Myles and Heather Geyman, Stak Ceramics: Focus on the Process

Following your passion won’t necessarily result in a sustainable career. For every artist pursuing their dream full time, there are countless others slaving away at jobs that they hate. So how do you turn your passion into your profession? Each week Just Like Grape brings you interviews with designers, artists and entrepreneurs who are able to do what they love. 

This week, we’re interviewing Myles and Heather Geyman. The couple founded Stak Ceramics in 2011 and are best known for their for high-quality ceramic phone docks. Currently, they sell their phone docks and other beautiful products online and through more than 30 retailers including West Elm. 

In this interview, Myles and Heather also chat about their design process and how to run a business. They also talk about their origin story and what it’s like to start a business with your spouse. Here are some of their tips for makers who are just getting started: 

Failure is a part of the design process. It’s foolish to think that the first thing you make will be a success. 

Make sure your price point is appropriate for the amount of work that you’re putting into each product. 

Working with your significant other is possible, but you can’t let disagreements simmer. 

Just Like Grape: How has working together impacted your personal relationship? 

Myles: It may sound weird, but having both a work relationship and a personal relationship works really well because we have to address issues immediately. You can’t just let things simmer--you have to work things out. 

Heather: We’ve actually been working with one another for longer than we’ve been a couple. We worked together loosely for a while but would attend fairs separately. After one fair, we realized that we were driving up separately and it just didn’t make sense. Our relationship was getting more serious and it just made sense to collaborate. 

JLG: So how did you transition from working more typical routes before diving into doing your own thing? 

Myles: Well we were both working full time. And Heather had the opportunity to work at the ceramics supplier part time and dedicate the other part of the week to Stak. 

Heather: Myles had a full-time job, but was actually laid off. And he decided that he wasn’t going to look for another job and he was going to go full time. 

Myles: Even when I was working, I was able to work a few hours a week on Stak. And we both thought, “Man if we could work eight hours a day on our business, it would be really successful.” I got laid off and thought, “Yay.” It’s weird to be excited about being laid off, but I saw it as an opportunity to work on this and make it everything that we can make it. 

Heather: He had champagne and balloons to celebrate.

JLG: How big was your business at that point? 

Heather: We had maybe three wholesale accounts and mostly relying on craft shows for income. 

Myles: We were starting to work at our new studio space. And already scaling up. It happened to coincide with work scaling down. It was a happy confluence there. 

JLG: Were you nervous?

Heather: I’m always nervous. And Myles is always excited. He’s always so positive and so motivated. 

Stak Sprout Planger Phone Dock

Myles: I just thought of it as an opportunity to make it happen.

JLG: How did you find the first accounts?

Heather: They approached us from doing Renegade Craft Fair. When they asked us to do wholesale, I didn’t know that was the path that we were going to go down, so we didn’t have a line sheet and we didn’t have a catalog. 

Myles: It’s grown very organically. Very little intent except for the development of product. 

JLG: What’s your development process? How do you think of new progress?

Myles: I have a lot of ideas…

Heather: That’s an understatement. Myles spews ideas 24 hours a day. 

Myles: Some of it is very linear and related to what we do. We have a new planter valet and we’re trying to offer things that are more modular so that we can offer a wider breadth of product to coordinate with it. 

Heather: Myles is the primary designer. And I’m the filter. I say no, that’s not a great idea. And refine it from there. He has so many ideas and so many prototypes. It’s crazy. 

Myles: We go through a traditional design process. I’ll sketch and do renderings and prototype it out of other materials, be it clay or poster board or foam core. And take that to actually make prototypes and 

Heather: I would say that it takes a good six months to a year for us to get it ready to sell. 

Myles: We’re also running a business. 

Heather: We want to use them ourselves and give them to friends to get feedback before we start selling. 

JLG: How do you incorporate feedback into future ideas?

Myles: We try stuff out at craft shows and we give prototypes to friends. 

Heather: People at craft fairs give you really honest feedback. It’s not like you’re mom. They’ll say, “You should do this.”

Myles: People aren’t shy. It’s a nice beta-testing free crowdsourced feedback. 

JLG: When have you failed?

Myles: We do that so often. Throughout a week. Like if we make a glaze, sometimes it’ll look like vomit. Or it’ll start cracking. 

Heather: There are definitely more failures than successes. We’re constantly trying new things. The same goes for product design too.

Myles: For every item on our website, there are 30 items that never made it to production. It can be frustrating, but we both approach it like we’re learning. You know you’re going to fail. 

Heather: Maybe when you start out you don’t realize that you’re going to fail. That it’s just part of the process. 

Myles: Everyday there’s something. Every day you’re learning. We did a planter phone dock a while ago. We had made a big compartment that was supposed to be for pencils and pens. A wholesale account filled it with soil and succulents. They had made it a planter. We were ready to scrap it. We instantly got like 10 orders. 

Heather: We had designed it as a desk organizer. We literally didn’t sell any of them for two years. But were about to scrap it. And the moment somebody put some plants in it, it took off. 

Myles: We even used it as inspiration for our future designs. We now have a valet with a planter. 

Heather: I was pretty bummed about it because it was the first dock that I designed. And I was like, “Why doesn’t like anyone that my dock?”

Myles: Now it’s the most popular one. 

JLG: What advice do you have for people who want to follow a similar path? 

Myles: If you design something, make sure you’re willing to make it over and over and over. 

Heather: Make sure it’s something that you enjoy making. Also, if you’re making something by hand, and you want to wholesale it, make sure you’re designing it with that in mind. And you’re getting the compensation that you deserve if you’re making something for wholesale. That’s something that we ran into. We ran into some issues with our price points which are normally 50% of the price of retail. 

Myles: It’s almost the difference between the art world and product world. If you spend an hour making a mug, you need to sell the mug for $120 and that doesn't make sense to make it commercially available. 

Heather: I think there are so many businesses that are getting into wholesale. Stores aren’t going to pay the price point for a handcrafted mug. You need to make sure you’re paid the value of your worth. You don’t have to wholesale your entire product line.