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In this episode of They Don’t Teach This in Business School, Julie interviews Mercedes Austin founder of Mercury Mosaics and the artist at Mercedes Austin Art. Going strong for over 20 years, Mercedes has been making handmade tile in Minneapolis and recently expanded a sister location in Wadena, Minnesota. During this episode Mercedes and Julie discuss transparent leadership and the importance of connecting with a community of entrepreneurs.
[00:00:00] Julie Bee – Host: On today’s episode. I talk with Mercedes Austin about how micro actions can leave a big legacy and her mantra that many hands make light work in her business. Mercury, mosaic, stay tuned.
[00:00:13] Mercedes Austin – Guest: You can have weekly leadership tips and insights delivered straight to your inbox. Sign email@example.com. And if you’d like to connect with Julie she’s available on the web and most social media platforms like linkedin.
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[00:00:29] Julie Bee – Host: Instagram. Hey, there I’m Julie B and you’re listening to, they don’t teach this in business school, a podcast where we discuss business ownership, lessons that are learned through experience, not in a classroom. Before I start this interview today, I do wanna mention my forthcoming book.
The business owners guide to burnout. My publishers are the same folks who published traction by Gen Wickman, and I’m really excited to have them on my team so that I can share this journey with you. If you’d like to [00:01:00] follow along, just make sure you sign up for my weekly emails and I’ll put that information in this show notes.
Now today on the show, I’m really excited to interview Mercedes Austin, the founder of mercury mosaics and the artist at Mercedes Austin art. I’m really looking forward to this conversation today, Mercedes. So welcome to the show. Happy to
[00:01:22] Mercedes Austin – Guest: be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:23] Julie Bee – Host: Yeah. So let’s just start the conversation with an overview of your business and, and what you do in your business.
[00:01:33] Mercedes Austin – Guest: Overview of mercury. So let’s see. I like to tell people it’s like a bakery for tile. So it’s literally handmade tile. So many things parallel to a bakery, just a lot more racks and the ovens are much hotter. So we are baking geometric patterns in a spectrum of the rainbow that. Furnishing your [00:02:00] neighbor next door’s kitchen or the hottest new coffee shop brand in Brooklyn and everything in between.
We’ve been going strong and making tile in Minneapolis for the last 20 years. And over the last two years, we recently just launched a sister location in Wadena, Minnesota, where we have. Very curated selection of tiles in inventory. Ready to ship.
[00:02:28] Julie Bee – Host: That is awesome. And what about your, the art side of, of all of this
[00:02:33] Mercedes Austin – Guest: equation?
Funny, you should ask about that. So this all started. 20 years ago with just me as a mosaic artist. And at that time I was not only using handmade tile for my mosaics, but as I started to use handmade tile in my mosaics, I totally fell in love and I wanted. To only use this handmade tile in my mosaics.
[00:03:00] I’m like, how hard could it be to create my own supply chain for my mosaics? So I say work here, mosaics is a 17 year tangent to create the ultimate supply chain that I could use in my art. And it just took a global pandemic for me to return back to making art and that. The 30,000 high level overview of how that came about.
[00:03:22] Julie Bee – Host: That’s awesome. You, yeah. You started in one place and it took you on this path and then you realized and all along, it was just to kind of get you back to where you started. I, I hear that a lot. I’m on a, on a. Similar type of journey myself. So I can appreciate that. Mercedes, what is your favorite part of being a business owner?
What do you really enjoy
[00:03:44] Mercedes Austin – Guest: about doing that? You know, I’m just really reflecting on the last year and a half. My favorite part is being able to learn about other entrepreneurs and their journeys. Sometimes in that journey, we happen to plug in our handmade [00:04:00] tile, through a partnership, a collaboration through a business transaction, but it, I honestly love connecting with other people that are building.
And it’s just fascinating to me. So if I could just get paid to talk and network full time, that is what I would do. That’s
[00:04:20] Julie Bee – Host: what I hope to accomplish someday with the podcast, to be perfectly honest, to be paid, to do what I’m doing right here. Cause I have the same way. I love, I love talking to meeting other business owners and just talking to them and learn learning about their story.
You know, one thing that the journey of entrepreneurship and business ownership, there’s a lot to it. And, you know, you brought up meeting other entrepreneurs. And I think that that’s really important because, you know, they say it’s lonely at the top. I have certainly experienced that. And I, I wonder if you have any.
Experiences of, of being lonely at the top. And, and then also how you make sure that you’re not lonely [00:05:00] at the top.
