Editor’s Note: Welcome to From a Founder, a monthly entrepreneur profile about the highs, lows, and plateaus of building a successful brand or business.
After having her first child, Bea Bellingham decided to forego returning to an office job and take the leap to pursue a career path as a ceramicist. Four years later, Bellingham’s Australia-based business, Clay Sydney, offers signups for classes and private sessions, and sells at-home ceramic kits through its website. Running Clay Sydney in partnership with Hannah Barclay, both women have learned to adapt the business in order to scale through even the most unpredictable circumstances.
Bellingham recently talked with Squarespace about the risks attached to launching her studio, and how it’s managed to achieve exponential growth in the pandemic.
Squarespace: What inspired you to launch your business?
Bea Bellingham: I started Clay Sydney, back in 2017. I’d just had my first child, Poppy, and felt like I was at a crossroads: to go back to an easy office job, or continue on as a ceramicist. A friend gave me a book about raising children to be feminists, and to me, it’s main takeaway was that now I was a mother, and my “job,” first and foremost, was to be a role model to my child. This meant showing my daughter that a woman wasn’t only a mother or wife, but could kick butt in business, too.
SQSP: What was the first step you took to make it a reality?
BB: The first step was to strap on the 6 week old baby, hire a 250sqm warehouse, and get making and teaching.
Classes happened organically at first, but when Hannah came on in 2018 as a tutor we really took off. I’m good at getting new projects started and driving us forward in new directions, but Hannah is so excellent at keeping us on track for the day-to-day. We’re very different, but I don’t think either of us could do it without the other.
We still have our Renwick St. Studio, and operate our longer-term wheel classes, firing services, and emerging artist program out of it.
SQSP: In every entrepreneurial endeavor, there are unexpected risks and challenges. What was the biggest risk you took?
BB: In the middle of 2020 we threw everything we had at opening a second location, in the middle of a pandemic, and with me nine months pregnant. We knew our numbers. We knew our audience was screaming out for more. We knew we’d outgrown just a single location. But boy, were there some anxious nights.
SQSP: What surprised you the most?
BB: When the borders closed to Australia in 2020 and we went into a nationwide lockdown, like many businesses, we weren’t sure we’d make it. We had a crisis meeting over the phone and tried to work out how we could still operate when people couldn’t leave their homes. Clay at Home was our solution. Instead of clients coming to us, we’d ship out kits and beam ourselves directly to their kitchen table.
Squarespace enabled us to turn our business model upside down, and within 72 hours, we had our classes back up and running. We thought we might be able to break even and maybe cover the rent, but within a week we’d hired back all of our staff. 70% of students had opted to convert to an at-home class, and so many more people wanted in. At the height, we were shipping 600 orders a week (that’s over half a metric ton of clay). Little ol’ us were even on national TV. (Look mum, I’m on tv!). Clay at Home is now an ongoing income stream of our business.
SQSP: After a challenging day, week, or month, what keeps you motivated?
BB: Wine? Kidding!
It’s a pretty privileged position to find yourself in, where not only do you get to do what you love for a living, but hundreds of people pass through your business each week wanting to experience what you’re most passionate about in life. You get to surround yourself with a community of like-minded artists, and watch them grow.
SQSP: How has your online presence contributed to your business success?
BB: Aside from having our website as our one-stop-shop for information to customers, our business has always had it’s online presence at the heart of its operation. Simply, we couldn’t operate without it.
We offer a lot of different classes and services, to a lot of different types of people. Keeping track of this has always been our biggest challenge, but Squarespace makes this easy. We tried a few platforms before landing on Squarespace, and it’s the only one we’ve found that can cope with the scale of appointments, orders, locations, queries and data we need to capture.
SQSP: How do you see your online presence evolving in the future?
BB: We’ve always rolled with the punches, and having an online presence at the heart of our operation has kept us nimble enough to adapt. We’re currently upgrading our Clay at Home hub, as I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. Our classes are currently for beginners, but there’s certainly scope and demand to extend this into programs for more advanced potters. Australia is a huge place, and there are a lot of regional areas that don’t have a studio nearby. We’d love to be able to reach out to them and share our passion online.
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