Let’s Talk Business: Buying a Turnkey Business with Deklan Ranlett

LTB Main - Deklan Ranlett.png


Welcome to Let's Talk Business, where Square business owners share their stories, the biggest lessons they learned, and their plans for the future. 


Today we're talking to Deklan Ranlett (@MudFire_Dex), owner of MudFire Studio and Gallery, a membership-based pottery studio in Decatur, Georgia. They offer ceramics courses, open studio hours, a gallery space, and mentorship residency programs to help their members start effective businesses of their own.


In 2013, Deklan purchased and took over MudFire from the previous owners after working in the clay supplies and equipment industry. They share how, over the last 10 years, they took this turnkey business and worked to build it up and transform it into a more profitable and inclusive place by making small but impactful changes. 


Watch the 30-minute video interview and read some highlights from our conversation.



Why did you decide to buy an existing business?

"I was trying to run my own supply store, but I discounted myself out of that business with a desire to help young makers. I needed a cash infusion or a dramatic shift, and that just never happened. In year six, we met this couple who owned MudFire, and they wanted to retire. I was cash-poor at the time, so a group of longtime members came together and formed an advisory board to provide a down payment for us to take over the business. It’s what I always wanted to be involved in: the actual making, helping makers succeed, and far less of the retail side."


What was the process of taking it over like?

"Taking over someone else's business is very different because there's a structure, team, members, and space already in place. It was easy to step in and just start going. Just being able to turn the key, come in, and everything was here. The electrical, plumbing, all of that was done. There was no startup. It was turnkey. So we just started to make slow, incremental changes. But it was pretty hard at the beginning, with all of the newness of the studio in general. So we sat down and drafted a plan of how we would want to increase membership space, purchase new equipment, and change institutional things like the glaze colors and clay that people were used to. You have to navigate through those relationships one at a time because those people are fixtures in the business at the beginning."


Deklan Ranlett.Deklan Ranlett.


How did you work to establish your own brand and culture? 

"There was quite a culture shift from the former ownership model to ours. It wasn't very diverse in age, type of jobs, socioeconomic status, queerness. There is a very specific demographic that would normally be able to afford to take a class at an art center, and it's usually suburban. We have an urban and a younger population, so we shifted the culture by being very public with our viewpoints. We had diversity signage, made gender-neutral bathrooms, allowed for sliding-scale memberships, started art and business residency programs, and dropped criteria for those to make them more accessible. That made a huge difference. People come in almost daily and say that they feel safe and comfortable here. I want to hold really tight to that, even if we have a waitlist for a while."


How do you try and convert the waitlist to memberships, to increase sales and profit?

"We started out with 80 members, and by the end of the first year, we reached capacity at 170. We now have 275, with a waitlist of 1,136. We expanded our equipment to expand our capacity. Last summer, we added 50 new membership spaces simply by building new storage and shelving. We also expanded one-time classes and added advanced-level classes and hand-building classes. Now people on the waitlist can enjoy the space, have a little fun, and start their process of learning. We’re also doing more housekeeping with our membership list. When I first took over, I was grateful for each and every 81 of those people, and I never would have encouraged someone who was paying but wasn't using the space to free up that slot for someone else. Now we actively have those conversations to let the spots go to somebody who can actively use and engage with the space right now."


MudFire Studio and Gallery, in Decatur, Georgia.MudFire Studio and Gallery, in Decatur, Georgia.

Where do you see the business going in the future?

"We've built the comfort to save for buying the building, for any future expansion projects, and to navigate the employment shift from independent contractors to W2 employees. I am looking at a new space close to our current space, which at first seems counterintuitive, right? But maybe I don’t need to duplicate the same experience, so we started thinking about a pro studio space, still managed by us to provide access to the equipment and materials, but maybe they have more independence to grow as they get their businesses to the opening stages themselves. The second option is to split off the date-night experience entirely. We're seeing a trend of a lot of maker-type spaces, where it's an encapsulated space and the class is kept more separate from the memberships. So we could expand membership a little bit more here and have the date-night space completely separate."


    Watch: Let’s Talk Business with Deklan Ranlett  


See more interviews with business owners at squ.re/letstalkbusiness and subscribe to the Seller Community Blog. 

Aylon Pesso is the Square Small Business Evangelist, helping sellers run their businesses better. Based in the U.S., he is a former small business owner, consultant, and Square seller.


This article is only for informational purposes. The information provided in this article solely reflects the speakers’ views and is not endorsed by Square. This article is limited in scope and is only intended as a high-level overview of the topics mentioned.