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Meet a Mentor - Ed & Margaret Burke

Published: March 2008

Deborah O’Hara studied Glass and Ceramics at Birmingham Polytechnic in 1986, going on to teach the same subject at a College of Art and Design in Cheshire. “The problem was that the job was only part time,” she says, “so it was not financially viable for me. Since then I have never found a job where I have been able to use the skills I love and studied so hard for.” Deborah’s goal has always been to start up her own glass business, but she says “I’ve not had the opportunity, property or expertise in setting up a craft business. When I began looking at business plans and what they entailed I became disillusioned as to what I would actually put into one!” Now Deborah’s circumstances have changed a little and she would like to try to start her own glass business. “Recently I met a potter who suggested I should look at Ed and Margaret’s website,” she continues. “I became intrigued about their expertise, what they produce in glass and how they originally started up their business.”

The craft&design Meet a Mentor day was an ideal opportunity for Deborah to ask Ed and Margaret lots of questions!

D: I find it very daunting, setting up a new business on my own. What did it take financially to start up your business?

E&M: You must bear in mind that it was twenty years ago, in December 1987, and so the actual amounts need to be adjusted for 2008. (Ed: the equivalent today would be about double the 1987 figures). We borrowed £10,000 from the bank and got a loan from WDA (Welsh Development Agency) for £7,000. We were overdrawn by £3,000 at the bank, so that gave us £14,000. The cost in equipment, building refurbishment etc. was £10,000 and the other £4,000 was working capital until funds came in from sales. We also had a six month old baby!

D: Did you have a Business Plan?

E&M: Yes we did, it’s not a bad thing to do. Part of the purpose of a Business Plan is working out where to spend money - on equipment, materials, marketing, stand fees, etc. I think the real benefit of a Business Plan is for yourself, rather than for your bank manager. Our Business Plan has helped us to understand our business more clearly, highlighting potential problems that might get in the way of whatever we want to do. Revisit your Business Plan on a regular basis. Things happen that will lead to other things changing, so reassess your Plan, decide whether it’s still heading in the right direction for you and your business.

D: What about funding, I’ll need to buy a kiln soon - or perhaps it would be better for me to hire time on someone else’s?

E&M: Think about what you want from your business and that will help you decide what equipment you actually need to buy at the moment, working with glass is expensive. At what level do you want to work? How fast do you want your business to develop? Do you want to sell your work? Where/how? Or will you be working purely for the enjoyment of creating with glass, making mostly for yourself and supporting it with a paid job? If you decide to hire kiln time from someone else, think about whether or not you’d still treat yourself to an hour or two of development time now and again, away from the routine of making, that’s quite important. Or maybe I might be able to help you build your own kiln? Your Business Plan will highlight all these points for you.

D: Did you have an accountant when you first started? How did you know how to work out your accounts, what to do about tax, etc.

E&M: We had help from the WDA when we moved here from London, but things have changed a bit since then. These days I would suggest getting in touch with your local Business Link, the person we deal with there has been very helpful. Contact the Tax Office, too, and check out their website. Sometimes it’s just a question of finding the right person, so if you have a Bank Manager you get on well with, talk to them about your plans, ask their advice. There’s quite a lot of easy-to-use accounting software available, chat to other makers to see what they recommend. But be strict with yourself, make sure you keep your books up to date, record your sales and purchases, keep invoices and receipts properly filed - don’t just shove everything into a couple of carrier bags!

D: Did you ever have any doubts about your business succeeding? Were you worried about any pitfalls?

E&M: We never contemplated failure! It wasn’t that we thought we were so good or so clever that it could never happen to us, we just never thought about it, because it never crossed our minds. As for pitfalls there were and still are many problems on a daily basis. Each problem needs to be treated as an opportunity, a crossroads. With a little creativity most crises can be turned around to work for you rather than against. Learn from your errors and move on. I realise now that I’m not trying to make for millions of people - just for a few hundred, perhaps, people who will have the same taste as me - so I just need to reach those people, not struggle to reach the masses.

D: Where do your ideas come from?

E&M: Most ideas seem to have been in my head for ages before I realise that they are there. When I’m relaxed the ideas flow easily, but when I’m worried or stressed, I’m not able to think so clearly. Sometimes a sunset can inspire. Many times conversations inspire. I remember a time when I had lost a contact lens and was unable to see any detail. It meant that the over riding impression on me was the colours rather than the shapes I could see. This gave rise to me using some amazing colour combinations that I would never have thought of otherwise.

D: What about buying materials?

