Had you asked me six years ago where I pictured myself in the middle of 2018, the answer definitely would not have been writing a blog post about leaving the business I had been a part of for the last five years. You probably would have received an answer something along the lines of continuing my science studies and ending up in that field, or quite probably I’d have done my Masters of Teaching and would now be teaching somewhere. Little did I know that as soon as I’d finished my science degree I’d jump headlong into the world of small business ownership with my wonderful mother, together bringing you the remarkable Polish and Irish pottery that as a reader of this blog, you no doubt love too.
I have always loved working with my hands; building, creating, fixing (breaking on occasion too, though not necessarily intentionally!) A pivotal moment in my thinking about how I might spend the rest of my working life came when Mum gave me a copy of Matthew Crawford's book "The Case for Working with your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for us and Fixing Things feels Good" (attempting the world's longest title?).
I’ve been thinking for some time about a career change, something more hands on. I started looking for apprenticeships with no real urgency, being quite picky about what roles I was applying for, knowing that I had plenty to do at the shop until I found the right job for my career change. I’d only looked for a couple of weeks before that role was almost handed to me on a silver platter so to speak. And so, I’ll no longer be at the shop full time as I have been for the past (nearly) five years. Don’t worry though, it will still be business as usual at The Cup and Mug. Heather will still be here, albeit with revised opening hours, and I’ll occasionally lend a hand on the weekends.
It has been a very interesting experience running the shop with Mum. There certainly have been hard times, notably, when we went to Ikea together and the whole thing nearly fell in a heap before even getting started. But lots and lots of good times too. I have learnt an incredible amount; about business, about myself, and about people. I’ll be off on my next adventure, but you may well see me at The Cup and Mug on certain weekends, and at special events.
When Tim and I started on this venture more than 5 years ago, people warned me that working with a family member was not always the best choice and I’m sure that in many cases it does ruin an otherwise good relationship. However, I can now say that working with Tim has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. He became not only my son but my business partner and close friend.
It has been a privilege to see my adult son at work - to feel astonished at how quickly and easily a ‘young thing’ develops new skills when they’re needed, adapts to less than ideal situations, deals with tricky customers, turns his hand to everything from manual labour, practical skills and cooking, to helping customers make aesthetically pleasing choices, photographing and writing for social media and rescuing his business partner when she has no idea about the technology she’s trying to use.
That’s not to say that we haven’t had our trying moments - the worst of which was our Ikea experience before we even got started, but in some ways it has probably been easier to sort things out with a family member because of the pre-existing strength of the relationship. The whole trying to teach an unwilling old dog new tricks on the digital technology front was also the catalyst for the exchange of some harsh words on numerous occasions.
I’m very sad to see him go but working together was probably never going to be forever. I’m thrilled that he’ll be working with his hands because this has long been his passion and area of natural skill. He’s always been happiest when making and repairing - fixing bikes, kayaks, cars and household fittings and objects, working with wood and most recently, turning his hand to clay throwing.
As well as all his practical skills and sound advice in the shop, I’ll sorely miss our daily word puzzles and philosophical discussions.
My former boss, Trish, was very fond of aphorisms, and used to say, “Don’t be sorry it’s over but be glad that it happened.” I often silently thank her for her wise words.
The Hobbs family at The Cup&Mug would like to wish you all a very happy, peaceful and fruitful 2018.
As many people do at this time of the year when the previous year has screeched to a halt and there is a moment of time to pause and reflect, we too have been thinking about the future and hatching plans to help us to grow and develop as a business and personally.
Over the course of the year we’ll gradually be implementing significant changes. Most obviously and immediately, we are no longer selling any food or drinks: just lots of pottery (we hope).
This is unbelievable, we know. In fact, we emailed the health department at the council to say we wouldn’t be renewing our permit and they obviously couldn’t believe it either – they rang just before Christmas and the conversation went something like this:
Heather: “Hi, Heather speaking.”
Council officer: “This is Joe Blogs from the City of Boroondara health department. I’m ringing about
your change of food premises status. You want to change your status?”
H: “No, we’re not renewing our permit. We’re not selling food or drink anymore, just pottery.”
