A Case for Staying Small (micro…).
Written June 19th, 2021, added to July 20th, 2021
A few minutes ago, I was in the middle of typing up a newsletter to go out and announce the next preorder. In the middle of a sentence, with my head feeling drowsy from not enough sleep the night before, and the rising temperatures of summer that my body just seem less and less able to withstand each year I get older…I thought to myself…NOPE. This can wait ’til Monday. I exited the the screen and went to do something else. To rest. (But then of course…I started thinking…and now here I am striking the page while the irons hot). I was thinking about the full-blown LUXURY of being able to make that wildly quick pivot. I have no one else to answer to, no one else that is being let down or inconvenienced by this (human) pull to just pause and let my Monday-self handle it.
I spent the first few years of this business thinking that success meant having employees and a brick and mortar space. Basically, doing something in a way that, HONESTLY, made my work feel grand and successful from an outside perspective- in the typical textbook way we think of when the average person talks about small businesses- “it started in their tiny garage, and now they have 20 employees!”. The “rags to riches” story that is pretty much a prerequisite for a small business you hear talked about (I think about Airbnb, especially a few years ago). It wasn’t until two years ago, after trying to hire people and find the sweet spot within the word “growth” that I came to terms with how much of a struggle it all felt…and that the struggle wasn’t all me doing something *wrong*, but rather me genuinely not wanting to do said thing. The truth is, I love pottery because of the silence. I love this job because of the way I am able to live like a hermit when I want to. I love my studio because it is a place only I go. I love being able to take Piper for a walk whenever it make sense to do so or take a break when I need one or play tennis in the middle of the day then work late. Or push back a preorder at the last minute because I’m just not in the headspace to launch it. The list goes on….and on.
I don’t ever want a studio that isn’t steps from my house.
There is a case for staying not just “small”…but tiny…and alone…that isn’t talked about enough when we talk about and think about small businesses. Small businesses are now considered companies with under 1,500 employees and with a maximum of $35 million in annual revenue (via Forbes). When the government talks about small businesses- they are still talking about pretty big businesses. And I think in this day and age, with most people who I speak to about my business- the conversation typically goes down the road of “you’re ready to hire someone!” or “what’s the next step?!”. I totally understand that it is meant as supportive and genuine excitement for me and the hard work I have put into it. But I also now try to avoid my honest response of “I am actually loving where I am at now!”- as the look on the other persons face is sometimes like I have just told them Santa isn’t real for the first time. “What?! But…you COULD grow. And the demand is there?! You’re not able to keep up!” Like I am ruining the American Dream for everyone else. I say somewhat jokingly, but also…with some experience-based truth. For me, there are other facets of this whole business owning thing that I think we need to consider.
In terms of footprint- staying small for me means producing the amount that my hands can produce each year. And honestly, it feels like a lot! Around 2500-3000 pots leave the studio every year. I think about all the shipping, packing materials, CLAY, and everything else that it takes to run this business and I don’t feel the necessity to continue on a growth trajectory, ESPECIALLY when there are so many other amazing potters out there doing very awesome work. In reality, I am much bigger than some...and smaller than most. I have just found a space where I am able to make a living for myself in the way I want to- while making everything on my own. Our environment simply cannot handle all these super large-output companies making things on such huge scales. From my experience as a customer, it truly is really FUCKING hard to grow and scale a businesses making “things” in a truly equitable and holistically sustainable manner. Good for those who are able to crack the code and figure it out- but until then…I’ll be handling my work in the way that I still feel like I can hold myself accountable in the way I think businesses need to. And for me as a business owner, that is really what it all boils down to in terms of scaling. Even the marketing: the need to sell more = more aggressive marketing and oftentimes convincing of people to buy your stuff. Whether it be ads bought from Instagram (your welcome, Mark Zuckerberg), or just adding to the wider circus of impulsive consumerism. When an operation is big and pretty off the ground, profit inevitably has to come first. Even my favorite "sustainable" brands who are bigger annoy the hell out of me with their marketing a lot of the time haha. I get it- they have a huge bottom line to make up for each month. I am grateful I don't. And the months that are slower or I am feeling like I need a break- I can choose to just live more simply or make it work without this pressure. Also, I’m not going to put myself in a place where I need to cut costs and end up supporting Uline (for example) because that’s the “only way” and you need to “pick your battles”. I have found the method where I can make a living the the way I define for myself and run my business the way I want to- sourcing my materials from the places I want to, etc. even though it’s not the cheapest. That is not what I am after because things have unseen price tags, which is their impact on our environment and community. I feel like a lot of the time small or “handmade” businesses get a pass- like just because it is small/handmade, they are absolved of any wrongdoing. Like somehow that makes up for the actual manufacturing processes or product sourcing or poor treatment of employees (whether through ignorance or greenwashing). I am glad this is happening less and less. But still- the average consumer I think assumes a lot of things when the word “small” or “handmade” is in the picture. Perhaps the “most humane and holistically sustainable businesses” are that way BECAUSE of their tiny size and footprint. It sure feels that way to me. I am not saying I am better than others because of this thought process- I am more-so just walking you through the things I am thinking about and observing in myself as well as the small businesses around me.
