POTTER DAWN MIDDLETON MOVES UP TO MAIN STREET
Dawn Middleton grew up in Prince Edward County but cheerfully admits she left as soon as she could, to go to school. She attended OCAD and Sheridan College, and eventually earned a Master’s Degree in ceramics sculpture from Waterloo University. She returned to the County with her family in 2014, and in 2017 built a small pottery studio – the first Ye11ow Studio – in the garden. Dawn felt it was all she would ever need, but three years later she had outgrown it. “Working from home was great,” she says, “and with no big overheads, I could reinvest in the business and even hire help. It was a safe space to take chances, build up my product lines and test the market.” But with a part-time employee, a summer student and lots of visitors who she liked to show around the place, the 350 square foot space grew crowded.
“I couldn’t do much more without having more space, so I thought hard about what I want for the future, and how I could finance it.” That’s when she called Sandy Abbott in a panic. Moving to a bigger space involves a lot of expenses, right down to buying an industrial-sized mop bucket! “My main considerations were what did I want my business to look like, how would it affect my family, how much time could I put in? What did I really want?” One thing she had wanted since she was a little girl was her own shop on Main Street, but she never thought it would become a reality.
THE UNEXPECTED PANDEMIC
Reno work began in Spring 2020, and so did the Covid crisis. “When Doug Ford said all commercial construction had to stop we had the Wentworth carpentry team here and a 20-foot hole in the front. No window or door, just plywood and an orange tarp between me and the street,” she shudders. “The guys had to put down their tools and leave for an indefinite time, and I stood there feeling lost. I was paying for a space I couldn’t use. Like every other County business I had timelines in my head of how things would work this year, and they were blown to smithereens. It was scary and we did a lot of soul searching. I thought maybe I could teach, but that wasn’t possible. I could maybe fall back on my bartending skills, but everywhere was closed.”
ART ON THE PLYWOOD
“We were anxious and worried and in the same boat as everybody else in business here, but when a mural started by local artist Nella Casson appeared on our big piece of plywood it lifted our spirits,” she recalls. “It was an amazing use of public space and brought colour and life to a gloomy time.”
THE RENO RESUMES
“The guys came back as soon as they could, and we did manage to open, but it was a heck of a time,” she says. “I had planned to start slow, ease into the season in March and April. My interns were supposed to arrive end of April but obviously they couldn’t, and when construction started again it was a big crazy rush. I certainly couldn’t use the space, but I had my home studio and thank goodness I’d ordered materials and got delivery before the shut-down. Some people were not so lucky, but I had materials and a place to work and I was able to get my products going.”
Since the Sheridan College interns arrived in mid-June, The Ye11ow Studio has been open every day. “It’s been quite a learning period. I’d never worked in retail before. I thought it would be similar to restaurant work, but it’s not! It’s harder to fill shelves myself than if I just bought stuff in, so thank goodness for my employee Vanessa Molyneaux who is the brains of this operation. She organizes the heck out of me. Without her I’d be like a bull in a china shop, pun intended.”
The Ye11ow Studio occupies 1,400 square feet on the main floor behind a shop front that is so dramatically altered it’s hard to recall what was there before. “We built a little jump out in the wall for stairs to the upper floor which made the size of the shop front perfect. That big flat window intimidated me.” Instead they created two small bow windows with the eye-catching yellow door in the middle. She loves it.
A 16 x 24 foot retail space is up front, then the cash desk, then a 20 x 20 foot studio space. “Open concept is very important to me, it was part of my business plan,” she says. “When we are out of the Covid days, people can walk through my workspace, see me working and talk about pottery. People love to say ‘I bought this from the artist, and she was right there working.’ I sometimes forget how magical the process is, so it’s good to be reminded, and I love chatting with people.” At the back is a glazing area and kiln room with three electric kilns.
Dawn is enjoying mentoring her interns. “They bring fresh energy. They have some knowledge and are hungry for more. I wish we’d had internships when I was at school. It’s a good introduction to the business side of being an artist, and working in a real production studio is great experience for students.” Dawn recalls OCAD and Waterloo were focused on the theory and philosophy of art and craft, but Sheridan included a business course to help prepare students for the art of making a living.
