Peer Portraits: Garbo Zhu from Grumpy Kid Studio
Garbo Zhu, the founder of Grumpy Kid Studio, shares a little bit about her journey as a Montréal based potter and entrepreneur. She creates unique, handmade ceramics each donning her signature grumpy face. Read on to learn more about her story.
NJ: I wanted to start off by learning a little bit more about you and what brought you here today, your background, your upbringing, and anything you want to share about your personal and professional life.
GZ: I was just filming myself talking about this for my YouTube channel so it is quite fresh. My professional background is in architecture and construction. I went to school at Tmu and I graduated around 2020 so I started working from home straight away. Very luckily, I had a job lined up. I had done a couple of internships when I was still in school and I quickly found out that architecture was not something that I wanted to pursue as a full time career, especially in Toronto. There aren’t a ton of exciting projects. It is mostly condos or custom homes. I've worked in both fields and I find that it's just not very fulfilling as a career. I leaned more towards construction after I graduated and was working from home for a little bit. In that period, we had so much time at home, I baked all the bread that I could and I was looking for an outlet to create something with my hands. It was around Mother's Day and I wanted to make something for my mom with my hands. The first material I could get was air dry clay which I bought from Amazon. I painted on it with acrylic and put a sealing on it. I made a trinket dish which I gave my mom and I still had a lot of clay left over. With that leftover clay I created more funny looking sculpture plates with a face on it. That's when I started putting faces on stuff. There's no deep meaning behind it. I think it's just really interesting when you put a face on an inanimate object. It brings it to life, brings more joy and it's quirky and fun. That's when I started posting on Instagram and created a separate account for what I was creating. I don't remember what I called it back then. I was slowly getting traction from people on the internet. Strangers were asking me if I sell my stuff and that's when I started to think that people are actually interested in the kinds of creations I was making. I didn't want to sell air dry clay products because they are not that functional; you cannot put water on it and it's not food safe. It's purely decorative.
NJ: What is air dry clay?
GZ: It's very similar to playdough but it dries into a really hard texture. A lot of people still use air dry clay to sculpt things like earrings. It is in the same family as polymer clay. The only way to dry it is either to bake it or dry it overnight just by putting it out. It is quite sturdy after it dries which is why you can use it for crafting projects. That’s when I started to explore different materials. I did take a few pottery lessons in high school. I wanted to try to make the same thing that I made with air dry clay, but with ceramics, because it is more durable and lasts longer. People can can actually put food and water on it. I did my research and found a pottery studio near home. I took one hand building class but it was very expensive. I decided to buy my own clay, make it at home, and then bring it somewhere to get the fire because kilning is the most important part of forming the piece. That is something that you can't really have at home. It is quite expensive, hard to get and the wiring is a different story. So I just kept doing that - I would make my pieces at home and then I'd drive them to a pottery studio nearby to get them fired. I posted on Instagram slowly sharing more and more about my journey and I was getting slow and organic growth. Back then the photo format on Instagram was still really popular. And that's how we first gained 800 followers. They were real people. At that point, I was still at my day job. From nine to five or six, I would go to my construction job. I had to actually go back to the office at that point. Since it is construction, people want you to be on site. From 8pm to midnight, I would work on my little project. That lasted for more than a year. I realized that I was really tired. My construction job was fun but it wasn't really giving me the satisfaction that I was looking for. At the same time, I was slowly making my drops and selling mugs every month. There was one month I made more than double the salary I was making at my day job. Since I had been doing both jobs for a long time, I knew that I wasn’t going to be quitting and diving into the unknown. That's when I quit my job and moved to Montreal because rent and labor were more affordable. I didn't want the first year of my career to be so stressful by renting a studio in Toronto and then paying Toronto salaries and so on.
NJ: What inspired you to feel like this could be a business? How did it go from making this beautiful, thoughtful gift for your mom to feeling like you actually could sell to people?
GZ: I think it was social media, honestly. We don't do any other forms of marketing. At the beginning it was just Instagram for a year and a half. Earlier last year we really started posting on TikTok and that was to attract a different group of people. I saw an interest from people asking every time I put something online. I think when you're making something by yourself you can only make so many. We could only make a set amount every month. I think it's thanks to the small batches and the larger following that we were able to sell out every time.
NJ: Do you still have the joy, inspiration and creativity now as when you started? Has the ‘business aspect’ sucked the enjoyment out of the work?