I also see an aspect of this whole staying tiny thing just as a white cis human. I leave out the woman piece- because while yes, I love seeing woman owned companies succeed, I also am just not fully convinced that we need more white owned business owners (also just in the pottery world) being highlighted as XYZ or taking up space in a bigger way. And not that there are only a certain number of “pieces of the pie” available to us all- but also, I am good where I am at. And I am not going to grow just for the sake of growing. I think this is a characteristic of late stage capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy combined. I’m just not trying to be another white person elbowing my way to holding more power and attention just because I *could*. Scaling inevitably comes with the need to sell more and market more and overall just be bigger in the public eye. Not every business who has the demand needs to do this “just because”.
If there is anything that Covid taught me, a low overhead is something sustainable. I was able to take a break and not feel the urge to ship pots when we didn’t know how our postal workers were handling and going to be. I didn’t have employees I needed to fire or provide for. I didn’t have a lease at a storefront I felt pressure to uphold. Yes, I had my own bills to pay- but that was pretty much it. I was still able to do that while get involved with local mutual aid and redistribute resources (money) to those that needed it more than me. In total honesty, right before Covid hit- I was mapping out a storefront. A hybrid studio/shop where I could host workshops (unrelated to pottery) and have as a gathering space. Everyday I am grateful I chose otherwise.
When I think about urge to have a brick and mortar space- I am ok admitting that there is a big part of me that was wanting that to make my family members and friends proud of me. I am ok admitting that because in many talks with other small businesses owners and artists, I am not alone in that thought process. I wish more people would admit it so we can talk about it more. It is this unspoken but very high pitched sound that I think resonates within artists at large (from many I have spoken with and read about). I just paused to think for a moment of a reason to grow beyond the work that only my hands can do each year aside from publicity (again, just the human thing), and money (which let’s be real- I think takes a pretty big hit for a long time after the whole scaling thing begins…if employees are being paid fair and livable wages with benefits)….and I honestly can’t think of one. Do I feel like MY work is THE work that needs to be made at a huge operation just because demand could potentially be there? Definitely not.
Again, I don’t see this pondering as a “right or wrong” one. I am NOT saying this in the way of saying folks who grow or have employees or storefronts are doing it wrong. We NEED that. Those things build communities. I am making the opposite point: *not everyone needs to grow on some wild trajectory*- or a steady upward trajectory at all. The goal doesn’t need to be expansion. The goal doesn’t have to be bigger. Instead of the “it all started in her garage and now she has a storefront downtown and 30 employees!”…I want my story to be “it all started in her garage…and she is now making a living (in a self-defined way) doing this thing that bring a lot of people and herself joy”. Our experiences with this are allowed to be different :) Side note: for those wondering, it didn’t literally start in my garage- rather my first wheel I owned (which is also the wheel I use to this day- one I bought from a friend in 2014) was set up in my bedroom. I say “garage” because I feel like that’s super generic when talking broadly about these kinds of trajectories you often hear about.
I like small. I love micro. It feels like a luxury in a fast paced world. It feels like a gift. It feels like I’m cheating the system some days. Sure, it sucks sometimes too. And I get decision fatigue a lot. I still work *a lot* and throw my entire self into this operation. And it is not easy or something that has all flowed 100% of the time. But nothing does. Nothing is. And my choice is this route. 2020 was the first year that I consistently started giving myself 2 days off a week. And set boundaries around how far I am willing to push my body. And I began to crack the code on how much I can make, while still resting and not feeling burnt out or like I had no life other than this business. That is something I am proud of- perhaps more than any of the other things. That makes me feel like I have “made it”.
So anyways, it’s just a message to really all of us out there. I think in every industry this is a thing- but especially with artists: a need to prove our worth in this field where the mainstream image is the “starving artist”. “This one actually made it!”. “They actually broke through!” “They’re making 6 figures now a year” (all those "how to make 6 figures a year as a #girlboss" workshops/programs/etc. that are everywhere right now for makers/small businesses make me sick to my stomach- it is not an equation and the conversation is so much more nuanced 🤢). It’s the issue with the starving artist narrative- one of many. Every artist feels this engrained need to prove people otherwise. To prove something. When (a facet of) the real beauty of being an artist has everything to do with leaning into your own practice and artfully creating the picture that is in your head. Pushing us forward (and together) as a society. For me, it looks like what I’m doing right now (for now). I genuinely love, so deeply, how things are going. I don’t want them to change. Sure, I want some more natural light and windows in my studio- and an entrance that doesn’t involve needing to haul 1000 lbs. of clay down 1.5 steep flights of stairs a few times a year- but it’s really about it! I don’t want (too many) visitors. I don’t want employees. I don’t want the pots to be made by anyone but me. In this same light, please do not hear me as saying you have to struggle to be a "true artist" or making a profit is evil (another facet of the starving artist narrative I am SO over). I am kind of saying the opposite I guess- or just that it is powerful to be able to decipher the difference between what you actually want and what outside forces/our conditioning in a late stage patriarchal white supremacist culture is leading us towards. Growth for the sake of it is not a good enough reason (in my mind) in light of the many crises happening around us at the moment. And to me, my definition of "making it" is my own...and I am so grateful for that. I speak from my social location-being physically able to do the amount of work I do to meet my financial goals, etc. Others may find themselves in a different situation or find a different way to make it work for them and their personal goals as an artist and human.
