Scott Neff is thrilled to have left the corporate world to have a more personal touch in his business, as he has co-owned As You Wish pottery painting studios with his wife, Lori, for the past eight years. As You Wish has seven locations throughout the Valley, where patrons may choose items such as mugs and vases, paint them, and have them fired and glazed for home use.
Neff, a 50-year-old Chandler resident, is excited for the business to celebrate its 20th anniversary this September, with various specials leading up to the anniversary weekend September 18 to 20, when the studios offer $2 studio fees (usually $6-$8) and gift card raffles. Learn more about the special deals throughout the month on the As You Wish Facebook page here. In August, visitors to As You Wish can get half-off all glass fusing projects, including bowls, vases, nightlights and jewelry that are fired in the studio kilns.
Neff shared his advice for aspiring business owners and why he’s passionate about As You Wish, and you can hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born here. I grew up in the Arcadia area and was part of the last graduating class of Scottsdale High School in 1983.
Growing up, I was involved with all old-school Valley of the Sun things. When I was a Cub Scout, I went to The Wallace and Ladmo Show and won a Ladmo bag. When I was a teenager, I worked in the ice cream parlor at Legend City, and I sold T-shirts at Compton Terrace.
What is your educational and professional background?
I went to Arizona State University and majored in accounting. I became a CPA, and later, I got my MBA from the University of Phoenix. I spent about 20 years working in the corporate environment for some large corporations here in the Valley. I got tired of that and wanted to do something different, which led me to As You Wish.
How long have you been involved with As You Wish?
My wife and I purchased As You Wish eight years ago. The company has been around for 20 years.
We were looking for business opportunities, and my brother knew the owners, so we set up a meeting. We had been looking at fast food chains because I wanted to do my own thing, and I’m so glad this worked out because it’s such a great company. Talk about pride of ownership. We really enjoy what we’re doing now. We feel like we’re touching people’s lives and building memories one customer at a time.
Since we purchased it, we finished our Tempe Marketplace store and opened up new stores in Chandler and recently at Westgate in Glendale. Both the Chandler and Westgate stores are doing great, and we’re excited because we’re always looking for new opportunities here in the Valley.
We feel like we become part of that local community where our stores are. We donate to the schools, the churches and the organizations near the stores. We have someone whose responsibility is to handle donation requests, because we feel like it’s so important to give back to the community.
What have your community donations entailed?
It seems like everyone has a fall festival for the school fundraiser, and for events such as those, we can donate auction items. We try not to just give them a piece of pottery — we’ve also done things such as creating a tile wall with the school mascot on it.
We do a lot with the Girl Scouts and donate a lot to their big annual fundraisers. Make-A-Wish is a charity we support, and we do employee payroll deductions for Make-A-Wish. Throughout the year, we’ll do fundraisers where people can buy a star for a dollar to benefit Make-A-Wish, and we’ll match donations.
We like to do anything related to kids, and we give discounts to Big Brothers/Big Sisters. It’s all about focusing on kids and giving back to the community. Since we’ve owned the company, we’ve donated in excess of $100,000. We really make it a point to say yes to everyone.
Why is community involvement so important to you?
Our customers make up our community. We love seeing birthday parties and bridal showers here. Tonight we have daddy-daughter date night. It’s about bringing people together. We’ve had wedding proposals in our stores. It’s about having a mom bring that infant in to put a footprint on a mug to give to dad. Unless you drop it and break it, the piece will literally last for years.
We’ve had employees who had their 11th birthday party here, and now they’re in high school or college and are working for us. They’ll even go off to school and come back for winter or spring break and want to work for us. It’s a family-friendly environment here, and that’s what makes it neat.
How do you determine when the right time to open a new location is?
We like to be in what we call a destination center. We live for places like a Desert Ridge Marketplace, a Tempe Marketplace, a Westgate. We like to be near a movie theater, because that’s usually near the food shops, and people aren’t in a hurry. They’ll window shop, and we found that gets the most foot traffic.
I could easily envision three or four more locations in the Valley. There are some communities we’re looking at that we’d like to see get a little bit bigger before we open there. Once the retail gets established, we’ll definitely take a look at those. We try to position ourselves to when that opportunity arises, we’re ready to jump on it.
What’s your typical week like?
It’s busy. With seven locations, we have 85 employees now. It’s my wife and I and a few other members of our executive team who are running this thing day to day. It’s management 101: surround yourself with the best people possible. We have an employee who’s done our marketing who has been with us for the past 16 years. We have great managers and great employees.
In the beginning of the week, I’m placing orders to replenish our stock from the weekend. My wife handles payroll and bookkeeping. Then, we’re running supplies around to stores and have a managers’ meeting to sync up and give people plans.
Then, we’re looking at deals. I’m constantly working with my suppliers to get the best price possible that I can pass on to my customers. It’s amazing — the weeks fly by. I love what I’m doing, and after 20 years in the corporate world, I would never go back.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges to being a business owner?
