Marc Lemieux owns Black Dog Pottery (https://www.blackdogpottery.ca) in downtown Kingston and is a member of the Kingston Potter’s Guild. I chatted with him over zoom on Thursday, October 15th to talk about investing in a start-up, cherishing the advantages of owning your own business and the importance of always seeking out new learning opportunities. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Elizabeth Lee (EL): To start off, can you tell me a little bit about Black Dog pottery and why you started your business?
Marc Lemieux (ML): I’ve been here 21 years now, and originally, I got into pottery out of luck. I took a class with a girlfriend in university and I didn’t do it for [the next] few years. Then, I was looking for a hobby so I joined [The Kingston Potter’s Guild] and just started enjoying it more and more. The more I did it, the more I liked it, so then I started taking workshops in different places. After four or five years, I decided I wanted to do this full time. At the time, I had a construction business, and so I needed some time to improve. Then I went out West and did a degree in fine arts and ceramics in Vancouver. And then I came back here and set up my shop.
EL: I read in the bio on your store’s website that the year before you opened your store, you spend a lot of time “hunkered down in your parents’ basement”. I get the impression that that was a year of a lot of hard work and determination in preparation for opening your studio. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the challenges you had to face during that time?
ML: [During that time,] I was lucky that my parents were selling their house, so they weren’t there. The agreement was that when I came back, if I took care of the house, paid the taxes and the utilities, I could live there. Slowly, I built up a body of work.
I wanted to find the right storefront that I could afford, and I couldn’t afford new equipment—I had two student loans at that point–but I did know how to fix the equipment and things like that. The first year, it was hard, because I was by myself—my parents were away—and I was getting established at galleries so I was producing a lot of work. When you’re in school, it’s great, but you can afford to spend a lot of time on a single piece. When you go through the gallery system at first, it’s hard because you’re giving up a large percentage [of your profits]. I was trying to kind of balance efficiency with being creative and making top quality work.
So, I’d say that the first year in my parents’ basement it was just a lot of long hours. I was working construction on the side, just to keep paying bills and pick up equipment. I was doing anything, pretty much. I was shoveling my neighbours’ driveway like I did when I was a kid, because it was twenty-five bucks cash for an hour’s work. That would just go right into my bucket to open a storefront.
I knew I wanted a storefront, and not an industrial workspace. I wanted to be able to talk to people and see humanity. That was one thing that working in my parent’s house for the year taught me: I didn’t want to be isolated. A lot of artists like to be isolated, they like to work in a studio and focus. I like to see people, and sunshine, and talk to people as well. I realized I don’t want to work at home, and I appreciate human contact so I’d rather work in a shared space, or a storefront type of situation.
EL: Starting a business is a big financial risk, on top of already having to pay off student loans. What was it like knowing you were having to put a lot of money into something that you weren’t sure was going to be successful, in addition to already having chosen and paid to get a degree in pottery?
ML: I guess my approach was to not invest a lot. In a business, you have to make some minimal investments, but I knew from my experience in construction that not everything you buy is going to build your business—if you buy a new truck, it doesn’t make you more money than your old truck. You just have a new truck. To me, to buy a new kiln that might be three or four thousand dollars, taking out a loan didn’t make sense, which is why I’d buy an old kiln for a hundred dollars and fix it up. I’ve always tried to kind of minimize the layout so then there’s less risk. Some people would go the opposite way and say, “Get top end equipment, get everything new, throw a bunch of money into the start-up,” but in my case, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.
And I had the benefit of knowing that I could work in construction still. The reason I came back to Kingston was because it was where all my friends were—I grew up here—so, if I needed some money, I could easily call up a friend and say “Do you need a hand for two weeks?” For the first couple years I had the store I was balancing the two. My store was open from Wednesday to Saturday, and then I would work on the side, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. As the scales tipped and I could afford to just work in my shop, that’s what I did.
EL: When the scales did tip, and you were finally able to just work at your store, how did that feel? Was it rewarding?