C. O. “Coffee’s considered to be food. You’ll still need a permit.”
H: “No, we’re not selling coffee either - just pottery.”
C.O. “Oh, pottery. I thought you said coffee. We’ll cancel that then and someone will drop in to
physically check that is the case next year.”
Yes, not selling coffee, that is definitely unbelievable and so un-Melbourne. We’ll probably be reported to the relevant thought-police and have our reputations besmirched forever.
Seriously, we are sad about it because it was fun and we enjoyed being able to give customers cake and coffee and a quiet moment to sit while they gathered their thoughts. And scone days will be sorely missed - Heather does love making and serving scones and fresh homemade jam. Of course we had to force ourselves to do considerable taste-testing for quality assurance purposes. However, in terms of business it was not money or time well spent on shopping, cooking, cleaning, maintaining records and equipment etc.
Taking this step has enabled us to do a physical rearrangement of the store. Removing the café tables and chairs has allowed us to use more of our space to display pottery. We hope those of you who live close enough will be able to pop in soon to see the new look.
I’ve decided that the word “exciting” is the latest victim of over-use and blatant self-promotion.
It occurred to me very recently that I receive way too many messages via the internet that inform me of the immediate appearance of “exciting news” or an “exciting new” something. For example, this morning when I logged onto my internet banking, I was greeted with the following:
“Exciting news! Your desktop e-banking experience (including this page) will shortly be upgraded to a new modern platform.” Oh happy day - a new, modern banking platform! (LOL). I can’t for one moment imagine that I will ever be excited about my internet banking experience - in fact, I would feel my life had reached a new low if internet banking ever became a source of anticipated pleasure.
The philosophy behind this behaviour seems to be that if the promoter of the product can successfully convey their hyper-enthusiasm for whatever it is they’re spruiking, this enthusiasm will of course be transmitted (much like a virus) to the prospective consumer of the product, thus imbuing an otherwise very mundane experience with a spark of delight it doesn’t intrinsically contain. Of course, I could just be old and cynical.
However, I am now refraining from telling you that we are very excited about our new shipment which should be delivered in the next couple of weeks. (We are excited, as it’s such a rare occurrence it feels like Christmas, but I won’t mention it. There is also a sense of trepidation as there are always worries such as broken pieces).
So, stating it blandly, our new shipment is arriving very soon. We won’t be able to easily access everything immediately but if you do want anything in particular in the patterns and shapes that are coming please let us know and we will locate those boxes somewhere accessible.
Sometimes customers admire the small bowls but wonder aloud what they would use them for. These bowls are like many things - once you start using them you wonder what you ever did without them. Here are 11 suggestions to get you started but you'll think of many more.
We haven’t served soup at The Cup&Mug for 6 months now but with in the last few weeks we’ve turned away quite a number of people who had been looking forward to a hearty bowlful. Our vegetable soup received the highest accolade when a very sweet elderly lady told me she was 93 years old and hadn’t tasted soup so good since her grandmother and mother’s soup.
A bowl of this soup is a meal in itself and freezes well. To make a big pot full takes some time and effort but put some in the freezer and you have some pre-prepared meals for another day.
A recipe is definitely guidelines rather than rules - it points you in the general direction and you can then exercise your own judgement. However, there are a few ingredients that give this vegetable soup an edge. The secret is in the pearled barley and the swede and parsnip. The barley provides the texture and those two vegetables, the extra flavour.
Parsnip and swede are two very unfashionable root vegetables. In the 1960s in the depths of the Tasmanian winter when few vegetables were available, my mother served mashed swede as part of the standard healthy-but-unappetizing grilled meat and boiled vegetable main meal. It’s two appealing features were its availability and its low price. The downside was the taste.
However, while not having broad general appeal because of their individual taste, both swede and parsnip help make many slow-cooked savoury dishes such as soups, stews and casseroles very flavorsome. They are now at the more expensive end of vegetables because they are not common but it’s well worth paying the extra few dollars. Don’t be surprised if the person on the checkout asks you what they are.
Old-fashioned Vegetable Soup:
Combine the following ingredients in a large saucepan and cook for a couple of hours:
Heather: When I originally started down the pottery road I intended to wholesale to retail stores. However, I wasn’t thick skinned enough to shrug off the rejection of cold calling on business owners who didn’t like the product or more tactfully said it didn’t fit in with their style. So in the end, like the little red hen, I decide I would sell it myself then!