What resources and support did she tap into as a business owner in Prince Edward County? “I got an EODP Grant from Community Futures Prince Edward Lennox & Addington (PELA CFDC) to help upgrade one of my kilns and buy a second wheel, which in turn meant I could hire someone, because now I had equipment they could use. The grant covered 50% of the cost, and they even covered 50% of some extra charges I didn’t know about so hadn’t asked for.”
Sandy Abbott, the Small Business Counsellor contracted by the Municipality, reviewed Dawn’s revised Business Plan and talked about ideas for relocation, all in confidence and at no cost, and Dawn also got an Arts Council grant for professional development. That enabled her to buy a ticket for a training course, get a hotel room and cover some of her travel costs. “It was an outstanding course, and with the grant I was able to take Vanessa, who has become really important to my business,” she says. “To expand I knew I had to learn extra stuff, and this course really helped.”
ENTREPRENEURS & ADVICE
How does Dawn feel about County entrepreneurs, especially women? “I think the majority of small businesses are owned and run by women, which is amazing. There is great camaraderie and help from businesses throughout the County and a lot of cross promotion, not just among the women. It’s less about competition and more about helping each other and keeping our communities vibrant.” As an example, a customer came in recently saying she had been sent there by another shop in another town where the owner had told her, oh you should go to The Ye11ow Studio for that! “She was surprised a competitor would do that, but really it’s just great customer service,” says Dawn. “People remember that.”
What advice would Dawn offer to someone starting or expanding a business in the County? “Talk to people already in their industry here. Meet as many people as possible and ask lots of questions,” she says. “People are very willing to help, and, being a small community, you hear things like ‘Oh Bob could probably do that for you.’ We’re not as Google-able as bigger places, so you learn a lot from making personal relationships, and you can reach out to people and know someone’s got your back.”
STAYING IN BUSINESS
With so many businesses closing within two or three years, what does Dawn think is the secret to survival? “Do a lot of market research beforehand, narrow down what will sell your business, focus on what is unique about you. Sometimes you have to take your heart out of it a little,” she says a little ruefully. “You have to compromise a bit, cater to what’s in demand, and that’s not such a bad thing. I know what items sell well and I make sure I have them in stock. But I was feeling a little uninspired in the middle of summer and decided I wanted to make air plant holders which are a niche kind of thing. I just did it, and it felt pretty rewarding. You’ve got to find a balance in retail.”
Dawn strongly advises starting with used equipment. She did, and she still can’t quite believe she has a new kiln, she says because, “a) I never thought I’d be busy enough to need three kilns, and b) I never thought I’d be able to afford it.” Working somewhere without big overheads helps, doing research and testing products on customers and online, too. Dawn found social media useful to test products and target markets.
Market conditions and customers are one factor, but knowing yourself is another. “Ask, is this really me?” she says. “Can I do it differently? I love this design but could I make it more user friendly, or just quit doing stuff that takes up too much time? If it fits your business philosophy and personality, keep going. But if it’s not enjoyable or labour intensive and not paying off, stop, because it doesn’t make sense. “That’s not to say don’t spend time on special things, but understand they are for customers who appreciate what’s gone into them and are willing to pay their value,” she says. “You have to balance things out. I want a consistent aesthetic in my store, so even if I bring in something made by someone else it has to reflect my core values, it has to have the vibe I want for my business.”
Dawn Middleton believes it’s important to figure out who YOU are, and what you can put into a business – what time do you have? what do you do best? “Focus on your strengths,” she says, “but be willing and able to pivot, too. If this is not working, try doing that instead. If that doesn’t work, it might be time to make a decision. Have your line in the sand.”
Expanding is not easy, nor is changing or relocating a business – but it is exciting, as long as you are prepared. “It’s good to have a five-year plan and a backup plan for if things go wrong,” she says. “Know how much debt you’re prepared to take on and don’t go beyond that. It can be scary. You can put yourself in financial trouble if you’re not careful. The unexpected can happen, just look at us! But it should be fun and positive and a learning experience because if it’s not, why do it?”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.