Laura Viren
Lulu Pottery

Laura Viren

Lulu Pottery

Laura is the ceramist and businesswoman behind Lulu Pottery. Well known for her colorful mugs; she creates beautiful and functional pieces. Recently, she founded Montana Creatives; a community for local creators, artists and makers.

When we were shooting these photos, Laura and I did the math on how long we've known each other: almost 10 years. We met before Lulu Pottery was a brand, back when I had my first camera (a little canon rebel from Costco) and was super into purple shadow tones on all my photos. This was back in the day when Model Mayhem was all the rage - you bet we met on Model Mayhem.

After our first shoot together, where we got some of my favorite photos at the time, I hit a deer while driving us back into Bozeman. Which - incidentally - is how I ended up owning my first piece of Lulu Pottery. While Laura's husband Grant kindly looked over my car, Laura made us tea. I commented on the beautiful teal mug set she was pouring it into, then Laura showed me a small collection of mugs she had thrown. She ended up giving me one to take home with me - I still have that mug.

Since then, we've shot together over a dozen times. We've had days of photographing 100+ products for her website, we've shot lifestyle advertising campaigns, her special line for Tastemade, collaborations with restaurants and coffee shops and family shoots as her two little ones have grown. My first commercial video I ever shot was for Laura. She was on my reference list when I applied for my first teaching job.

After so many shoots, so many mood boards, so many car rides talking shop; it's been very wonderful to watch Lulu Pottery grow into the successful business it is today. This interview felt like such a meaningful moment - getting to sit down with a friend who I've known for a long time and finally record her thoughts about running a business.

Q: Talk to me about kind of your creative journey. How did all this start? 

Laura: I found out that I love ceramics the age of nine when I went to an art camp. After that, I kept begging my mom to go back and do night classes, weekend classes and summer camp. I kept it as part of my life until I was 18. Then I came out to Montana -- I still wanted to keep it a part of my life, but at that time I didn't know that you could be a ceramic artist as a living. So, I just worked nights at a paint-your-own-pottery studio. I taught lessons over the summer and helped with the firings. As soon as I graduated college, I realized I didn't like the path that I had chosen academically. So I went back and did graphic design and ceramics then went on to apprentice. When I was about 26 years old, after I had been at a commercial pottery studio for about a year -- I decided I knew enough to be dangerous. So Lulu Pottery was born in 2014. It's been almost six years now that I've been running Lulu Pottery!

Q: How has your pottery and business has changed from day one to where you are now?

Laura: Lulu Pottery has taken quite some time and evolution to get where it is now. When I first started out it was sort of impromptu -- we only had 50 amps going to our garage at our house. I had a Scott 1027 that my husband had bought me earlier that winter for my birthday. We fixed it up, hooked it up and got it going. I had one kiln and a bunch of used kiln shelves. I had a wheel that I had bought in Cannon Falls, Minnesota that I had been hanging onto for probably seven years that I found in our storage. I got that fired up. Those were the things that Lulu Pottery started on. 

Over the years it’s grown and of course, with any trade skills you get better. As Lulu Pottery grew, I realized I needed more vats, more clay. I needed another kiln or a kiln with different features. It's grown from something where at the beginning, I only would have a handful of work at the end of the day done because of you know, the work would blow up in the kiln in the bisque kiln or the glaze would run off the pots and I'd destroy the shelves. Now it looks more like a commercial production, but it's actually still only me that does everything from start to finish. I have two small kilns and one large 1227 90 amp kiln. I have two big ware carts and two pottery wheels now - one for wet work and one for dry work. So it has grown quite a bit in the last six years! I'm happy with where it's at and I'm not quite sure where it will go. I think eventually I'll build my own shop and outfit it - I have a vision about what I'd like it to look like in about five years. We'll see if that comes to fruition!

Q: You’ve had your kids for most of this journey, how has it been balancing parenting and running a business?

