Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bricks and Mortar

As most of you know, I've been somewhat preoccupied with the launch of a new business venture. In fact, I am aware that I still owe everyone a followup to my hammer post to discuss the results of my experiments with hammer dressing, but the truth is that shortly after that post went up, the bulk of my studio went into boxes in preparation for the move to the new space.

One of the many piles of studio stuff waiting to make the trip.
So I haven't had a lot of creative time lately - it's been 16 hour days of one business related thing after another and I was really stuck about what to write for this post. I put the word out to my AJE peeps and asked them for suggestions - what could I share that they would like to know more about? The response: tell us what's gone into opening a bricks and mortar place.

Now THAT I can do.

1. Why open a studio/gallery in the first place? 

Great question. And there are a couple of answers. First, I love teaching - I didn't expect to, but I really do. Having a comfortable, well-equipped place where students can come to learn was a big motivator. I've been really fortunate to be part of the teaching team at Wired Designs for the last year, but it's been a lot of work for my friend and mentor Gail Stouffer for going on 12 years now. Frankly, the administrative burden of running a retail enterprise was wearing on her and taking a lot of the joy out of the teaching and creating she was able to do. And for a lot of the last year, I've been doing what I can to help - but it's still work that takes you away from the creative things you'd rather be doing. No matter how much stock you have, there will always be some tool or material or supply someone is looking for that won't be on your shelf, and you will always have to calculate the balance between having what people need and tying up too much of your capital in your inventory. Blech. So we're cutting out the stuff we don't like so much in favor of freeing up time and overhead for the stuff we do, which is teaching, creating, and working with other artists.

Enameling Class
Torch-fired enameling class in progress
Second, I do much better with my schedule when I have somewhere to get up and go to. The whole idea of working at home is very appealing, but truthfully, at home I get distracted by phone calls, laundry, Facebook, the dog, errands, the possibility of a nap, etc. If I have to get up in the morning and go somewhere to work, I'm much more likely to get things done.

Finally, there is really no substitute for creative collaboration. At home, it's just me. At a studio, there are like-minded folks who work in disparate disciplines and whose energy sparks my own.

2. Why partners? Isn't that just asking for trouble?

That's a decision you should never enter into lightly, for sure. As I said above, creative collaboration is a huge draw for me personally. There's also the added benefit of pooling resources - and not just financial. My partners have tools and expertise that I don't, and vice versa. We're able to stock a vastly expanded studio because we're all putting our tools and equipment into it - much less expensive (and therefore less limiting) than if I was opening a studio and had to do all that on my own. And honestly, I am grateful for access to alternative perspectives and insight from passionate people who are equally invested in the same outcome.

So if you are thoughtful about choosing your partners and establishing the ground rules ahead of time, you stand to gain a great deal and have a much better chance of it being a successful partnership in the long run. Below are some things I strongly encourage you to consider if you're going to be working with partners.
  • Make sure your strengths are complimentary. My partners and I are all radically different people with varied artistic perspectives, and we bring diverse strengths and abilities to the table. Gail is a vision caster and business wonk, I'm a social, financial and administrative "doer", and Lisa is a planner and organizer. It's unlikely we'll step on one another's toes by exercising our respective interests and gifts.
Roadhouse in progress
A peek into what will be the teaching workspace, and where we will have room to work together.
  • Commit to keeping business business-like. We're friends, and that's great, but business is business. We have meetings, we take minutes, and we make to-do lists for ourselves and one another. We are really clear on what area each of us is primarily responsible for, and we generally don't make big decisions independently of one another. We've also made an explicit commitment to one another to put relationship first - our respect and affection for one another means that even if we disagree, we are obligated to see one another as people and friends first, and business partners second.
  • Make a business plan. And then stick to it. I know that sounds like the most boring thing ever, but being in agreement with one another before you ever spend the first dollar is vital to making sure you stay on track. The things you're working on today should mostly be the things you discussed and planned for six months ago. We met every week for most of the summer and made up a written business plan to guide today's work, projects and decisions. Once we get the doors open and have caught our breath, we'll start meeting again to review and update it - we know a lot more now about what's realistic and important to us than we did when we started this journey six months ago.
Business plan
The cover of our actual business plan
3. How do you pick a location?

Start by thinking about what the space needs to do and be for you. In our case, we really wanted to have a gallery space, not just where we could sell our own work but where we could offer space to other regional artists. We also wanted a place that was able to support all the various activities each of us is engaged in creatively - teaching, making, experimenting, photographing our work, and doing all the administrative stuff that goes along with running a business. We all wanted someplace close to home (since Lisa and Gail both live in the same general area, they won on this one, but it's an area that Nick and I love and would consider moving to) and we wanted it to be in some kind of artsy, unusual space instead of a strip mall. We wound up renting part of a 100 year old building that used to be a German ninepin bowling alley back in the day - a single long room (almost 1800 square feet!) with wood floors and funky windows. It winds up being large enough that we have room for a modest gallery, plenty of teaching space, and roomy individual workspaces. 

Roadhouse Outside
The outside, before we signed the lease - our door is behind the handicapped sign.
Roadhouse Inside
Most recently, it was an antique store - the ship's wheel and the furniture were not part of the lease!
Next, consider the cost. In our case, we wanted to be sure we didn't become obligated to sell, sell, sell in order to cover our monthly "nut" because that just puts us back in the cycle of having to worry more about retail than teaching and creating. We were able to lease this space for a reasonable amount both because of its age and because it had been vacant for a while. And we're located in the same building as a very popular four star restaurant, which means we can gear our gallery hours to their open hours to capture the best foot traffic and spend the rest of the time using the space for teaching and creating.

