When the pandemic struck in the early part of 2020, COVID-19 put on hold dreams and desires of entrepreneurs all over the globe. Not Helena’s, though. In the face of the Corona-pandemic she quit her management position in the public sector and went all-in as she began fulltime producing handicraft for the Faroese market and opened a café where guests can paint clay tableware.
“Looking back, given the circumstances with the pandemic and all, I would describe it as a bold decision. Although I’m certain some might call it ‘foolhardy’ or even ‘reckless’. But I had my mind set on starting my own business and I haven’t had any regrets,” Helena Højgaard says.
When the old post office next to her grandparents’ home in the fishing village of Vestmanna went on the market, she pounced. Today, the former postal building is home to ‘Elva Leir Kafe’ – Elva Clay Café – where guests can enjoy the serenity of decorating figurines, bowls, plates and even clay craniums in the café’s light and cozy facilities overlooking the busy Vestmanna harbour. Originally the café was intended as a supplement to Helena’s own handicraft production. But the weight of the two branches of her business have switched.
“It’s probably 70-30 today as I spent more time in the café which is surprising to me, but positive for sure. Working with clay feels like mental rest to me and I really enjoy it. But in truth, I’m too extrovert to sit by myself by the potter’s wheel in the basement for too long at a time,” Helena says.
Her customer base is primarily Faroese. Originally, she hadn’t planned on attracting tourists but, as she points out, in retrospect it does makes sense to offer a great indoor activity in a country where the locals say it rains 280 days a year. Whether Faroese or not, her customers do have one thing in common:
“They’re women. I mean, once in a while a male guest might join in but he is always accompanying a female customer,” Helena says. Guests in the café are usually groups of friends, colleagues enjoying an afternoon out or mothers with young children. She also does get-togethers, bachelorette parties and birthdays outside of the café.
Fulfilling her purpose
Helena began working with clay more than a decade ago. To begin with by attending classes at the local evening school and in 2016 by setting up a workshop in her basement, complete with potter’s wheel and a kiln – a furnace for firing the pottery. Sales at a Christmas bazar went far better than expected, and when she was asked to develop a series of bowls for KOKS – the two star Michelin restaurant at that time residing in the Faroe Islands – as part of its unique selection of tableware, Helena began to ponder if it was possible to make a living out of her pastime interest. Could she do it?
“I had a well-paid job in HR and communication, but I wasn’t entirely fulfilled. Working with clay gave me a chance to be creative, work with my hands and sculpt something tangible. In the process of starting up by myself, I thought a lot through, but certainly not everything. If I had considered every single aspect, chances are I wouldn’t have dared to take the leap,” Helena says.
When transitioning into the role as entrepreneur, Helena became part of the setup in Hugskotið, Tórshavn’s startup haven, where she found plenty of opportunities to exchange ideas with likeminded, attend courses and seminars, and hone in on the skills required to run a successful business.
“Creating a startup, I think what surprised me the most is how much discipline it requires. And how versatile you need to be,” Helena says. “In a large organization there is always someone you can lean on and who has expert knowledge within a specific field. While I miss that on one hand, my work today is characterized by quick, short decision-making processes and complete freedom to determine which direction to take the business.”
What would you have done differently, if you had the opportunity to begin again?
“Not a great deal, I think. I have succeeded in limiting costs, keeping things simple and not spending too much time on the individual parts. But although it’s nice to be able to decide for yourself as a solo entrepreneur, it would have been fun to start up together with someone else,” Helena says.
Although she doesn’t have a permanent business partner there are lots of opportunities to collaborate with other small business owners. And as someone who describes herself as structured, hardworking and good at seizing opportunities when they emerge, Helena is enjoying the everyday life of a startup.
“I am, however, far too much of a dreamer to commit to actual long term planning. That’s just not how I function. One of the lessons I’ve learned from starting up though is, that if you really try, almost anything is possible. So I might switch tracks again at some point. I’m really excited that I chose to become an entrepreneur. But the thoughts about what I want to spend my life on continue,” Helena concludes.