I intended to go to markets and events and sell online. Neither of those is as easy as they sound. The former because most quality markets and events won’t take us - we don’t meet their criteria of the products being made or designed by us. I’ve tried explaining that what we have is a unique, handmade product of the highest quality, but my powers of persuasion have never proven up to the task.
My business savvy friend Jasenka had made herself a free, very attractive looking website, using the Weebly platform and suggested I do the same. I foolishly dismissed this idea, saying that I needed something that was really professional.
I trawled the internet looking for businesses that built websites (I didn’t know they were called web-developers) and somehow found myself in a meeting in a trendy space in the city. I explained what I thought I was after and at the second meeting they showed me some beautiful pictures of what my website could look like. I’m sure they could tell I had no idea what I was doing and very little money. I was staggered at the quote - $22K. The kind girl who handled the administration obviously realized I was totally out of my depth and suggested I pay for their design and have someone else (recommended by her) build it for half the price. I took that suggestion, even though it was still way beyond my realistic budget.
I possibly wouldn’t have minded paying the money if the !#**xx@#$! website had worked properly. It never did. The landing page looked gorgeous but that was the extent of its appeal. It was very slow and awkward to use, it was full of glitches and there was so much we couldn’t change ourselves. However because we didn’t want to throw good money after bad trying to have it patched up, we struggled on for years.
I belatedly took Jasenka’s advice and made a couple of free websites, including thecupandmug.com so that we could have a tiny piece of cyberspace with easily up-dated information.
Tim: The moment I started building an online store for our range of Nicholas Mosse pottery - using Mum’s much loved Weebly, of course - it was obvious how much easier it was going to be to use this new website. It emphasised just how awkward the old website was both for us and for customers. We decided that it was time to cut our losses, ditch the professional website, and put the Polish Pottery on the new website too.
Snatching blocks of time here and there, within a few months we suddenly had by far the largest selection of pieces we have ever had available online. But it wasn’t published yet. The pareto principle was at play yet again - pushing on to the very end is always the hardest part.
DYI when you really don’t know what you’re doing, even if someone has tried their hardest to present you with a foolproof step-by-step process, is bound to have hiccups. More than a few choice words were uttered that I wouldn’t have even considered using in front of my lovely mother, before going into business with her. But that’s what ‘electronic bullshit’ (as a favourite author of mine calls it) will do to you!
A little knowledge can be a dangerous and frustrating thing. Too many things were just not straightforward. How to transfer the old email to the new email host but keep the old name and have no changeover gap? The same with the domain hosting. Once we published the new website there was still cause for more than a little anxiety, as things take a while to propagate through the wide expanse that is the internet.
There were times when the new website would show up, and times when the old one would, and times where an error page would show. Sometimes it would appear properly on one device but not on another. Finally, a very, very long 48 hours later, the new website was there in cyberspace, for all to see, and functioning as it should. Or so we thought.
The website’s security certificate wasn’t playing nicely with some search engines. Accessing the website directly worked fine, but not if you used a search engine and clicked the link to our site you saw a security error notification, telling you to return to safety! Not a good look when you‘re hoping to sell things on said website.
More swearing ensued, as I’m sure you can imagine. Mum tip-toed around me very carefully for days. She suggested on more than one occasion that we pay one of our IT professional friends to help sort us out. Cue my Shakespearian character flaw; independence. Asking for help isn’t something that comes easily or naturally to me. Surely I could figure out ‘the internet’. But does it need WD40, duct tape, or a bigger hammer? A very helpful Weebly support team member came to the rescue, and eventually everything was as it should be.
Finally we have a much much better website. Its front page isn’t quite as inviting as the old one, but that seems to be its only comparative failure.
In one of my more philosophical moments, I decided that with sufficient motivation, you can learn just about anything. The new website certainly felt like more trouble than it was worth at times. But persisting with the old one wasn’t an option. And paying someone to build a new one, well, we weren’t going to close our eyes and stab in the dark again. So with that in mind, I had to learn a lot about websites, domains, hosts, dns forwarding, security certificates, embedding code, and a whole lot more too. It’s still ‘electronic bullshit’, but I’d do it all again if I had to - when it works out, Do-It-Yourself feels very satisfying.
p.s. If you have feedback about using the website we'd love to hear from you.
