“Four out of five businesses fail in the first three years,” says Tallie Maughan, founder of open-access ceramics studio Turning Earth. So how did she turn her idea into a wildly successful enterprise? She shares her business secrets…
This was originally published in April 2016. Since then, Tallie has opened a second Turning Earth studio in east London’s Leyton.
Tell us about Turning Earth: what do you offer?
Turning Earth is an open-access ceramics studio that works a bit like a gym: members pay per month and come and go at times that suit them. Built on a US model, it was the first of its kind in London.
What’s the business model; how is income generated?
Turning Earth is a social enterprise, and all its income is generated from membership. It doesn’t receive any funding.
Why did you decide to start this business?
I wrote a blog post about this because I get asked it a lot. Basically, I had a beautiful career break potting in California. I realised that people got a lot further, more quickly, in open-access studios than attending community college courses. I wanted to make a hobby studio that was good enough that people in it could turn pro if they wanted to. And this is what happened.
What experience did you have – ceramics/business – prior to setting it up?
I had various kinds of experience which all fed into the mix. I had worked in fundraising so I knew how to write proposals and sell ideas. I’d worked as a corporate responsibility consultant so I knew how to talk to corporate bodies and make a really clear business plan. I had worked in customer service management in large scale theatre across the US and so I was used to managing a large team to do something quite precise and I was – by habit – very customer focused. And finally, I had put together and managed merchandise for a large immersive theatre experience in New York. It was like running a mini-business without the risk. But with quite big numbers involved. It made it seem easier later when I had to take that risk myself.
What traits do you need to have to set up on your own?
Well you have to be totally committed and you have to have a sincere belief that the thing will work. I think for that to happen you have to really understand the service you are offering and the market there is for it. You probably have to have done something similar yourself for a while. I think it’s also really important – whatever field you go into – to learn about sales. I think all successful entrepreneurs are salespeople at heart. And sales isn’t a gift so much as a science – if you care enough you can learn. There are good books around and for practical experience you can go and sell charity on the street or door to door – I know I am not the only entrepreneur to have cut my teeth that way. But I think the most important thing is that you trust your own gut. If you are always looking for affirmation from other people then you won’t get very far.
What are the first steps?
I think the first step is to get clear about your idea and to start running it past other people. Test the water – see if there’s any excitement. If you can convince a few friends that this is the best idea since sliced bread then you are doing something right – you are convincing people, which is the first seed of marketing it. After that I’d say act like it’s going to happen. Do one thing every day to work towards it. That’s it – just one thing every day.
Once set up, how long should it be until you start seeing a profit?
I am not sure I can answer that for anyone else. It depends on your business model: what the payoff will be and what the initial investment is. I would say it’s important to model this first and then get comfortable with it. You need to track your own projections: it doesn’t exactly matter what they are, as long as you are keeping up with them.
Running a business can be monotonous…
How do you keep yourself motivated when things feel slow?
Things don’t exactly feel slow at Turning Earth – there’s always too much to do. But things can get a bit samey so to keep myself interested I either help someone else or I plan my next site. I like starting things and I find it hard to finish them unless I’m onto the next thing. Similarly, other people’s problems can shed new light on my own. If I get stuck in a rut with my thinking I find it a real pleasure to focus on someone else’s challenges for a bit.
I think when you are starting out, motivation is best created by commitment. Tell a bunch of other people you are going to do it. Announce it. Make it a reality in other people’s minds. Then you have to do it even when you’re having a bad day, because people are going to ask about it all the time.
Can any business succeed, or are there signs for when you should call it a day?
I think the statistic is that four out of five businesses fail in the first three years. While I am sure this is an overstatement (some people may choose to fold businesses as they evolve in new directions, without exactly having failed) I think it reflects a reality that anyone in business faces. I think being a good entrepreneur is about having a feel for what won’t work and steering well clear of it. Ideas are ten a penny; ideas that catch the mood of the time somehow feel different. I think it’s important to really listen to your intuition; I think we understand a lot more about what is going on in the collective consciousness than we can ever quite get at mentally. When something’s going to work, I just know it in my gut.
