How One Woman Turned Her Ceramics Hobby Into a Thriving International Success
You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series, Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes in their lives.
Courtesy of Mud Australia
When you allow your rational brain to take over, there are so many reasons you should stay on your current career path. Leaving a steady job means financial insecurity and taking a gamble that your business idea will be a success. It's not an easy decision but if there's one thing we've learned from our Second Life series—and our podcast by the same name—this year, it's that the risk is worth it. One woman who took that leap is Shelley Simpson, founder of internationally renowned ceramics company Mud Australia.
The idea for Mud first sparked when she was working as a restaurant manager. Pottery was simply a side hobby, a passion project that she enjoyed doing in her spare time. Hearing her story makes you realise that dreams really do come true and only good things can come from allowing them to manifest into reality—that and a whole lot of grit too. Read on and be inspired by Simpson's incredible career change advice and start nurturing your small ideas into a fulfilling business.
Tell us about your first career path.
Before starting Mud, I was playing in bands, acting and unwittingly waitressing and managing restaurants. I wasn’t really driven until I started my own business. I left the hospitality industry in 1993. The company I was working for really led me to form an understanding of all the aspects that surround hospitality and restaurants, from food prep to plating. I learned the rigors that a plate goes through, and what is needed for it to survive.
How did you make the transition from restaurant management to pottery? What triggered your need to change?
Pottery was a hobby I had while working for a company that owned a chain of restaurants and theaters. I applied to be the assistant manager of one of the theaters and didn’t get the job. I was really disheartened as I truly believed I would get the role. At that point, I was already making my own ceramics and decided that I’d work for myself. I thought that it would be really easy (it wasn’t). I had assistance from a local government small business program—an educational initiative that helped me learn about starting a business. To apply, I had to write a clear business plan. During this time, I took on a role as a nanny to support myself while I got the business started.
Tell us about your current career path/business. What's involved in starting a business?
Everything is always harder than you think. It’s never easy, particularly in a creative business. My career path is 25 years long, and it is still not easy. But it is incredibly rewarding, and I get to do what I choose to do every day.
In retrospect, one of the most important aspects of starting a business is having a clear business plan and enough funding. I had barely any funding to start Mud, and that was a real challenge that created monetary stress for a long time.
What have been the biggest challenges in your many careers and why?
There are always transitions that come with a growing career. Employing my first staff member was a big change. I realized I was now responsible for paying someone else’s rent as well as my own. That feeling never changes. Mud now employs over 80 people, and payroll always has to be there. Being a creative person, the most challenging aspect has always been the financial side of the business. You just want to be creative, but you also have to learn about money.
Another big challenge was learning how to take Mud to the other side of the world—both figuratively and literally. I had to figure out how to introduce my product to new markets while also figuring out how to physically transport my wares without them breaking. I still have the giant trunk I used to cart around the U.S. while knocking on doors trying to get my products into the market.
Another challenge is compliance and making sure that you’re obeying all the right things in all the right markets.
Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
Since finding the career path that I really wanted to do, I have a huge amount of energy to do it. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like work; it’s just what I do. It has become an intrinsic part of who I am. I genuinely love spending time with people. Through Mud I have a huge extended family from our staff to our wholesale accounts. I’ve created a huge network of friends around the world. Because of my business, I have been able to travel and connect with so many people.
Bringing pleasure to other people’s lives, the handmade nature of personally making something, that goes to other people who enjoy it and communicate that back to me—it’s a complete circle. The gratification of the first original piece I made is constantly coming back to me.
What's the most important thing you have learned about making a big change in your career life?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that being a business owner and director comes with a lot of responsibility. Additionally, learning to hand over tasks has been quite difficult. You have to find a balance between nurturing the work of others while insisting on the necessary quality work that protects everyone within my business.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I think changing from one job to another—and changes in life in general—can be very healthy. When I left the hospitality industry, I really knew that it was time to leave. I did not have a huge amount of fear because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was excited; the fear came later.
I learned very early on to always do the hardest task first thing in the day. It always makes the day simpler and much easier. Ripping the Band-Aid off is always the best practice.
Approach challenges with the knowledge that what you bring is real and valuable. It helps to have very clear moral and business parameters.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success? How did you learn from it/them?
The first time I was in the U.S., a friend introduced me to a buyer at a department store, who was also Australian. I organized to meet with him, and when I showed up with my huge box of pots, I was told, "You have five minutes." I knew I couldn’t unpack my box within the five minutes, so instead of trying, I decided to leave.
I left feeling really down. While walking, I came across a sign for Bergdorf Goodman. I decided to call them and managed to get through to the buyer. She had a look at my website and ended up placing a $25K order. The lesson I learned was to know when something isn’t right or doesn’t feel right. There’s always something better around the corner.
What do you love most about your current role and why?
I love the people and coming in first thing and opening the kilns. I love making beautiful products that enhance people’s lives.
What advice do you have for other women who want to branch out and make a change in their lives as you have?
The journey, although rewarding, is always hard. But if you love something, and if you believe in what you are doing, you will always be rewarded. You have to be authentically passionate about what you do. I am not a great salesperson, but I really believe in what I do, which is infectious. Don’t be afraid to have a family. I was 30 when I started the business, 32 when I had my daughter Violette, and 38 when I had my son Spencer. I never wanted to stop what I was doing.
Shop some of our favorite Mud Australia pieces below: