Local Women Magazine Interview, June 2021
Tell us how you came to start your business?
I have always loved pottery from the age 16. It's all I have ever wanted to do. I have studied ceramics since I was 16 and worked for a potter since graduating. My own work was always just a part time part of my life that I loved and wanted to make a go of.
The opportunity eventually came around thanks to my wonderful parents. I was working in Dublin part time, as was my husband, Thomas, and we were travelling up to my parents home every weekend so I could do my own work in their garage. I was really getting fed up because we weren’t staying in Dublin on the weekends and getting to enjoy the advantages of big city living or spending enough time on the beautiful north coast to get the benefits of our surroundings here.
Eventually one Sunday night, Thomas had set off back to Dublin, Mum and Dad sat me down and said “Why don’t you just open a pottery here full time?” They offered to let me use the old outbuildings and support me through the whole process.
As the planning went along, It became apparent that we would have space to add another string to our bow. Being big foodies, we settled on a cafe to help bring people to our location and grow our dream of being a rural community hub.
Then my brother, Stephen, came on board to run the cafe!
After that it was a balancing act of getting the business off the ground whilst living in two places.
How long did it take you from the initial idea for your business to actually trading?
You could say it’s been 12 years, as that’s when I started making pots for myself! In reality it has been about three years from finding our great architect, Patrick Bradley, who sorted all the designs and planning permissions which took two years due to the grade II listing of the building! Then contractors QMAC came in, tasked with completing the building and maintaining it’s 200 year history all in the midst of a global pandemic. We finally got the keys in November 2020 and sold pots over Christmas before finally opening the cafe in April of this year!
What is your work background?
I did a National Diploma in design crafts in North West Regional College, Limavady and followed this with a BA in Ceramics from UWIC, Cardiff and finally graduated in 2016 from the Crafts Council of Ireland’s ceramic skills course in Thomastown, Kilkenny.
To help pay for my own business and learn some invaluable skills, I took a job at KaroArt Ceramics in Dublin. I helped make her products and this is where I first learnt how to teach a class!
Throughout all of this learning I have always made my own work part time and sold it at craft fairs around the UK and Ireland before taking the plunge to do it full time!
What inspires your work?
A huge inspiration for my work comes from imagining it in use in someone’s home and bringing happiness to their everyday. Functionality is so important to me, i design my pieces very carefully to sit nicely in the hand, be perfectly weighted for their job. I am inspired by good food and like to use colours and shapes that will enhance the appeal of even the most humble meal that is served on my pots. I believe completely that functional everyday wares should be beautiful and useful.
How did you cope with lockdown - did it affect your business?
I moved home to give my business my full attention in January 2020. Little did I know just 3 months later a global pandemic would strike. All the crafts shops and gallery's closed leaving me with no income and as I am a very new business who had no previous earnings I wasn’t eligible for any covid support. I used this time to learn and study, I built a website, email marketing, Facebook advertising and SEO skills. I joined every free business webinar I could. By August I was shipping out pottery all round the world. I have great support from my family, they even took turns doing the post office runs!
My brother and his fiance moved over just before Christmas to help run the cafe. This is really growing now that restrictions are easing and we can’t wait to keep adding new sides to our business!
Where can I buy your products?
Come visit us! The Blackheath Pottery is open from 11-4 Wednesday to Sunday and we sell all my pots, great coffee, sweet treats and light bites.
You can buy online at www.blackheathpottery.com where the range is updated frequently. We are also on Etsy and Not on the High Street.
There is a selection of pottery across the North Coast in:
No6 Queen Street, Coleraine
The Puffin Gallery, Ballycastle
The Designerie, Bushmills
The Craft Village, Derry
Do you have plans to expand your range?
I am always adding new products, in the spring I added a new range of indoor planters and bud vases. I am now looking into new dinner sets and some summer inspired lines. Pretty soon I’ll have to get started on planning this years range of Christmas decorations and pots, it never stops!
Describe a typical day?
As we open to the public at 11, I like to be in the studio between half 9 and ten. This is not when the day starts though, before that is some me time! I always like to make time to have a proper breakfast and if the weather allows, take our dog, Harry, to Benone Beach. I’m not adverse to a bit of wind and rain, but he won’t get out of bed if he thinks it will be cold! I then start with my admin, sorting out any online orders that came in overnight, and boring but essential jobs like website maintenance and VAT returns. I can then make a list of the pots that need making that day. This can be throwing pots, finishing and handling pots that have been drying or prepping clay for the next throwing session. If I have a full load for the kiln this then gets loaded and fired up. Clay is such a messy business, there is always a lot of cleaning to be done afterwards. Then I package orders and get them out to the post office in the evening. In between all this I am talking to customers that come in whilst Stephen, my brother, serves them up coffee and food! We love the buzz of having people about the place whether they love pottery or coffee!
