Industry Watch

Mercedes Austin (left) at Mercury Mosaics

Compelling: Work on the Lululemon storefront at the Mall of America recently won Mercury Mosaics a design award

A mercurial rise

Mercury Mosaics has enjoyed rapid success — not bad for a company that started in a studio apartment

By Maggie Kelly

In 2001, Mercedes Austin walked into a handmade-tile shop in Northeast Minneapolis with little-to-no knowledge of ceramics or tiles. By the time she walked out, her contact information was written on an informal application and in the hands of the owner, who had never before hired an employee. "I knew I had to work there," recalls Austin while sitting in the beautifully bright studio in the Casket Arts Building in Minneapolis that is now home to her company, Mercury Mosaics. Sample tiles hang on the surrounding walls, the colors ranging from calm earth-tones to explosions of Technicolor, making clear these are not your average kitchen and bath tiles. The surrounding functional artwork, and the fact that this is already the young company's third commercial space, hint at the growth that Austin and her company have undergone since her first gig at the small tile shop.

The owner of that shop hired her two weeks after her initial visit, she says, "but the catch was that he didn't have any money to pay me, so he bartered my time with tile material." Art materials are expensive, and with a waitressing job that supported her financially, and the desire to get her hands on those tiles, the young Austin accepted with enthusiasm.

Aside from sparking the passion she didn't know existed, the main thing that this small tile shop gave her was confidence. After about a year of working there, she had earned the shop owner's trust to the point where she was allowed to run his business for a month when he took a vacation with his wife.

So with some extra confidence under her belt, Austin sold her jazz CD collection, got her first big gig fitting a house with ceramic switch plate covers, and decided to start her business. "I think that was probably $2,000 total that I had," she says, "but at the time it was like, I can do anything!"

Focusing on home accessories, she spent the first year and a half working and selling out of her apartment, along with having a few part-time jobs on the side. The challenges that come with working and living in the same space are ones that many an entrepreneur has stumbled over. But in Austin's case, those challenges included firing a kiln in an apartmentnot an easy task. The heat is immense and clay produces dust, so proper ventilation was key. "It was romantic at first on a super small scale, but as it grew it wasn't a good environment at all," she says. What Austin did learn from the cramped experience was care. Being so close to the work at that time has translated into extended care being put into the tiles her company produces today.

Class act

Austin's curiosity, luck, and "the magic of Google" is what took her business to the next step, when she learned about a 10-day workshop on tile mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. She signed up for one of the slots in the 20-student workshop only to find, on the day she arrived, that the other 19 had been held up and wouldn't be able to make it. Austin was sure the class would be canceled, but she was mistaken. The workshop was on, and it consisted of her and 11 Italian mosaicists. The days were filled with detailed mosaic instruction, and at night Austin helped check the English grammar on their website. In return, the mosaicists would take her out to shows or dinner. "It was like they adopted me for 10 days," Austin says. The woman who led the workshop is one of only a few mosaicists in Italy permitted by the government to work on restoring the nation's ancient mosaics.

That lucky coincidence inspired Austin to pay it forward in classes she now offers at Mercury Mosaics. Living in Minnesota, weather happens, and when the occasional blizzard strikes, her classes continue no matter the number of attendees. "This is Minnesota! What's a little snow?"

The classes weren't actually Austin's idea, though. Credit goes to Groupon, which suggested the move when Austin contacted them about selling some pre-assembled stove accents. Groupon noted that classes are really big and would be a good idea. Of course, Austin and her crew had to come up with what the classes would be and how they would benefit from the offering. That's when they looked to the boxes of tiles that didn't quite pass inspection. Those became the building supplies for mirror and wall-panel mosaics that would be made in the classes. The benefits of the classes are clear, says Austin: "It recuperates what could have been lost revenue for those materials, and it gets out the word." She adds that the fun-factor of the classes has been huge. "People are surprised at how well they're taken care of," she says. This spreads the word and has "generated a lot of local business."

Mercury Mosaics tiles have found their way into many a kitchen and bathroom, but Austin notes that if people don't understand the quality, the prices can be a bit of a shock. What we do is "merge that fine line between a health inspector approving these tiles to be in a commercial kitchen, and fine arts." These are not the kind of tiles found at Home Depot. The prices per square foot can range anywhere from $34 to $136, with bathroom projects ranging from $680 to $14,500.

Such prices haven't stopped customers from flowing in, even considering that the company started business at the beginning of the recession. Austin says that when it came to the market, she simply decided not to agree that business was bad, so she looked to diversify the markets. "Maybe things aren't as rough in Denver, so let's market out there and then Tampa…" Sticking to one area would leave her at the mercy of one market, and Austin wasn't going to let that happen.

The work of Mercury Mosaics can now be found in retail stores, coffee shops, and restaurants around much of North America. In Minnesota, the company has done walls in places ranging from Whole Foods to Lululemon at the Mall of America.

The Minneapolis-based marketing and design firm Shea Designs has worked with Mercury Mosaics on multiple projects. A Shea representative notes that Austin takes the time to personally work on each assignment and that her company's "attention to detail, quality of work, and receptiveness to our needs are just a few reasons our office calls them when we are looking for something special."

Customer service, personality, and fun have been key components to Mercury Mosaics gaining clients, says Austin: "Going a few extra miles to get a sale just because you want to help the person actually goes a really long way." Walking into the studio, one can almost feel that this is how she runs the business. With the colors and smiles, you know she means it when she says, "If you get too serious about something, it doesn't happen."