5 Tips from a Small Business That Survived—and Thrived—in COVID

MudFire is more than a typical pottery studio. It’s a community hub for all pottery lovers, from hobbyists to independent artists. How devoted is the community? When Deanna Ranlett and Daphne Dail took over the Decatur, Georgia studio from the original owners in 2013, the locals raised the funds for the down payment. So Deanna and Daphne have been on a mission to repay that generosity, whether by nurturing the next generation of ceramic talent through the MudFire mentorship and residency program or promoting artist sales through the MudFire Gallery.

Like many passionate small business owners, Deanna and Daphne work long hours to make MudFire a welcoming home for members, students, and customers. Things like updating their Instagram or redesigning the website tend to take a backseat. “We knew we could benefit from improving our digital game, but there was always something else to do,” says Deanna. “We figured as long as our regulars could still find us, what was the rush?”

That all changed in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced MudFire to temporarily close. Many of its members and artists took a financial hit as well. Like many small businesses around the world, MudFire had to learn how to connect with its community through digital. As part of The Holiday Small Business Boost from Adobe and Square, MudFire teamed up with local Atlanta designer Sarah Lawrence to learn how to take its digital footprint to the next level with just a few easy changes.

Today, the MudFire owners share their top five tips for embracing a digital approach and defining a brand during a pandemic.


1. Rethink What You Offer

“COVID took all the momentum out of our 2020 plans,” says Deanna. “MudFire is more than just a community. It’s a workspace for many artists. How do we make our studio safe for everyone?”

MudFire spaced out workstations, enacted new sanitization measures, and set up a new online appointment system for artists. For all of the artists working at home, contactless firing services gives them a safe way to drop off their projects for firing in one of MudFire’s professional kilns.

Some of the #DateNight graphics MudFire has used to advertise the offering.

The Date Night program takes advantage of social distancing guidelines to create intimate settings where couples, friends, and family can connect. The online Summer Camp gave kids all of the clay, glazes, and tools that they needed to follow along with videos at home and create ceramic pieces that are one of a kind. These programs kept MudFire on the community’s radar, encouraging donations and holiday sales that kept artists in business throughout 2020.

2. Create a Brand

The idea of creating a brand always seemed daunting to Deanna and Daphne. How can you summarize a studio and all of its artists into a few elements? As it turned out, their brand was already all around them. Sarah took familiar elements from around the studio—the yellow of the workroom, the green plants decorating countertops—to create the look and feel of the new MudFire brand. Sarah then helped organize all of these colors, fonts, and logos in Spark and designed reusable and recognizable templates. Deanna and Daphne simply pick the elements they need to quickly create branded social media posts, posters, and ads.

Choosing colors that represent the brand and using them throughout their designs unifies and bolsters brand recognition.

“It seems obvious when you look at it,” says Deanna. “We saw the branded elements that Sarah created for us, and we recognized the gray walls where we painted murals and the sweeping brushstroke of a glaze paintbrush. We are surrounded by our brand, and we just needed to use it consistently to give us a recognizable MudFire look.”

3. Lean Into Simplicity

The new MudFire website is crisp, clean, and simple. A clear booking button encourages artists to schedule their appointments. The muted green color palette reflects the clay and plant life that make up the MudFire brand.

“The old website had a lot more words—too much text and too few images,” says Deanna. “Sarah helped us realize that we needed to focus our message. We just needed short explanations and key images that would get our message across. A lot of people have told us that the website it so much easier to use. It’s had a huge impact on our bottom line.”

Simple headlines on graphics and the website help communicate the most important information, fast.

Now people can find information they want much easier—checking online schedules, browsing through the Gallery, or reading about custom orders. That’s leading to more visitors, more interest, and more sales. MudFire used to take 10 to 15 online orders in a month; now they’re seeing the same number of orders in a week.

4. Take Advantage of Social Reach

The MudFire Instagram account now has a much more cohesive look and feel. Using Spark, Deanna and Daphne can work with templates that already include borders, backgrounds, and logos that make their posts consistent. They can even create animated posts or announcements with a graphical twist.

“Our artists have different styles and work with completely different color palettes,” says Deanna. “We didn’t know how to make our Instagram feel cohesive. It was much easier than we thought. Even simple borders really bring the posts together. Spark makes it fast to create branded visuals so that people can instantly recognize a MudFire post on their feed.”

MudFire’s feed before the re-design.

MudFire’s feed after the re-design.

Sarah also advised Deanna and Daphne to use short text and hashtags on the images. This reinforces the post’s message when people see the image in their dashboard, whether it’s encouraging holiday shoppers to buy from local artists or reminding people to book their Valentine’s Date Night.

Reaction to the new Instagram feed has been electric. They’re not only hitting the two percent month-over-month social media follower growth goal they’ve seen an additional half a percentage point growth each month. MudFire also invested some of its advertising budget to boost posts across Facebook and Instagram. The membership waiting list rose from 15 people to more than 100 while online sales boomed.

“In the first three months after the redesign, our online sales exceeded our total gallery sales for all of 2019,” says Deanna. “All of our new customers said that they saw our social media ads. It shows that there are audiences out there, and small businesses like ours just need to find them.”

5. Embrace Your Dreams

As the pandemic continues, Deanna and Daphne are still concerned about what the economic uncertainty might mean for the ceramics community. Are people putting off their dreams of starting a business or taking up a new hobby?

Fortunately, interest in the studio’s mentorship program remains as strong as ever.

“People realize the importance of pursuing their dreams during COVID,” says Deanna. “They want to join the mentorship program and try to make it as their own small ceramics business. It’s more important than ever that MudFire is there to support them. We saw a 106 percent growth in business toward the end of the year when we really focused on promoting what we do online. We’re also focusing that energy back into the residency program.

2020 taught us that you have to be flexible and strong. We hope that’s a lesson we can pass on to our residents and other small businesses.”