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Four years ago, few people had heard of Claudia Baudo or her studio, The Painted Seed. The talented artist had a successful career as a graphic designer in New York City, crafting marketing pieces for high-profile corporate clients. But Baudo wasn’t content to climb someone else’s corporate ladder—she wanted to design her own destiny.
“I wanted to get into more of a three-dimensional aspect of art that was also closer to the consumer, where people were noticing and I was getting reaction. But I knew that if anyone were going to create a position for myself, it would have to be me,” Baudo says.
In June 1999, Baudo decided to quit her job as a graphic designer and embark on a new career. Today, the Claudia Baudo Signature Collection of hand-painted tableware is sold in more than 75 stores throughout the U.S. and can also be found on the Via Condotti in Rome. Sales of her products grew 280 percent between January 2002 and June 2003 alone, and The Painted Seed Studio is connecting a worldwide network of designers and manufacturers. But Baudo’s success has required far more than just talent. By taking risks, building relationships, understanding the market and having a clear vision of what she wanted to accomplish, Baudo has been able to realize her dream of “giving an artistic presence to things that before only had a practical existence.”
A Risky VentureWhen Baudo first formed The Painted Seed Studio in January 1999, she wasn’t sure where the concept would take her. But she knew that to accomplish anything, you have to start with an idea.
“At the beginning of the creative process, you notice something—whether it’s a specific color combination, or an arrangement of fallen leaves—and it’s an inspiring moment that you log into your brain. At some point, that moment will manifest itself and grow into a new product or marketing idea or something else. That’s where the name ‘The Painted Seed’ came from—it’s like planting a seed in your mind, and eventually it will grow and flourish,” Baudo says.
Growing a single idea into a successful enterprise often requires a willingness to take risks. For Baudo, the first defining moment came with the decision to quit her job as a graphic designer just six months after establishing her studio. “It was the scariest thing I ever did,” she admits.
Although Baudo had worked with a variety of art forms earlier in her career, she had never before worked with ceramics. Armed with a kiln, some bisque pieces and decorating supplies from a local ceramic supply store, she began experimenting. But even her earliest designs were more than just personal art—her goal from the very beginning was to build a successful business.
“The whole time I was experimenting, I kept one eye on the market,” Baudo explains. “Once I started to see a collection forming, I began to show it at local and regional craft shows where I could get thousands of eyes on the product and see what the reaction would be.”
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. By the middle of 2000, Baudo was producing 15-20 pieces per month out of her own small studio, and demand continued to grow. Although she wanted to turn her business into a wholesale operation, she was limited in the number of pieces she could produce by herself. Baudo investigated a number of different options and eventually found a contract manufacturer in Italy that was capable of producing both the quality and quantity she needed. After working with the company on several prototypes, she decided to launch her Signature Collection, “Tuscan Fruit,” to the wholesale market at the New York Gift Fair in January 2002. The line was an instant success, and Baudo walked away from the show with a commitment from 25 new stores to sell her products and about $30,000 in business. But filling those orders required another leap of faith.
“The products at that show were from my own studio, so we had to match what was manufactured to what had been displayed, even though we had only been working with prototypes at that point. Additionally, the manufacturer required that 50 percent of any order had to be paid up front. It was a huge risk for me,” Baudo says.
Although the situation has played out in her favor, Baudo admits that the risk factor has been the most difficult part of growing her business. “It isn’t only the financial risk—there’s also a fear of failure,” she says. “But when you research other entrepreneurs, and you read about other roads to success, you have to relax and realize that you’re doing the best you can do, and you’re learning and absorbing so much as you go. Even if this doesn’t work out the way you expected, who knows what could happen down the line.”
Nurturing RelationshipsAccording to Baudo, one of the reasons her Signature Collection has been so successful in such a short period of time is because she has worked hard to build solid relationships with her retailers.
“We constantly reach out to our stores to see how they’re doing, especially now,” Baudo says. “Some stores in certain areas of the country have experienced a major slowdown, and we really want them to know that we’re there for them. We can also find out from them what is selling well and what isn’t. For instance, maybe we need to consider producing a product that might be less expensive by using other methods of manufacturing, such as decals. Having good relationships with our stores gives us a huge amount of information as to where we can move the business, and how we can help them. We’re all trying to make money together.”
Establishing a reputation as a producer of high-end ceramic products has also required Baudo to forge a solid relationship with her manufacturer. “In order to get the look I have in my product line, the manufacturer had to use an entirely new painting process—a new technique, new brushes, everything,” Baudo explains. “Quality is very important to me, so I had to be willing to spend some time working closely with the manufacturer to make sure they had a good grasp of how to achieve my designs.”
Working through a translator, Baudo prepared an instruction manual in Italian, which contained numerous drawings and illustrations of her designs. She also sent samples from her studio so that the manufacturer could see the designs on finished ceramic products. Finally, right before the pieces went into full production, Baudo visited the factory in Italy to help complete the learning process. Although each of these steps required an investment of time and money on Baudo’s part, it has already begun to pay off in terms of product quality.
“We’ve worked together for a couple of years now, and we have a very good relationship. The manufacturer has a really good understanding of what is and isn’t going to be acceptable to me, and that prevents us from having to waste a lot of time shipping incorrect pieces back and forth,” she says.
“With any startup business, there are some concessions you need to make, but most of these initial investments will ultimately even themselves out over time,” she adds.
A Market of OpportunityFor many people in the pottery business, striking a balance between creating fulfilling artwork and making a successful living can be a challenge. But for Baudo, creating products for the customer comes naturally.
“As a graphic designer, my life was essentially taking my client’s concept or idea and communicating that visually. That has been a huge help to me. If I had just come from an art background, I don’t really think that I would have a handle on the business end of the process,” she says. “You can’t always produce ultimately what you love. You have to produce what the market wants. That process is ever-changing, and it’s something that always has to be at the forefront of your mind when you’re in this business as a designer and manufacturer.”
Baudo is also constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to grow her business. For example, she has recently been commissioned to design some new products for the Italian firm Modigliani, and she has also been collaborating with East Palestine China Co. in East Palestine Ohio. Prototypes of these new designs will be on display at the New York International Gift Fair* in February 2004. Additionally, she is using her studio to form collaborations between other manufacturers and designers.
“You can grow in so many different ways—you just need to have an open mind,” Baudo says.
A Vision of SuccessBaudo is excited by the progress she’s made with her business so far—but she’s also eager to see how much farther she can take it. “My goal is to be able to produce four new collections each season, either alone or in collaboration with other designers. Some of the collections might be under the Claudio Baudo line, while others might be under The Painted Seed. But success to me isn’t necessarily measured in financial returns—it’s also measured in people’s perception of me and my work. If I can maintain a perception that I am a very seasoned designer with a lot of experience and good taste, then that perception will start to become more of a reality,” she says.
“When I first got into this, I knew that I was going to have to work really hard to get to the next level every step of the way. But it’s at a wonderful level right now, where it’s manageable and yet still growing a percentage each year. I’m very happy right now. This is not just a job to me—it’s my life, and I love it. I hope that I can sustain my presence here for as long as possible.”