E&M: We buy almost everything from the same place in the UK now; the exchange rate and shipping costs can cause all sorts of problems if you buy from overseas. I’d always suggest that you ask for a discount when ordering, nine times out of ten you’ll get it, and if they say no, you’re no worse off; it’s just that most people don’t think/like to ask. Start by buying small amounts often and try for credit, it will help your cash flow. Cut waste to a minimum, the materials are expensive. Pearsons Glass* in Liverpool are good, especially for supplying sheet glass, and they have workshops and courses, too, if you want to brush up on your skills. Graham and Bill Simpson of Glassworks Services are a good source of supplies, too. If you find the people you get in touch with haven’t got what you want, ask them who else to contact, most people will be helpful.

D: How many hours a week do you work?

E&M: If anyone reading this is a government official I work 48 hour a week. For everybody else, between 60 and 80 hours! If I had a proper job earning loads of money I would build a glass furnace and would still make glass in my spare time. Which part of my week is work and which part isn’t? If I classed the parts of the job I don’t like as work, it wouldn’t be many hours at all. Most people have to do housework jobs they don’t like, such as going to the supermarket etc. in their ‘spare time’, so that doesn’t work as a dividing line. Other people may put a dividing line between Family and Work, but we involve our family completely in our business. So I think the answer is probably that if I am awake I am at work, or I am never at work, depending on your point of view.

D: Can you make a living from your glass work?

E&M: Yes. It depends on what you call a living, though. I have met glass blowing millionaires, people who are below the breadline and many more who are somewhere in between. Although we have never been millionaires, we have done very well in the past, but we have also been at the opposite end of the spectrum, wondering how on earth we were going to pay the mortgage that month. When I was at foundation college in the 70s a very good, very wise tutor spoke to me. I was trying to decide which discipline to do my degree in, having proved myself to be average in everything, nothing stood out. I told him that I thought I would do graphic design because there was sensible, well paid work at the end of the degree. He then asked me which part of the course I had enjoyed the most. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “glassblowing”, and then quickly added, “but what can I do with that?” He replied that I should work with whichever medium or process gave me the greatest satisfaction, because when times get hard, as they surely would, the love of process or medium would help carry me through. That has certainly been my experience so far; if you love what you are doing you will find a way of making a living. The trick is to find the appropriate sized pond for yourself - be a big fish in the right size pond, don’t get lost in the Pacific Ocean!

D: What is the most difficult thing about running your business?

E&M: These days it’s probably getting myself organised. We have two people working here with us, Sue and Sara, and on the days that they’re in it does make us structure things efficiently. We will be out demonstrating at 30 events during 2008, at the Living Heritage shows and a couple of others; the whole family is involved, the children come as well. We try to manage things so that there’s not too much pressure, but it’s not always easy to fit things in with the family, staff, schools, etc.

D: Would you say the first year is the hardest when you start out?

E&M: The first year might be the scariest, but it’s not the hardest, that’s probably the third year. For the first year or two, the adrenaline gets you through, but by year three you need to see things working, there’s a feeling that you should be making it work by then.

D: What do you think has made the most difference to your business? Getting the children involved. Our eldest son is at university now, but helps us at the shows when he can. His younger brothers, Tim and Josh, both come to the shows with us, it’s very much a family affair; that seems to be the strength of what we do and it suits us very well.

D: Have you found the internet to be important to your business? Without a doubt. We sell a lot from our website now, although I can’t imagine many people buying our work if they haven’t already seen it for real. So you do need to get out and about, have your work seen by people - then the internet can be useful for ‘top up’ sales.

At the end of her day with E&M Glass, Deborah says: “Listening attentively to the professionals, Ed and Margaret... I have come to the conclusion that I need to be brave and set up my dream of running my own glass business. Taking on board every bit of advice given by them and acknowledging that it is not going to be easy at first to become known straight away... that it takes time, persistence, individuality and hard work for a craft business to succeed... that planning the objectives are most important... and trying to keep to those goals so as not to become side tracked... although change in the market areas will need to be adapted if I wish succeed in this changing world in the small business sector. I found the day was very inspirational and rewarding, thank you for the opportunity.”

 

Ed: “It’s all about noticing opportunities when they arise and being brave enough to take them. Learn from your errors and move on.”

Margaret: “Your first year in business might be the scariest, but by year three there’s a feeling that you should be making it work.” Sue: “I think you’re very lucky if what you love making pays the bills as well.”

Sara: “Networking is really important, meeting other makers and exchanging ideas and information with them - just like we’re doing here today.”

Ed & Margaret Burke
E+M Glass Ltd, Sarn Glass Studio
Tallarn Green, Malpas, Cheshire SY14 7LN
T: 01948 770 464
www.handmadeglass.net

 
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