Many of you will be aware that at the end of last year we closed our kitchen and now only serve a range of beverages and homemade sweet treats. We made this decision because our core business is bringing you beautiful, unique handmade pottery. However, an extremely disproportionate percentage of our time and energy went into our tiny food offerings. Cooking, cleaning, serving & shopping for such a small scale operation was not financially viable and kept us from our main goals.
People’s reactions to this news have been very interesting. We heard the whole spectrum of responses: positive, negative, upset, disappointed-but-understanding, disappointed-and-baffled, bewildered and so forth. Here are a few of the various responses;
This disparate range of responses made me reflect on how and why something so innocuous could have produced such a breadth of diametrically opposed views. Mum and I discussed these various perspectives at some length. We found it an interesting example of the way we all perceive the world through the lens of our own situation, needs and experience. No matter how unbiased we think we are, we are unlikely to ever be entirely objective in how we view our surroundings. I guess this is just part of being human. Everything would be a bit boring wouldn’t it if we all liked that same things, had the same priorities, the same views and had the same outlook on life.
As hard as it is to admit, maybe our beautiful Polish Pottery and lovely Nicholas Mosse Pottery isn’t as objectively wonderful as we think? Although if you are reading this blog, I think you might agree with us - that it truly is fantastic!
Many of you have noticed the tips jar at the shop, which was named ‘Tim’s pottery wheel fund’. Last year Mum bought me a term of pottery lessons for Christmas. It was, as much as anything, for us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the actual processes that turned a lump of clay into the pieces we sell in the shop. It is all well and good to know something in theory but having a hands on knowledge is quite a different matter.
I was hooked. Lessons are great but practice is the key to perfecting any newly acquired skill. So, a couple of months ago now, I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and buy a pottery wheel. My beautiful wheel arrived, shiny and new. But not for long, clay has a tendency to get everywhere, if you let it.
When learning any skill, you have days where you seemingly can do no wrong, and others where nothing goes right. There is also the sporadic nature of a hobby to contend with, grabbing snippets of time where you can.
It starts with the clay of course, too soft and you can’t shape it without it collapsing; too hard and you are really fighting to control it. Once the pot is thrown, it needs to dry a bit, to what is called ‘leather hard’ so that the pot can be trimmed and cleaned up, and attachments like handles and spouts can be added. Too wet still and the clay will collapse, deform and lose it’s shape; too dry and it will blunt the trimming tools, possibly crumble while being handled, and handles and spouts will crack after applying as they will then dry at a different rate to the body of the pot.
Next up is drying the pot out completely so it can have its first firing. It needs to be completely dry, or else it will at best crack, but it may even explode in the kiln if it isn’t dry all the way through. When using a shared kiln service (Thanks Northcote Pottery!) you definitely don’t want your pot to explode - you’ll likely ruin other people’s work, and probably won’t get to fire there again, not to mention potentially causing more than a just few dollars worth of damage to the kiln.
All in all, it’s not really a big hurdle to make sure things are dry, but I have a restricted window of time each week when I am able to drop pots off or collect from the firing service. It can become quite a juggle! Combine that with a one to two week wait for the work to be fired, and time can quickly disappear.
Of course, as always, I’ve started down that slippery slope of one thing leading to another. I am starting to feel that I need a kiln of my own.
The part that is most frustrating for me, is the amount of time that elapses between starting a piece and ending up with the final product. I need to produce a certain number of pieces in order to make a trip to the pottery for a firing worthwhile (I’m pretty ruthless with what will get fired, clay can be recycled all the way up to the first firing), getting through the first firing, decorating and glazing and then a final firing.
Making pieces while the previous ones are away for a firing is a recipe for repeating mistakes, but I don’t want to sit idly waiting to see the results of the latest firings either!
The trickiest bit though - I haven’t renamed the tips jar yet. ‘Tim’s pottery supplies fund’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, nor does ‘Tim’s kiln fund’ come to think of it. Mum has suggested The Fiery Furnace Fund.
We’ve all been aggravated at some time by something we acknowledge as trivial. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t get upset over something that in the grand scheme of things is so insignificant. But because it goes against the core of who we are – the attitudes and values that are at the centre of our personalities, we essentially don’t want to overlook an incident that feels like an act of blatant disrespect.
At the back of our shop we have 3 car parking spaces. They don’t constitute a specifically designed and built car park, but we’re on a corner and by driving slightly on the nature-strip and footpath, the single crossover allows access to all three. We usually have a vehicle parked in the hardest to access spot and the other two are left for customers. Our kitchen window looks out onto the side street and the carpark.
We weren’t specifically looking for premises with parking but it has been very handy. If you come some distance to visit us, you need to be able to park. However, way too often, members of the general public also decide it’s very handy, park their car (always in the best spot) and disappear for the day.
We hadn’t been in possession of the property very long at all before a car appeared and stayed for days. Eventually I rang the local police who traced the owner. The owner explained that she’d been driving to the airport to go on a holiday, had a small accident and left the car. This sounded very strange as the car seemed undamaged.
A ute appeared which turned out to be the landlord who was working next door. He did know his legal rights (or otherwise), said he knew he was completely in the wrong, apologised profusely, apology accepted and that was the end of the matter.
We put signs up specifying that the parking spots are for the use of Cup&Mug customers. When I ordered these signs I asked for “Customer Parking” but to my chagrin, received “Customers Parking”. Regardless, the message is still the same.
We’re closed on Monday and Tuesday but every Tuesday afternoon when one of us arrived to do some work there would be a particular car parked in the “good” spot. One day as I was leaving, the owner of the car was also about to leave. We offer after hours pottery sales by appointment, so I disingenuously asked if she was wanting to buy some pottery. She replied that she was parked there because she knew we aren’t open on Monday or Tuesday and drove off.
Very recently a car was parked in the “good” spot from before 9am. In the early afternoon I put a note on the windscreen. The note was to the effect that this is not a public car park, rather it is for the exclusive use of customers shopping at The Cup&Mug and we would appreciate it if they would respect this in future.
I just happened to see the person return to their car later in the afternoon and decided to go and speak to them. The gentleman concerned was quite defensive, saying that he is a customer of mine. He reminded me that he had just moved to the area and had come last week for a drink. He said he had intended to come regularly but now doesn’t feel welcome and told me that business needs to be a two- way relationship.
What? A $3.80 cup of soy latte entitles you to use one of our scare parking spots whenever you feel like it (of course I didn’t actually say that, just thought it). I did point out that by his parking there, customers carrying pottery had to walk further. He said he hadn’t realised that and we parted on very sour terms.
The parking episode that takes the cake happened on a recent Tuesday. When I arrived with supplies for the shop, I was confronted by this view of the car park. The large vehicle doesn’t even fit without over-hanging the entire footpath.
It is easy be annoyed by these incidents which are really no more than opportunistic displays of bad manners and to take for granted the vast majority of people who are courteous and use the carpark as it is intended.
We had one reasonably frequent customer ask if he could leave his car in the car park for a few hours while he went to the city on the tram. Of course we said that’s fine.
We’ve had people say as they’re leaving the shop that they’re just going for a walk in the park before going home and is it ok to leave their car where it is? Of course it is.
I recently noticed a customer who had parked in the car park while in The Cup&Mug, then moved his car to the street and walked over to the park with his son. How thoughtful of others was that?
It is usually seemingly small differences in values and attitudes encountered at very close range that annoy us most. A much bigger issue which we observe as an outsider is a lot easier to dismiss. It is easy to tell ourselves, we’re not rude, racist, judgemental, or intolerant when we’re not in direct conflict, when we’re looking on from a distance. But when we’re brought nose-to-nose with an attitude we think is wrong and disrespects us it is much harder to turn the other cheek. In fact, there are times when we ignore something that seems small and we live to regret this. It grows into something bigger and we wish we’d nipped it in the bud.
You’ve heard us say it before, but we’re continually surprised by the unexpected things that pop into the life of a shop-keeper.
The Cup and Mug
The adventures of a small business (more interesting than we would have ever guessed!)