Laura: We literally got pregnant right after I started in Lulu Pottery. I was so sick with the pregnancy, so I could only be out of the studio for a limited amount of time. At the time, we didn’t have enough money to pay for daycare and for me to be trying out Lulu Pottery. So I'd have to go to shows, get work and then I'd pay the girl down the street in the summer - I think she was 15 - to watch Lyall. I’d get to go work for a couple hours and eventually it got to the point where I was like, oh, okay, I can pay for half day daycare and then I'd work a little bit more and the whole time I kept trying to drive business. Having kids right in the middle of all of it was a very interesting experience. Also, Montessori in daycare in Montana isn't the cheapest thing in the world. So, it has taken that long to be able to have Lulu Pottery continue with kids in school while I'm able to work. 

It's definitely not easy. I'd say especially at the beginning of Lulu pottery and going through pregnancies. I had one kid right after the other - they're only about 16 months apart and you're nursing and being mom right after. So, I worked a lot of nights at the beginning and my husband is super supportive. He's always chipped in where he can and would help do deliveries while I've stayed with the kids. Now that the kids are a little bit older and get sick a little bit less, it's a bit easier. But you know, I still have days where I'm like, all right, kids are going on deliveries after school or before school and everybody gets their happy meal. 

Then there are some days that I don't have much work or I went out into the studio early so I can cook a nice meal with them. It's definitely a little bit more inconsistent than other jobs would be, but I wouldn't trade it in and I wouldn't trade my kids in. 

They become my helpers out in the studio actually. It's interesting to see how fascinated they are by the process. I think it's good for them to know that you can turn a dream into a reality. It just takes some hard work, grit, humility and experience to get to that point. I hope that it shows them that they can follow whatever path in life they want to, not to be discouraged by thinking they have to be a certain way in academia or in a certain trade skill. They can make their own path and blaze their own trail.

Q: What does your day to day or week to week look like?

Laura: Mondays tend to be my throw day. Clay is very finicky and I throw with a porcelain clay body - which is the most finicky. So typically I throw Mondays. When I sit down and throw, I wanna throw my whole sitting for that week at once. it's hard to hop on and off the wheel or in and out of the glazing room. I make handles and the stamps and do a studio cleaning - maintenance stuff - on Tuesdays. Wednesdays I do what I call processing. I put everything together and then I wrap it for a couple of days. On Thursdays I glaze the work from the week before. Then on Fridays it's usually kind of just like cleaning up the green ware, unloading a bisque or loading a bisque. Then just prepping work or emails and that kind of thing for the following week. 

I try to keep a rhythm. It never quite goes how I say, because the kids get sick or I get tired. So, I ended up still working a lot of nights and weekends. That hasn't changed! As much as I'd like my schedule to be consistent.

Q: You've had a long time to refine your workflow. Were there any like big moments of aha! this works so much better?

Yeah, there were a few of them. Because I was so sick during both pregnancies and because the infant stage of breastfeeding and everything right after is very tiring, that I all of a sudden realized what my workflow actually could look like. All of a sudden, I was working full time for the first time ever since Lulu Pottery was born. That was about a year after having Iola - which was only two years ago.

So I went from being able to make 30 handles a day to being able to make like 200 and do the stamps at the same time and do some processing. So, my work went from such a low volume to a high volume within that two year period. It was so different than the four previous years. That was sort of the aha! Oh my gosh, I feel good. I'm out here, this is full time. I'm able to do what my brain has thought that I could do or what I thought I could eventually do. 

A few of the processes have evolved over time. I’ve been told it takes 10,000 times until you've mastered something and I think I must've hit that 10,000 mark. I hit this point where I'd be throwing a mug and I'd realize, I don't need to trim this one. I'm able to throw the walls, the right thickness all the way up to the top -- which is extremely different than having to let your work dry and rotate it and trim it. With the glazing, I mix my own glazes from scratch. I’ve realized all the calculations and how to order all those materials in and make that process go faster. I think you gain confidence over time, and it helps your process speed up.

Q: What is your favorite part of your process?

