No, My husband Does Not Run The Finances And Yes, I Own This Place!

Mercedes Austin

By Mercedes Austin, Founder of Mercury Mosaics

I’ll never forget it, it was a major milestone for me: I was launching our grand opening celebration of 15 years growing a handmade tile & mosaic business in an architectural marvel of a building. There hadn’t been a bustle in this space since World War II. Bouncing from multiple temporary uses, Mercury Mosaics would be the first to come along and commit to using all of the space’s 15,000 square feet. A former sun-drenched factory for fire proof doors and once a top secret manufacturing operation guarded by the CIA and FBI, it would now be home to the next chapter of handmade tile making & custom mosaic designs in all its glory.

My dream of taking a studio setting and scaling it up was happening – my Vintage Production & Manufacturing Pinterest Board came to life! Some of the most dignified guests were streaming into this event, ready to tour our new kind of space where makers are united with tile project seekers and the curious alike. It was true then as it still is today: All are welcome to just drop by. A prominent leader of an important arts institution strolled in, I was in awe that he would be at my grand opening. I went to shake his hand and welcomed him with my husband by my side. He shakes my hand, and then proceeded to congratulate my husband citing the work he must have done on the finances!

*insert record-scratching sound* 

No, my husband does not run the finances and yes I own this place!

My husband to him:,

”It’s all her, I’m just here to be supportive and celebrate the amazing team she has.”

A little backstory on me, I began as “that stereotypical artist” addicted to drugs, my job was not related to my artistry, I was all over the place – there was absolutely no focus on what I was creating. At some point, I had two options: feed into the stereotype and make all the haters right, or, invest in myself and become the new artist that I want to see in the world. When I started dreaming of making a living with my art, this was in the late 90’s, it just wasn’t a thing yet. The common viewpoints were: 

“Artists aren’t business people”, 

“You’ll never make money while you’re alive”, 

“Get a real job”, 

“Just do your art on the side.”

Luckily I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was floundering around in college racking up student loans, however my basic living expenses were low. I was renting space with roommates so I technically had a lot of freedom to try things out. As an artist, I didn’t even start with mosaics. As a college student, I ended up running one of the black & white darkrooms. At the time, my passion was traveling with 20-30 rolls of 35mm film & spontaneously booking a flight. I’d go out and fill the rolls with my experiences & great compositions of architecture I admired. I had a rule then that I still apply today: travel at least once per quarter to keep my sanity. 

Mercury Mosaics | Boho Bungalow

I firmly believe that pulling yourself out of your day-to-day environment is the best thing you can do for yourself and your creativity. I also had this other rule while at University: take at least one art-related class per quarter to reward myself. After about 3 years of this a question kept coming to mind: “if I’m taking classes related to art and it really fuels me, why am I studying psychology?” I realized I chose the field of psychology because I was influenced to choose a lucrative & stable career. After all, the intro to psychology class had 700 students in it.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one being influenced in this way! Suddenly I saw I was swept into this pattern like a herd of sheep following templated advice and I needed to create my own path. This was risky, definitely scary & utterly lonely but I did it anyway. I decided to take a chance on something that made me happy. I had no clue what I was doing, in all the art classes I took, no one really addresses how to establish yourself, market or sell. I wasn’t selling black and white, hand-printed photos too well. Waitressing was my back-up plan while I navigated what I wanted to do. 

There I was, waitressing & side-hustling as a painter, muralist, wedding photo-journalist, an illustrator it all had one thing in common: my work was underpriced I paid zero attention to the time & materials I put into them. Something was missing, I was being creative but not having any true direction. I wasn’t a brand. Websites were kind of a new thing, so there I was with whatever free business card I had saying what kind of an artist I was “that month.” There was no social media just yet to develop an image. I had a three ring binder filled with crappy images of the mash of work I had made, nothing really substantial. 

After a few years into waiting tables I stumbled upon mosaics. My college roommate had transformed a coffee table into a mosaic work of art. She was using basic hardware store tile that she broke-up with a hammer. I became obsessed. Within weeks I literally stumbled upon a shop that made its own tile about a mile from where I was living. I applied for a job and got the offer to work there shortly after. I lived off what I had left of student loans because the tile making position didn’t come with a paycheck, it paid in tile. For me, it was still a positive of learning based on the cost of tuition and art supplies, so I kept a couple waitressing jobs as I learned the trade.