Signs for when to call it a day are probably that only you are interested in it. You will see the awkwardness in other people’s eyes when you bring it up. If you don’t have a market – i.e. there isn’t a bunch of other people out there feeling the same way as you about what you want to offer – you have to be extremely charismatic to create it. You probably have to be a sales genius. I read somewhere that sales is about knowing your market. Know your market, know your market, know your market. Make it about the other people. Will it work for them? Do they care? If so, you are probably onto something.
With Turning Earth, did you ever considering quitting and working for someone else?
Erm, no. I have worked for other people before and I found it very frustrating and I never considered going back. It’s a great lesson in humility and discipline to serve other people’s agendas – to have to bite your tongue and try it someone else’s way knocks some sharp edges off. But there comes a time when I think we do society a favour by doing our own thing. Work shouldn’t feel like work; it’s about being part of something bigger. I don’t think anyone tells ants what to do – they just feel like doing it, whether it’s digging holes or chopping up leaves. And these days my relationship with work is kind of the same. Reporting to someone else? I am never on time, for a start. I’m my own worst employee. I wouldn’t impose that on anyone else.
What has been your mantra, to keep you focussed?
Er… I don’t really have a mantra. Turning Earth keeps me focused in its own way – if I drop a ball I can be sure that I will trip over it very quickly.
But I do ask for guidance on a spiritual level. It’s been a long time since I have thought that my will or understanding were enough. Normally when I am demotivated it’s because I am thinking too narrowly about my own needs. I think, whether you are religious or not (and my answer to that would be complicated) there is a time and a place to drop to your knees and ask to be guided from a higher, more loving part of your own mind. It makes things clearer, somehow. It is easier to serve the world than yourself. Your self won’t last very long, after all.
‘Dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for setting up a business…
1. Overestimate all potential costs at the outset so you have more money than you need – the biggest pitfall for a start up is a lack of cash-flow.
2. Make sure you have a clear management structure and that who reports to who is defined and made into a legal contract.
3. Work a structured week with normal person hours.
4. Make sure you get paid reasonably and that you pay everyone else fairly too. You have a responsibility to society to make things better – not to do the minimum. Everyone needs money. Our economy needs it too.
5. Focus on sales not on costs. Sales are exponentially expandable, costs are secondary, as there is only so much you can make in the way of savings. If you have a problem, you need to sell more. That comes first.
1. Don’t overestimate the importance of things you don’t understand. Just because it’s a mystery, doesn’t mean it’s hard. You can make bad decisions at the beginning simply because everything looks frightening when it’s new.
2. Don’t give away equity if you can possibly help it – equity costs a lot more than loans in the long run, because you never pay it down. If your idea is good enough there are other ways to get money.
3. Always confront issues. You must put the vision first, not individuals, or you will waste a lot of energy.
4. Don’t break your commitments, however tiny. If you have to, explain in person. And don’t break the law either. Integrity is what you will hang onto when everything seems to be falling apart
5. Don’t blame yourself if it’s difficult. Even success is 50% luck. Failure is the same. Give yourself space to feel bad and then get up and try again. It’s not about winning the battles, it’s about having the resilience for a war. And that’s about how easy you make it to get back up and try again.
Any other top tips for people looking to quit the day job and set up on their own…?
Do what you love. Don’t do the second best thing. The thing you love most is the thing you are meant to do – even if it seems too good to be true. Your interests may change in time, but don’t settle. If you want to be a rock star then go for it 100%. You may end up a farmer in Thailand instead, but if you go for it all out, you’ll be a much happier, more fulfilled, and far more inspiring person. The world needs people like that.
Are you running a business? What are your ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’? Let us know in the comment section below and you could be featured next…
Photo credit: Sabrina Dallot-Seguro