Right about the time Ryan and Kaitlyn Lawless were getting married, they were also starting a ceramics business and considering a move to Detroit from the farthest reaches of the Pacific Northwest. It was 2012 and Detroit was still building its cache as a hotspot for entrepreneurs, as news stories ran quotes about the city being a blank slate, a fresh canvas, an open frontier.
But Ryan and Kaitlyn didn’t come to Detroit for a blank slate.
They brought Corbé, their ceramic design company, to Detroit because they were drawn to what was already on the canvas — city life, small start-ups run by people they could relate to, creatives who seemed willing to share ideas and experiences, and a culture of entrepreneurial support unlike what they saw in other cities.
It took three years of mulling it over and trying to convince friends to join them before they packed up their studio on Orcas Island, Washington in 2015 and journeyed back toward their Midwestern origins.
It was important to Kaitlyn to be close to her family and her roots in Northville, and Ryan could see a strong business case in a market with space for a handmade ceramics company.
“We moved to Detroit because we saw a lot of opportunity for Corbé. Because nobody was doing ceramics here the way that we’re doing it,” Ryan says. “There was space for us.”
There was also farming.
Kaitlyn’s friends were active in the local farming communities that were taking shape in and around Detroit, and having spent so much time in the farming community of Orcas Island — complete with yurts, outdoor kitchens, and fresh-caught crab right off the boat — that resonated with both Kaitlyn and Ryan.
“Orcas Island is like this magical place,” Ryan says. “It’s a super artistic community. Very hippie. The first time I’ve ever experienced people truly, truly living off the grid. No electricity. No running water. People building their cabins literally from the ground up.”
It was a lot to leave, but Kaitlyn and Ryan were determined.
“We were happy on the Island,” Kaitlyn adds. ”But as our business grew it was harder to see how to scale it up there. We wanted to reach new people.”
On the Island, Corbé quickly established a strong following thanks in large part to a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in the summer of 2013. They raised nearly $85,000 in two months and immediately went to work fulfilling orders for the 854 backers they had attracted while also working on the project that started the whole thing to begin with: The 50 United Plates.
As much as Ryan, 35, and Kaitlyn, 32, were entrepreneurs, they were artists first, and the plates were an expression of their thoughts on the meaning of place. A complete to-scale set of serving dishes molded in the shape of each of the United States of America, the plates continue to be a bestseller for Corbé, priced at $80 per state ($86 for Alaska).
They’re a reflection of the idea that “place is about your kitchen table and who you’re with there,” Ryan says. “How just sharing a meal brings together not only the food and the locality and the farmers. That all comes together over a meal.”
The plates were simultaneously a beginning and a turning point.
“It changed the way that we were going to exist as Corbé,” Ryan says. “It wasn’t going to be this sleepy little, you know, cottage industry.”
And once they settled in Detroit — first in a rented space in the Russell Industrial Center, and now in a 3,000-square-foot building that they own in North End, less than a mile from the Fisher Theatre — they continued the hustle, slowly adding pieces to product lines with a process they’ve dubbed “Handufacturing,” or manufacturing by hand.
It combines modern technologies, such as 2D and 3D computer rendering, with more traditional methods of ceramic production, like shaping clay on a potter’s wheel — the process known as throwing.
Handufacturing is so central to the company’s ethos that they trademarked the term. It speaks to not only their methods, but also their philosophy.
“People want handmade, but they don’t want to pay a lot for it. So we’re trying to make things that are well-designed, that are handmade, at a rate that’s affordable,” Kaitlyn says. “One of the big things that we’ve been doing is just trying to diversify how we’re making things so that [Ryan’s] not throwing every single thing that we’re selling.”
While many of Corbé’s pieces are done by throwing, some, including the state plates, are slip cast — a method that saves time and labor through the use of molds, without compromising the handmade-ness of the finished product.
“It’s still very skilled work, to even make a mold,” Ryan says. “It takes hours.”
Every piece sold by Corbé is an original design. Ryan and Kaitlyn worked hard early on to create specific product line profiles, noting specific features to define the aesthetic of each line (Charlevoix, Lapidary, Homesteader and Canteen), with the intention of gradually adding to each collection one piece at a time.
And in an economy where customers appreciate companies that stand behind what they sell, Ryan and Kaitlyn take it a few steps further by testing their products in their own home before adding them to the inventory.
“We’ll never just make one and be like, ‘This is it,’ ” says Kaitlyn.
Ryan recalls the development process for the Charlevoix mug — another best seller — taking close to two years, and at least 15 iterations.
Even after the design is finalized, the work involved in actually producing a piece can be quite time-consuming, largely due to the time involved in each step of the process. Multiple rounds in the kiln take days, and the steps for glazing include 24 hours of drying time.
