Brit McDaniel, owner of Paper & Clay
Broad Avenue is an unassuming stretch of locally owned businesses on a quiet street, formerly a bustling commercial corridor of the historic Binghampton community. Nestled between Memphis’ Overton Park and a freeway, demarcated by the landmark Broad Ave. Water Tower, a community of entrepreneurs and artisans are working together to create an arts corridor complete with boutique stores, fine dining, galleries, and handmade goods. Within this community is Brit McDaniel and her shop, Paper & Clay. Founded in 2013, Paper & Clay features modern handmade ceramics “made start to finish with my two tiny hands,” says McDaniel. While McDaniel is quite small in stature, she has built a widely known and celebrated Memphis business, amassed more than 27,000 followers on Instagram, and most recently, hired her first employee.
McDaniel graduated from Cordova High School and enrolled as a fine arts major at the University of Memphis. The burden and stress of working full-time while enrolled in college full-time wore heavily on McDaniel, and ultimately she quit school. After a few years living in Austin and working as a full-time nanny, McDaniel felt something was missing. “Ceramics was what I had always wanted to do. It didn’t seem like a practical career in college, but at some point my desire to do it outweighed my fear that it was impractical,” McDaniel says. With that, McDaniel moved back to Memphis to finish her education at University of Memphis. With a crowdsourced fundraising campaign, McDaniel raised nearly $5,000 in startup funds, and Paper & Clay was born. In just a few years, McDaniel quit a full-time job, finished a fine arts degree, and launched immediately into entrepreneurship. “I knew I needed to go directly from school to starting a studio because if I got sucked into a comfortable job it would be really hard to leave,” she says. “I didn’t have very much to lose. I had so much student loan debt anyway, and it was what I wanted to do. It was going to work, or I was going to suck at it, fail, and get another job. Luckily, it worked.”
After three years in a downtown Memphis studio, McDaniel paired up with another Memphis artisan, Lauren Carlson of Question the Answer. Together, they relocated to 300-square-foot studio and retail space on Broad Avenue in April 2017. “It’s a really good fit,” McDaniel says of cohabitating businesses with Carlson. “When we joined forces we both realized how lonely it had been working on our own. It’s also great to be able to bounce ideas off someone who has real insight and can tell you when you’re going off the deep end.”
Despite a steadily growing customer base, expansion to national retail platforms like West Elm, and the success of keeping Paper & Clay alive for five years, McDaniel reached an impasse. “I was seeing my sales plateau. I got to the point where I couldn’t physically produce or work anymore than I was already working. Seven days I week I was just trying to handle the absolutely essential things,” McDaniel says. “I wasn’t able to put aside time for growing the business, marketing, strategizing, or anything like that.” After a few conversations with Epicenter, Paper & Clay was deemed a good fit to be a Friends and Family Fund recipient in October 2018. Using the $12,000 in funding from Epicenter, McDaniel hired a part-time employee to help clean, organize, pack orders, price items, and manage the retail space at Paper & Clay. With that boost in help, McDaniel was able to double her fourth quarter sales from 2017. “Without this investment I would have been stuck in the same place for eternity,” McDaniel says. “I’m not in a position to ask for help from my family, so I reinvest everything I can into my business. Without this infusion, it would have been really difficult for me to hire someone without knowing whether I could pay them for the long term. I didn’t like the idea of hiring someone and then three months later having to take their job away. So this investment was huge. I can’t imagine how I would have gotten here without it.”
McDaniel and her husband have no intention of leaving Memphis. “I can’t imagine how I would have started this in Austin,” she says. “Unless I was doing pottery in someone’s falling-down shed.” As for what’s next for Paper & Clay, McDaniel is focused on avoiding the pitfalls many luxury brands face in trading one-of-a-kind pieces for mass-production. McDaniel prefers to hit financial goals through more efficient processes and maintain committed to why she started Paper & Clay in the first place. “My goal is not to be the manager of many employees making ceramics,” she says. “I want to find a sweet spot where I’m making enough to sustain my livelihood and an employee or two and focus on making better and better work. I want to have a practice that allows me to keep my business growing and also grow as an artist and person.”