A story of starting up an art business from co-founder of De-form Pottery

By LAM NGHI / Doanh Nhan Saigon Online News – Monday, March 19, 2018

Three times in starting up a business, two of them were failed, Nguyen Dan Thy, co-founder of De-form Pottery, has learned many valuable lessons.


Figure 1 Cao Thi Hong Loan (left) & Nguyen Dan Thy (co-founders of De-form Pottery)

As ceramics need the patience of artisans, a successful business need many failures to challenge the entrepreneurs. Nguyen Dan Thy, after many painful experiences of startups, by consistently following her dream, sticking with the passion, overcoming failure and never stop learning, established successfully De-form Pottery, one of the outstanding studio today for experiencing ceramic culture, and producing ancient unique Bien Hoa ceramics. De-form Pottery located in the center of Saigon now becomes an “excited destination” of young people who love discovering the traditional culture.

Stand up for passion

Dan Thy’s start-up career began when she became lacking of motivation and passion in her current marketing job at a local business.  At that time, leaving the office to follow youthful dream rather than taking roles within a company is always an attractive goal for Vietnamese young people, and Dan Thy also had the same desire. However, to create “a breathing space” for herself today, Dan Thy has repeatedly tried and failed, again and again.

During the student time at university, Dan Thy has found love in the traditional handicrafts and used to sell handmade products together with her friend at a small corner in a calligraphy shop located in Ho Chi Minh City. So it turns out that when she selected the field to start-up a business, Thy decided to follow “clay”.

“Since childhood, I was attracted by ceramics. I did not truly know the reason but I always have a strong feeling whenever looking at the pottery, even from the product has still not been baked and exposed directly in the yard to the final items displayed in the store. Having a chance to find out how to turn a clay into a useful product is very miraculous” said Dan Thy.

So by keeping this pleasure in heart, Dan Thy decided to visit Bat Trang traditional ceramic village to discover how pottery is made. Then she was back to Saigon and opened the first craft workshop named Phố Handmade. With the market positioning is supplying the area for guiding young people to make their own gifts from various materials as ceramics or paper, Phố Handmade gained very initial impression, and the number of customers increased gradually. However, seven months later, Phố Handmade had to close.

Figure 2 Nguyen Dan Thy (co-founder of De-form Pottery)

“At that period, I failed because of lack of experiences in business, and I did not realize the two main factors that led to the failing of Phố Handmade” Dan Thy recalled. First, due to an insufficient expertise, Dan Thy was unable to instruct customers to make more complicated product as their requirement. So initially, the guests were crowded as a result of curiosity but then gradually reduced. The second reason is that Thy also has no experience in pricing, and building management system for that kind of business; therefore, the price was too low to handle a larger operating costs.

After obtaining many lessons from Phố Handmade, Dan Thy turned back to office work with another marketing job to keep her life stable again. During the next three years, thanks to working hard in a standard business system, Dan Thy had more chances and time to analyze deeper the cause of Phố Handmade failures. With new acknowledgement and the burning desire for startup dream inside, Thy again left her steady job and tried to learn more about pottery at the only ceramic school in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.

Dan Thy shared, “Actually, for those three years, every weekend I drove to Binh Duong, Bien Hoa, reached to many traditional pottery villages for observing and learning the pottery “.

For that reason, when Thy was back to pottery classes, she only need to focus on her rotating skills which is the most fundamental skill in ceramic forming techniques. And then, while studying in Bien Hoa, she found two new partners, one of them is her teacher and another is her friend at high school. The three returned to Saigon and together opened an intensive studio for pottery, named Gốm Xoay.

With many experience and lessons from Phố Handmade, Gốm Xoay was professionally guaranteed by Dan Thy’s expertise. However, the problem of pricing and building the standard management system still had not solved, and as a result, she had dealt with many difficulties. In addition, because the kiln is located in Bien Hoa, customers after finishing their ceramic products must wait up to 2 weeks to get items that made them feel disappointed and discourage. Due to many factors influenced, Dan Thy again had to close her second studio six months later.

“Besides Phố Handmade, with Gốm Xoay, I learned a lot of outstanding things when I bravely implemented my own business ideas. On the other hand, I found that teaching and doing ceramics are also truly appropriate with my personality and make quite anxious when the second business failed quickly “said Dan Thy.

After several days of thinking, Dan Thy determined to spend all of her money with the support of friends and family to set up the third pottery studio has known as De-form Pottery today.

Figure 3 De-form has taught 20,000 customers to experience the traditional pottery style of Bien Hoa  

Refresh the traditional ceramics.

Talking little, watching much to understand the needs of guests is the guiding style at the De-form Pottery studio.

Regardless of the two-hour or professional ceramic class, De-form customers will be thoroughly explained about the special features of Bien Hoa traditional pottery style, characteristic of each type of clay and glaze as well as many basic decoration techniques that is easy to apply for beginner.

After learning how to form the shape of product with pottery wheel, and the techniques of modeling, slabbing or pinching, customers will be free to create their own one by using their fantastic imagination, without any constraint to follow the any popular model. Therefore, on the shelf storage collecting customer products at De-form, there are many extremely strange workpieces such as personal seal stamp, or wind chimes, etc.

“The main different point of De-form is that this place is a beautiful quiet space for guests to experience the feeling of making pottery fully” Dan Thy shared.

It is expected that in 2018, De-form will launch a ceramic training project for high school graduated students to nurture the traditional pottery making techniques of Bien Hoa for the future.

Besides pottery classes, De-form Pottery also directly produce household ceramic products decorated in modern and purely Vietnamese style.

Pottery of De-form which originates from Tan Uyen clay (Binh Duong) is created according to Bien Hoa ancient pottery techniques. Another co-founder of De-form pottery, Cao Thi Hong Loan- having a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, self-prepared raw materials such as straw, ash and glass. In terms of decoration, De-form always try to give their products a modern life style of Southern people, such as Cô Mía, cyclo, or a brick of selling gas or  mending a puncture image alongside the traditional Bien Hoa patterns.Make “gold” from soil

“As both modern and rustic in the life style of Saigon people, the special feature in De-form products is that there is always has a small piece on the product not covered with glaze. The bones of the clay (raw clay, not covered with glaze) will bring a sense of excitement for users when holding the product in hand” said Dan Thy.

The perseverance and the attitude of never stop learning will lead the entrepreneurs continue to go on the path of business. But to overcome many difficulties and painful lessons, the startup must have the consensus of the members.

Looking back on all three startup businesses, Dan Thy realized: “To make De-form as today, at the initial time, Loan and Giao (the third co-founder of De-form) did not hesitate to stay up early, to work  hard with no salary in many days, leave off all the pleasures outside to share the difficulties together with me “.

Constantly working with clay, straw and ash, it seems that the current De-form team reaches out more valuable things than just only the successful startup business. It is the family atmosphere in the workspace. It is the place full of the enthusiasm from young employee who has pottery techniques may be not high but always focus on learning day by day. And last but not least, De-form is also the studio having so much happy smile from customers whenever they receive their first complete ceramic products made by their own.