Women Entrepreneur’s Series: Kristen Falkirk Takes A Career in IT and Turns Custom Tile Maker

Speaking with Kristen Falkirk of Falkirk Tileworks brought me so much joy. She is the epitome of what I strive to become - an entrepreneur who is grateful, full of gratitude for her work and oozing with optimism. Her spirit is contagious, her work is beautiful and she already holds so much wisdom as a business woman. Interviewing her offered a lot of gems and insights for how I want to grow my own business as an entrepreneur. My biggest takeaway from her was to select jobs that you are excited to do and that bring you joy. After all, that is the point in creating your own business, you want it to be something that you love! I’m so excited to learn from her journey and follow her as she continues to grow her business from here. Check out her interview and let me know your thoughts!


Kristen Falkirk in her Studio


@MackofAllTradesNY: Do you mind telling me a little bit about your background? Where are you from and how did you get into tile making as a profession?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: I actually have a day job. I work in IT during the day and that’s what pays the mortgage while I’m building the business. Before that I was actually a printmaker for about 10 years, so I have some experience in the creative world. I knew I wanted to work in clay for a while but it seemed so expensive and there are already so many people who work in clay right now that are doing amazing things. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to put out anything that has a different voice from what’s already out there.


So I started dabbling in clay for fun, primarily sculpture though, and then I applied on a whim for an artist grant, not thinking I was going to get it. There’s a regional gentleman in Louisville who has developed this contemporary art grant that he gives away three times a year. Anyone can apply and however many people he approves, they essentially get funding for whatever they ask for. I wrote this great proposal to go to London for like 2 weeks. There’s a show called Ceramic Art of London. It’s essentially the “who’s who” of ceramics in the UK and in the EU. This has been like my dream. I have wanted to go to it forever. This particular year too there happened to be a show by my favorite sculptor. It all just seemed too perfect.


And one night in December, I remember being in bed and reading my email, and I saw an email pop up that said I had won the grant. I still get chills just thinking about it. This was December 2018. It was unbelievable they gave me this money to look at art in London! So I did. I spent two weeks in London all by myself going to the galleries and going to the art shows.


As part of the Ceramic Art London conference, there was a lecture series with different ceramic artisans and people who work with clay. One of these was a gentleman from a company called Darwin Terracotta. His company makes architectural ceramics. Like if you see a building with a ceramic architectural cornice, that’s what they do. So it’s very ornate work. They had this amazing workshop, and as he was telling us about this I was utterly fascinated. It has never crossed my mind that people make tiles for a living? It really had never entered into my consciousness. It was one of those moments that changed my life. It was one of those moments that you don’t know you are going to have and then you have it. Up until that point I had always been undecided, but right then and there I thought well maybe this just cemented everything. It was the weirdest feeling.


I came home and bought a kiln, set up my own studio and now I get to make amazing tiles and work with incredible people helping them to bring their visions to life. I’m so excited each and every day. I just can’t believe I get to do this and I love it so much! That’s how it happened, one lecture, one crazy awesome grant, and it literally changed my life. It feels weird to say that but it showed me what could happen when you take a risk in life. I love it.


Photo Credit @kristenfalkirk_tileworks


@MackofAllTradesNY: Do you plan to transition to this full-time? If so, what time frame are you aiming for?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: I was expecting to be on my own by June of last year and then Covid hit. So the timeline has changed a bit and become more fluid. I’m very grateful I have my day job. I love my boss and he’s truly amazing and really supportive. I actually think he was more excited I got the grant than I was. And I realize that doesn’t often happen, so I’m very lucky to have him as a boss. I would love to do full-time right now, but with health insurance and things being weird right now, I kinda relaxed on the timeline and am hoping for next year. I guess it just depends on how quickly things get back to normal now. I’m really just interested in growing the business organically.


@MackofAllTradesNY: Do you have a mentor that you work with? If so, how have they helped guide you to build the business?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: Not really. I had one when I was a printmaker before. I actually had a studio space outside the house and in Louisville. The woman who shared the studio space next to me was a huge mentor and taught me a lot of things about working in art full-time and creating full-time.So yes, but not in clay. Since then I have sort of gathered my people who I bounce ideas off of. Technically my mentor is a business coach. She’s a really good friend of mine and we get together once a quarter. I usually say here’s my plan, and we go over how I break it down into chunks to tackle. That has been incredibly helpful.


