Crafting a New Business Model – How East Fork is Redefining Asheville Pottery
By Rebekah Pierce
The balance between craft product and industry is often difficult to find. While not inherently mutually-exclusive, unchecked mass production can often choke out creativity, and beautiful pieces require too delicate a process to support scaling. East Fork has managed to strike the balance between production to support its growing operation and protecting the qualities of craft pottery.
Meet the Founders
Alex Matisse is a potter and the CEO of East Fork. His fellow East Fork co-founders, Connie Matisse and John Vigeland, share his passion for pottery while also contributing storytelling and operations to this crafty company. They have led the “very Asheville” operation to its current success and are trailblazing the way to being a $50M company.
Up from Clay
Alex has been playing in the clay from a young age. “I came from a family of artists, and clay was always my medium.” After pursuing a more academic direction in college, Alex was drawn back to pottery, left to study under several craftsmen, and eventually completed a 3-year apprenticeship. “I was part of this lineage that went back multiple generations and, I found this deep and holistic way of learning a craft and then entering into a whole story that goes way beyond you; you’re part of something much larger than yourself.”
Alex, Connie and John were friends before East Fork. After a weekend together John suggested they work together. “It’s a rare thing, as most of the time it’s an individual or couple making pots together. To have separate people in a studio is tough for people to understand.” They decided to go for it, and the founding team is still going strong.
Craft Became Business
Most of East Fork’s early sales were online, but they kept looking to expand their business, especially to their peers. A mentor who was watching their studio encouraged them to ‘think like industrialists.’ After talking back and forth about what that would look like for a pottery studio, East Fork purchased a gas kiln from the Netherlands to replace its old wood kiln. “The two are about as different as a Conestoga Wagon and a Tesla”, says Alex. Sure enough, production skyrocketed upon firing the new kiln and East Fork left the wood-fed kiln in the dust.
A collector who liked their work came forward to make an investment. “He was thinking a piece of equipment, and we showed him the broad vision and he got really excited. He’s our lead investor now.” With support and the upgraded equipment their business heated up.
As they picked up speed, they needed a suitable space. “We were looking at our current location back in 2017, while we were renting out the basement of a pizza restaurant, complete with grease dripping down the walls. Now this space feels too small, which is a good problem to have I guess,” says Alex. East Fork’s vision has outgrown what was previously thought to be a too-big space.
Culture and Kindness
One of the challenges of a quickly-growing company is maintaining its original culture. The East Fork staff has been intentionally cultivating a culture of adaptability and kindness. In the midst of the workload being added to, it’s important to be okay with a little daily consistency and supporting each other.
“When it was just the original team one person would go down to the kitchen and make lunch for everybody else and then we’d sit under the apple tree. That is a practice we’ve continued, with two staff members making meals for the entire staff, and we eat off our plates. It’s a time for everybody to get to sit down and have a hot meal together, which is an act of love and an act of kindness to make food for each other.”
And East Fork hasn’t kept it’s culture of kindness to itself. The staff has also donated its wares to Haywood Street Congregation, where they hold two community meals a week. “Typically in those kinds of environments, it’s all disposable.” There’s something powerful about a beautiful staple to celebrate humanity in a community context.
Along with juggling their passion and business, Alex and Connie also balance their family together. They have two children, who are quite the East Fork celebrities. “We’re a transparent company, and our brand reflects that. We aren’t too precious, and photos of our children are no different. We aren’t shy to show how really things are, and I think other people relate to it.”
As Alex, Connie, and John continue to grow the company, they are excited to get to a place where production isn’t the bottleneck. Still in the scaling stage, they are eager to be profitable by 2021.
“It’s been quite the journey, but it’s incredible to see how far we’ve come from throwing a few pieces each day to running this company together.”
Rebekah Pierce is best at working in the trenches and getting her hands dirty. She thrives when contributing to a creative culture, so she collaborates with trailblazers to plan and execute powerful ideas. As a CreatEd Institute graduate, Rebekah has led organizing teams for events like Hatch Demo Day to help harness entrepreneurial inspiration, imagination, and innovation. When not brainstorming or analyzing frameworks she is always game for swing dancing, kickboxing, or anything that doesn’t involve sitting. Rebekah is excited to contribute to Asheville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.