Maybe most importantly, make sure it's a place you're going to enjoy spending a lot of time in. Any business launch, whether it's a bricks and mortar place or an online shop, is going to require many, many hours of focused commitment. They'll be harder to put in if you can't stand the space where you have to spend your time. So if opening a physical studio or shop is something you are seriously considering, hold out for one that is really right for you - it's out there, and you will really regret it if you settle for something you don't love. For us, we were very drawn to the idea of being "local" - and we're in an interesting old Texas community, with terrific neighboring businesses (a restaurant, a bakery, a co-op art gallery, a small general store/gas station and a wine bar), and a few "pets" already on site!

These guys escaped from up the road and stopped by to say hello!

Bad Ass Chicken
Sadly, this fine fellow hasn't been seen for about a week. I suspect fowl play. (Har har.) There are other chickens, but he was pretty spectacular.

And a last tip from me: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.

When we signed the lease and started planning the creative space we were going to be working in, this was not the vision we had dancing in our heads.

This electrical panel has consumed every bit of energy I have for the last two weeks.
I now know more about electrical panels, amperage, breakers, load capacity, and wire gauge (not the fun kind) than I ever wanted to know. (More on all that another time.) Just know going into it that all the planning in the world isn't going to stop Murphy's Law from entering into the picture, especially when you're setting up shop in a 100 year old building. There are just some things you will not have control over, and there's not much you can do about it. Build some buffer into your budget and your timeline, and tell yourself and your partners ahead of time that you're going to roll with the punches when the time comes. Then do it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Lest you think it's been all work and no play, we have been doing a lot of planning that involves some pretty exciting classes and instructors. Among other things coming down the pike is a week-long retreat in the Texas Hill Country with guest instructor Jessica Jordan, and we have more announcements coming! I will say that getting to seek out the artists we want to work with and design the classes we want to teach has been very exciting. And the retreat is the culmination of almost of a year of dreaming out loud about what we would want in a retreat if we could make it anything we wanted - we can't wait to see how it all comes together.

I will be writing more about all this here and on my own blog over the next couple of months - you'll probably be sick of hearing about it by then! In the meantime, I'm eager to get my new studio space set up and get back to work. Not exactly the most traditional way to spend the holidays, but as tiring as it's been, I'm enjoying the heck out of it.

So have I scared you? Does opening a bricks and mortar studio seem more or less appealing to you?

Until next time -


  1. Great post. I love the building and can't wait to see it when it's all finished!

  2. Thanks, Francesca! So nice to hear what you've been doing, and this really provides some information that we don't hear a lot about! Thanks for taking time to write and share this! --Sharyl P.S. Thanks for the photos too!

    1. You are so welcome, Sharyl! Glad you found it interesting - it's been learning experience for us, that's for sure!

  3. Thanks for sharing! It's an idea I toy with from time to time, but am too lazy to follow through on. I will live vicariously through you and take notes in case I ever change my mind.

    1. I'll be sure to share all the good and bad - it's been challenging, as you know, but it's looking more and more like it's going to be a really good thing. We're excited!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing. This makes opening one’s own shop/workshop space a lot more appealing.
    I just wish I lived closer to your space so I could join one of your workshops or, oh heaven, the retreat. But perhaps someday..
    Wishing you and your colleagues lots of success and fun. But reading your blog, I’m certain you will have.

    1. Janine, thank you so much for the good wishes - we're certainly excited about it. And I'm not sure where you're located, but hopefully one day we'll offer something that will make a visit to Roadhouse worth the trip! :-)

  5. I couldn't have said it better. Location is so important....I thought when I opened my place it would be great. Not so much. Reason? It was a flower shop previously, so people keep coming in looking for flowers. Hard to get that out of heads, even with lots of signage. Lesson? Don't rent something that's been something else 'sundry' for a long time, or this will happen to you. For me, since we have the internet business---which is the main reason we came here---in each other's pockets back at th house---I discovered I cannot do local teaching beyond just advice. We have to take care of what pays the bills so for me, three beads on a headpin classes will not do that. We decided to find a niche in special occasion/prom/bridal jewelry since there is a lack of anything custom in our area, and people will spend for those things. I still will schedule workshops if people want to come in from outside the area, from my online groups. It's all working out better....in the long run, it takes TIME. TIME is what will fine tune and direct your steps and efforts. You have a BRILLIANT start. It will only grow and become more than you envisioned. I can't wait to visit!

    1. You are so sweet, B'Sue - I actually was thinking a lot about you and all you went through to open your space as I wrote this. Thank you for the good wishes! xoxo

  6. This is just so exciting, Miss Francesca! I am pulling for you! I think that there needs to be more of exactly this thing in the world. The collaborative community aspect is something that I admire the most. I have a similar dream in my own community. We have a downtown with some great buildings. One sold pretty quickly and it inspired me to write up the bones of a plan. It wasn't to be (my husband sort of freaked out at my idea) at that location. But another suitable space is now available. Every time I pass it I really see the vision come to life. Your very thoughtful post puts me in the mindset again. But I know it will still be sometime before I can find a suitable partner, secure capitol, get my own affairs in order and convince my husband to take a risk (he is allergic to that!). Thank you for sharing your journey. I wish that I lived closer! Enjoy the day. Erin

    1. Erin, just keep that dream percolating and stay open to possibilities that might not be what you expect as means of getting there. I'll say a prayer about that space for you!! :-)

  7. Wonderful!!! All of my best wishes on MUCH success to all of you! :)


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