Laura: My favorite part of the process is unloading the kilns -- specifically the glaze kilns. That’s been my favorite since the very beginning of when I started doing ceramics and it still is. Until you open up that kiln, you never really know quite what you're going to get and it feels like Christmas every single time! Even though now I have more predictability in what my work will look like, it's still feels awesome. When you’re unloading the kiln, you're seeing three weeks of work come to the finish line. That product is going to be going out to the stores or to a person! That is and probably always will be my favorite part of the process. 

Q: On the flip side, what's your least favorite part of the process? 

Laura: My least favorite part of the process is probably trying to stay organized. There's a lot of different forms of communication now between text message, a Facebook personal page, a business page, Instagram, a personal page or business page, your professional email, your regular email. Tracking all of that along, sorting out orders, making sure I threw everything, that I did the right stamps and that I glazed it properly is one of the most stressful parts.

Q: What is the most challenging part about working for yourself?

Laura: I feel like I've crossed a hurdle finally -- probably in the last three years -- where I know what I have to do and I can walk out at the end of the day like it’s a nine to five job. I have enough structure to my day that I feel this sense of urgency and want to get out to the studio. But when I first started working for myself, even just getting out into the studio was difficult. I was struggling with the creative process and where I wanted my company to go. The forms, the glaze, everything. I think I felt overwhelmed by the whole process. 

It was hard to be alone and work by yourself, especially after working in a more of a community setting where it was seven of us working together to complete a project. Then all of a sudden it was me having to go from start to finish on everything. Now I thrive in that environment but it has taken six years to get to that point.

Now the hardest part about working for myself and by myself is producing the work and keeping up with all the technological stuff and having structure it. So texting people back, emailing people back, doing my own accounting -- things like that. That part is hard. I'd like to just be out here creating, which is usually why there's about a 72 hour response time to almost every email. For the most part though, with that shift happened three years ago -- now it's very easy to work for myself compared to when I first started.

It was really hard at the start. You feel lonely at the beginning and you're scared and you're like, am I gonna make it? What am I doing? You're getting ready for shows that you've never been to. You get a lot of feedback at the beginning -- positive and negative -- but for some reason you remember kind of the negative feedback more than you do the positive. But then you kind of grow and mature into your own product and then you gain that confidence. You get a work flow. 

I think feeling needed is also very important and I do feel needed. I feel a sense of urgency, especially during the holidays. I think it's a good urgency. When I get an email from a client and they're like, oh, I'd really love it on this timeline because it's a corporate gift or I'd really like it so we can send it out at Christmas. I think everybody wants to feel wanted and I've hit a point where there's enough like want for my product that I can stay busy year round. Then if I'm not busy, I'm so excited to go do something different and be creative that then I haul ass to get out to the studio and go do something new and crazy. So, I feel very humbled by the fact that my work is needed and wanted and grateful because that's what keeps me going.

Q: Talk to me about on seasons and off seasons and what role they have within your business year.

Laura: At the very beginning, I used to do a lot of the main Montana shows and gift shows. Montana is a state that's very oriented around tourist season and so May is crazy. June is crazy, July is crazy, August is a little bit less because a lot of the a lot of gift shops are starting to slow down. A lot of the ones in Yellowstone and up in Glacier actually shut down, so they can't hold on to product after that. The Made In Montana show was always held in March and it's crazy basically from March all the way through June. Then for some of my stores into August. And then it starts back up again for the winter. 

I've gotten quite a few more winter clients -- ski resorts or year-round clients like boutiques and gift shops and some of the bigger towns in Montana that go year round. Those clients want Christmas and Thanksgiving or Black Friday deals. So, I have to start pumping out work right away again in August and September to get it to them by October when it goes back on sale. 

Distribution is a part of that, I pretty much only distribute inside the state, but the state of Montana is so huge that distribution is a big deal. It used to be a lot more seasonal and it starting to transition into year round with knowing when I need to prep. So rather than sitting back and waiting for things to happen in January and February, I just start making work and preparing for stuff to just go out as assorted orders. It takes some of that stress off me and relieves the pressure of the upcoming busy season.

Q: Talk to me about work life balance and what that means to you.

Laura: This year I have been incredibly humbled by the word work life balance. When you first start out a company -- especially in something where you don't know if you'll ever make it -- it's hard to say no to a project. This year, I didn't say no to a single project or a single client and I ended up getting pretty sick in August. It made me realize that I didn't have the best work-life balance going. I was working so hard to get people their work on time. The real part of it is that I chose this profession out of love and passion. Because I wasn't dealing with life and death, or something in the medical realm, that would cause me a lot of stress outside of work. So, as I move forward with my company, work-life balance is becoming more and more important to me. Especially with my kids aging. It's making me realize how precious that time with them is and how little time you actually have with them. So, I've been humbled by the work life balance and moving forward, I'm still going to be working on it. I'm not sure I've quite figured it out yet, but I hope as I age I'm able to continually grow in experience and wisdom and find that balance. 

It's just so hard. I actually did a better job of it last year when I didn't work from home. Because I couldn't do anything about it. If I was stressed out about a kiln or something, it was 25 minute drive to get there so I had to let it go. But this year it's in my garage, so if something's bothering me or I'm worried about something in the middle of the night, I wake up and I go check it. Initially my intention from working from home was to find a better work-life balance. So it's ironic that that backfired on me.

Lulu Pottery will eventually be its own space, detached from our current house but on the same property. I think letting go and setting structured open hours will help me with that work-life balance.

Q: Do you encounter creative blocks and if so, how do you deal with them? 

Laura: So, what's been funny about the creative blocks is -- for some reason the busier I am, the more creative I get, I don't know why that is. When I first started Lulu pottery, I think I felt so overwhelmed that the idea of creating or the idea of doing something different is so intimidating that you don't reach out. You're scared to learn a new process because you're just figuring out which processes are working to keep your business alive. But once your business is established and you have a good workflow, all of a sudden you're like hmm I'm kind of getting an itch to try someting new. I think I'm going to give this thing I saw this on some blog or Pinterest a try. 

I’ll be like oh, I fire at that cone, I think I'll try decals or oh rice paper transfers look cool. I think I'm going to try that. Or oh my gosh, you can 22 carat gold something on an overgrazed fire. So the busier I am, the more my mind wanders and the more confident I feel that I can attempt a process and not continually fail. That is something that moving forward for 2020, I have to let go of a little bit because not every experiment turns into a lucrative business venture. With that you can get backed up and end up behind. So I'm staying focused and on course. 

I think the creative blocks happen most of the time when things are slow or you're intimidated by what that process might mean and especially if it might mean failure.

Q: Tell me about one of your favorite projects you've ever worked on.

Laura: My favorite projects outside of my standard Lulu Pottery and wholesale tend to be collaborative. Say, collaborative shoots of dinnerware settings -- I don't normally throw a dinnerware and so when I see a theme or a mood board that has the florals in place and what the cutlery will look like or the glasses and they say, make what you think would do well and here's the theme. That just like pulls at my heartstrings because it is so exciting when I get to see something that I envision come to life and then I have a permanent image of it. And I come together with other creatives in every single realm; whether it be a florals or calligraphy, rental companies and photographers. 

It's kind of this unique experience. And so those are pretty much all of the styled shoots are my favorites. It’s been a recent thing in the past year or two that I've been able to have the confidence to make like 8, 10 place settings and have them come out on a deadline. 

Or anything for editorial shoots. It's always fun to see your work be published. So those are my favorites, but I also love the repetition. My husband asks me all the time like, don't you get tired of doing runs or things the same every single week. And I honestly, there's something therapeutic about repetition to me and I really feel like I'm in my zone when I'm doing what I'm doing. I feel like I've found my calling. My husband says he could never do my job and I could never do his job. I think we both found our perfect balance.

Q: Tell me about a moment that made you feel amazing or gave you a "wow this is real?" feeling.

Laura: I'd say the first time that I was like, wow I'm doing this, this is my real life was probably two years ago. Because up until then, you're just scraping by, you're getting new equipment and you're trying out new clay, you're gaining new clients are still in this learning process. I think for the first four years of any business it’s like that. Two years ago I remember looking up, as I was loading at kiln and then just being like this is what you're doing full time. I guess just shocked me. Ever since that day two years ago, pretty much every other day that I'm out in the studio, I'm eternally grateful for what I do. I can't believe that I've been given this opportunity and I definitely don't take it for granted.

