The Cloud x British Council
Carol Sinclair has run a successful ceramic design business for over 30 years. She is truly an artist but knows she can be more.
Years of experience and meeting many people from all over the world has given her extensive knowledge of the craft business, and she is passing this on to all handicraft artisans. Whether they live in Scotland, Afghanistan, or Thailand, makers and small business entrepreneurs face the same challenges.
The board member of Applied Art Scotland have collaborated with the British Council in Thailand many times through Crafting Futures to strengthen the craft sector around the globe. Carol has presented workshops for local designers and artisans in Thailand and does not hesitate to share the lessons she has learnt and the tools she believes will lead to a successful creative path.
Do you consider yourself to be a businesswoman or an artist?
A bit of both, I think. I’ve been a business adviser for probably 18 years. I love working with other makers. I came to Thailand in 2014 and worked for the British Council in different ways, as a freelance artist or a project facilitator for different projects. After a while, I looked for different ways to work in Thailand because I enjoyed it so much.
I recently worked with Applied Art Scotland; a charity set up more than 25 years ago. It runs projects and exhibitions in the craft business for makers to promote each other. We all want to make it easier for one another.
How can you be good at both the commercial and artistic sides of the craft business? Most local makers here know how to make beautiful things, but few know how to run a business.
Every maker I know has this problem because they have so many different jobs to do. They must have the necessary skills and take the time to learn how to make things, as well as have the ability to design and try different styles to find something that works. Then they have to be able to sell it and speak to customers, and also know about marketing.
I think it’s the same for every small business. For craft, in particular, we need people driven by love. Highly passionate people focus on their materials and skills. But it takes time. How can a craft person find the time to do all these different jobs? It’s difficult. One has to be quite disciplined, and sometimes admit that there is not enough time.
The work I have been doing for all these years involves people needing to work out how to manage their time, how to make the business as straightforward as possible, and how to make it reflect the things they feel passionate about. It’s not about separating the creative part from the business. It’s about finding ways to be creative in marketing. It’s about making it efficient and enjoyable.
Back when you just started your ceramic business, did society embrace craft like nowadays?
In my experience, this is the best time ever to be a craft person. There is a greater understanding of craft, but I am not familiar with the educational system in Thailand. Back in Scotland, one of the problems we have is that craft education is being lost. I studied ceramics for four years to get better and better and obtained a degree in ceramics. Now, there are no longer any degree courses in Scotland for ceramics. Students can do ceramics as part of something else, but can’t dedicate themselves to study ceramics anymore. They have to go to another part of the world.
Although craft education is in decline, the interest in craft is growing. The demand from the public to learn about craft is bigger than it’s ever been. It provides lots of opportunities for makers to earn a living, not just from making and selling products but also from teaching. I’ve noticed that there is a much greater demand for teaching craft in Thailand too. Nothing beats being taught face-to-face.
Craft is something everybody should be able to experience. Especially when we become more digital, hand-making and hand skills are actually very important. One thing I think is really important is for school children to be taught craft. The problem in Scotland is that we have also lost craft education in primary school. Children grow up never having a chance to try craft. Crafting skills are completely transferable, so even if someone never becomes a professional craft person, the skills gained are really useful in everyday life. There are stories in Scotland about surgeons who didn’t do craft at school, being sent by the university to make jewellery, to learn how to make things by hand. If someone were to operate on me, I would like them to have very good hand skills. (laugh)
Over the years, I’ve seen many people develop a career in craft later in life. They might have another career first and then finally get the chance to do something they always wanted to do. People come to craft in many stages.
What do Scottish and Thai makes have in common?
Passion – people are very clear about what they want to do. They tend to really care about the environment as well, and often work with natural materials. They care about their communities. Many craft people run social enterprises because they not only want to benefit themselves but the community as well. Craft people are very generous and kind and like to share. They want to support one another, and I like being part of that.
Which qualities do Thai makers lack?
Thai entrepreneurs understand how to sell, but maybe sometimes they don’t tell their stories very effectively. I try to help them understand all the different parts of their stories people will be interested in. It’s not about teaching them to do things differently, but teaching them a little bit about doing it more effectively and telling their stories in a more effective way, and sometimes presenting their work.
The challenges faced by Thai makers are no different to those of Scottish makers. Sometimes it’s about not telling the world everything but trying to tell people something easy to understand which makes sense to them so they can easily connect with it.
Can you give some examples?
