Becoming a Full Time Potter - Money
We don't talk honestly about money often enough. It's important and universal, and we should be able to discuss it as freely as any other aspect of the process. Instead it's an awkward almost-embarrassing topic to start a conversation about, but over the last few years I have found it so useful and reassuring to hear about other makers' experiences.
I've listened to a few podcasts (links at the end) that have been discussions on the financial reality of being self employed in a creative profession, but the impetus to actually sit down and write this was when I was asked recently 'When did you know that you could make a living doing ceramics?' and the honest answer was 'I still don't'. At least, not for certain.
I think it's all too easy to look at social media accounts that seem successful and think that once you reach that stage it's all straightforward and easy, but that zoomed out view definitely glosses over a lot of the every day challenges, worries, and insecurities of being a full time creative.
This isn't meant to be a how-to, or even a how-not-to, it's just a rambling series of thoughts. Hopefully it will help reassure people that are doing something creative full time, and feeling like it's a constant struggle, that they're not alone, but also show anyone who is just at the start of the journey that it is possible to make a liveable wage doing nothing but making pots.
How I got into Pottery
Some of you will be familiar with the unusual route I took into pottery, but I'll recap briefly as I think it's important to realise that most people will have come from a totally different starting point.
I studied Graphic Design at uni, and worked as a designer in a print company for years afterwards. I only got into ceramics when making earthenware coasters as Save the Date's for our upcoming wedding, which coincidentally happened at the same time as the company I was working for made redundancies. I took the redundancy money and started selling bespoke CNC milled coasters.
This means I essentially started a full time career in ceramics about a year before I was doing anything that would usually be the starting point for a potter. I had to learn a totally new set of skills, both to make the coasters, and then again to make wheel thrown stoneware work.
I had built up enough savings as a designer to allow myself the time and space to learn pottery before expecting it to pay any bills. I know how privileged and unusual that starting position is, so take the next few sections as a snapshot of my experience rather than representative of what someone starting out would expect.
The Last Year
I've been doing this for a little over 2 years now, but I'm going to ignore the first year as that was primarily spent making and selling the coasters. By about the end of 2017 I had around 1K followers on Instagram and was just starting to get good enough at throwing and glazing that I could justify selling my work at a decent price.
So this is what my income and follower numbers have looked like over the past year:
The line for Sales is approximate due to the awkwardness of my data source, but gives the general idea. It's messy and unpredictable. And even ignoring the spike in May (caused by a single large order), it still doesn't track that well with Instagram follower count (up to around 70K by the end of the time shown). I want to talk about Instagram in a different post, but I just thought that was interesting and not at all what I expected.
I haven't labelled the sales axis as the points are inexact, but my recent numbers for sales each month fluctuate in the £2-4K range. After costs (see more below), it's averaging out to being fairly similar to the amount I was being paid to do graphic design, but the work is a lot more rewarding.
There's a very big difference between a good month and a bad month though. Once you account for costs, 2K of sales can quite easily become more like 1K in the bank each month. In some parts of the country that can be a liveable wage, but this close to London it's barely enough to cover rent.
To help deal with this variation and the anxiety it can cause, I do a very similar thing to what Jen Carrington talks about in the Financial Uncertainty episode of Letters From A Hopeful Creative. I pay myself a fixed 'salary' each month, and let the money in the business account work as a buffer to deal with the variation. This will only work if you have enough as a buffer, and if over a year the business makes enough to at least cover that salary.
Another great point from that podcast episode was the idea of having two target income numbers in your head, a baseline number that covers what you need to survive, and another number that lets you live the life you want to live. Those of you that have used my Pricing Guide will have seen a similar concept built into the spreadsheet. It's important to know where you are relative to those numbers. You don't have to be able to hit either at the start, but reaching the baseline is a big step in making sure a business is viable.
As I've only been doing this a short time, I don't know what sort of longer term trend to expect. It seems to be moving in the right direction overall, but only time will tell. And based on what I know of people further down the line, both in ceramics and in other creative fields, I don't expect to ever be certain of anything. As Jen said in that episode, the certainty is what we trade for the freedom of being your own boss.
How I Sell
I've chosen to sell primarily though a shop on my website, and I rarely do wholesale or craft fairs.
The reason I have my own shop rather than selling through Esty/Folksy/NOTHS or any of the other platforms is because it allows me to directly interact with customers. As someone offering unique handmade items, it's the story behind them that's my biggest selling point. I want my customers to know how their piece was made, and get satisfaction from that context when they use it. It's a lot harder to explain that when your work is appearing alongside pieces with a totally different process and price tag.
As each piece is individually handmade, I don't get the sort of economy of scale that makes wholesale more effective. There's a definite upside to having the certainty of a large wholesale order, but the downside is the extra work required to make up the discounted price. It is something I'd like to expand into a little more in the future as I think there's an optimal balance there.
I have done 4 craft fairs, which were small local ones in the run up to Christmas 2017. I sold around 2-3x the stall fee, which is at the lower end of what seasoned makers would expect. This meant they ended up being a lot of work (not only a full day selling, but the prep and organisation) for maybe £100-150 profit. Obviously if you're expecting a multiple of a stall/booth fee, then you'll never expect to make much at a fair with a low entry cost. There are plenty of huge fairs at great locations with fees in the thousands, and I know some of the sellers there can make a very good return on that, but I prefer the lower stress of selling online.
I sell online in a different way to a lot of makers. I have a small kiln that I fire often, which gives me the ability to produce single bespoke items far more quickly than someone firing less often in a larger kiln. I keep a small bisque fired stock of the most popular items, so all I have to do is glaze them to order, but a lot of pieces are thrown specifically. This means I can offer a much larger range of forms and glazes, as well as customisation and personalisation, that would be possible otherwise. This creates a totally different purchasing mechanism than the potters who make a batch of work and put it up for sale in one big drop. I know that approach is very effective, the buildup and hype before the drop combined with the speed at which they can sell out makes for a very motivating purchase pressure. It can be a great tactic for a seller, but when I asked my followers which they preferred, they felt the stress of that pressure and the potential disappointment of missing out on the piece they wanted were a big downside in their purchasing experience.
This is a breakdown of what I've spent money on (ignoring rent and electricity) this year:
As you can see, I'm actually far more in the business of packing and posting than I am pottery!
This chart would look very different for someone who focused on craft fairs or wholesale, but if you are selling exclusively online then you go through a lot of packing materials.
Breakdown of Orders
I'm not going to go into everything, but here are some interesting aspects of having charted all my orders for the last year and a bit:
Destination: 47% of my sales have been to the USA, 34% in the UK, and 6% to Canada. Most of my followers from Instagram and Pinterest are in the States, so I'm not too surprised. I have managed to find a quite reasonably priced international shipping option which definitely helps.
Items: The top two items (as I've grouped them) account for 20% of my sales each, but if you combine all mugs they make up just over 50% of all my sales by both value and quantity.
Size: Different mugs have different ratios. The flatter designs (Pebble and Peacock Cup) are mostly medium and small, whereas the Swirly and Custom mugs are far more likely to be large or giant.
Selling pots is a messy business at every stage of the process, including budgeting. There's a lot more stress in being self employed than having a normal salaried job but there can be a lot more reward too. I love the freedom and the satisfaction of a profession like this, and I consider it well worth the uncertainty.
I'd love to know your thoughts on the subject, so please contact me with any comments.
This was inspired by several podcasts that I'd highly recommend:
Other posts in the mini-series: