Cindy Pacileo has a long-established craft business, hand building charming ceramic Little Guys for the past 38 years. She shares what makes her business tick and what she’s learned along the way.
ABI: You took the Arts Business Institute workshop after 30 years in business. What did you learn?
CP: The workshop I attended about nine years ago at Haywood Tech in North Carolina included a masterful combination of presenters and topics that addressed the concerns of an artist just starting to craft a business and, much to my delight, also addressed the situations I was facing after 30 years as a production craftsperson.
I was at a turning point when I attended the Arts Business Institute workshop. I had just begun to market a new line of ceramic sculptures in a new theme and at a new price point. I was captivated by the possibilities of this new line but also concerned about production and marketing questions. I came to ABI with my mind open.
At ABI I found new thoughts about pricing—not just how much I need to earn on each piece to cover my expenses this year, but how much more I need to earn to achieve the stability which would allow me to ride out tough times and keep growing. Little did I know how soon this would be tested as the marketplace shifted!
The artists’ stories about their own paths were fascinating to me. These paths wandered through retail, wholesale, new lines that fizzled or took off, projects abandoned when life circumstances changes and opportunities that opened up in their place. I found confirmation of what I had already learned about the process of creating and marketing and also new twists of thought that have made a difference to my relationships with my customers and my clay.
ABI: How did you become interested in using animal themes in your work?
CP: Growing up, I was the kid who always had a frog in one hand and a bug in the other. I was happiest exploring in the creek or walking in the woods with my family. When the time came to choose a major in college, I had difficulty choosing between art and biology. I chose art, but audited biology courses when I could. My concentration was in drawing and printmaking.
After college and a short stint as a commercial artist, I took a job as the Director of The Station, a small community Art Center in Loveland, Ohio. Among my many tasks was teaching a variety of art courses to the folks in Loveland. I had taken just enough ceramics to feel competent teaching handbuilding to kids.
Little did I suspect then that the mud-love that grew as I worked with those kids would bloom into a career that has now spanned 38 years! And that on this path I would find that spot where what I love to do successfully merges with what the world wants to own.
Over the years, I’ve stretched my clay into two-foot-tall giraffes and have covered many a fat raccoon with hundreds of clay coil hairs. For several years I made more grinning garden frogs than I ever would have thought possible. Always lurking among my larger animal sculptures were the Little Guys—at first only frogs, elephants, cats and pigs, but soon giraffes, dogs and birds found their way in.
Now I make a whole menagerie. Little Guys gradually took over more and more of my production time, finally edging out my larger animals completely when the joys and duties of being a new mom were more important to me than spending every evening in my studio finishing the large sculptures I had started earlier in the day.
For me, Little Guys are a nearly perfect combination of artistic energy, craftsmanship and market fit. I can make their simple shapes over and over again in my hands without the complication of a mold distancing me from the clay. The spark of personality I pop into each animal energizes me and keeps me connected to that animal.
I don’t get tired of the process because I’m always challenging myself to improve my designs and to try new animals. The marketplace loves animals. But it doesn’t need a dog breed collectible figurine, perfect in every detail but without life. Little Guys are always fresh and alive, each one bursting with its own personality.
ABI: How did you use your designs to open ocean resort and other niche markets?
CP: I live in the beautiful Blue Ride Mountains of North Carolina near the town of Boone. We are blessed with an abundance of tourists each year. I’ve seen firsthand how quickly a good-sized inventory can sell out over a peak season weekend. I’ve also realized just how much our visitors love to take home a reminder of the animals they’ve seen here. Combining these two local experiences has helped me to design and market to other resort and tourist areas.
First, I listen to which animals the buyers ask for. I’m willing to take orders for animals popular in their region at no extra design cost. Sometimes I find that I can’t produce the requested animal for my wholesale price, but more often this design challenge opens up a new market for me.
How else would I have learned that a mermaid cat would sell, and that a mermaid pig would sell even better in the south? If the designs are successful in one shop, they will often work in other shops with similar needs. I have been able to extend my market from traditional galleries and craft shops to include shops with a pet theme, wildlife and nature centers, birding shops, animal rescue shops and museum shops.
Second, I keep enough inventory of each design on hand to be able to fill most orders within a week. For my tourist area shops in their peak seasons, I try to fill orders the next day. The quicker I get my work into a shop, the better chance it has to find an owner, and the sooner I get another order. Shops with a short summer season especially appreciate quick shipping. And my cash flow is happy, too.
Third, I drop ship for no extra cost than the shipping. My color catalog sheets show 120 animals without prices, allowing a shop owner to show customers more of my work than they have in stock.
ABI: How often do you update and refine your line?
CP: Whenever I get a new idea!! At least once a week I squeeze a new design into my production schedule. It’s part of what keeps me fresh.
I hire a photographer to take professional shots of all my new designs once a year in November to produce a new four-page color catalog for my winter wholesale shows and do a major update of my website. But since I’m always designing, I photograph the newbies periodically myself and add them to my website and order form. In addition to my January catalog mailing to the shops and galleries I sell to regularly and to all who have inquired about my work during the past year, I create postcards featuring new designs and mail them to my shops before the summer tourist and the Christmas buying seasons.