It’s not a popular opinion. And again, I say all this as my own manifesto. We need people out there creating jobs for others and doing the stuff extroverts do so well to make the world go around. But then there will be artists like me: holed up in their studio alone…with their dog…letting the wind blow them to and fro. Coming out every once and a while, when it feels good and right. Letting others know that no…among other things, hating group projects all throughout school and just wanting to do them alone *won’t* set you back in life after all :)
I love that my job is 10 jobs. I love that some days I am a potter. Others I am a graphic designer or photographer. Some I am strategically planning (my and my notebook and some lists). Others I go to markets. It truly doesn’t get old. And for that, I wouldn’t ever trade it for anything.
I began doing this because of the way my body felt when it was working with clay. It was not because I foresaw a profitable venture in the pottery biz (…said no one ever). I started a business because of the things my friends told me about the pieces they used of mine and because I wanted to continue to pour myself into this craft and all that it teaches. I am not ever interested in sitting at a desk while others do all the fun (making).
When I think back to the businesses that always inspired me through my life and where I felt best- it was the ones you probably have never heard of. The wood fired pizza place open one day a week (seasonally) in my tiny hometown, run out of a shed in my elementary school classmates’ parents yard (the only “restaurant” in town)- Pizza on Earth. They just loved making pizza and sometimes had some loaves of bread for sale and other goodies. And the vintage shop where I had my first job- one I begged the owner for in Burlington when I was in 8th grade- asking her to teach me about running a small business in exchange for working there for free (with some shop credit)- The Clothing Line. Pre-instagram. She often talked about her other projects and had a life so rich outside of work. But the shop was so her. Her dog curled up on the chair as you walked in. The way the back felt cozy and the bathroom that to this day has inspired the bathroom in every house of my own I’ve ever lived. The farms I worked at- Full Moon Farm and Anjali Farm especially. The locals-only operations that were 100% heart and hands. Going to the famers market with them and getting to know the other vendors and their parallel operations. It was these tiny little one to a-few person shows, people doing things because they couldn’t NOT! It wasn’t some grand business scheme. Or planned out masterpiece on a graph. It was all heart. When things are that small and intimate- there’s no way they can’t be.
Fellow Tacoma artist and friend, the talented natural dyer Katie of @kd.bird shared something the other day talking about (among other things) the way it feels hard to know where to fit in the world of Instagram right now. Like her, I started this businesses before “the algorithm” and what feels like a while ago in social-media-speak (2015). Lately, with news of it really turning towards a video sharing app and feeling like I am walking through a shopping mall (like if there is a place I need/want to go, but have to walk through all the scary sensory-overload places to get there. AKA all the sponsored reels and ads I am being fed constantly)…I feel like it is a place that is running laps around me. I sympathize with fellow small business owners. I admire the folks keeping up, sharing super consistently and tasteful things. And feel conflicted myself. Ultimately coming to terms with the fact that my work is not MADE for the internet. It is made for real life. It is made for the moments you don’t want to show more than the ones you do. It is not made to be photographed. It made to use. And to hold, with eyes closed (or open). It is made for analog life. And I am ok with that. THAT is my goal. It is not to be flashy or to keep up or to get likes on a photo. I don’t work with clay for those reasons. I forgot this a lot. But then I remember… and my body does a deep exhale of gratitude for said remembrance. I want to do this work in a way that I can pivot when I need to and not feel a constant need to “keep up” with things like Instagram just because more money needs to come in the door for an operation way over my head that then feels like it is morphing away from the vision I see for it. I want to delete the app for a week without saying anything just because the 3-d world feels like a more supportive space for me at the moment. Or not post when I don’t feel like I have anything to share that is worthwhile. The symbolic (or literal) gone fishin' sign...that gives us all a reminder of the last time WE "went fishin"...something that bigger scale online-based businesses don't really have anymore. But I think should.
I am so deeply content where I am. And it honestly feels like an act of resistance.
Power to the micro businesses.
(((That all being said…I am filled with youth still and this is where I stand now. I give myself permission to reevaluate and pivot and change my mind if I ever decide to. “I am large, I contain multitudes…”. Who knows, maybe in 30 years I will have a shop because I found myself thinking different things. Or maybe I won’t be doing pottery at all. But here is my jumping off point at the moment. Living *is* evolving :) )))
PHOTO BY MARY KALHOR