interviewsVeterans and Startups

Veterans and Startups: Brit McDaniel of Paper & Clay

by Grace Bonney

Discovering new ceramicists is one of my favorite things to do. Whether I’m looking on Etsy, Instagram or just browsing some of my favorite shops, finding a beautiful new bowl or plate always makes me smile. Erin from Amelia in Oxford, Mississippi is always introducing me to new artists and earlier this year she introduced me to Brit McDaniel of Paper & Clay studio. I love Brit’s simple but modern style and the way she works with color. Her color-dipped mugs are one of my favorite wishlist items right now. Reading through Brit’s interview answers this week, I was reminded of why we started this column: her thoughtful feedback, honesty and excitement about running her studio are why I find new businesses so inspiring. The passion, the hope, the hard work- it’s all there and so fresh. Her interviews is one of my favorite we’ve run, so I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks so much to Brit for her time and sharing her thoughts with us today. xo, grace

Photos by Ashleigh Peak, Styling by Tarra Kruzan

Click through for the full interview after the jump…

Your name: Brit McDaniel
Your role at the company: Owner/Artist
Your location: Memphis, Tennessee
How many years have you been working at your company?: One Year
Where can we find you online?: Instagram, Etsy

What was the inspiration/reason for for starting your company?

I was lost, and I was tired of being lost.

I first fell in love with ceramics in college, but I was working full-time, going to school full-time, always broke and always exhausted. I had no idea where I was going or what I even wanted, and because of that school felt like a waste of time and money. So, I quit. I moved to Austin, and got a good job. I did everything that my 23 year-old-self thought I needed to do to be happy. I got married, I bought a house, you know, the whole package. But something wasn’t clicking. I was always searching for something else. It took a painfully long time for me to realize that by cutting off that creative aspect of my life, I had shut down a big part of myself. I was miserable, and depressed and just so lost. I don’t really know how or when it happened exactly, but one day I just realized that I had to take control– I had to change the direction that my life was headed.

I started the painful process of real self discovery, and I began to have a little hope that it was possible to create the life that I wanted. All I had to do was make it happen. I enrolled in a ceramics class at Laguna Gloria, a wonderful community art school in Austin, and immediately I felt like I was moving forward. I fell in love with ceramics all over again, but this time I knew I wanted to make a career of it. Most importantly, I wanted it bad enough to do the hard work. Sacrifices were made, and I returned to Memphis, alone, to finish school and to put everything on the line for my little hope of a business, Paper & Clay. From there, everything changed. It was like someone turned on a light inside me. I spent the next six months thinking about my brand, dreaming about my where I wanted to go, and making so much work! I finished school (a personal goal more that a professional one), and I ran a Kickstarter campaign in June of 2013, which successfully funded the start of my studio here in Memphis. In August, I was able to transition to running Paper & Clay full-time. Now, I get to spend every day doing what I love, and I couldn’t be happier.

What is a day in the life of your job like? What takes up the majority of your work day?

One of the most amazing (and terrifying) things about owning a business it that there are a thousand different tasks that you are responsible for. My favorite days, as you might expect, are those spent in the studio. I always start with coffee at home, answer emails from the night before, make a to-do list, and tend to any other pressing business matters. Once I get to the studio, my day consists of throwing that week’s work, trimming, rotating drying pieces, attaching handles, and making a big mess. The last studio day of the week is spent glazing and firing my work, a task that always makes my studio look like a Color Run just blew through. Every Sunday I completely clean and organize my space– it’s like a fresh new canvas for Monday.

What is the thing you’re proudest of that you (or the company as a whole) have done so far?

I have really tried to be present in and enjoy all of my little accomplishments along the way. My first wholesale account was a huge one. My first trip to New York (I know!) was to deliver an order to a shop in the West Village. I’ve met so many really amazing people who have had a huge impact on my work, my perspective, everything. I think right now though, I’m most proud to just be where I am. Making my living as a potter. Staying open and positive. Growing.

-We love your aesthetic- how did it come about and what inspires it?

Thank you! I get inspiration from so many different places. From classic design, from photography, from traveling, from a place of necessity. The core of my aesthetic comes from Danish and Scandinavian design. I feel like there is a really wonderful movement happening in ceramics right now. I love the marriage of handmade pottery with the sophistication of modern form. There is also an ever-present secondary inspiration that fuels the professional aspect of my work. That comes from watching so many other people succeed with nothing more than talent, hard work, and kindness.

What brands or businesses do you admire or want to emulate (in terms of values, etc.)?

Oh gosh, there are so many. I really love Houndstooth Coffee in Austin (probably the thing I miss most!). It’s a great little coffee shop where the first ideas for P&C were born, but specifically, I love how pared down they are. Just a few basic drinks on the menu, but all so delicious. It drives home the idea to do a few things, but do them really well.
I’m really excited to be working on a collaboration right now with Son of a Sailor, a fabulous little company who really believes in supporting other makers, and creating a sense of community and support in lieu of competition. I think this is a huge key to success. I also feel so fortunate to be a part of the collection at Amelia in Oxford, Ms, one of the most beautifully curated shops in the country. It’s a true gem. Really, there are far too many other brands to name. I think the important thing to note is that all of the brands and business I admire embody the same principles that I strive to follow: hard work, progress, determination, originality, and kindness.

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What has been the biggest challenge starting business so far, and what are you doing to solve it?

So far, by biggest challenge has been figuring out HOW to sell my work. In the beginning, I thought it was important to have many wholesale accounts, and I was lucky enough to have some wonderful shops interested in my work. I soon discovered however, that because my work is so time intensive, I can’t produce enough work to supply those stockists and make a profit. I’ve since paired down to a few shops that I love to work with, and have focused more on direct customer interaction. The results were a much more profitable and much less stressful January.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you started?

“Get out of your own way!” I’m not sure if that’s specifically business advice, and I’m actually not sure who said it, but I remember it every day.

What advice do you have to new businesses in your field starting out or what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

Have a big but realistic plan, be prepared to work harder and be more tired than you have ever been, invest in good photography, take full advantage of social media platforms like Instagram, and most importantly, be kind and give back.

What are your goals going forward or next steps you’d like to take as a brand?

My goals for Paper & Clay are really simple. I want to continue to grow and improve. I think as long as those two things are happening, personally and professionally, I’ll be succeeding.


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