My friend Jon works at ICDI, a non-profit organization that does great things in the Central African Republic like drilling wells and assisting with agricultural development. Jon put me in touch with MudLOVE, a pottery company that partners with ICDI to provide Africans with clean drinking water. I love small creative business success stories, and I thought you guys would enjoy this one too. MudLOVE began in 2009 with one guy in his garage and has since grown to 17 people! MudLOVE’s Paul and Kyle were kind enough to answer a few questions for us and share their story.
Before we get to the Q&A, how about a look at some of MudLOVE’s work? These handmade bands can be customized with any word you’d like and can even be used for your own fundraiser. They make necklaces too!
MudLOVE also makes magnets, and this clean/dirty magnet is my favorite. Daniel and I have cut back on dish-related bickering by at least 60% since we’ve had one of these stuck to our dishwasher.
MudLOVE Q&A (with Paul & Kyle)
Tell us a little bit about MudLove and what makes it so special.
Paul: MudLOVE is a small pottery company where everything is handmade and with purpose. Each band is scrutinized by several people in the production process to ensure that it is as good as it can be. A few things that make MudLOVE special is the fact that we give away 20% of all we make to ICDI. They are an amazing organization who implement clean water programs and drill wells in Central Africa. Two of their other community development areas include agriculture and education. Giving away 20% isn’t always easy for us but we see the benefits of our decision. This is seen in how lives are being changed daily in Central Africa. Love drives us here at MudLOVE, “what one may lack in clean water another may lack in love.” We try to show everyone we interact with that they are valuable and have enormous worth. We are proud to be right in the middle of an emerging trend of socially aware small businesses.
How do your fundraisers work?
Paul: We provide products for people to use at their fundraisers. There are price breaks based on order size which makes it easier for people who order in bulk. This allows the fundraiser opportunity to raise more money per piece. Several families have used us to raise money for adoptions.
For example: The Smiths are adopting Kala from Uganda and they need to raise money to help finalize the adoption. They decide to order 1000 bands with Kala’s name on them. In the 500+ price bracket they would be $2.45/piece so they would spend $2,450. They decide to sell the bands for $5 a piece at their fundraising event. They sell out of them (which usually happens!) and they walk away with $5,000 and end up making $2,550. If they sold them for $10 a piece they would make a profit of $7,550! This is an example of how a fundraiser would work. A three fold goal is met by using us, it helps the Smiths, MudLOVE and 20% is donated to ICDI! More information can be found on our fundraiser page.
How has MudLOVE changed since opening its doors in 2009?
Paul: MudLOVE began in a small garage in the Village at Winona. We still use this space for production and retail, it has it’s own vibe that captures the spirit of MudLOVE. We have expanded to another location in downtown Warsaw which has more than 4X the space. It’s a great spot for production, office space and future growth. MudLOVE has also grown from our founder Luke to 17 employees and we’re currently hiring. We are launching an internship program, as well as applied learning programs though schools and colleges. It definitely has become more businessy at times but we keep the workplace a comfortable, safe and extremely fun place to be. MudLOVE ships to every region of the country and to nearly 20 international locations in 4 continents.
Describe your creative process. What steps are taken to develop a new product and bring it to fruition?
Kyle: MudLOVE has been around for more than three years. The first two years, Luke was by himself creating everything. But fast forward to the past year and the direction that MudLOVE is headed might answer the question from a business, philosophical point of view. The MudLOVE band, our most popular product, first came around in 2010 and can serve as a good example for creation. It’s development from the first band, a seriously wonky piece with hair elastics bought from every Walmart, Meijer and like, to what the product is now has taken a long time. Two years later, we have refined the process and have a product that we think represents our style.