@MackofAllTradesNY: What has the hardest part of building your own business been?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: Being a one woman show. Like I have to do the marketing, I do the making, I do the financials and I still have to leave space to create and to come up with new ideas. That’s the hardest but most rewarding thing: I make all decisions. And honestly, that’s how I like it. I get to see what works and what doesn’t. There is nobody else. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. Like if I have an order and if I don't come into the studio to cut tiles the order won't get completed. I eventually would love to have an assistant, perhaps someone to for which I could act as a mentor. I’d love to help someone in college or high school and just to show them what is possible. I’d love for them to know that, yes, you can make art and functional items for a living. That would be truly amazing.


Sample Tiles from @Kristenfalkirk_tileworks


@MackofAllTradesNY: How did you develop your style of tiles?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: Honestly, I think it was printmaking. Being an artist in another medium previously helped hone in on what I like and what I don’t really like. It’s more the battle of figuring out what you don’t connect with versus what you do enjoy doing. I’ve noticed since the beginning of Covid that a lot of my printmaking designs are starting to show up in my linework on my tiles which is cool because I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It just sorta happens. When I go to a sketchbook from like 6 years ago I see the seedlings of the idea. I like that surprise. It just feels comfortable, like things are coming full circle.


Custom Tiles from @kristenfalkirk_tileworks


I love blue glazes, and I love naturey things that are organic. I don’t really like things that are too perfect. And because I started to do this as a side project, not for therapy but like a meditation really, it has to be meditative. It shouldn’t be stressful. If it doesn’t serve that purpose, then what’s the point? I mean, I know it’s a job, but I also want it to be fun. Why own your own business if you don’t enjoy doing it?


Custom Tiles for Local Brewery


@MackofAllTradesNY: How would you describe your artistic style?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: I’m very right-brained but also very left-brained. I use a lot of linework and all of my linework is not perfect. There might be wiggle here or there and you can tell it’s been done by hand. Everything is organic and I hate to use the phrase “wabi sabi' because it is so overused right now, but it’s very much what I love. I love when things aren’t perfect but when you put them altogether it’s a very cohesive image. I enjoy the idea that if you look at each one it’s a little bit different, but they are very nature-inspired and very organic. I love blues and greens. You probably notice that when looking at my tiles I don't use a ton of reds. I’m more inspired by forests and oceans. I try to break it down so people do see that I can use reds and I have a couple yellows, muted colors, but not a whole lot of jewel tones in general. I want spaces that include my tiles to be subtle and cozy and places where you want to spend time in there. I don’t want anything too glaring. That’s what I’m going after, really.


"Kite Tiles" Handmade by Kristen Falkirk


@MackofAllTradesNY: Do you have clients who come to you and ask if you can recreate a design they love?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: I’m very careful around copyrights rules and respecting other artists' work. I won’t copy anything because if there is another company making it: a) I won’t add anything to the conversation and b) to me that’s just wrong. So if a client says I want something that feels like this or is in this general family, that I'm okay with. I know my style isn’t exactly like theirs but, yeah, I do take commission work. I just spoke to a guy yesterday who sent me and asked for “something like this.” He also then elaborated and said he wanted it to be sort of like this or that. I took in what he was saying and next I’ll make some samples to send them out. I find sometimes that clients that are homeowners or in the hospitality spaces sometimes don’t have the same imagination as we do, so I say this is what I can do and then create an actual visual like with photoshop. It makes a conversation easier. Basically I like to give options and help them see the vision before they commit.


Custom Speckled Tiles created by @kristenfalkirk_tileworks


@MackofAllTradesNY: Who was your first client and how did you acquire them as a client?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: It was actually someone I worked with at the time. I hadn’t officially started my business yet so I wasn't really looking for clients. I spent most of 2019 practicing, really. We work together though and she’s amazing. She saw my work on Instagram and said, “Hey, I want some tiles.” I was excited and told her I can probably make those and that I'll give the ‘family and friends discount’ if she’ll let me. She was already in though, which was great. So that was my first official job and it was for the stair risers.


Custom Stair Riser Tiles from Kristen Falkirk


She told me what feel she wanted and sent me some inspo pictures. I sent her 3 different drawings and then watercolored them so she could see the color variations. We also knew it was just gonna be a square, so that was simple. She picked one of the designs and I made up some sample tiles. I will say I would not recommend taking on such a big job like this for your first job. It was intimidating. I think I made like 300 tiles and they had to be exactly 5x5 to fit the risers. We did that because I didn’t want to have to make a lot of cuts because I was installing them too. I wanted to get the height and width to fit just right. So it was fun, I went over and measured so that I could get the size just right. It took me a while just to figure that out. I spent a lot of time practicing. Tiles warp and don’t like to stay flat when you bake them, they want to curve. So I spent some time trying to get that process figured out.


It helped my learning curve to have a specific quantity, certain colors, and a certain size. I had to figure out things like how big the original tile should be because they shrink when baking as well. My tiles now start between 10 and 11 percent bigger than they are in the end. I had to do math to figure out how much they would shrink and how much bigger does it have to be when I make the original template. That wasn’t why I got into art. I thought I wasn't going to have to do any math in this field. But that was my first job and my client was thrilled. We even installed together, pre-Covid, of course, which was really fun. It was a really amazing experience and it just cemented it that this is what I want to do forever.


@MackofAllTradesNY: Are there any other projects that stood out? Do you have a favorite project so far?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: Technically I’ve only been in business since January of last year. In that time I have had 3 major projects. The first one went so well and I was so happy to see my dream come to fruition in this project. The second one, I have a friend who is an interior designer in Louisville, and she was designing and remodeling a house in Cincinnati. She wanted a specific type of lighting. Now I have never done lighting, but she’s wonderful in that she knows how far to push me out of my comfort zone. So I made twelve flush mount lights for her and they turned out so beautifully. She sent me a drawing of what she wanted and I had to sort of reverse engineer it to figure out how to get that shape because I don’t throw on the wheel. Everything I do is hand built. It was a cool engineering challenge. Those are my favorite projects, the times where I get to sit down and plot out how something works. I enjoy figuring out how I can do this. That one was amazing and I got to deliver them to the client and she was over the moon. Again, I just can’t believe I get to do this for a living.


Custom Flush Mount Lighting from Kristen Falkirk


My third project was at a brewery and I installed in September. Overall, start to finish, it took the longest. They contacted me in November of 2019 and I installed it in fall of 2020, so almost a year later. Apparently hospitality projects go like that. I learned so much because I designed everything. They told me what feeling they wanted. They wanted it to be sort of Kentucky-based, but not. Kentucky is known for horse racing and bourbon. But they said they didn’t want any of that, so they wanted to bring a different conversation with my work. I came up with a beautiful mosaic. I sent them the 6 colors and they ended up picking 5 of the colors so I went to town. I did a Photoshop mock-up so they could kinda see what it’s gonna look like. I even got to actually go to the construction site and install it! I had so much fun with those guys and now I go and drink beer there and we say hi since the owners know me because I was there every day for like 3 weeks.


Custom tiles at a brewery


@MackofAllTradesNY: Interesting, so you install tiles as well! I didn’t know that. Is that something you are moving away from as you grow your business?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: I’m not a professional installer. It was a lot of pressure, and to be fair, I didn’t install the lights. The homeowners did actually but I had those wired and ready to go.


My dad is a homebuilder and so it just feels right to install and be on a site and that kind of thing. I’m not a professional though and there are people who are professionals. I kinda don't want to take away their jobs. They are really good at this, I'm really good at making tiles. I got to spend more making the tiles for the brewer if I installed it, so that ended up being kinda a budget decision, but yeah, i just want to make tiles and send them to people and have the pros take it from there.


@MackofAllTradesNY: How do you figure out your prices when you are creating your pricing? I feel like as women we often undervalue our services. How do you handle that aspect of creating a new business?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: Absolutely! And I’m guilty of this too. It still feels weird to have people pay me for doing something I love to do so much. It’s emotional because I really want to do it. But honestly, since mid last year I started charging by square foot and that has helped a lot. I was able to create a sort of a base price, and from there I decide how custom the job is and how much time it is going to take to glaze each tile. If it’s an intricate motif, it will take a lot longer than if it's just a single glaze. It’s hard, I don't have a perfect system and I’m still learning and figuring it out. Basically pricing is determining how much my time is worth and that’s always the hardest fit, right? You don’t want to undervalue yourself but you really want to do this fun thing. It’s delicate.


Sample Tiles from @kristenfalkirk_tileworks


I also have talked to people who also make clay tiles and we have started mini conversations. It’s nice to see other people are kind of in the same boat. The good thing is that there really is no wrong answer. You can charge as little or as much as you want. Some of it is perceived value. I’ve had a couple of people tell me that my prices are too low. I live in southern Indiana as opposed to a big city like Minneapolis and I'm not undercutting them. I just want to pay my bills. I don't expect to become a millionaire doing this. But I would like to turn my business into something that is full-time and I would like to make more tiles. I'm trying to find a happy medium there. I am not the target market for my tiles. I also heard if you are not uncomfortable with your pricing, you are not charging enough. So I’m trying to get to that point but it’s a balance.


@MackofAllTradesNY: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs starting off, especially women?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: Just do it. I did several things before I finally found the thing that connected with me completely and totally, and the truth is you just don't know that until you try. Do something and don’t undercut yourself. Do some research. It’s okay to look up and see what other people are charging. If you are in the same range, you are okay. Mostly just go out and do it. Try something. You don’t know, you might be the next Etsy star! Just solve a problem for someone who needed a problem solved. Maybe I’m making a tile for someone who couldn’t find exactly what they wanted and then they came to me and I made it for them? If people don’t know you do this thing and that you love doing this thing, they’re not going to come find you. Just do it. I’ll be honest, my main marketing was Instagram. I’d make something and put it on Instagram. I don’t spend a ton on marketing because I can’t handle a ton of business right now. I’m grateful for the business I do get, but I also know there are only 24 hours in a day so I have to take that into effect considering I also have a day job. If you have time to side hustle 4 hours a night, you gotta figure out what you can do in those 4 hours a night.


@MackofAllTradesNY: That’s great advice. Don't take on more than you can deliver early on. Did you have any fears or insecurities around starting your business or putting your art out to the world?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: All day, every day! Especially when it comes to anything I’m creating. My art is personal. When I create something and there is a change, someone can come to me and say they don’t like it and you have to be prepared for that. I’m still not prepared. I can’t be everything to everybody. But I do something, put it out there, and see what happens. If you feel good about it and you’re not hurting anybody, try to ignore what the naysayers say. I feel like an impostor 24 hours a day. Like I said before, I can't believe people want to pay me for something I love to do so much. It might just be how I was raised but I was taught you go to work, you sit at a desk, and you do this thing from 8-5 and then you go home. When I'm creating is the antithesis of that. You feel like an imposter. Who is gonna pay me for this? I know it’s great. I love it. But is anyone else gonna love it? Is anyone going to hire me for this? It’s all day, every day and that never goes away. You just learn to quiet that voice in your own head.


@MackofAllTradesNY: Do you have any fears regarding finances when you leave your full-time job? How will you know when the time is right to make that leap?


@kristenfalkirk_tileworks: I’ve heard that you know when you don’t have any time left for yourself. That’s when it’s time to make that transition. When you don't have time for your day job, that means you're busy enough to take on your full-time business psychologically. I have feelings of that, but I'm not there yet. Also right now, with everything being so weird. I’m so grateful to have a day job and a day job I like at that. I also know I will get a part-time job no matter what because I need that adult conversation. Part of that fuels my creativity. If I’m not experiencing that in conversation, then I feel like that will take a hit to my creativity.


Health insurance is also the biggest thing. Knowing that if I get hurt, I can go to the doctor is peace of mind. I mean I’m dealing with a kiln. It’s like 2000 degrees! Something is gonna happen and if we were in the UK, I probably would have already gone full-time because I would not have to have that worry. I’d like to know that if something terrible happens, I'd still be seen. Money-wise, I know I can make it work. I could work as a barista or bartender or do something in that vein, so that part I'm not really worried about yet. I say that now too, but I'm sure I will be more nervous about that when I’m actually quitting. Even though there is no security in a job, and they could likely fire you tomorrow, it still feels like there is security. I struggle with letting go of that myself. Our society says that you should go to work and they pay you, and the idea of solely being responsible for myself and my prosperity is a little overwhelming. What happens if it doesn’t work out? What if we eat ramen noodles again? Am I okay making that decision? I don't want to have any regrets.


So where can you find this incredible maker and purchase some of her custom tiles? Check her out at: www.falkirktileworks.com. She can also be found on Instagram @kristenfalkirk_tileworks. Kristen has been a huge inspiration and taught me a lot about mindset, optimism and taking risks. I am super blessed to have had the opportunity to learn from her and I’m incredibly excited to see her business continue to grow and flourish. Passion is contagious and I left our conversation more pumped than ever to jump back into my own business and continue to build it.


Thank you from the bottom of my heart Kristen! I can't wait to meet up in person the next time I'm in Indy! :)


Forever Grateful,

Mack


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