[00:05:00] Mercedes Austin – Guest: So absolutely that experience of being lonely at the top, or, you know, just trying to really feel out what is, you know, in my team wants. Transparent leadership, but just learning, like, are they ready for it to be that transparent?
Like how, you know, you know what I mean? How transparent do you get? Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm and then you’re transparent and you’re like, yeah, you didn’t mean transparent, but you wanted more, more visibility. So that part can be lonely because it is a pretty heavy weight and how I’ve really mitigated that is being in.
Like right now I’m in a round table. With other entrepreneurs growing mid-sized businesses. And I love just the concept of like, yo, everything that got you to where you are. Is not gonna get you to where you’re going. And that really resonated with me instead of feeling like I was alone in solving these very unique problems.
It was very humbling to know like, yo, these are not unique to you, so [00:06:00] let’s pull some resources together. So that’s really helped me and, you know, never just walking around in society, like I’ve got it all together that has made it so that I’m able to really connect and be in community with a lot of entrepreneurs.
And honestly, I just try to. A little, like, I’m always looking for the silver lining. I’m always trying to have an optimistic point of view. Cause otherwise it’s like, it gets even more lonely and depressing if you’re just like. Being realistic about everything and never having a little bit of hope. You know what I mean?
Like, oh yeah. So that’s really got me through
[00:06:34] Julie Bee – Host: seriously. Yeah. I’ve been doing this 14 years, so yeah, I totally . I, I, I know exactly what you’re talking about and it’s interesting when you have key employees and I have a, I have one, uh, really tight. Very very important key employee. And I’ve even had to learn what can be shared and what can’t be shared, even though I wanna share everything because I’m like, you know, we [00:07:00] value, we have that relationship and I really value that relationship.
There’s still some things you have to hold back sometimes, but having those CEO round tables. Is so important that having that support network, whatever that looks like for you as, as a business owner is so important because when you get to a certain point, you have certain levels of conversation. And the more years in business you are the fewer people.
There are to have those conversations with, because not, you know, after you get to pass a certain point, there’s not as many people who have reached that level. So talk to me a little bit about the importance of your key employees. The
[00:07:38] Mercedes Austin – Guest: importance of these key employees is to keep so many different things distributed across the board and to make it so, you know, just that concept, many hands make light work.
I’ve certainly gotten the feedback like, wow, your team, you guys are really young. And I do get that. There’s many of us that. [00:08:00] Worked our way up here, including myself. And it is true. We are young. The importance of them too, is when you’re growing a small business and everything kind of is dependent on one or two people.
That’s, that’s really not a scalable model. So it makes it like small business is never short of problems to solve and changes to implement. So it also makes. Much more sane when you are intending to maintain certain things on a day to day, week to week level, that work really well in the business. And then as you do need to navigate, adapt and change, also have a team of people where you can split things up to implement that change.
Like I do like the traction model with the visionary and the implementer, but I kind of look at like, actually it’s been really important to me to. A variety of aid implementers, depending on what the [00:09:00] implementation is for mm-hmm . So that’s them. In a nutshell, Julie has spoken to countless organizations for 13 years on topics, including leadership management, employee engagement, and morale, workplace culture, small business ownership, and entrepreneurship.
If you’d like it engaging relatable and inspiring speaker for your next event, book, Julie, to speak to your. More firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:09:27] Julie Bee – Host: Hey, this is Julie B and you’re listening to, they don’t teach this in business school today. I’m here with artist Mercedes, Austin, founder of mercury mosaics, Mercedes.
You were just talking about how there’s no shortage of problems to solve when you’re a business owner and how important your key employees are in that and what I have found. And I would, I would like to see, I would like to hear if you have any examples of. Problems you don’t hit like a certain level of business and your problems, just all of a sudden go away or things just get easier.
I [00:10:00] think when you’re early on, you think, oh, if I, when I just get to this level, things will be easier. Do you have the experience of the problems that you do end up that do end up landing on your plate? Being bigger than the ones that you know you were solving? Let’s just say five years ago.
[00:10:16] Mercedes Austin – Guest: I have them land on.
I played in all sizes. And I think also as a leader and having key employees, it’s also really important for you to differentiate which problems you should receive and then which problems you should guide to another area. I think that’s one pretty key thing that if a business is gonna grow and scale versus a business, that’s gonna stay small or limp mm-hmm and no one is exempt from.
