Once again, I am starting the new year resolving to stay on a consistent running schedule. Running is something I began doing in 2008, specifically because I had begun to see the possibility that my pottery studio could provide a livable income. I could also see that in order to keep up with a potter's workload, I needed to be in better shape. The first time I tried running, I made it about 1/4 mile, started seeing stars, and felt like vomiting. I'm proud to say that 15 years later, I'm still doing it. My mileage had fallen off in recent years. At the beginning of last year, I resolved to get back into it seriously. I managed to stick with it for most of the year, until the holiday season workload came crashing on my head. So right now I'm working my way back.
People sometimes ask me how I have the energy to produce as many pots as I do. Running is a big part of that answer. Good stamina and strong legs count for a lot in pottery. Every day in a pottery studio requires a lot of physical effort. That's not counting those unusual days when I have to move 1000 lbs of clay from my car and down a flight of stairs. And every art fair is an exercise in weightlifting and endurance, both physical and mental. One of my missions with this blog is to give aspiring potters an accurate picture of what it's really like. If you currently feel that the workload of pottery is too much, do what I did when I felt the same way. Start running.
Three years ago, I wrote a blog post on January 1, 2020, saying that the new decade felt very auspicious. A few months later the world shut down for a pandemic, and all of my plans for that year went out the window.
Not many people know this, but at the time I was actively planning to wind down this business and retire from pottery. The retirement would be happening right about now. I was envisioning a completely different lifestyle, where I did not need a 1600 square-foot house, a lot of heavy equipment, and a minivan. I wanted to live in a tiny apartment, that I could leave unoccupied whenever I wanted, in order to be nomadic in a tiny fuel-efficient car. I wanted to never mow a lawn or shovel snow again. I could prevent boredom by learning a different craft (bookbinding) that does not require all the equipment or the physicality. All of the tools of bookbinding are very portable, which would allow me to move to different places, or even different countries.
Yeah, I had it all planned out. Then the pandemic forced me to be separated from art fairs for 1.5 years. It gave me the space and time to think about all of these things from a different perspective. What I learned was that it wasn't my house or the pottery studio that I wanted to walk away from. There were other aspects of my life that I was dissatisfied with, and moving away would not solve them. The issues would have simply followed me, because they are internal.
When shows started coming back in the fall of 2021, I was startled to realize how emotional I was about it. I was so happy! I missed it so much. This fall, after being back at it for about a year, I had a moment of acute and profound awareness. I was thinking back to myself in 2008, seeing stars after running 1/4 mile, trying to convince myself I could be a full-time potter. And realizing that I was currently sitting in my booth at the PMA Craft Show, not only making a comfortable living now, but making work that I am really proud of. "This is your wildest dream," I said to myself. "And you worked so hard to get here. If you want to stop doing this, you are out of your mind."
Generally speaking, I want to go back to the way I was running this business before the pandemic. But some things will need to change. The art fair landscape has changed a lot. Also, I had my best annual gross sales year in 2022, despite doing only 7 shows. My previous best year was 2017, when I did 12 shows. Some of this year's revenue came from my online pottery school. But my sales-per-show average has grown by a lot. I simply can't do as many shows as I used to.
About those internal issues that I need to work on? This is about differentiating between things that are worth my loyalty and energy, and things that aren't. How does that apply to my business? As shows began to emerge from the lockdowns, I saw some stark differences between show producers and how they behaved. Some shows really do have the artists' best interests in mind, knowing that a show cannot succeed long term unless the artists do. And some of them view artists as just a source of revenue. Some have good intentions but just aren't very competent. From now on, I will no longer treat all shows with the same regard. There are shows that I will jump at the chance to do. And some that I will use as a back-up, in case I don't get into something better. There are also shows that are in-between, meaning I would like to do them but only if the timing and location align perfectly.
My last sale of 2022, the Open Studio at my house, was an all-time record-setter for any event, by a wide margin. During this sale, some people told me that they wished I did sales at my house twice a year. I've never considered doing that before, because I am cautious not to rely too heavily on my existing email list for sales. I've always thought it was better to be at art fairs, where my email list brings some customers, and the attendance provided by the show brings the rest. Here's another thing I learned from the pandemic: During the lockdowns, my only method for generating sales was to lean on my email list. And it didn't hurt my business! When shows came back, things picked up right where they left off. Maybe I can afford to rely on my email list a little more? Would it actually be better to do so?
I decided to ask my email list if they wanted me to do two shows per year at my house, one in June and one in December. I also said that my plans for 2023 were unclear, and that all feedback would be considered. I asked these questions on Facebook and Instagram too. I had never made a direct query like this to my customer base before. To my surprise, I got 82 replies, 59 of them via email. I learned a lot about what my best customers were thinking, including things I was not expecting. Here's what the replies said:
68 people said "do the second home sale!" This is way more than enough people to make a sale successful.
17 people said "I can't or couldn't make it to your December sale, for various reasons." This is something I had not considered before, that December is an overloaded time for a lot of people. There are holiday-related obligations, and for other working artists like me, attending other artists' sales is impossible. Some of my December customers are indeed buying holiday gifts, but most of them are buying pots for themselves. Which means the holiday season is not really a requirement in terms of timing.
