Geoff Lee’s been a glassblower for 17 years – since his high school days at Punahou School, actually. But as a business owner, he’s relatively fresh to the field. In 2005, Lee opened a studio, Island Glassworks, in Kailua, where he holds classes, rents space to fellow artists and designs custom pieces ranging from $600 to $14,000. He’s since made a name for himself as a talented, creative glassblower. Still, Lee says, the transition from starving artist to small-business owner was not as smooth as glass.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered as a new business owner?
Mostly just doing research. I knew you had to do a lot, but I didn’t realize how much. I studied as much as I could about everything – market trends, business loans, leases. I’m in a unique position where most of the people I hang out with are artists. Most of them have no idea what it’s like in the business world.
Q: Did that stifle you, initially?
It did, because I started off trying to do artwork that everyone could afford. I was just trying to get my work into as many places as possible, and I found very quickly that wasn’t my market. I was competing with stores like Wal-Mart and Pier One, and no matter how inexpensive I’d make something, it would never be as cheap. So I learned to rebrand. Rather than my glass being the product, I rebranded myself and my image and marketed myself as an artist who appeals to high-end, fine art collectors.
Q: Have you had to make concessions as a business owner that you wouldn’t have made otherwise?
Oh, yeah. I have a certain style, and it doesn’t necessarily always fit with what people want to have in their house. In Hawaii, you see a lot of copper gates and very Hawaiian floral designs. If your work doesn’t match that, people aren’t going to buy it. So now that I have a lease and a bank loan and utilities, I’m forced to follow trends and pay more attention to what the customer wants versus what I may want to create. In tough times, with my back against the wall, I’m forced to do it. I don’t want to call it selling out, but it is a compromise.