Any, any kind of pitfalls, like really, you know, potentially threatening the ship and the safety of the waters. Yeah, absolutely. But I think you have a better chance of making it, if you can differentiate which problems you should be taking on. [00:11:00] Cause I definitely see them in all shapes and sizes. Come my way.
[00:11:04] Julie Bee – Host: Is there, is there any theme to problems or even certain job duties that you just find. You have tried to get off your plate, but kind of keep coming back to you for whatever
[00:11:18] Mercedes Austin – Guest: reason. I, the first thing that I thought of when you asked that was related to sales and that’s an area that I was just like super excited and proud to really shift out of as of April of 2020.
And as of early July of this year, I’ve stepped back in. It’s more of a differentiation of second generation growing into a third generation. So not to totally say the area is full of problems. Mm-hmm but the area has hit a ceiling. If you will, on [00:12:00] like what types of clients and mm-hmm quote, sales problems that it can solve.
And it needs some added building process. Improvement for like our larger scale clients and commercial clients. So we’re bringing the big guns back in
[00:12:21] Julie Bee – Host: yes. Bring in the big guns. You know, it’s funny when I, when I get, when I do ask that question in this podcast, I think every single person I’ve asked that question has said sales or business development. That’s the one area. And why do you, why do you think that is? Why do you think that, you know, we end up as business owners getting pulled back into that, even when we try to get it off of our plates?
[00:12:45] Mercedes Austin – Guest: Well, I exactly know why I got bra back in because, so I’m, I don’t know if it’s. Overwhelming or annoying or really welcome. It depends on who on my team. You’re asking. [00:13:00] However, I’m kind of a stickler of, if I’m gonna exit an area, I’m gonna leave a map and I’m gonna leave a flow chart and I’m gonna leave as many notes as possible.
And I was in sales for so long that I thought I left every map, every flow chart, every. It, what I learned is it’s, it’s not enough to teach and put that in place and then just like piece out from the area. And I’ll tell you, I mean, there were a few things going on in April 20, 20. Let’s take a look, few of their distractions in my plate.
Talk back a little bit was like piece out sales. So I was, I totally own that. Yeah. So my lesson that I learned is like, yo, you’ve gotta like stay connected a bit, but the results, the results were going so well. I mean the home industry was just like flowing up. So we had a banner year in 2021, but what I didn’t realize is I didn’t really leave any maps or flow charts related to [00:14:00] these big multifaceted commercial clients.
And if you really think about it. Those clients were pretty dormant in 2020 and 2021. So that’s, it’s like, I can’t even go like, gee, I wonder why I got pulled back in like, okay. I never really left a map for this type of client and how I used to work with them.
[00:14:19] Julie Bee – Host: Yeah. So that’s the, that’s the, I call it. That’s the abdicating not delegating.
Would you just like to take it? I don’t wanna see it right now. I can’t handle it. Like just get it off my plate. Mercedes. Has there ever been a time in your, in your time in business, that you have ever either experienced burnout or, you know, maybe wanted to walk away from your business? Have you ever gone through a time like that as a business owner?
[00:14:48] Mercedes Austin – Guest: If there’s anyone on your podcast that has never answered yes to it. I would like to take them out to lunch. Of course, I always use the analogy of like, it’s gotta be like having a kid, so I’m not a [00:15:00] parent, but you love your kid to the core, but sometimes you’re just like, I don’t even wanna see your face.
So 100% and same with my art. Honestly, I, I kind of joke around about this piece. I just finished up and I. I said, you know, I broke up with her several times while I was making it. I just couldn’t even look at it. So I think there’s, and I think that’s why it’s actually been therapeutic to me to be working on two businesses.
Mm-hmm and in this sister business, Mercedes, Austin, I mark my word she’s, you know, never taken up more than 10 hours of my time a week. And I will fight to the bone to have that be a little bit more. But I think to have something else that you can engage in so that you can come back. To the original beast that you’re working on.
I, I just, I think it’s just, it’s part of it. Mm-hmm and if anyone is denying that, there’s gonna be times where you’re frustrated. That’s why I think it’s important that you choose something that you love, because then that’ll, that’ll keep you coming back in those, like times where your back is up against [00:16:00] the wall, or you’re just like, totally like at a point where you don’t know what to do that passion.
Will keep you showing up, you know, make sure to get a good night’s sleep and eat so you can solve the equation with your team. Not by yourself.
[00:16:16] Julie Bee – Host: It’s funny. I think a lot of business owners, myself included, you know, what I call my day job now is actually a marketing agency. And I did that for 12 years still doing and now, and we’re at 14 years, but when COVID hit right around that time, I know so many business owners that either.