I love my flexible schedule. If I want to go coach my son’s football team, I can do that. Yeah, I might have to make the work up at 10 o’clock at night, but the flexible schedule and relaxed nature of the business is a benefit.
It’s truly a pride of ownership you don’t get in the corporate world, where you’re working for someone else and are worried about your merit increase or if you’re going to get your bonus.
A challenge is making the decision whether to be a big company or stay small. We want to take what we’ve got and share it with more people, but it’s a challenge. Now, there are new healthcare laws, which are really expensive. They’re great benefits for our employees, but that’s an expense we didn’t have before. Talk of raising the minimum wage to $15 is also a challenge, since we often employ high school kids, where this is their first job. We’re constantly getting things thrown at us that cost a lot of money, which we have to balance with our goal of keeping things as low-cost as possible for our customers.
Do you see the business expanding beyond Arizona?
Yes. I’m working with several brokers to find a location north of us, as well as east of us. I feel like we’ve got what we have nailed down, which also makes franchising down the road an option. I feel like the processes we have in place are so dialed in, we can take our model and put it wherever we want to.
I also have a son who is 21, who is a senior at Arizona State. We’re thinking about if we can really turn this into a true family owned-and-operated business. We’ll see what he wants to do, but we do want to grow the business.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges to working with your wife?
I think a lot of people would probably roll their eyes, because they couldn’t do it, but I’ve found it’s been great. It’s enhanced our relationship and forced us to be together more often. It’s awesome — I feel like she’s not only my wife, but she’s truly my partner in everything.
The downside is, because it is our business, it’s kind of all-consuming. It’s easy to talk about As You Wish at the dinner table, and almost anywhere, because you’re so engrossed in the business. We kind of have to watch that balance.
I will say, it’s actually helped my son at Arizona State with his business courses because he gets to see what’s actually going on with As You Wish, but we need to make sure we manage that work-life balance. You’ve got to have a designated office space and be able to turn that switch on or off when it comes to spending time with family.
What advice would you have for aspiring business owners?
I’d tell them to go for it. Surround yourself with good people, and get good advice from people you know. Spend the up-front money with attorneys and CPAs, which will pay great dividends down the road.
Grab your idea, your dream, and go for it. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. Is it a lot of work? Absolutely. I feel like I work more now than I did in the corporate world, because in the corporate world, when you leave the office, you leave your job. Being a small business owner, if that alarm goes off at 2 in the morning, you’re the one getting out of bed to put out the fire. You have to worry about if you can make payroll and rent. I’ve got 85 employees who are counting on me for a paycheck. It’s a different kind of worry and stress level, but the rewards are worth every bit of it.
What advice would you have for someone who comes to the studio for the first time?
Don’t let some of the samples turn you away. We can break that down and literally show you step by step how that can be done. We help release that inner artist in you that’s begging to come out.
We also offer classes with tips and tricks on how to turn your pieces into true works of art. It’s easier than you think. Don’t be intimidated. We have a staff who more than knows what they’re doing and will help you. We’ve got stencils and stamps and all these other little tools to help make things look great.
What’s your favorite piece of pottery you offer?
More than anything, I tend to lean towards the large platters. They’re a great paint surface, and you can use them in so many ways, from barbecues, to Thanksgiving family dinners. They look so pretty on the table, and you can really get some nice designs on them. My parents have all the grandkids’ handprints on pieces, and whenever the kids go to grandma and grandpa’s house, they’ll put their hands on the pieces to see how much they’ve grown.
We’ve got great stories about all our pieces. We love hearing from our customers. One of the promotions we ran for our last anniversary was for people to tell us their most memorable As You Wish painting experience to win gift cards. The stories people would tell were so touching. We heard everything from someone being deployed to Afghanistan for their third time, and they came in and painted with their mom, to people fighting leukemia. They were gut-wrenching stories, and when our executive team read the 250 entered stories, we had a huge box of tissues at the table because the stories were so touching.
We tell the staff you never know the customer who’s sitting at that table. They could have experienced a miscarriage, or a divorce, or cancer — you just don’t know. That’s why every customer needs to be treated like a VIP. Hearing these stories makes us realize we really are touching people’s lives. We heard one where a family came to As You Wish every year for their family reunion. The grandfather passed away, and they made a quilt in his honor that included an As You Wish T-shirt. We’re literally touching people’s lives, and that’s what makes me excited to be a part of this business.
Why would you encourage someone to come here and paint a piece of pottery?
There are very few places where you can go and actually sit down for awhile and talk with each other and do something together. It really is a great place to bring a date or do girls night out or have a daddy-daughter date night. In the movies, you can’t talk, and at a restaurant, dinner goes by quickly, and you’re in a noisy environment. Here, you can sit down and work on this piece of art, and all your worries go away. You’re spending quality time with that person you love, and you can’t put a price on quality time.