When I ran my own ceramic tile business, I had at least 20 different designs. When I did a trade show, I was so desperate to show everybody everything I did – all the things I was excited about. People would come to see what I was selling and became confused. They couldn’t see what they wanted because it was too busy. So I learnt that actually it was much better to present a simpler story, full of passion and something I enjoyed, rather than try to tell customers every single thing that excited me.
So the major issue is marketing?
Yes, marketing is storytelling. It’s also about building a relationship with customers. One piece of business advice I have learnt along the way is that it takes 12 times as much effort to create a new customer, as it does to maintain existing customers. Taking time to build relationships with customers encourages them to come back again and again in the coming years.
How can you make people believe in your brand?
At home, movement is slow, like slow-cooked food, making things takes time and skills. The appreciation of that sometimes comes from the way stories are told. Again, I have an example of my own experience. When I had just started making ceramic tiles, I thought about the price I would pay for the materials and set the selling price. When I presented my products, people would tell me they were expensive. I thought “Oh, okay” and immediately reduced the price, even though the tiles were handmade and took a long time to produce.
I thought the customer knew best. But eventually, when I took the time to work out how long they would take to make, how much material was involved, and all the different processes, I should actually have been charging double for my tiles.
I was very nervous when I presented my tiles again. They all said, “That’s very expensive”, customers always think that. Now I can tell them that actually, it’s not expensive, but very good value for money because this tile is hand-painted, I had to fire it many times, and also do various other things to it, and they then understood. They would say, “Okay” and buy twice as many, because they understood the value. This is an example of storytelling – it’s not just about the product, but the story of how it got there and what goes into making it.
Things that take time need to cost more money but are very good value for money because something well-made will last a long time. It’s an investment. Marketing and storytelling all come together. All the work I do with craft people have the same theme, whether in Afghanistan, Mexico, Thailand, or Scotland. It’s about getting customers to understand what it takes to produce a beautiful item.
Did you learn that from your own experience or somewhere else?
I have learnt a lot from my own experience. When I got the chance to become a business adviser and trainer I was keen to share my own experiences. Then I worked with all sorts of creative people; musicians, dancers, makers, etc. and realised one of our common challenges was having enough time to do things well.
As makers, most of us prefer to sit there and create beautiful objects. It’s nice to talk to people, and lovely to feel enthusiastic in a market where people find beautiful objects. They start to learn stories and meet the people who made the products. Connecting to a customer is a fantastic feeling. But it’s such a great feeling just to sit and make things. It’s relaxing and therapeutic. So sometimes we have to push ourselves to the next level.
How long did it take you to understand these lessons and be able to teach others?
I learnt along the way, but I have a lot more to learn. When I first came to Thailand as a business adviser, I never told people what to do, I just helped them decide for themselves what to make and ask them to set a target. Once they find the answers, it’s much easier to travel in one direction efficiently. People want to buy products that come from the heart.
Which Thai makers have you taught?
Many of the people I taught in the craft field in 2014 have gone on to become craft superstars. It’s amazing to see them running very successful businesses and becoming curators, like PiN metal art, Thaniya, Mann Craft, and Varni. They were selected to join the craft showcase in London. I’ve been working with some of the most amazing people over the years. To see them grow and build their businesses is very satisfying.
What did you teach them?
I can’t take full responsibility for their fame and fortune. They continue to work hard. But the training was different from what they had been used to. Rather than telling them what they must do, I asked them to do things like draw pictures of their customers and asked them to work together and decide what they wanted to do. It’s a different kind of approach which is more common now. At the time it was quite different from other training sessions.
As confidence grew in the value of their work, they started to make decisions and push the business forward in the direction they wanted. To be successful, I think it’s very important for a person to take hold of their business. Making people think about their choices is the theme we tried to create, so we made a Digital Craft Toolkit. It’s a free web application. Anybody can use it however and whenever they want. They just need to register to use it.
What is inside the Digital Craft Toolkit?
We developed the toolkit into four sections; the first involves setting goals so people can sit back and think about what they want to do before getting caught up with all sorts of practicalities. If a person knows what they want to do, and is very clear about the goal, then it is much easier to get there.
The second section deals with developing products. We have a great fun tool called a product randomiser. It will throw out conditions randomly like place, colour, or occasion. We want people to loosen up their way of thinking. They start to have fun with suggestions on how they might develop their products. We have tried to bring a game style into this toolkit to invigorate thinking, instead of dry business subjects.
The third section is about people telling a story, understanding who their customers are. There is an exercise on attracting customers to help craft people identify customers, not just old ones but to go out there and find the perfect customer. Connecting to people who really understand the craft person’s passion.