8 people said "I am not local to you. Please don't stop doing shows in my area." Don't worry, shows are still the backbone of my business plan. And traveling to other cities/towns is really fun for me. But this is an area where I will need to make some changes (see below).
5 people said "I am not local to you. But I would consider traveling to Maryland in June, which is not feasible in December." Wow!
4 people said "I don't really like going to art fairs." I can understand this. When a show is really good and worth attending, that generally means it involves challenging logistics, such as difficult parking and a lot of walking.
3 people said "your December sale has become too chaotic." This is the feedback that I pondered the most. Every year, the number of people waiting outside at 10am on Saturday gets larger (see above photo). When the sale opens, pots start flying off the shelves. Paying for your pots requires standing in a long line. For some people, this is fun. And for others, it's unmanageable. I heard from people who attended the December sale, found the space to be too crowded to see anything, realized the displays were emptying fast, and left without buying anything. I really don't want anyone to come to my house and have this experience. I'm not sure there is a way to fix this. But maybe doing two sales per year will take some demand off both sales. And a June sale can be held outdoors, so it won't feel as crowded. And by replacing one art fair with a second home sale, this might be a more balanced use of my email list. It's possible my reluctance to overuse my email list doesn't apply to me anymore. In fact, maybe I should try to slow down the growth of my list instead. I don't need to earn more income. But I would like to provide a better experience to the people who have already been supporting my work.
2 people said "I don't live near any of your shows. Please sell online." I did several online sales during the pandemic, and I simply won't do them anymore. If you think the December sale is chaotic, the online sales were so much worse. When you're at a fast-paced, crowded in-person sale, everyone will at least be polite to each other. Online stores allow people to buy pots that are already in somebody else's cart. It's the equivalent of wrestling a pot out of somebody else's hands. That's how it feels to the customer. I know this because they weren't shy about telling me. Again, it really bothers me that some people had a bad experience. Plus, I hate how much trash it generates, and how much time is takes to process the shipments. It's not the kind of business I want to have. The only reason I might do it again is because of another pandemic.
1 person (who has been buying my pots since the very, very beginning) pointed out that I don't do many local shows anymore. I admit that this is true. I've been using my pottery business as a means of travel, for purely personal enrichment. I'm not going to stop doing travel shows, but I can balance that with the knowledge that my largest audience is very close to me. Here's yet another thing the pandemic taught me: I conducted my lockdown sales by delivering pots to customer's houses. Which means I got a really clear picture of where my customers live. I accepted orders from Baltimore to NoVa. By far the largest concentration of pottery customers was in southern Montgomery County, within minutes of my own house. I also did home-delivery sales for Central Pennsylvania and for the Philadelphia region. These were good sales, but revenue-wise they were not anywhere close to the DC/Baltimore home-delivery sales.
All things considered, it absolutely makes sense for me to add a second home sale per year, in June. It will be outdoors, in my backyard. It will probably be a one-day event, not two. It will be poorly advertised, haha, but my email subscribers will be well-informed. The purpose is to return some of my focus to my existing local audience.
I don't think I'll ever do 12 shows in a year again. I think 7 to 9 is the right amount, including the 2 at my house. I'm not going to stop seeking interesting travel opportunities. Before the pandemic, my goal was to do at least one show per year that I had never done before, in a new city or town. I haven't been able to do that since 2019, and I really want to have this again. I think it's important, as a human being, to expand your horizons. And there are places that I've been to once and would really like to return (Boston, Chicago, Raleigh). This means that for some shows that I have been doing every year, I will switch to doing them every other year, or every third year. There will be some tough decisions here. Some of these shows might not be happy with me. And since every show involves a jurying process, I might be shooting myself in the foot. I'll just have to deal with that. I'll also be making myself less available to some non-local parts of my existing audience. I don't love this, but I see that it's necessary.
When I go to a new city or town, maybe I won't even put out my email list sign-up pad, because it's not worth capturing contacts in places I might not return to. When I am in places that I do wish to return, maybe I'll put away the email list pad after I gain 20 new contacts, or some other arbitrary number. This is a completely different mindset for me! I've always preached the importance of building an email list. But for a while I've also been feeling the pressure of too much demand. It's time to stop focusing on growth. I never thought I'd say that, but I don't need it anymore, and I can't keep up with it anyways. I am entering a new phase. I'm still going to try to build my email list in a steady way, just more slowly and not all the time.
These changes are all in line with the internal issues I am working on. Putting less pressure on myself, prioritizing, deciding what really matters to me, facing the risk of shooting myself in the foot and trusting that I'll be ok.
I am still planning on retiring from pottery someday. But the timeframe has been pushed back by a lot. I do really enjoy bookbinding, and will continue to learn it. But I'm not done with pottery yet! Thank goodness for the pandemic? It showed me things that I wasn't seeing. And it stopped me from making a big misguided mistake. "Auspicious" is not quite the right word this time, for how I'm feeling about the new year. I think I was being a bit hubristic three years ago. The path ahead contains some uncertainties, but I generally feel optimistic about it. Just like with running, I will take it one step at a time, and try to enjoy the scenery along the way.