ClayArtByJulie: Sophomore molds side hobby into small business

February 8, 2024 — by Jessica Li
Courtesy of Julie Dong
Dong finishes a clay stack of animals, with two sheep stacked on top of each other and one yellow and one blue bird on top.
Sophomore Julie Dong practices her passion for clay creation through her Etsy business, which she founded over the pandemic.

Meticulously going over the edges and surfaces of the black ball of air-dry clay, sophomore Julie Dong carefully shaped the body of a sheep clay craft, completing the first step of her creation. She then moved on to molding out miniature balls of white clay, resembling the wool of the sheep. Animal items are some of her favorite pieces to create, and she was relieved that her creation was off to a good start.

Such is the typical process Dong uses as part of her small business, ClayArtByJulie. 

She sells a diverse collection of hand-made earrings, magnets, keychains, Christmas tree ornaments and more. Her business’s Instagram handle is @clayartbyjulie and her Etsy is @ClayArtByJulie.

Dong started her business in June 2020 during the pandemic. Fueled by boredom during lockdown and faced with a growing collection of useless clay items, she decided to turn her hobby into a business to make productive use of her inventory.

She first discovered her passion for clay creation back in second grade and has been making clay crafts with clay ever since.

“After my friend brought clay on a playdate, I found it more fun than expected and bought some more to experiment with at home,” Dong said.

To create her products, Dong typically uses polymer clay and air dry clay, which she buys from Amazon or Michaels. After she finishes the sculpting process, she puts polymer-clay items in the oven at 275 degrees for 15 minutes and air dry-clay items out to dry for three days to a week.

The pricing of items in Dong’s shop, ranging from $15 to $70, is based on complexity, time spent and size. For example, if a one-centimeter earring takes 30 minutes to make, her price will come around to $20.

One special service Dong’s shop offers is custom orders, which she collects through private messages on Etsy. To request a custom order, a customer sends her a sketch or description of their desired order and Dong draws it out to confirm that her design fulfills their criteria. If the customer agrees, Dong proceeds to make the actual order, which can take up to two weeks. Though the process usually runs smoothly, she has to deal with unhappy customers once in a while.

“One time, the clay melted once it was received by the customer,” she said. “As a result, they left a bad review on the website without consulting me beforehand or [submitting] a request to send another ornament. I resolved the situation by messaging them and sending them a new piece, so they removed their review and everything ended well.”

The biggest challenge Dong has met is sustaining the motivation to keep her business alive. She finds the process of creating listings to sometimes be tedious and time-consuming (around 20-30 minutes each) since each one requires a name, keywords, prices, shipping times and a picture. Another complication is shipping, which requires Dong to box, label, aestheticize and drive the product to the shipping location.

In addition, Dong often struggles with the limited time constraints for creating custom orders, especially during the school year. Usually, Dong receives one to two orders a week, and custom orders are rarer.

“The customer typically gives you 20 days per order, so I need to take into account the clay drying time, which can be very time-consuming, taking from three days up to one week,” Dong said, “I also need to figure out my schoolwork schedule and extracurriculars, so juggling multiple things can be challenging.”

As for the future of the business, she hopes to keep it alive for as long as possible, but if she gets too busy in college, she plans to put her business on vacation and come back at a later time so it doesn’t become too stress-inducing.

On the bright side, managing a small business has allowed Dong to experience memorable and educational interactions with fellow small business owners.

“Once I met a 70-year-old lady on Etsy who ordered from my shop, but it turned out she was also a seller,” Dong said. “I learned a lot from her about how to prioritize shipping, and it was nice meeting someone I usually wouldn’t meet and hearing their unique perspective.” 

Besides receiving advice from other sellers, Dong also leans heavily on her mom for general support like sorting through tax forms and driving her to the postal office. Still, she appreciates the freedom she has in running a small business on her own.

“My favorite part about being a small business owner is that you can decide everything you want to sell and no one’s restricting you to selling certain items,” Dong said, “It’s really rewarding and something you wouldn’t experience normally.”

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