Meet the Artist Behind The Coy Collection, an Austin-Based Ceramics Business
By: Valeria Ramos
In a recent episode of our Office Chats podcast, Sequoyah Johnson, the creator behind The Coy Collection shared her journey to creating a unique ceramics business based in Austin, Texas with a mission to spread love, joy, and art.
With over 30,000 followers on Instagram, The Coy Collection’s smiley face mugs and other one-of-a-kind ceramics have been known to sell out within minutes of launching new pieces and have even been snagged by celebrities like Jennifer Love-Hewitt. In this interview, Coy shared the highs and lows of starting a business and what collaborating with large organizations like Nike and West Elm was really like.
She also shared the moment that inspired her to take a new approach to her career and life, as well as her advice for small business owners, and more.
What inspired you to create The Coy Collection?
I was let go from a teaching position where the work environment was very toxic. That same week, I was racing to therapy, having a breakdown, and I got in a near-death car accident. It made me take a step back and reconsider what I was doing in life. I realized that life is too short to not do something I love. That led me back to a high school passion of mine, which was creating earrings. I grew up in a strict household and wasn’t able to wear lots of makeup, fake nails, or fake hair, so earrings and clothes were two ways that I was able to express myself.
I started The Coy Collection as an earring-only brand and eventually started making ceramics as well. Even now, I don’t want to stop with just ceramics. I want to bring in some mixed media, printmaking, embroidery, and even candlemaking. Any type of making is my passion, and that’s what inspired creating this company.
What is a valuable lesson you’ve learned throughout your start-up journey?
With anything that is successful or growing, there will always be mistakes and lessons learned. I When I was starting, I was getting a lot of orders and I didn’t have the capital to fulfill them because my pricing was too low. My friend, who’s also a jewelry maker and artist, encouraged me to start a GoFundMe. I remember thinking, “I can’t do this. My mom always taught me not to ask for stuff.” I was hesitant to seem needy, but I told my friend she could start it for me and I’d help write the description and send out emails. I remember when she pushed send, I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done? People are going to look and laugh.”
Within one month, I had raised about $13,000 on GoFundMe, which helped me continue to grow the business. Without that initial push, I don’t think I’d be here today. Having the courage to ask for what I need was a big lesson for me. You’ll be surprised at how many people do want to help and aren’t always bad or looking for something in return.
Tell us about the smiley face! How does this symbol align with your business philosophy?
If you see someone that’s successful, just know that they’ve also been so low rejected in many different forms. Because the only way to climb the ladder is to be knocked down a couple of pegs. With joy comes pain, right? That’s why I continue to use the smiley face motif, because people are like, “It makes me happy!” But the reason you may or may not feel happy is because of the pain. The joy doesn’t work unless you’ve experienced the other side. I think where I come in is a focus on optimism.
What does your team look like now?
I have two gals that help me with ceramic production throughout the week, but I would say about 80 percent of the business is me through and through. I’ve painted everything myself, so I’m pretty hands-on. I was worried at first if a piece was still technically made by me if other people are touching it, but to grow and scale a business, you’re going to need help.
You’ve collaborated with organizations like Nike, West Elm, and more. What were those experiences like?
Some of them were good and some were a bit challenging. In some cases, I saw a shiny name and got excited but didn’t really understand the assignment. I run my business differently than a large organization, so as much as some of them were a fit, some of them really weren’t and it was painful to continue those projects. That being said, I think there needs to be an incredible amount of clarity anytime you take on a collaboration.
Definitely have an agreement upfront and make sure you read it and understand it. Know the terminologies like Net Thirty and Net Sixty (this means you won’t get paid for thirty days or sixty days, respectively). Know what you’re signing and make sure you’re signing something. You can also come to organizations with your own terms, especially if they’re approaching you.
What strategy should small businesses implement to grow their online presence?
My biggest tip is to start an email list. Social media can be gone tomorrow, but an email list is a guaranteed way to connect with the people that are invested in your work. Being able to talk to my customers directly is my biggest win, and while Instagram is cool, there are sharper tools out there that can set you up for success. To incentivize people to join my email list, they get first eyes on all new collections dropping. I also make my emails quirky and fun. I don’t want my emails to be boring or like any other email, so I use gifs, add some personality, and of course, I always use a smiley face signature.
Although I have over 30,000 Instagram followers, only about 2,000 to 3,000 people are seeing my posts because of the algorithm. Followers can be a bit of an illusion—people think that because I’m popular on Instagram, a lot of people buy my work. The reality is that I put more work in other areas that yield a higher ROI.
What advice can you share for someone wanting to start their own business?
Running a business is not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding. You have to go into it with absolute clarity on what you want to do and why you’re doing it. Mistakes are going to be made, but being able to recover and learn from mistakes is the key to running a business and to life.
Portions of this article have been edited for clarity and brevity.