Started something new, like podcasting or started another business or did, you know, just kind of went off in a, I, I have to work on my passion projects type of thing. And it sounds like that’s kind of also around the same time that you got back into your art more. And it’s just, I think that, I don’t know.
I just think it’s interesting, but it has definitely made me a better business owner. To have [00:17:00] these other things going on than just solely being focused on, you know, the, my marketing agency, for sure.
[00:17:06] Mercedes Austin – Guest: I a hundred percent agree. I think it keeps you fresher. It’s funny because it makes you busier, but I’m someone who does well with multiple things and multiple challenges.
It, I think it actually is creating more of a well rounded perspective for me to be engaged and connected in multiple things versus working on one.
[00:17:27] Julie Bee – Host: Hey there, you’re listening to, they don’t teach this in business school. And I’m the host, Julie B today. I’m here with artists, Mercedes, Austin, founder of mercury mosaics and Mercedes. Something I really wanna ask you is how do you define success?
[00:17:44] Mercedes Austin – Guest: I feel like for me, I define success as doing something that I’m passionate about. That I know is making a difference and is something where I’m no longer here [00:18:00] that I would be proud to have left behind leaving a
[00:18:03] Julie Bee – Host: legacy. Mm-hmm mm-hmm how do you think that? Talk to me a little bit more about that. How do you think that what you do both at mercury mosaic and through your art, how do you think that that is leaving a legacy?
[00:18:16] Mercedes Austin – Guest: The first thing you know, that I really thought of, then you asked when you asked that. For myself working with I’ll just isolate one recent entrepreneur that when I was just starting out, she was a student at a place called juxtaposition arts. And it’s an organization that I fell in love with very early in my career.
They hire. And pay artists to do art over the summer. A lot of times it started off with working on aerosol murals and it’s expanded into printmaking and ceramics. And honestly, I just never was aware of. Anything that was to that [00:19:00] caliber in our city that was work for hire for artists. So fast forward to that student now becoming an entrepreneur and not necessarily having access to every resource that she needed to get her business up and running.
And for me, the difference was being able to not only use some of the resources that I have beautiful tile and relationships that I have connections to people and furniture and lighting and just bringing them together. A community of people that have a different variety of resources and using those resources to uplift another entrepreneur, who’s going to be putting an amazing resource in our community, which was a juice bar.
So just little, I think, legacy and making a difference. What I’ve really been grounded in the last two years is it’s not saving the entire world, but [00:20:00] it’s really. Coming down to earth and like helping somebody at a small level and not underestimating that it actually can make a difference. And it doesn’t have to look like a quarter of a million dollar donation.
You can’t compete with some of the big guns, like with their super polished commercials and talking about what they’re doing. Like there’s very micro levels. Anyone in any business can make a difference. And if you keep that in mind, then you don’t wait until everything is super perfect and not messy to make a difference.
So that’s, for me, just been an important thing, no matter what the state of the world is, no matter what the state of my business is, there’s always a way that you can make a difference and keep that as a consistent thread
[00:20:46] Julie Bee – Host: throughout. I just think about when I was getting started, there were. Business owners who would point me in the right direction and, you know, would, would share their resources with me or, you know, you need to go [00:21:00] talk to so and so like, they can help you with this thing that you’re dealing with.
Now I do the same thing and it’s interesting to me. I don’t, I just think it’s part of being in business. I, I don’t know. I don’t, I know not everybody thinks of it that way, but I think that, you know, I was helped and so it’s, it’s paying it forward, but yeah, I, I don’t know. I’ve never actually thought about that as.
That’s a legacy, but I guess, yeah. I mean, I got, yeah. When you’re helping people, even on that micro level, sometimes that has more of an impact. I’ve I’ve, I’ve just seen where. You know, something very small has such a huge impact. Something that you don’t even think like, oh, this isn’t, you know? Yeah. You might wanna go talk to, so, and so, and then the next thing, you know, like that’s the thing that got them off the ground and got them running and mm-hmm , you know, then you just get to watch ’em grow, which is really cool.
[00:21:52] Mercedes Austin – Guest: That’s right. Yeah, because I think if everyone was thinking like that and realizing you have a currency to spend, it could be your [00:22:00] time, it could be the services that your business provides. It could be that relationship that you opened the door on. I just, I think we would have a lot more entrepreneurs doing well or starting or feeling supported and not.
Really being stopped by lack of something. Yeah.
[00:22:22] Julie Bee – Host: Yeah. Cuz it’s, it’s not easy being a business owner. Certainly not. We’re all in this business for various reasons, but it’s definitely not the easiest path that you could take to make a living. It’s gotta be about more than that for sure.
[00:22:35] Mercedes Austin – Guest: 100%. That’s right.
[00:22:38] Julie Bee – Host: Yeah. Well, Mercedes listen, I’ve, I’ve really had a good time talking with you. And I ask the same question to everybody at the end of every interview. So I’m gonna ask you, if you were asked to teach a class to future, to future business owners, future entrepreneurs, what is the one main thing that you would want them to leave [00:23:00] that class know?
[00:23:03] Mercedes Austin – Guest: I feel like I would want them to know beyond the concept of the importance of a team, but the importance of the leader’s role in supporting the team, doing the functions that you’ve entrusted them to do and the importance of room or mistakes so that other people can learn. It’s like being a helicopter parent versus totally disengaged parent.
Just there’s something kind of in the middle of that, I’ve been all three of ’em mm-hmm and just depending on the results of an area, but I, I think that’s a really important piece. That’s the biggest thing that I run into with entrepreneurs and their business and their vision is. Their ability, not only to work with the team, but then to grow [00:24:00] the business, to support having the team.
And retaining the team and growing the team
[00:24:05] Julie Bee – Host: that reminds me of another guest who talked about how it’s not, he’s got a background in the military, but he said, it’s not sealed team five plus one it’s sealed team six. And, and what the leader has to remember is that yeah, they’re the leader, but that they’re still part of that team.
And it’s kind of in that same line. That, you know, you’ve, you’ve gotta know what your role is, what your team’s role is, what each person’s role is, but you also have to give them the space to, you know, make mistakes cuz that’s how they learn. That’s how we all learn by making mistakes.
[00:24:40] Mercedes Austin – Guest: Yep. That’s right.
And I mean, ironic I’m in the business of handmade tile. It’s all about the perfection of the imperfection. So mm-hmm, applied to our building material and applied to our team and listen, just like our tile. I’m not perfect. So I’m also leading and making [00:25:00] several mistakes. And I think just giving yourself, grace, especially in this day and age is a really important piece of it.
Yeah. My perfectionist goes on time out multiple times a day. I’ve noticed she, she comes back repeatedly and it’s just a daily exercise of like, You’re kicked out again, like get out of here.
[00:25:21] Julie Bee – Host: I got no time for that. No time for that, but no time. Don’t you think it’s something I’ve experienced when I’m leading an organization or, or leading wherever I’m a leader.
When I make a mistake and I say that, that, you know, that’s my bad, like, or, you know, I own the mistake and fix it. I think that sets up a culture of showing your team that it’s okay, because you know, if, if you’re doing it, then they will, they may, you know, now there’s some, you gotta give ’em guardrails. Like you can’t let them burn down your oven.
That’s cooking all, you know, , that’s making your tiles, [00:26:00] but I don’t know if you’ve had that experience where I, where when you’re vulnerable and you own your own mistakes. If you find that your people come to you sooner, when they’ve made mistakes, have you had that experience?
[00:26:11] Mercedes Austin – Guest: We’re getting better. We certainly are.
And I think the more that we can move on and not hide a mistake for months on end, like we’re not there anymore. Mm-hmm and we’re getting better at also identifying when there is a mistake or something. That’s it. Not optimum. Just having, I don’t know if it’s a Midwest culture thing. Sometimes I envy my friends from the east coast.
Mm-hmm because they’re sometimes very harshly direct and in their world, they’re just direct. Yeah. So that’s even just a differentiator for me being here and what I’m used to, but I think the more we can realize that how clear and direct we are with people is caring for them versus harming them just as a [00:27:00] culture.
And that’s the biggest next piece for me even is to not be so apologetic about things that are going to be for the greater good of the company and learning. because I said so instead of over explaining and spending two months, getting everyone on the same page. It’s very uncomfortable for me right now, but it’s for the greater good of my company.
[00:27:24] Julie Bee – Host: you’re doing the best for the most, and that’s what you have to do sometimes. And usually those are the harder, that’s usually the harder path for sure. Yep. Well, listen, Mercedes I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I know our listeners will as well. I just wanna thank you again for being on the show today.
[00:27:44] Mercedes Austin – Guest: my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:27:46] Julie Bee – Host: And that is a wrap and this episode, be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on future conversations. I’m Julie B and they don’t teach this in business school.[00:28:00]
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