In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Elece Leverone, owner of Carmel Ceramica. Carmel Ceramica sells ceramic serveware and home decor, is based in Carmel, California, and has been in business for five years.
Robin: Why did you decide to start Carmel Ceramica?
Elece: I love being an entrepreneur and the art of creating something out of nothing. In 1996, I founded an IT staffing company in the Los Angeles area and took it to a midsize firm. Upon hiring my replacement, I was able to move to Carmel, CA, with my husband and settle back into a quiet life together.
A girlfriend thought it would be fun to take a ceramic course at the local college, so we signed up. She dropped out before the class began but I enjoyed the class so much that I was creating too many ceramic items. My husband encouraged me to sell some of my creations, probably to get them out of our house. Instead, I decided to start Carmel Ceramica and you might say it has become my second passion in my business career.
R: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
E: My first prototype was a dog treat jar for my dog Molly. Then I made another and another for friends. It really didn’t change much from jar to jar. I knew I had a hit when friends wanted one. I sent one off to a factory for them to copy, made a few changes with the glaze, but it looks almost identical to the one I sent.
R: How do you make your product? What’s your process like?
E: In the beginning, I created the products in my studio. It took six months to perfect each piece. These days I don’t have the time to do this, so I mostly sketch out my design and send that to the factory. During the development phase there will be constant back and forth as designs are finalized, but the end result is worth it.
R: How do you get the ideas for your designs? What does your idea generation process look like?
E: Keeping an eye out in the world for trends is important. New development is critical to keep customers interested and generate reorders. Finding new ideas is a never ending process and one that I think every company faces.
R: How did you find a factory to replicate your pieces? Do you have any advice for people looking for a manufacturer?
E: We knew we wanted to manufacture the tabletop collections in Portugal because the factories there have such long histories with this type of product. I researched these factories online, then flew to Portugal to meet with them, discuss my designs and tour their factories.
The development process requires constant back and forth, so it’s important to have a comfortable and productive working relationship. Finding the right manufacturer can be challenging. I think it’s important to have a strong network in the industry and be willing to try different places.
R: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
E: My favorite part of the day is the morning when I have quiet time to sketch out a design. I also love talking with our customers and helping them with their orders. My least favorite part is doing my expense report. Argh.
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
E: I spent too much money on the wrong things. I funded the company myself with my savings.
R: Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve ever made?
E: The pet collection will always be my favorite because it was the first one I did. I especially love all the treat jars.
R: Where was the first place you sold your product?
E: We started selling to retailers at the regional trade shows, AmericasMart, Dallas Market, Las Vegas Market and NYNow.
R: Where do you sell your product now?
E: We sell primarily to independent specialty stores throughout the US. As our product line has grown, the focus has been on mid-ranged serveware and dinnerware that appeals to tabletop, gift and home décor stores looking for unique, well made products not found at the big boxes. The dog and cat collection appeals to boutique pet stores as well as specialty stores with a pet section.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
E: I believe in independent retail where the owner has created a beautiful space for consumers to discover quality merchandise. These types of stores exist everywhere and I know consumers still seek out an enjoyable shopping experience.
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of your business? If so, how?
E: We post regularly on Instagram and Facebook. It is an important part of our business because customers can find us easily and connect with me directly. We’ve received many orders from IG.
R: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with your business?
E: Dealing with the traditional rep/showroom model has been challenging. The old school way of going to market and spending considerable time and money is clearly on the decline. The future of product acquisition for retailers will address this and I think Abound is on the right track.
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with your business?
E: Creating Carmel Ceramica has been quite an accomplishment for me personally. Establishing the relationships we now have with our factories in Portugal has been very gratifying. And now that we are in a growth phase for sales it’s a constant source of satisfaction for me.
R: Do you ever miss your IT staffing company?
E: Miss it? Never left it, I still own the company and maintain an active interest. I’m down there frequently keeping myself involved in major decisions. It’s critical to hire good people to manage the day to day and I have been fortunate to find hard working executives for both my businesses that I trust.
R: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
E: Just three points:
-Go slowly and test your product in the market before jumping in with both feet.
-Then increase your budget by 10 times.
-Don’t invest more than you are willing to lose.
R: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
E: On my computer monitor is the quote “All our dreams can come true – if we have the courage to pursue them.” Walt Disney
Wise advice from one of the world’s best creators, don’t you think? It really applies to the entrepreneur. We love the pursuit.
R: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
E: I love seeing the excitement from a customer when they touch and feel our products. They are very irresistible, so much so that it is often difficult for them to put the item down. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.
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