Link Henderson moved here after college in 1997 because her best friend got married, got a teaching job in Lexington and bought a duplex where Henderson could rent the other half.
"I always wanted to own my own business, ever since I was a kid," said Henderson, who grew up in North Carolina and majored in Latin and ceramics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. "I just didn't know what it was or how it would happen."
After working as a waitress and baker, Henderson got a job teaching ceramics classes at the city-owned Loudoun House.
When it was closed for a major renovation, she rented studio space in an old carriage house downtown, offered her own classes and made pottery to sell.
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As the business grew, she moved to larger quarters on Jefferson Street. One thing led to another, and Kentucky Mudworks LLC is now a full-service ceramics studio, school and store at 825 National Avenue.
The company will have one of its two annual charity fundraisers April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. Called Pints for Plants, the event benefits Seedleaf, a nonprofit organization that works to provide affordable, nutritious food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky.
Henderson is hand-making more than 300 ceramic pint glasses. Donors get a pint of beer in a glass for a $15 donation to Seedleaf, from 3 p.m. until they are all gone.
Henderson said Kentucky Mudworks' success has been all about diversification.
"Knowing my market and being willing to have a toe in every facet of the business," she said.
When Henderson began making pottery and teaching classes, she was frustrated that there was no good place in the region to buy clay. There are fewer than a dozen ceramic clay manufacturers in the country, and mail order is expensive.
"A box of clay is only $30, but it costs $20 to ship it," she said. "So, if you have a local supplier, it's a really great thing."
Henderson started selling clay to potters, schools and universities. Kentucky Mudworks now stocks 80 kinds of clay in its 11,000-square-foot facility, along with kilns, wheels and a full range of pottery materials and supplies.
When online retailers started taking a bite out of her margins several years ago, Henderson created her own line of tools.
"Instead of trying to compete with 30 or 50 online stores, I wanted to have products in those stores," she said.
Dirty Girls Pottery Tools now has about 40 distributors in the United States and Canada. Henderson also sells them at her shop and website: Kentuckymudworks.com.
Henderson and her five employees make commissioned pottery, such as trophies and awards. They also offer ceramics classes for adults and children. Kentucky Mudworks recently partnered with Zig Zeigler, a stained-glass artist whose studio is down the street, to offer stained glass classes.
The hardest thing about building the business was financing.
"In the beginning, it was credit cards, which is an absolute no-no," Henderson said. "But I was 25 and had no collateral."
As the business grew, she was able to get a conventional loan, which she plans to pay off in September. Henderson owns 90 percent of the business. Eight percent is owned by a friend and investor, and a longtime employee owns 2 percent.
But, for many years, much of Henderson's capital came from living simply and plowing most of her earnings back into the business.
"I probably lived on 700 bucks a month for I don't know how long, literally living above the shop," she said. "Ramen noodles: that's how I financed my business!
"I didn't have a family or a mortgage," added Henderson, 38, who now lives on a farm near Lawrenceburg. "I started when I was so young because I figured if I don't do it now, I'll never do it if I have something to lose."
In addition to constant financial discipline, Henderson said she does a business plan every five years to stay on track.
Kentucky Mudworks has been a lot of work, but it has been worth it, she said.
"I wish more young people would start businesses," Henderson said. "I was very, very lucky. I found a niche, a hole in the market that I was able to capitalize on.
"But it takes so much more than you think."
If you go
Pints for Plants
What: Fundraiser for Seedleaf, a nonprofit organization that works to provide affordable, nutritious food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky. The fundraiser's sponsors are Kentucky Mudworks and West Sixth Brewery.
When: 3 p.m. April 27 until sellout
Where: West Sixth Brewery, 501 W. Sixth St.
How: $15 donation gets you a pint of West Sixth beer in a handmade ceramic glass.
More info: Kentuckymudworks.com/events.htm or (859) 389-9681.