GZ: It has a little bit because at this point I'm mostly managing people, which I'm fine with. Honestly, it is so tiring when you are the only person making all this stuff, doing the packaging and customer service. But now I'm giving those tasks to my staff and I like it.
NJ: As the business is grew, did you feel as though being the leader of a team is a natural role for you? Or is it something you've had to learn and adjust to?
GZ: For me, it is more natural. I think I'm like my dad. He is a business owner and he switched between many different businesses growing up. I think my personality is really similar to my dad’s. We are both quite impatient. I think I am an impatient person and I know what I want in life. I've always wanted to have my own shop. That is my goal. It doesn't really matter what shop it is. I remember when I was interning at architecture firms and I would walk by a corner shop and look at a shop owner. And I’d think ‘I wish I could be like this person’. I would much rather have my own little shop than work for someone else. When you work in a corporate environment and the reality of architecture is so different from architecture that you idolize in school, it made me feel like I’d rather do something in business, instead of these condos that are so boring and no one can afford them.
NJ: One thing that we often ask is like the origin of names. Both of AJ and I grew up with names that people would totally mispronounce. We are always curious about the relationship that people have to their names.
GZ: I don't actually don't really know if it's true or not, but my mom said she named me after Greta Garbo, who is a Hollywood star. I don't know which one came first, my Chinese name or my English name, because my Chinese name in Cantonese is pronounced the same. It doesn’t have a specific meaning. I think my mom was looking for a name that's easy to yell so it has a functional aspect.
NJ: What do you believe is something that people should experience in their lives?
GZ: I guess I would say to experience letting go. To lose control and see what it's like to lose control. I think a lot of us have something that's stopping us from doing what we want to do. A lot of the time there is a fear of failure. People wouldn't always admit that and it is easy to find an excuse. 'It's not the right time yet' or 'I want to work for two more years before I quit this job'. Some of my architecture friends knew that they didn’t like the field but they still did their Masters because they didn't know what else to do. It is not an easy decision to make. I think there is fear that they couldn't find what they really want to do, or they're fearful that things might fail. If people just let go of that thought and choose another career path, it will be fulfilling.
NJ: Do you find that you lean on your intuition and your gut instincts while running the business?
GZ: Yeah, I almost have to because there is just me. At least with you guys, there are two of you. I think there is a lower risk for what we are doing. A lot of the times, we don't have to make any purchases beforehand. I feel like for you guys, if you're launching a product, you have to gauge how many people are interested in it, and you have to order it all ahead of time. For us, we are more flexible in the sense that we are making everything. We first see how many people are engaging and assess how many mugs we should make. If it sells out really fast, we'll just quickly make more or announce the next launch in a couple of weeks. Our audience is used to having that rhythm. Since it's handmade, they're expecting to get it a little bit later.
NJ: What has been your favorite moment today? What are some of your favorite grounding rituals that bring you bring back to your center?
GZ: Visiting my parents. We have been coming back to Toronto so often. When my husband and I are in Montreal, I can’t really stop working. I live relatively close to my studio so if I have three hours of free time I’ll go check out what is going on in the studio and then the next thing I know, it's nighttime. Being back home with my parents, chatting with them, looking at my mom's garden and listening to my mom talking about birds that are moving to another nest and so on. These little chitchat moments just make me feel like ‘Oh, I like this.’ This is one of the reasons why I'm doing what I'm doing - I have the flexibility of determining what I do with my time. If I were to be at work right now, I can't talk to my mom and my mom doesn’t bother me because she knows I am at work. When I'm in Toronto, I'll want have a chat or have cookies together. I like the flexibility of being able to enjoy time with my parents. My grounding moment is to spend time with people that I love.
NJ: Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for young creatives?
GZ: I would say, always think about scaling up especially for someone that is doing what I am doing or is in a handmade business. A lot of creatives create something that only they can do which is great because it is unique but it also means that you may not be able to hire anyone else to do that. It is important to think about ways to optimize what you are doing. I do small business consulting with brands that are doing what I do on a smaller scale or are at the beginning of their journey. The problem that I see is that people sometimes put too much attention into the design that it becomes hard to replicate that in the future. They spend too much time on one piece and then cannot match the selling price with how much time they have already put in. We talk about how they can speed up the process and think about scaling up even though they are still in the beginning stages of their business. This advice is very related to the handmade business because that is what I do.
To see more of Garbo's work, head to Grumpy Kid Studio.