What do you most love about your job?
The freedom and creativity. I do have a range and work on orders, but I have designed all these pots and love making them, whether it is the first mug for a new customer or the 50th for a big order!
I really love working with my family, Stephen and I have a great taste in music and are always laughing, joking and dancing around the pottery and cafe. Our partners, Sarah and Thomas do loads of bits to help so are often around too and Mum and Dad are always around lending a hand, it’s a real family affair!
What plans do you have for the future of the business?
In June, we are launching pottery classes, both structured 6 week courses and individual sessions. Individual sessions can be for one to four people and can be tailored to the people in the class, we can do beginner courses and some other skills for those with pottery experience. I am determined to make the pottery/cafe into a real community, with workshops, food sessions and even some evening events. Above all it will be a place for people to meet and relax, somewhere a little different!
What advice would you give to a female entrepreneur starting out?
Surround yourself with empowering, happy and supportive people. I found confidence a big issue at the beginning, feeling like I struggled with the business side. VAT and tax terrified me! Finding the right support and joining start up business courses showed me it's not all corporate speak and acronyms it's simple sums that anyone can do, don't be afraid to ask the questions everyone else is probably thinking them! I found great support from Women in Business who are perfect support and guidance for female entrepreneurs at any stage of their journey. I also had invaluable help from Causeway Coast & Glens Council. I did their Go for it programme and they are great support with grants and helping build a network of contacts.
How do you achieve a good home/work life balance?
I find working and living in the same place is tricky so I try to be very strict with my Monday and Tuesday off. I watch a whole series of tv and now don't feel guilty for it. I turn off my emails and social media notifications otherwise if I see the messages I have to reply. But I have realised quite recently that I make and sell pottery. It's not going to be a life or death situation if I don't reply till Wednesday. Having it clear that those are my days off really sets the boundaries! My mum is great at making me take a break to get lunch, having a bit of time to decompress during the working day is really important to reenergise for the afternoon push! I also like to plan things to do to make me stop working 24/7, like on a Sunday, we try to go out straight after closing to get food from somewhere, because we want to support other local businesses and we are also massive foodies ourselves!
Are there any family members/mentors/people who have helped you that you would like to mention in your feature?
My parents have always been my biggest supporters. My dad, Ken, was a founding partner in a recruitment firm, building it up to cover the whole of Ireland and a lot of europe too. He is a through and through entrepreneur and loves seeing businesses grow and has given me so much advice and is a great sounding board for ideas. My mum, Iris, has been on every branch of the HR manager tree, often as the only woman in the room. She is someone that effected real change for the working conditions and promotion possibilities for women within her industry. This has helped me see that their shouldn’t be roles for men and women, just jobs for the person that is the best person for the job. How my parents did all this whilst raising four children never ceases to amaze me and I don’t think I can ever express how grateful I am to them for allowing me this opportunity to follow my dreams.
I also could not have managed this without my brother, Stephen. As much as the pottery has always been my dream, the cafe is his. He has worked in some sort of kitchen for most of his working life and now he has his own. It’s amazing how well his food and coffee match the ethos of my pottery and we work so well together it’s not like being at work at all.
Stephen’s fiancee, Sarah, has been brilliant. Not only did she agree to move her whole life from the Isle of Man to allow Stephen to join me in the cafe but she is a super talented graphic designer who has done all the design work on everything related to the Blackheath Pottery and is still working as Stephen and I throw new ideas at her daily!
Thomas, my husband, has been dragged about the world by me following my dreams. From meeting in Cardiff, via Kilkenny and Wicklow to leaving a senior role in Dublin to live with my parents! He has always just gone along with what he believes is the right thing for us. His retail and merchandising experience is also put to great use within the shop and he can seemingly build anything, whether it’s an a-board for the cafe or a whole stand for a crafts show.
It has not just been my family that have made this all possible, Karo of KaroArt Ceramics has been such an amazing influence on my business. She started as my boss, but we quickly became friends and she has been a mentor to me from then on. She taught me so much about the business side of things, from costings to tax and paying wages and never had any trade secrets, she showed me everything and was over the moon when I decided to open up on my own. She still gives me business advice now and also always knows the best pizza places in Dublin!
Visit us: The Blackheath Pottery
112 Killeague road, Blackhill
Wednesday to Sunday 11-4pm
Tel: (0044) 07714367890https://localwomenmagazine.com/