ML: I mean, it’s wonderful. But it’s also super challenging, though. I think the biggest thing that I like about having my own business is knowing that the decisions I make are my decisions. For good, or for bad. I make lots of mistakes, but I can’t point the finger at anybody and I can accept responsibility for that. But also, I like that when I make good decisions, and I know I put in the work, and things work out, it’s exceptionally rewarding.
When I first started, the hardest part was trying to make things you like, and, because it’s my income, try to make things I like that will sell. Sometimes I get this brilliant idea that I realize wasn’t so brilliant because nobody else liked it except me. [Laughs] To me, the real reward of an entrepreneur is knowing that your destiny is in your own hands, for better or for worse, but there’s no blame to scatter, and if things work out, that’s your own victory.
EL: Is there a vision for the future that you work toward, or anything else that motivates you when times are difficult or you just are encountering challenges?
ML: One thing I’m big on is still learning. All throughout my years, I’ve always continued to take workshops with other potters that I admire. Now with the advent of more computers—when I graduated computers weren’t really a thing—I’ve taken a lot of online courses, I’ve taken some ceramic engineering materials courses through the states, there’s a lot more access to information, and that really keeps me interested and gets me fired up.
There’s a whole world out there that didn’t really exist fifteen years ago, and I kind of ignored, and now I’ve kind of gone the opposite way where I’m in a bunch of glaze research [and other] Facebook groups, and things like that. It’s really beneficial that you can reach out to your peers and things like that. Right now, I’m just loving that. I’m actually spending more time on glaze chemistry than I do on actually making pots, because that’s just what I love doing right now. I think it’s just important to keep changing and evolving as things change, to keep your interest up.
EL: Do you think you’ve gained or improved on any skills since becoming an entrepreneur, and why have they been important to your business?
ML: I think I’ve definitely learned to manage my time a lot better. I’ve learned how to find a balance work with the rest of my life, which is quite nice. I don’t know if in the beginning you can really do that, unless you have a whole whack of money to start out with. But I certainly make sure I enjoy the aspects of my work that are available to me.
You know, you work really hard, you get really tired you get frustrated, but then I just step back a minute and think: “Well wait a minute. Sure, I have to work late, but my dog is here. And I can play some music. And I’m doing something I really like. I don’t have to deal with meetings or bosses or anything like that.” I’m a lot better at, when I’m tired, taking a step back and recognizing why I do what I do. That just makes my whole life a lot more enjoyable.
When you’re an entrepreneur, there’s a lot of long days. It’s a tough way to go, especially in the beginning, and I think it’s important to remind yourself why you’re doing it, and to take advantage of the benefits of being an entrepreneur.
EL: Just before we wrap up, is there any advice that you would have for an aspiring entrepreneur?
ML: I can only speak to what I do, but the basic thing in the back of my head in a lot of cases is to always write it down. It’s great to think “I want to be a potter.” The minute you write it down, you suddenly start thinking, well how am I going to be a full-time potter? And then you start thinking, if I’m going to be a full-time potter, what kind of full-time potter? As you write things down, it helps to build up your thoughts. I think that when you just think of an idea, “I’d love to have a storefront!” It’s not tangible. It’s just an idea. The minute you start writing it down, you start making a plan. I think it’s important to have a plan, when you’re starting out, especially.
And the other side of that is to do the math, and figure out if your plan is viable. And If you’re not sure, ask your friends, ask your family, say, “Take a look—here’s my idea.” It doesn’t matter if it’s making t-shirts, or pottery, or what all, does this sound like it’s viable. And get advice from people who are good at what they do.
And I think it’s important to know what you’re good at, but it’s really important to know what you’re not good at. And don’t just shelve those things, but get help on them and learn about them. If you’re not good with books and math, get some advice from a friend who is, and spend a week learning how to do your own books. And that will save you money every year you’re in business, you’ll save five hundred dollars.
So, I think that you should write down your plan, don’t be afraid to show it around, and get people’s advice—people have lots of great ideas. If there’s a part of your business you aren’t adept at, either learn how to do it or get someone who is.