From play dough to ClayStation: How Ganesh Manickavasagam turned the wheel!
Ganesh Manickavasagam is careful about calling himself the founder of ClayStation in front of his 12-year-old daughter. She has the first claim to the title. It was her idea that kickstarted the startup’s journey five-and-a-half year ago from just a table at a ‘mela’ in the apartment complex where they lived.
Inspiration is the hottest selling commodity in the world today, and people do not shy away from spending hundreds of dollars to find their ‘ah-ha’ moment in hi-profile conferences and summits. Ganesh was lucky to find his at home; free, but priceless nonetheless.
It was 2006, and the tremors in the aftermath of the US recession were being felt in India primarily by those who had business dealings there. Ganesh, who had worked in the US at a tech startup, Technauts, with five of his classmates from Bengaluru’s IISc, had regrouped with them to start another venture in India. The vote went in favour of a tech company. “We were about to sign a deal with a funding partner in the US when the markets crashed. In retrospect, I am glad the deal did not go through. We would have had a tough time. Whatever happens, happens for the good,” he says, reflecting on his journey with a detached sense of wisdom that only time can accomplish.
The crisp winter sunlight bathing the table at the cozy ClayStation studio where he sits recalling his years of experiments with his life and livelihood warms him, encouraging him to continue. “I came back to India in 2003 and worked for a while in EMC2, a data storage company, helping them set up a team in India. In 2006, when we friends regrouped, I was keen to start a non-tech venture, but was outvoted. After our tech startup failed to take off, I decided to take a break and bid my time.”
Found in the ‘mela’
It was during the sabbatical that his daughter Kavya suggested they set up a stall at their Bengaluru apartment complex ‘mela’. “We loved to make things with play dough, and so our natural choice was to have a stall showcasing pottery and products that we sourced from Pottery Town.” He also decided to keep some raw clay for visitors to play around with, and give shape to their imagination. They called their table Clay Station!
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It would be an understatement to say that the Clay Station table had the maximum number of visitors parked around it. “We received a lot of queries even after the ‘mela’ was over, and I realized that there was a big market waiting to be tapped,” he says, visibly excited. Inspired with the outcome, Ganesh knew that the time had come to end his break. He rented an apartment in HSR Layout in Bengaluruand started the studio with two artists. That, however, was the easy part.
In 2008, they officially opened Clay Station Arts Studio Pvt. Limited catering to the experienced, aspiring and recreational potter. Over the years, it has evolved to become a one-stop-shop for equipment and supplies used by studio potters. However, after a year of starting up, they received a request from the landlord to vacate the apartment. “My designer friend and former co-founder Augustine Zavier had spent a lot of time, effort and money in designing the studio. It did not seem fair that we had to relocate so soon,” says Ganesh.
A sure way to measure the success of any venture is, perhaps, seeing how many lives it has touched. In the year since it began, ClayStation had created a community of well-wishers. And it is this growing community that has always come to Ganesh’s aid. “Whenever I needed help, my former students have always been there to provide support.” The landlady of the space where ClayStation is located now (in HSR Layout again) offered Ganesh her terrace. Though the place required a thorough makeover, it has proved to be an ideal setting for a pottery studio. The minimal functional design in brick and bamboo provides the right balance to the displayed ceramic and terracotta products, while the open and sunlit space works as the perfect backdrop to unleash your creativity.
Work should be fun
The ClayStation team is made up of 10 passionate individuals who found themselves in the team inadvertently; at least some of them. Anupama is the Programme Co-ordinator, but a few months ago was a student of pottery here. One thing led to another and she found herself managing this role. Karishma Rodrigues, fresh from her graduation, had decided to spend her holidays learning pottery. Once her course was over, she decided to join here full time as assistant instructor. Ganesh’s mother-in-law, Gandhimathi, who was also a student here, is an instructor for the basic course. Another silent, but strong support in the ClayStation ecosystem is Ganesh’s wife Kanchana. “The fact that she holds a stable job and supports my endeavors allows me to experiment with my life,” says Ganesh, gratefully.
Ganesh finds himself in a very fortunate space as far as support goes. In the first threeyears, his startup was bootstrapped. A year-and-a-half ago, though many of his friends offered to fund ClayStation, Ganesh took funding from Mr Balakrishnan thus giving a boost to the business. He is one of the directors at ClayStation, and lives in Singapore.
What’s most remarkable is how a non-artist has been able to turn around an opportunity to his advantage, and is opening many doors for the potter community not only in Bengaluru but India too. He has travelled to local potter communities across the country sourcing materials and collaborations.
“I follow only one philosophy: Work should be fun. My team should look forward to coming to work every day,” says Ganesh, pointing out that this is the driving force that keeps him going. For someone whose only exposure to pottery was children’s play dough, Ganesh is deeply entrenched in the system. He taught himself the basics of pottery through YouTube so that he has a working knowledge while interacting with potters, artists and vendors.
Ganesh spent a lot of time researching the market and looking for opportunities. He took a chance and wrote a letter to Shimpo Ceramics, the Japanese company that exports pottery studio equipments, though not expecting to hear from them. “They replied immediately seeking answers to many more questions. They were under the impression that there was no market for studio pottery equipment in India,” says Ganesh. ClayStation has a dealership for Shimpo equipment and has sold many pieces to customers over the years.
Experiments with life
“I like experimenting, whether it is related to running an organization or using materials for our products.”
At one point, Ganesh thought about getting into production. He merged with another company to do that but it was short lived and they called it quits in 18 months. “Production is a very routine work, especially if you take large orders. We are good at process design, and are choosy about the kind of orders we take,” says Ganesh.
But as they say, once an engineer always an engineer. Ganesh is excited about the experiments that the research team is doing in the area of kiln manufacturing and glaze production. From using insulation material in the kiln that is employed in space shuttles to adding granite dust in glazes, Ganesh is going all out to come out with better equipment and materials for the studio potter. “We will soon be launching a small kiln priced around Rs 7000 for jewellery artistes. We are also working on the microwave technology to see how it can be applied in kilns.” Having consolidated the position of ClayStation, Ganesh says he is ready to pivot. “We are looking at an online marketplace.”
A man of few words, Ganesh is distracted. If he could, he would have said, ‘now let my work speak for itself.’ Without doubt, the work is speaking volumes. In this market which is disorganized and fragmented with low infrastructure and high costs, he has been able to reinvent the wheel, so to speak!