I started the Mug Club about a year and a half ago to raise money for my art-school tuition and it rapidly evolved into a key foundation of my budding ceramics business. Besides providing periodic revenue, the Mug Club cultivates one of the most valuable things a business could ask for: ongoing connections with my customers. For over a year now, the Mug Club has been perpetually sold out with a cap of 50 members, though I am gradually opening more spaces.
How It Works
The Mug Club is like a wine club or CSA (community supported agriculture). Members pay upfront for a year’s subscription, which buys four mugs (or four pairs of mugs) to be received over the course of the subsequent year. I make and distribute Mug Club mugs each March, June, September, and December, and each season brings a new mug design.
It’s a Win-Win
Beyond building a base of loyal customers and a sense of community around my business, the Mug Club is simply fun. It’s fun for me because I get to create new designs, knowing that I’ve already sold them, and then practice putting them into production. This has helped me grow as a potter and a designer. The Mug Club is fun for its members because they get the surprise of receiving a new and different mug each season, along with the satisfaction of supporting a small business.
How I Sell the Mug Club
With only minor struggle and frustration, I managed to build a website using Squarespace (www.squarespace.com). There I sell the Mug Club as a single product, collecting contact information for new members at the time of purchase. The Mug Club has grown gradually, with some memberships lapsing and spaces opening up each season. This provides a steady stream of income arriving four times throughout the year. I keep a spreadsheet of my members organized by their start date, thus enabling me to send appropriate renewal information to the right people. Available membership spaces are marketed through Instagram (@wolfceramics), emails to my mailing list, and word of mouth.
Sliding Scale Pricing
On average, I sell single mugs for $40. A Mug Club member paying the standard $150 for an annual membership ends up paying $37.50 per mug. Membership price is on a sliding scale with the hope of communicating this message: “Yes, it’s expensive. Making mugs by hand takes time and money, and I can’t price them like Ikea if I want this business to survive, BUT, I want you to be part of it and I trust you to pay what you can.”
Student: $120 single / $235 pair
Regular: $150 single / $295 pair
Patron of the Arts: $180 single / $355 pair
Delivering the Product
Currently, about ²⁄³ of the Mug Club members are in the Portland area, and can avoid shipping cost with the “free local pickup” option. About a month from having a season’s mugs ready, I send an email saying something like “Hey there my dear Mug Club members! Mugs will be ready for pickup at my studio on September 30th between 2pm and 7pm. If you can’t come at this time, let me know and I can put them out on the porch any other weekday for you to pick up at your convenience.” Getting all the “local pickup” mugs out the door is probably the messiest part of this whole system, but I love getting to meet or catch up with people when they come by.
My philosophy for being a happy small business owner with happy customers: I try to be transparent with my customers, perhaps even vulnerable. I think most people appreciate the honesty and feel good knowing that I truly value their business. It’s as simple as saying, “Hey! I have something to offer and I think you’re really going to like it! Also, by buying and being part of this, you would be supporting me/my team in our goal of …”
What do you need for your business right now? A new kiln? Better ventilation? An employee? Gently let your customers know what your goals are and how they can help. They will likely feel even better about buying a mug from you if they know where their money is going, and hopefully, the feeling of being part of the support system for a business that they respect and want to see thrive will seep into each experience of using that mug.
Sarah Wolf is a ceramic artist native to Portland, Oregon. She works out of a small studio in Northwest Portland and hopes to continue growing her business. www.wolfceramics.com.
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Click here to read What’s Your Handle by Andy Witt, which appeared originally in the July/August 2011 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated.