Just a few years after starting her business, Teresa Chang Ceramics, Teresa Chang was doing far better than she could have ever anticipated. She had been featured in major magazines like Elle Decor and was taking wholesale orders from stores like Dean & Deluca and Barney’s Japan.
But she wasn’t happy with the state of affairs. Quality control was difficult with wholesale, and she found herself spending all her time doing management and other “frustrating work” instead of what had first drawn her to ceramics: making the pieces. On top of this, by 2001, she was married, had moved from New York to Philadelphia and knew that starting a family was on the horizon. So, she thought to herself, “Let’s try something different.”
Photo credit: Yoshiko Mori
Teresa scaled down. She stopped doing wholesale, launched a website and transitioned from four to five part-time assistants to just one part-timer. Now, she says, “It works great! I get to do the part that I like best all the time.”
She has two kids and is able to be flexible if they get sick, if her husband has a sabbatical or the family wants to go on vacation. Her studio is a mere 20 steps behind their house, so she’s free to pop out for five minutes during dinnertime to check on how a piece is drying or maintain the kiln firing.
Customers come to her studio or communicate with her directly via email and phone to put together custom dinnerware sets that complement the kinds of food they serve and the way they entertain. They also order one-of-a-kind pieces like teapots that take a lot more time and effort to make. The personal relationship, Teresa says, makes it “so much more satisfying for both me and the customer.”
It also means that if she has a lot of orders to fulfill and needs three or even six months to complete a set, she can. By contrast, when working with wholesalers, she was beholden to their marketing schedules. “I would need to get orders in before the holiday rush, for example,” says Teresa.
Teresa says she now grosses less than $100,000, and her net is far lower than that. “I’m never making enough money as far as I’m concerned,” she laughs. But in the end, it’s worth it. Besides, she finds that she’s making nearly the same amount of money selling retail as when she was “working myself to the bone” doing wholesale.
“I could be making more money doing something else, but when you ratchet yourself up into different lifestyles, things become much more stressful. This is really the right balance for our family,” she says. “My work is something I love. When I need to escape from stress, I go to my studio. That’s a great tradeoff to making a little bit more money.”
Of course, being satisfied doesn’t mean being complacent. Though Teresa is happy where she is now, she always has loose six-month and two-year goals in mind. For example, up until now, she’s been able to do very little marketing and coast along on word of mouth and the business she pulls in by attending two major East Coast craft shows a year. She’s started to tap out on the business that results from the usual shows though, and, meanwhile, has noticed that many of her past customers are from the West Coast, where her Asian-inspired sensibility is also a natural aesthetic match. So she’s pushing herself to “get in front of more Californian eyes.” She also wants to spend more time developing limited-production, one-of-a-kind pieces, like her teapots, which she finds much more creatively fulfilling.
Beyond that, keeping things sane and balanced requires constant maintenance. She “jealously guards” the hours she has to work, which are the hours her children are in school. And she makes it a point not to do any business tasks inside the house — it all happens in the studio. She’s fastidious about keeping her business finances completely separate from the household finances, so she always knows exactly how well she’s doing. “I don’t co-mingle, and I think that’s a problem a lot of small business have,” she said.
But above all, she pays attention to how she’s feeling. “It’s fun!” she exclaims. “If something’s not fun, then I know it needs to be tweaked.”