When Gopi Shah relocated from Los Angeles to Austin, TX for her partner’s new job, she found herself unemployed, with no network for continuing her career in environmental issues. Instead of panicking, Gopi decided to nurture her life-long passion for working with clay. She reached out to Austin’s ceramics community and quickly found a mentor. Jennifer Prichard is a respected fine arts professional who knew all about running a successful art business. She quickly encouraged Gopi to open her one of her own. Sure, she was nervous. But deep down, Gopi knew she was ready for the challenge.
Gopi, your very first decision was to find a mentor in your new community. Why was that important?
I’d worked with clay in an academic setting, taking classes in high school and at various colleges. I knew that experience was very different than running a ceramics business. I figured being an apprentice was a low-risk way for me to see if I enjoyed the work and decide if it was feasible to build my own brand.
What did you learn from working with a mentor?
Jennifer, along with her husband, was super supportive and taught me so much about becoming a professional ceramicist. I went into the apprenticeship asking questions and absorbing as much as I could. I don’t believe in the premise of “fake it till you make it.” To me, it’s important for small business owners to be honest about our vulnerabilities and what we don’t know.
Being humble and reaching out for help is also really important when it comes to building a business and being part of a community. It also helps mitigate the numerous mistakes we make when creating and growing a business.
How does belonging to a community help you as a small business owner?
Like many entrepreneurs, I spend a lot of time working by myself. It’s hard owning your own business and wearing so many hats. On any given day, I’m an accountant, a creative, a web designer – I have to do it all. It feels less overwhelming when I’m connected to a broader community of artists.
I think there’s a cultural influence, too. I’m from an immigrant family. In India, families support and help each other so much. For me, it’s not just about connecting with artists. I’m fulfilled when I have a strong community of friends, family and neighbors. It improves my life.
How have you grown your business?
I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been lucky, too. I started out with an Etsy store with a goal of selling one piece to someone who didn’t know me. I still remember how excited I was when it happened!
My approach has been to take small, incremental steps. After focusing on retail my first year, I started sending out my “resume” using Wholesale in a Box. I got many, many rejections but ended up with five shops. Now I work with 30-40 boutiques across the country.
I love attending craft shows, because I can communicate directly with my customers. Seeing someone get excited about a piece of work helps propel me forward.
Any plans to expand your business?
Last year, I hired my first employee. It’s fantastic to have someone around during the day. She has a retail background and knows about pricing, relationship building, that kind of thing. We bounce ideas off each other every day. I put off hiring someone for a long time, but once I did, I’ve never regretted it.
Looking ahead, I hope to set up my business for higher-yield productions. I’d like to find a warehouse space and employ people from the community, paying them good wages and providing benefits.
Gopi, who gives you a boost on a tough day?
So many people! My partner, Jake, is always there for me. My family was hesitant at first when I told them I was going to open my business, since it isn’t stable work. Now my family is very supportive and excited for my success.
My job is very physical, which I love. It’s like doing CrossFit, lifting 50 pounds of clay, moving heavy shelves. It’s really hard work to make every single dollar. Some days, it feels like an uphill battle. But then I’ll get a message from a customer about how excited they are to use one of my mugs each morning. That feels incredible.
There are so many inspiring small businesses in the world … check out these other stories and videos from the QuickBooks 2018 BACKING YOU campaign.