It's always amazing to me that I've created a life around my work. Almost every day I wake up and say, wow, that's my job. Even on days where, you know, work is melted to the kiln shelf or blown up in the bisque kiln -- which actually did happen to me this week, I still just take it with a grain of salt. It's part of my job to continue to learn and to accept failure and move on. And that is still my favorite part, all those aha! moments. I will always be grateful for this path, the whole journey, every part of it. It's an amazing feeling to wake up and love what you do.

Q: What are your goals moving forward for 2020?

Laura: My 2020 work goal is to structure my business in a way that I can become more efficient. Especially with using the online system for wholesale and retail and making sure the website is up to date. And I think pace. Moving forward with pace and grace, especially after having a pretty humbling year with some medical issues and getting backed up with work. I really want to focus on how I pace myself in a way where if I do get sick or the kids get sick, it's not this big stressful event where I'm trying to continue like play catch up across the weekends and work nights. Instead, it can just be something where I let it go and start back up again on Monday and do the best I can. I think actually finding more of a work life balance is my main goal for 2020.

Q: What are your thoughts on social media? 

Laura: Ah, the love/hate relationship with social media. I have learned to love it. I had somebody had to set up the Instagram account for me like three years ago and I don't think I posted a single thing except for what she did for the first couple of posts. When I logged on a year ago, I had like 500 followers and I was like, how? I don't even have anything on here? How do I even have followers? So I started posting more and more and I realized how valuable it was for me as a creator -- especially as the sole creator of Lulu pottery -- to connect with people. I didn't realize it would be so personal and that means everything to me. 

There are days that I struggle out in the studio and I'll take a picture of a project I'm working on and I see the comments and the likes come through. And for me, that relationship is enough to motivate me to keep going and follow through with a process. I think social media has given me a replacement for that community feeling of meeting other people in my studio or having to be in a collaborative space. It fills my cup up when I'm feeling empty sometimes. It gets my creative juices flowing when I post an idea or a new stamp and I hear people's responses. I say love hate because I'm so terrible about responding to people's comments. I always feel so guilty, I'm like, I see you, I see your comment, like I hear you, but I’m the worst about responding back to people.

I love it and that I get to actually see the responses and see what people like and don't like. It's almost the new way of having a newsletter. Even when my health wasn't doing so good and I posted when I was in Minnesota at the hospital, everybody kind of was like, oh, take your time. I'm sending hugs. I felt the feeling of community from being so far away and feeling so independent in my workspace. I cried a few times because it was so surprising. So I love it in that sense. I wish that I could find a way to voice my appreciation. I'm just so slow actually even typing out a single post.

Q: What is one piece of advice that you could give to people who are considering working with you? Something that you would love to know prior to working with you? 

Laura: I had a client last week -- or sorry, not last week, it was probably a couple months ago, but for me, everything's last week -- and she goes, I want 50 mugs for this company. I love your style. I want you to be creative and have fun with it. Here's my logo. And I was like, yes, that's my jam. Or a client who comes to me and says, I live up in the Northwest, can you put together an assortment of what you think will sell best? 

Having that trust from those clients is not only gratifying, but it makes both of our lives easier because I know what sells best in the Northwest and in the Eastern side of the state.You know, mountains do well in the West, the prairies and wood and hearts and stuff do really good in the East. Certain colors do better in certain areas too. I love when customers put faith and trust in my knowledge that I've gained over the past six years. I think it helps both of us. 

If they have a positive response and they sell out of something quickly, that's good for both of us! Then I can keep them stocked. It just maintains this yearly relationship rather than ordering something that was completely customized and maybe it didn't do well, but we both don't know why? If something went out and it was like the hearts and the Montanas and my traditional line, I know they can find it a good home in the right location. Having that trust for my client makes a big difference.

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