industrial neighborhood near downtown. They moved into a small house adjacent to the store and started looking for a clay studio to rent space in. The local university and community college each offer ceramics classes, but Sutter explained that unless you enrolled as a student, “There was no place to play with clay in Reno.”
Samantha remembered, “One of the units across street came up for rent. We hemmed and hawed too long, and someone rented it.”
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Four months later, the same unit, a two-story warehouse with a roll-up door and a small, street-front parking lot, came up for rent again. This time, it seemed like a sign.
The Stremmels calculated their projected income versus the cost of a year’s worth of rent and equipment. They wouldn’t profit enough to justify a business loan, or even a maxed out credit card, but they figured if they invested their first-year profits from the garden store, lived beneath their means, and bought supplies at a discount, it might work. They knew it would be a gamble, but reasoned that, since they were young, they’d have the time and energy to recover from a loss.
“We felt like it was now or never,” Samantha said. Friends and family were skeptical. “We were both pretty terrified,” she confessed, but their drive eclipsed their doubt, and they signed a lease. In October 2011, the couple opened the Wedge Ceramics Studio as their second business.
It took time to establish enough momentum to be sure the studio could stay in business, especially during the first two years. Samantha and Sutter had a lot to learn, and one of the first things was how to balance their ideals of cooperation and community spirit with the realities of running a business.
“I consider myself more of a business guy that owns an art studio, as opposed to an artist who’s trying to be in business,” Sutter said.
Samantha credits the clientele with some of the Wedge’s success. She explained, “We’re not a co-op but it feels like we are, the way people take responsibility and have pride in it.” The attitude in the studio is exactly the mix of self-sufficiency and collaboration that the couple had hoped to achieve.
Samantha said, “Every member brings something unique to the studio and offers something special by being there.” And it doesn’t hurt at all, she said, that “sometimes people clean up before they’re even asked.”
7 Expert Tips on How to Start a Ceramics Business
- Take things one step at a time. If something doesn’t work, change it.
- Get an intern. They’re invaluable. (Check your local college for intern programs.)
- Get an extra mop bucket and a good shop vac. “We didn’t know we’d be cleaning so much!”
- Get a Peter Pugger or other pug mill. It’s a game changer. “We’ve always provided free, recycled clay for members, and now we can do it efficiently.”
- Keep in touch. Make friends with other artists in your community, and work together.
- Keep a high profile. Use social media to its fullest.
- Ask for help when you need it. The Wedge owners were shy about that at first, but asking friends, family, and colleagues for help and advice turned out to be the best thing they’ve ever done.
For more interesting studio tips, download your free copy of Workshop Handbook: Knowledge and Techniques for the Pottery Studio.