The final section is about money. Money is really important, and craft persons need to know that by selling their work, they are making enough money to obtain a profit and can continue.
What do people think of this free online class?
So far, people really like it. We did some training last August with over a hundred people. Some of them use the toolkit as a group. Others used it individually. People may want to look at a particular thing or go through the whole thing to create a very simple business plan. It’s quite fun to use. It’s a combination of the work we’ve been doing and the experience I have had with craft makers in other countries.
Different countries are truly interesting; sometimes it’s a different environment, sometimes different materials, sometimes different languages but the challenges are always the same. How to get people to know the value of the things they do with their hands.
What makes this Toolkit so practical?
We used Scottish developers to help us, but came to Thailand over a year ago to film some Thai makers. We asked them about running their businesses, and we also asked Scottish makers too, so the toolkit also has a series of short films showing makers we know with very good practices. So people can get inspiration from those who have actually done it. It’s one thing talking about business in theory, but seeing it in practice is so much more useful. Makers are very generous about sharing what they have learnt with other people. When a craft person feels overwhelmed they can watch the films and feel they can be successful too.
We wanted to make sure that the toolkit was launched here in Thailand, and next year we want to introduce the toolkit in Scotland as well. We are interested in other Crafting Futures projects as well and might develop it in India and Argentina. We want to translate the toolkit and films of the makers to have examples for every country. Wherever a person is in the world, seeing examples from other countries is inspiring, and they will realise most things are the same. Makers feel globally connected and not so isolated when seeing examples of other countries. Even though makers may not speak the same language, they communicate with their hands, so get on very well together.
Wanita’s members also joined your workshop. Is teaching local artisans different from teaching designers?
It was one of the most emotional training sessions I have ever given. They want to share with the world that different religions can live happily together. It is such a big message for me to take home. There were no dry eyes on the last day, we all cried. I just realised how difficult life is for them, and if I can help a bit, that’s great.
It’s amazing to see not just the products, but how happy the makers are. They have real joy and confidence. When we first met, they didn’t even look us in the eye. They were too shy and didn’t feel valued. This morning we hugged and said hello and were really happy to see each other, and that feels fantastic. They have real pride in what they’ve achieved. Their products are absolutely beautiful. The makers are highly skilled and the products have a lovely contemporary feel. They have been making these products automatically for years, now they give them new life. There’s an energy and passion they didn’t have for a while.
We talked to one of the basket makers. When we first met him he had a very serious face. He was quite sad, and not selling his work and making money like he used to, but now he has a whole new invigorating product range which he is proud and very excited about. He feels very good, as can be seen through his body language. He stands tall.
The Lipao group used to make beautiful, but time-consuming, baskets that were turned into handbags for traditional ceremonies. There were fewer and fewer markets so they needed to look for a new product. They now make smaller contemporary baskets, jewellery, cufflinks, headbands and hairpieces with a high level of original skills. The bamboo group and the sedge group made a nicely shaped basket. The pandan group made a well-considered collection; a beach set in colours representing the sky, sea and the surrounding nature.
The local artisans made a selective, cohesive collection of work people can really understand and buy. It’s about making a collection, not just some random pieces, to encourage customers to buy more than one, or come back again and again. It’s a way of gaining customers.
What is the problem with the craft market in Thailand? How can Thai craft makers fix it?
There are many beautiful crafts in Thailand, but one’s eyes can become confused. There is so much indigo everywhere. How can craft people make their products stand out? It has to come from a very authentic place where makers feel pride and passion in what they do.
How can the makers connect their stories for customers? When talking about the beach that gave them daily inspiration, their customers will want to go to the beach and be part of it. Makers should ask themselves, “What do you do well?” and “How are you different?” People often think a unique selling point is one thing, but it’s a combination of place, heritage, identity, materials, and modern thinking as well. It’s how all those things are brought together to tell a beautiful story in craft.
If products are very popular, soon there will be copycats. What should makers do?
That’s a hard one. When people see something they think is successful, they want to be part of that too, but that’s hardly likely to help anyone. The only thing a copycat can do is to make the product cheaper, which doesn’t really serve them well. It’s not their story but someone else’s. We have to explain to everybody that they need their own USP. It doesn’t make sense to copy others. Makers must strive to be unique and by continuing to keep moving, they will always have something to offer.
Crafting Futures supports the future of craft around the globe. This British Council programme strengthens economic, social and cultural development through learning and access. The Crafting Futures project supports practices and people, through research, collaboration and education. For more information, Click here. And Discover Wanita’s craft works from new collection at Facebook : WANITA