Injured dad finds artistic way to keep providing

CALEB HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 23/09/2013

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Wrecking a knee ligament while climbing a fence knocked Sam Ludden out of the building industry, strained his finances and left him feeling "useless" - but it was a business blessing in disguise.

The injury last year meant long hours were spent staring at the ceiling and "dreaming". With partner Janine Ogg having just given birth to their second daughter, Molly, Ludden sensed a silver lining.

"I thought, I want to be involved with the kids but also to provide. I want to make the pottery work."

Ludden, a graduate of Wanganui Polytechnic's ceramics diploma, had potted on and off for years, investing in 2002 in two large kilns in a shed behind their Masterton home.

But, as a long-term business prospect, it had always seemed precarious.

Then, after stints at home and abroad as a kayaking guide, builder, teacher and timber mill worker, the injury gave him the push he needed.

With Ogg's master's in political science and years of training in marketing and business coaching, the couple brought a rare combination of business savvy and creative flair to the tricky challenge of making art pay, without selling out.

The pair, both 36, deliberately chose to avoid getting into debt to launch their Sam Ludden Ceramics business earlier this year, preferring a slow-growth, "boot-strapping" model where overheads are financed by sales, or not at all.

They put aside $2000 of savings as a "backstop" fund, but so far, income has exceeded outgoings.

The first step was focusing on a few standardised products that are not only interesting artistically and ethically, but also commercially viable.

"I had to learn to think like an entrepreneur as well as an artist."

Which is where ruru (owls) and tuna (eels), forms he had played with for years, came into their own.

The sure-fire sellers allow him head-space to experiment in other work, he said.

Next, while better internet use was fundamental, a brick-and-mortar expansion was also needed; Ludden boosted his gallery partnerships from three to 10.

And, instead of getting sidetracked into something new for each gallery, he makes what he wants and they "take it or leave it," Ludden said.

Meanwhile, Facebook has provided highly engaged clients who are interested not just in the product, but also in its story, Ogg said.

Ogg's training told them the giftware market was vital, so Ludden launched simpler pieces to fit the under-$200 niche, such as his piwakawaka (fantails).

"Leveraged products" are being developed that require less time input but still create revenue.

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Guest potters, for example, will access Ludden's community of clients and cut him in on each sale.

One major input from Ogg was a specialty of her own company, LoveYourSmallBusiness.com: sourcing the perfect "virtual assistant" (VA), an online office manager who relieved Ludden of everyday administrative tasks.

Ogg's insights into the internet as a business tool for provincial and creative businesses have been decisive, lowering overheads, opening up new markets, and evening out the art business's notorious peaks and troughs.

The couple are also developing new strategic partnerships.

A percentage of the proceeds of each of Ludden's eels will go to an environmental cause, amounting to a win on all levels, Ogg said.

"His community grows, he gets sales, and we get to give back."

Ogg said the business is designed so that family time and creativity are not compromised.

"We're a real team, and now it's paying dividends," said Ludden.

THE NUMBERS

Ruru (owl): $690

Large tuna (eel): $490

Piwakawaka (fantail): $190

Teapot: $140

Cup, bowl: under $50

Time to produce one eel (making, drying, loading kiln and firing): One month

Average gallery mark-up: 45 per cent

Approximate income from direct Facebook sales (no mark-up) in five months: $3000

Original revenue streams: Events (festivals, shows, markets): 40%; galleries: 30%; studio door: 30%.

Current streams: Events: 30%; galleries: 20%; studio door: 20%; internet: 30%.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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