Today I have the pleasure of chatting with Jenn Johnston – a long-term listener of the Create & Thrive Podcast, who has grown her business slowly to the point where she’s been able to go full-time!

Jenn took the slow and steady approach to business success, working more and more on her biz, and slowly reducing her hours in her day job over a number of years, before taking the leap to full self-employment in 2021.

We talk about her journey, how a serious health issue impacted her decision to grow her business, how the C&T Pod has been an important part of that journey, and much more!

You can listen to this episode below, or on your fave podcasting app!

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Highlights from this episode:

    • Jenn has a fantastic story, particularly as she started later in life which will resonate with a lot of listeners who are in a similar position.
    • Jenn discussed her past life which started with studying psychology at uni and the completion of a PhD. After working in drug and alcohol research in Melbourne for 15 years, Jenn moved to northern NSW in 2009. It was difficult to get into projects in this area due to the distance from major centres, so Jenn moved towards health research.
    • Jenn had always dabbled with crafty things such as card making and sewing, and wanted to start working with clay.
    • Every year in the northern NSW area, there is an open studio weekend called the North Coast Mud Trail. Through this, Jenn met Karen who had an amazing ceramics studio just 10 minutes down the road from her. Jenn completed a 6 week throwing course at this studio and fell in love with clay. This resulted in Karen offering to let her use her studio once a week.
    • Over the next year, Jenn learned from Karen how to fire kilns, work on the wheel, and make glazes, and at the end of that time, purchased her own wheel.
    • The decision to move into ceramics full time was very deliberate for Jenn. 
    • “Right from the start, I was quite obsessed with clay. I was going to sleep thinking about it, I was waking up thinking about it” {Jenn}.
    • Ceramics was the way for Jenn to finally have the creative life that maybe she always wanted, but didn’t really know how to achieve.
    • Many people didn’t believe that ceramics was a feasible way for Jenn to make a living, but over time Jenn reduced her working hours in health research and built her ceramics business until it was full time.
    • Jenn was in her late 30’s, early 40’s when she started working with clay, and while it would have been nice to find this earlier in life, the stability of her research career allowed her to build up a studio and business over time.
    • Jenn began selling her work through an acquaintance who owned a shop just outside Byron Bay. This started Jenn’s experience with wholesale, and currently this is 50% of her income.
    • Around the time of starting ceramics, Jenn had life changing surgery due to Crohn’s Disease. Following the surgery, Jenn had a new lease on life and was able to make the most of opportunities with her new found energy and good health, and make a career with clay.
    • Jenn also lost her father to an accident around this time, and this was a reminder that you should enjoy life and do the things that you want to do.
    • Jenn and Jess spoke about how this was a time when there was a new appreciation for hand-made, and this helped grow Jenn’s business.
    • Jenn’s approach to selling was discussed. This started with wholesale, some Instagram, and the North Coast Mud Trail as an open studio. Jenn has also built an online store over the last few years.
    • ‘Your podcast has been really instrumental in building this business. Jess says to do an online store so let’s do an online store!’ {Jenn}
    • A website was originally built but was difficult to use, so now uses Shopify which is easy and simple.
    • ‘I definitely recommend Shopify these days for newbies, or people who don’t have web design experience. It’s definitely easy to use and works really well.’ {Jess}
    • Covid was a real impetus to get the online store up and running, and Jenn found that directing people to the store through Instagram worked well.
    • Jenn’s online store tripled in sales last year, but went a bit quiet with the Sydney lockdown and the appearance of the Delta strain of Covid.
    • A number of events have been cancelled due to Covid which has limited sales opportunities, but wholesale continues to be a source of income for Jenn, and she is looking to access new areas such as galleries.
    • Jess stated that even if you have been in business for a long time, things can still happen and you need to be flexible and able to pivot to change the direction of your business.
    • Jenn discussed how her staffing had been affected by Covid lockdowns.
    • ‘One of the challenges of working with clay is that you are working with clay.’ {Jenn}
    • There has been a shortage of clay in Australia in recent months, possibly due to more people taking this up as a hobby. There has also been a change to the recipe of clays that Jenn has worked with for years. Therefore, the clays have not reacted the same to firing and glazes as previously. This has kept Jenn awake at night, and has forced her to change the types of pieces she makes.
    • Jenn discussed her customer base which is mainly in Australia, however she has recently discovered that her products are being shipped to Japan through one of her wholesale customers, Plant Society. Jenn also ships some online orders overseas.
    • Jenn and Jess talked about marketing strategy. For Jenn this has in the past been mostly through Instagram, though having products in retail stores is also a great way to get your name out there.
    • This year, Jenn has started reaching out through other channels like this podcast, and other PR opportunities.
    • Jenn spoke about why she decided to bring other people into the business, and this was mostly due to the fact that, while still working in health research, she didn’t have the capacity to make enough product. She began employing someone after school hours, and eventually decided to bring on staff one day per week which had a huge impact in terms of what she could produce.
    • Having someone in the studio means that Jenn gets more work done, and there is a nice flow with someone preparing the clay, and Jenn finishing the item.
    • The transition to full time for Jenn was discussed. Having already cut back her hours working at the uni, Jenn made the decision to go full time early in 2020, just a few months before Covid. 
    • Jenn described a week in her life in the studio. She has found that working full time in the studio means that her weekends have been reclaimed to a large extent. She sometimes still needs to unpack the kiln etc. if required.
    • Despite working full time at ceramics now, Jenn has never lost her love of working with clay, and still pinches herself at how fortunate she is to be able to do something she loves.
    • Jenn’s advice to others looking to start a creative business is to say yes. You may not initially know how you are going to achieve it, but just do it and you learn and grow in the process. Also, people should take advantage of all the information and support that is out there through podcasts, Instagram etc.
    • In the future, Jenn would like to have a larger studio so she can have more people working with her. She would also like to do more sculptural work, and maybe have a gallery with a small cafe.
    • Jenn can be found on Instagram (Jenn Johnston Ceramics) and on her website.  


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