First, part of the culture here at MudLOVE is to do it ourselves and use what we already have. The clay itself is of our own making. We mix and pug mill it ourselves which gives the band its strength and durability. We try and use all our own machines and processes in every part of the band. We have invented and build our own machines to produce bands at a high capacity. The first machine is as wonky as the first band but since then we have a higher quality machine. They are made from wood. (Wood which has been reclaimed from fallen trees in the area, in fact.) We make our own molds from plaster. We buy pre-made glaze but have found our own mix for proper finish. The bead on the elastic we buy in bulk as we used to make them ourselves but the time it took was not cost effective or practical. We buy spools of elastics which folks then use a jig we invented to tie the two pieces. You’ll notice the elastic is not simply a slip knot and there is a knot hidden underneath in a bevel hole. We do that to create a sharper look and increase longevity. Thus we have a certain way we tie the elastics to the clay that is not easily teachable and we are very strict as to it being done correctly.
It is important to understand how the MudLOVE band works (Even though that is a cheap look at it! It is a long ordeal and a tale which will be told some other time!) because a lot of our production of other products revolves around the band. So when we start to get a new idea, it is usually because someone thought of way to create something with the existing tools we have or thought of a way to change the tool slightly. A product that will be coming out this Spring was a random, Saturday afternoon in the shop experiment. Within the next two hours, Luke had searched around and started drilling boards together to make a quick model of a machine that could be adjusted. There are still some pieces that have not been finalized yet because each step does not fit comfortably within the system of production. With nearly all our ideas, the most important part is experimenting and drafting. We need to see how a product will fit into our present system with the present staff. Take the new chain pendent necklaces. Ben, our graphics guy, had little trouble adding a different size and shape to decal outside the bands. We know a local small business owner who makes jewelery and made chains easily available. And so, after asking many people what they thought and the feedback was positive, we launched the product.
We have seen other products fail because they became a hassle to produce and we lost steam at marketing them. A product at MudLOVE needs to represent our values. And we value our production staff and system.
What is the MudLOVE studio space like?
Kyle: A mess! Well, an organized mess. But we value our spaces like our products. First, we want customers to be a part of our story. The first location is a small garage (20×20) located in an artisan community. When you buy a product, chances are we are working on the creation of that product right next to you. One of our favorite things is showing folks how we make the product and we did not want that to change when we expanded into a larger space. You can still see and be a part of clay transformation as a shopper. Space is important enough that we really try and not waste any of it. We still produce in the tiny garage and it is as important of a production space as our larger, more sophisticated new location. At the Downtown (It is called MudLOVE Downtown), we also built a full kitchen and a commons area. This is great for meetings and hosting events. Our staff can come use the internet and space for homework or just relaxing. We have staff breakfasts monthly. It is an easy space to work in where you stop producing to help a customer and talk with other employees. Other organizations have used the facility to have events already. Even then, all the production equipment is in plain sight: we just move the tables around. We really believe that the space we have should be as much as a service as our products. We fight against the trend of getting people in and out quickly. We do that by being friendly but a big part is the experience of being at a MudLOVE location. Whether it is the tiny garage heated by the kiln or the exposed brick and wood floors at the Downtown, visiting MudLOVE should be a part of joining our story.
What is the best part about working for MudLOVE?
Paul: The best thing about working here is that what we do makes a difference. Each band we make helps get clean water and better living conditions in Central Africa. It’s rare to work for a small socially minded business that is for profit but whose goal is to love people and make the world better place. We have quality, committed employees who desire to see MudLOVE be able to help as many people as possible. The spirit of kindness, consideration and true care for people is something we value a lot.
What does the future hold? Is there anything new and exciting in the works?
Paul: MudLOVE is growing quickly and it’s a challenge to keep up! It’s a good problem to have! We have several artists on staff and are always brainstorming different ideas for new products, improvements and changes. We are working on new products and will be introducing them on our website and Facebook page as they come, so keep up to date with MudLOVE online.
Our next step is expansion through and with our partner ICDI. We will be on tour to various locations around the country doing shows and exhibits. MudLOVE is going to be on the road more this year and we’re excited to get the word out and see what kind of reception we’ll have. Once again, check out MudLOVE online in order to see where we’ll be this year and come check us out!