“It is a lot of steps,” Ryan says. “And the only things that do each one of those steps are people’s hands, except when it’s in the kiln. Hands, hands, hands.”
And while Ryan estimates that his hands currently do about 90 percent of the throwing, the company also employs three part-time staff members to handle the rest. And Ryan is happy to teach them everything he knows — much like the “old-timers” he worked with early in his career did for him.
“We’re kind of an open book here,” he says, adding that he would love to see more young artists coming through. “We can get some people in the door and show them what’s going on.”
That openness seems automatic for both Ryan and Kaitlyn, which may help explain how the two so quickly fit into Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In just two years, they have taken advantage of a laundry list of programs and services available to Detroit entrepreneurs, including Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses — a national program that guides cohorts of entrepreneurs through a structured curriculum that includes business growth education, access to capital, and support services.
“It’s just a strong education in how to run and operate a business,” Ryan says. “I found it invaluable as an art student.”
Corbé has also benefited from its status as a 2016 Hatch Detroit finalist. Hatch, a local Comerica-funded contest to support entrepreneurs with plans to open brick-and-mortar business locations locally, provides considerable publicity for those who make it to the finalist round. And while Kaitlyn and Ryan didn’t win the competition — or the $50,000 grant awarded as top prize — the exposure from the program introduced Corbé to new audiences.
“That gave us some attention and some access to meet people,” Ryan says. “Anywhere from lenders to other businesses doing things.”
Detroit has a significant network of entrepreneurial support services — demonstrated perhaps most comprehensively by the BIZ Grid, a web directory and 22-page guide that detail the resources available to small businesses. It’s one of the reasons that the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Detroit is so active, and at times, overwhelming.
“When we got to Detroit, it was just like we had a business that we wanted to scale and sink our teeth into the resources,” Ryan says. “And so I was just Googling everything — grants, competitions, whatever I could apply to. I applied to so many things over those first six months.”
It wasn’t long before the efforts were paying off and Corbé was finding its place in Detroit. With consistent revenue and staff growth, Ryan and Kaitlyn could focus on increasing online sales and eventually paring down the current lineup of 15-16 art shows that they sell at each year.
And through all of that growth, the Detroit entrepreneurial community has proven to be a major asset.
“I feel like we fell into a group of people fairly easily,” Kaitlyn says. “Sometimes businesses can put up a lot of facades, talk really big, like the fake-it-till-you-make-it sort of thing. And there’s not a lot of those walls up here. Actually, people are pretty honest and sharing information, and it’s refreshing. Everyone deals with problems, and sometimes you feel like you’re alone, but you’re really not. Someone’s been through it before, and they’re willing to help.”
That kind of support is especially important in an environment that is crowded with pitch competitions, where entrepreneurs present a formal business pitch to audiences of judges, investors, and competition event attendees. The experience can wear on participants in ways that people don’t always notice.
“It takes a lot out of people… to stand up in front of large crowds and pour their hearts out to people and not [win],” Ryan says. “It’s tough to watch the excitement and then the fall. It’s not like everything’s riding on it, but it’s not easy.”
Ryan’s way of seeing the entrepreneurial scene is indicative of the way he and Kaitlyn interpret the rest of their surroundings — with thoughtful appreciation for people.
It shows in how they operate their studio — welcoming in curious neighbors who wander over to peek through the doorway or ask a question about the business.
And it shows in the life decisions they’ve made since moving to Detroit — like becoming residents of a city that has its share of challenges, and buying a studio that isn’t in the heart of the action.
In fact, they chose their studio because of its surroundings, not in spite of them.
“It was in a neighborhood. And this neighborhood’s pretty sweet,” Ryan says about North End, slowing his speech with the words “pretty sweet,” demonstrating the same pride and satisfaction that Detroiters in other parts of the city claim for all sorts of reasons.
“We were open to everywhere, but this felt like a good place to be,” Kaitlyn adds. “It felt safe and friendly.”
With so much time and effort going into the business, it’s hard to imagine Ryan and Kaitlyn having space for much else. But the reality is that their work lives and personal lives are so fluid that it’s not uncommon for a household need to inspire a new product or for a conversation about work to come up during a romantic dinner for two.
And even though they’re more than 2,000 miles away from the farming ways of Orcas Island, they’ve managed to find a bit of that life here in Detroit.
“I think that sort of homesteader life is about the quality of things that you have around you and that you consume — hard goods to soft goods to food,” Ryan notes. “And I think there’s a lot of that in Detroit.”
Corbé celebrated its five-year anniversary in September, and Ryan is already reflecting on the role that Detroit has played in their success so far.
“I think it was a good business choice,” he says. “And a good life choice.”