Owning a Business while Going Back to School: One Maker's Story

One thing that always astounds me is how much makers are able to juggle. Some of you might be considering juggling more and going back to school to help you get better at your business. That's what #ahasmember Cristiana of Pebble & Fire decided to do and she is sharing her story!

Q: Please introduce yourself.
Hello! My name is Cristiana and I am originally from Rome, Italy. Since I moved to the US, ceramics became a point of reference, a “place” where I could feel grounded, despite moving multiple times and the difficulties of starting all over again in new places.

When I moved to California, I found myself struggling to attend ceramics classes; my two little children were too small to be able to have “me” time. However, I started to make smaller scale ceramic work at home, which eventually became jewelry.

After a while, I opened Pebble & Fire. “Pebble” because I make ceramic pendants that are similar to the shape of pebbles, and “fire” because clay needs fire to become ceramics. Since I started, my jewelry line has evolved based on my curiosity to experiment and trends.

I usually focus on pendants and earrings, and, lately, I am making brooches as well. I love to use various materials in my ceramic pieces such as felt, moss, metal, glass, and who knows! My popular pendants are the “Little Tree”, “Sunflowers”, and from the latest collections “The Hexagon” and “The Dodecahedron”.

Q: What are the biggest lessons you've learned in your time as a business owner?
First lesson I learned was having a business is not a fairy tale. There definitely is the creative process involved in making the goods, which we all love, but the reality is that the majority of your time must go into marketing.

At first, I struggled between expressing my creativity and getting the marketplace to see my work. Then, I organized myself by splitting the day in two sections: one dedicated to marketing and one to making. I had to be flexible based on my children’s needs, so I would start with one of the two topics based on my kids’ moods.

Second lesson was that working hard in marketing is rewarded. When I started to nurture the marketing aspect by spending more time on social media, updating my Etsy website, and participating more in art fairs, my business started to bloom. I even had a jewelry shop owner offer me a consignment contract, which has been a constant source of earnings. Even if I had a good customer base, as soon as I stopped nurturing the marketing aspect, my business activity declined.

Third lesson is the surprising revelation that my jewelry could not sell much online. I could not understand the reason until I started to participate in art fairs. People would stop by my booth driven by the originality of my work, but it was the touching experience that would make people buy my jewelry. Apparently, ceramics is perceived as heavy and breakable, but when customers felt the jewelry in their hands, the lightness and the strong material positively surprised them, and they would buy the chosen piece happily.

Online, people cannot assess the weight and even if I state that the piece is light and easily wearable all day long, the ceramic aspect makes them take a step back and run away. Therefore, my focus is mostly on art fairs and consignment jobs.

Q: What events lead to learning these valuable lessons and how have they impacted your business?
Two years ago I went back to school to earn a degree in studio art -ceramics- with a minor in education. At the beginning, I tried to keep up with school, homework, and business at the same time, but this lifestyle was unsustainable. Imagine going to school 3 to 4 days a week for most of the day, then working one day a week, doing homework in the bits of time between lessons and after putting the kids in bed, working on the business after homework and weekends.

Included in this picture is a family and a home with needs. After almost a year, I realized that my schedule was not sustainable, I was exhausted and the family complaints were obnoxious.

Q: You shared that you're finishing your art degree, how are you balancing your time in school with owning your business?
A: There is a point in life when prioritizing is a key for a successful future, and right now my priority is to finish school in order to become a full time artist. Of course, my business started to suffer from the lack of attention, but it was something that was inevitable and I could not stop.

On the other hand, I did not want to give up my business at once. I selected the art fairs in which I was most successful in order to keep a constant relationship with customers, had a sense of what worked and what did not, and reinforced my ego as artist. Also, I decided to reach out shops to consign. For this I prepared a Power Point presentation where I showcase my work, talk about my process, and list my prices. I just started going to local shops in the Bay Area, and soon I am going to start reaching stores in San Francisco.

In the social media world, I use mainly Instagram, which links to Facebook and Twitter. I am aware that marketing and social media go together, but I realized I cannot have more than three accounts because I might fall behind and get stressed; people needs reminders because they see commitment, and if I am not active on social media, people might lose interest and go elsewhere.

Time is key hence my motto is: prioritize! I have one main account, and I am happy with the response. Instagram is immediate and reaches people interested in those hashtags; the video feature can be handy and I like to post images of other artists’ work, or something that strikes my interest as well as my work. I find it boring to follow a person, who posts about their work all the time, a unified variety can be more interesting, don’t you think?

Q: What effect has this had on your business and how you work?
A: Whenever I have a break from school, or “spare time” I work on my jewelry with a certain number of pieces to create in mind. My jewelry can take up to an hour and half to make before firing them, therefore based on the amount of time I have I decide which model to make. Also, while I used to make different models during a time frame, now I prefer to make the same piece over and over for efficiency.

I am not a fan of repetition, but due to time constraint, repetition helps to make the same piece faster; it is the advantage of muscles memory and once you start making the same thing the body will respond faster. For instance, if I know I have 6 hours, I will dedicate two hours to the hexagon necklace and the other three to the pebbles or dodecahedron necklace, which take longer to make.

Q: What advice would you give to fellow makers who find themselves in a similar situation?
A: It's not easy, is it? Most days you wonder if it's worth it and the answer is yes! I am almost done with my associate degree, and now I believe I can finish my bachelor's degree, which for me even thinking about it was just a dream. All the nights and weekends spent studying will be rewarded.

Setting priorities is key to being successful, but it's hard. Prioritizing is efficient, but we are human and sometimes I fail to do so. Also, I like to let spontaneity interfere. By saying this, be aware of consequences; if you take a break one day, your next day might be a little tougher because of the assignments you need to catch up on. Once you know it, fully enjoy your “day off” and don’t ruin it thinking of what you need to do the next day.

Also, to fight the blue mood and negative thoughts, keep nurturing your business (if you love it) even in a smaller scale like me. The contemplative process of making, the positive comments from customers and the interactions with other artists are vital for your ego and to strengthen your positive attitude.

Q: Where can we find your work?
A: My Instagram account is where you will find my work and extras: