Industry: Built Environment
Products: Handmade tile
Co-founder Kirsten Sharp is riding a wave of sales growth selling ornate artisan tile wholesale and directly to homeowners online.
Sharp grew up with a love for the ornate and working with her hands. Raised in an old Victorian farmhouse, the ceramics artisan says, "My parents were always renovating it, and I was very much influenced by that." She was naturally drawn to pottery in college, graduating with a BFA in ceramics from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.
"I knew I wanted to do some kind of business using my background in ceramics," Sharp continues. "When I met my husband, Peter, who has a background in manufacturing engineering, we decided to make tile. That's how our company got its start, and the design style of the house I grew up in plays into our patterns."
Sharp estimates that the Julep Tile team handcrafts between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet of artisan tile in their 1,000-square-foot studio each year. Though classic and timeless, their tile designs are also quite unique. "A lot of times, people try to make grout disappear," Sharp explains. "But because I've been inspired by Victorian wallpaper patterns, where everything is connected and part of the design, I decided to make it an asset."
To do so, each Julep Tile decorative tile features deep recesses in its face. "That's where the grout goes," Sharp says. "They're pressed in a way that allows us to really make it a part of the pattern."
The tiles are as eco-friendly as they are beautiful. Rather than utilizing traditional bisque and glaze firings, Sharp gives them a single firing in her electric kilns. "The idea is that you can cut down on your energy usage and be more efficient with your labor because you're not loading and unloading the kilns twice," she explains. "There's a greater chance for breakage because the clay is more fragile before it's fired, but it was really important to us to do it this way when we set up the company."
Every Julep Tile project is made to order, which minimizes material waste. Leftover clay scraps are recycled for future projects, and packaging materials are reused whenever possible. "I think people really appreciate this about us," Sharp says. "They also appreciate that we're a small, family-owned business based in the U.S."
Julep Tile's sales doubled from 2018 to 2019, and the company recently started shipping orders to Canada as well. "For years, we were strictly wholesale," Sharp adds. "But a few years ago, we made the decision to start selling online as well. While we still have some showrooms that carry our tile, and we work with a lot of interior designers, we also work directly with homeowners."
Challenges: "Every business goes through phases, or what I would call growing pains," Sharp says. "Maybe they need more staff or more space. For us, our kilns are the biggest bottleneck in our business. We can make way more tile than we can fire with our kilns, even if we keep them going all the time. That has really been a challenge. With the growth we've had, we're also trying to hire more employees and expand our manufacturing capabilities. There's always that fine line between where your sales are at and where you can invest money back into the business."
Opportunities: Sharp says she has really enjoyed working directly with homeowners. "I love to talk to them and hear about the projects they are working on," she adds. "That's something you miss out on when you just sell wholesale. It has been really fun for me to help them pick the right tiles and colors to go with their cabinets and countertops." In the future, she notes that she'd like to "move more towards serving our customers better in the interior design space."
Needs: Sharp says she'd love to be able to invest in expanding the capacity of her electric kilns. "We also just need more space," she continues. "One thousand square feet gets eaten up pretty quickly when you have racks full of tile everywhere. We've become really smart about maximizing our space and using it in the best way. We do simple things to make us more efficient, like having our boxes near where we do our shipping and packaging, but it's harder in a small space."