Mercury Mosaics | Light Seafoam Green Backsplash

This is where I developed a strong work ethic and dignity which began to bolster me up from my own self-criticism. Working my butt off became natural, I’d go from waiting tables at 2 places to making tile and vice versa, I was always going from one job to the next. People would say: “You should relax more”, “You’re going to burn out” but I had all these ideas, I started to think about tile in my sleep, there were all these possibilities I could see. It was one of those things I just couldn’t turn off if I tried. 

Ironically, I never really settled into a career of being a solo artist. I probably survived about 8 art fairs, several open studios and a gallery show before I realized, for me, it felt like taking a cat, spraying them with water and getting them to sit still, that’s what it was like to be a solo artist out on display, selling my work in that capacity. I did this all on the side while waitressing and making tile for someone else. 

To produce enough work to fill a gallery, an open studio let alone an art fair and having the cash or credit it takes to get the materials and the marketing up front while giving a portion of your sales to the gallery, it took the wind out of me. That was a lot of tips saved from waitressing to make each event happen and they didn’t all pay. It wasn’t a model I could support, not on my tile employee & tip income. I found myself discounting my pieces just to make rent. That just didn’t feel right and I wasn’t inspired. I didn’t want to quit, though. What was the thing I liked the most? Well, I loved the pieces I assembled that were full of the tile that I had made.

I was less excited about the mosaic pieces that I made with my cousin’s leftover bathroom floor tile and certainly I wasn’t really crazy about the pieces that were assembled with this cheap, machine-made glass. Ok, I thought to myself, why don’t I explore making more of my own tile. I was going to have to focus. First, I quit my job for the other tile company to venture out on my own, the confidence was bred from my tax refund, proceeds from selling my jazz CD collection and cash from a client hiring me and paying upfront: there was my seed fund. I also kept one of my waitressing jobs for cash flow.

This was a little over 17 years ago. Each year that I’m running this tile enterprise I look at the next thing I need to get out of the way in order to allow Mercury Mosaics to continue to blossom while allowing others to shine. It’s as if I’m not even thinking about it, it’s just in me and I’m listening. The best way I can describe it is when you have a 7 year old playing Mozart filled with passion and conviction and you just are beside yourself wondering how all that talent came-about in such a young person.

Mercury Mosaics | Bartholick Pace Kitchen Tile

Running a business and growing this tile empire is part natural to me a dash of being a forever-student and heaping portion of skills acquired from years of waitressing where hospitality is priority. I’m driven to never stop improving, curiosity drives me and each year in business is like this giant puzzle to solve. The point that Mercury Mosaics is at is such a big puzzle that I continuously enlist the intelligence and ingenuity of my team and mentors to work on solving and putting it together with me. We drink a lot of coffee in the process and jump through so many hoops to keep it evolving.

Right away, the mosaic business was operated at a pace to beat the goals I gave it. Soon it became less about me making a living at my art, and I just started to get out of the way: Mercury Mosaics will eventually be supply chain for my mosaic art, however it is so much more & being a mosaic artist full-time is on hold. In the meantime, I flirt with a piece in progress to dabble with in my home studio on a quarterly basis. I call part of what I’m doing a 15+ year tangent to create the ideal supply chain for my art. At the time I was starting out, I wouldn’t have called it that, but essentially, that’s what began Mercury Mosaics.

However, in the mix of it all, Mercury Mosaics has become a beacon for creatives to work, to have a day job in the arts and many of us leave here daily to go do other parts of our lives. Mercury Mosaics isn’t the sum of it all, it’s a player in a bigger picture. My concept is to have an environment where people can work hard, with a team and see how the parts become the whole and if they stay with me, I’m grateful, if they phase out to do their creative passion as a full time gig and I know MM had a part in it – it’s fulfilling. This is the support system I searched for when I started out in the 90’s.

