Overcoming addiction, Mercury Mosaics founder turned ceramic tile hobby into big business in Minneapolis

When you walk into Mercury Mosaics in Northeast Minneapolis, you're greeted by a cavernous warehouse and a guard dog named Elmo. But once you make it past Elmo, your reward is a rare look at the life-cycle of handcrafted ceramic tile. It's one of the few operations like it in the world.

Mercedes Austin is Mercury Mosaics CEO. Her mosaic tile company boasts about 30 employees, millions of dollars in sales, and an eye-popping client list. It includes popular local businesses and heavy hitters like Disney and Lululemon. But her mission is much more modest: human hands making one of a kind tiles that bring people joy.

"I kind of like these imperfections [in the tile] because it just shows you this was made by an actual person," Mercedes said.

But success like this rarely comes easy. Before she discovered her love of ceramics, Mercedes struggled for years with self-doubt. "It was as if everyone's life was so much better than mine," she said.

After struggling with addiction and self-doubt, CEO Mercedes Austin turned her ceramics passion into big business. (Supplied)

And she went through decades of addiction. "You wake up to have your morning coffee...I would wake up and get high."

And then in college, Mercedes discovered something that sparked joy in her. Her roommate made a mosaic tabletop out of ceramic tiles. "It just had this feeling of being like a puzzle crossed with a painting and I was just immediately hooked."

This was pre-Instagram, so all she could do was crash trade shows and go door-to-door. "And here I am with my little three-ring binder and my sleeves of random mashups of like Polaroid photos."

She says she limped along like that for 17 years, persevering through debt and doubt. And now, she can step back and be proud.

"Maybe once a week I'll just walk the space in the dark just to be like, 'holy crap,'" she said.

And now that she's here, Mercedes is determined to lift those around her. She's been paying her success forward by creating custom mosaics for local businesses and nonprofits in need of a boost.

"Be okay with other people succeeding around you," she said of her personal philosophy. "That'll lift you up if others succeed."