My mission is to be a role model to artists and creatives. Did I become a business woman in the process of all this? I did. It didn’t start this way. I’ve always been competitive. So in the midst of all of this, navigating how to sell tile and working with showrooms, distributors, doing just as much work selling B2B as I was selling B2C and overall struggling to keep up with it all. The biggest thing my competitors would tell me: I’d never make it. In early 2010 I was told to sell my business. If one more of our clients sent an announcement of them going out of business just after we set them up to sell our tile, it’d be too devastating.

Mercury Mosaics | Emerald Green Kitchen Backsplash

I thought: “there has to be a better way to sell tile”. I cannot and do not want to compete with all these mammoth companies that make tiles by machines in factory models I’m not passionate about. I mean, I have nothing against things being made by machines, but they were cramping our vibe and too many people were making decisions with their wallets and that wasn’t what this was about. I knew Mercury Mosaics didn’t really fit into the traditional tile world, we didn’t fit into the fine art world, we were just in our own lane and it was time to own it!

We’re bringing back this ancient craft and reviving what it is to make things by hand. It’s not about automation and cutting corners. Factory workers are no longer just doing mindless production line work, there’s creativity, strategy and teamwork involved. The way our facility is set up is intentional based on the flow of the production line, as a result, our custom work is much faster because of our closer connection to the design and end product. The workflow looks something like this: a client can inquire about something, a tile ambassador can mock up a design mood board & ballpark budget in our onsite office & showroom, the client approves or fine tunes, gets a sample and in the background that design gets polished with a final estimate & approved.

The project travels to production on the other side of the wall, once it’s made the production team shows photos to the client, keeping them connected to the customization, it’s then seamlessly cut down into numbered sheets with a map for assembly and ships direct to the client. Our success captain follows up to ensure they’re happy and we capture their feedback, sharing with the team to praise their work showing install photos when available and on our lucky days reviews are published online, perpetuating the success and inspiring new & repeat business.  Essentially, we can respond & coordinate with client needs much faster–in a single day. Previously, when working through tile showrooms and distributors, we’d be at the mercy of showrooms, their distribution centers, layers of management and a lot of time added-in, a process that takes days if not weeks.

Although I haven’t finished my education at the University, I’ve completed a Mini MBA, become certified by the School of Mosaics in Italy, trained in communication and organizational planning, while mastering a Scale Up program for entrepreneurs. I’ve never stopped educating myself, I’ve just curated parts & pieces to gain the knowledge to support what each phase of the business needs to flourish.

Mercury Mosaics | Bluegrass Bohemian Kitchen Tile

You see, I dedicated my life to making and designing tile because it saved me. I was going down the tubes. No one believed in me. I found tile and found a vocation I was actually good at and tile gave confidence to invest and improve myself as a human, as a creative person and I thought: ok, we have something here! My recovery came from the dignity of work and doing something I was passionate about and competent in. If tile and this beautiful material can make me feel this way, would impact would this have if I covered an entire space with it?

Could it add value to people’s lives? Would mothers take photos of their daughters during important life milestones in front of it? Would world-class chefs change history with backdrops of our tile’s color and texture? Would prolific entrepreneurs weave us into their brick and mortar as an essential part because they believe in elevate their client’s experiences? I just decided to go all in on this concept, that business is driven from the heart and that we’re all seeking to create meaningful experiences.

Mercury Mosaics comes from Mercury – the Roman God of skilled trade and craftsmanship. We’re a collective team of craftspeople who put their sweat, genius and hard work into an honest day’s craft. We rise when we see others doing well and we think you don’t always have to travel across the world to see true masters at work to experience what we’ve built in the Midwest. 

This is what gets me up in the morning. This is what brings me to every meeting. I’ve made a recipe to revitalize craft in America and also the perfect day job for creatives while they figure things out. This model will do it all it’s is ripe for growth, we’re just getting started! 

Mercedes Austin

Mercedes Austin is the founder of Mercury Mosaics. She is a self-made “Artpreneur” who has built her company from the ground to a 33 employee major organization on the INC 5000 list. What started as one woman has grown to many, inspiring artists everywhere to follow their dreams and getting rid of the idea that an artist should be starving. Known for their Signature Patterns, Analog Design (the philosophy that True Luxury is made Offline), chances are high you’ve seen and admired Mercury Mosaics tiles (https://www.mercurymosaics.com) and Mercedes Austin’s work.

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