built by women: meghan cleary, founder of MeghanSAYS® shoes

THR

Did you know that there are less than 10 footwear companies in the United States run by women? Women purchase twice as many shoes as men yet only eleven women designers/manufacturers were represented in the Power 100? So many companies create products believing they have their customer’s best interests and sartorial desires at heart, but my dear friend, Meghan Cleary, involves her customers at every stage of the product development process and she’s one of the kindest, smartest, passionate, and funniest women I know. Meg and I met in 2006 and back then we were in the business of bringing women together (specifically in book publishing + writing) to collaborate and support one another. Every month I hosted a gathering of 50-100 women in hopes that there would be strength in numbers, and Meg’s tireless and unwavering support (from finding us spaces to bringing the coolest people into the room) marks the kind of woman she is: mentor, friend, collaborator.

It’s been formidable to witness her bloom from passionate shoe aficionado to a company owner, and when I sampled her products first-hand, not only did I love the price point ($98-$168) for the quality, her shoes were stylish and comfortable. She’s someone who I always want to celebrate and even though I took a break from posting on this space, I wanted to share with you not only her line but her verve and wisdom. Meg’s worth breaking my break (I’m still on hiatus). I hope our chat will inspire you just as much as she’s always, always inspired me. –FS

 

Felicia C. Sullivan: When I first met you, nearly a decade ago in New York, you were this ebullient force who had just published a book about shoes and was a fierce connector—you had a way of bringing smart, passionate woman in your network together that was infectious. We’re both from the east coast and I remember how we talked about our respective journeys west. What motivated you to leave New York, and what have you gained (and lost) as a result of calling Los Angeles your home.

Meghan Cleary: Well, first of all, that is so nice to hear. I remember being a part of really trying to bring women writers together with you and it was so fun. There are so many groups now like Binders doing that online it’s cool to think we were there in the beginning.

In terms of making my shift to the left coast, I had been thinking about moving to Los Angeles for about a year before I finally came out. I had a lot of friends here, and after ten years in NYC — and watching my once quaint West Village neighborhood turn into a high-end shopping mall (!) — I was craving some physical things — mainly space and light. The idea of having more space and more access to nature was a big thought — as a creative person literal, physical space can be really freeing. I was also looking for an easier lifestyle, not so much the daily schlep. Originally I was going to come out for six months and see how I liked it, but here we are eight years later! What’s interesting is how many people from NYC have made the leap. There are more of us here now than ever although I’m like don’t tell any more people how great it is — we want it all to ourselves!

In October 2008, I came out here for a TV appearance on TVGUIDE network. I was on a show called “Fashion Team”, which was a really great show about actual fashion — really well produced. One of the co-hosts who interviewed me was Lawrence Zarian. He was incredibly encouraging and took me aside after the show and told me I was one of the very few experts that came on the show who actually know what I was talking about and knew my subject matter. His words kind of planted a seed in my mind and by the end of the weekend, I was like ok, I’m coming out. It was perfect timing. My contract for consulting I had with a big bank had just ended, and I was free to go. A month later I got on a plane with my dog – it was Nov 5, 2008, the day after the election and everyone was in a really jubilant mood.

10428-1 TOGETHER(1)FS: I admire you because you navigate disparate worlds with ease. You have a background in financial writing and marketing, you are the expert in footwear –how do you balance the reality of having to be a freelancer (doing the things that pay the bills) while pursuing what gets you out of the bed in the morning (your new shoe line, MeghanSAYS®)? How do you make time for both and do you feel a sense of balance?

MC: Well, thank you so much. There are so many people like us that have to juggle and hustle. Choosing a creative life means you have to really get inventive about your income streams, learn how to manage your cash flow like a fierce businessperson and be flexible. I got really fortunate early on in that I worked in finance doing marketing and it is something I can always return to. I actually enjoy it because it is so different than my creative life – it’s very calming, in fact because it works another part of my mind and there is often a beginning, middle and end to a project. I’ve found that my natural penchant for narrative and story is extremely helpful as well in my financial consulting realm.

In terms of balance – well, I think balance is kind of bullshit. There is no balance — there’s maybe balance over the long-term but for me, it is more about figuring out how and when to expend energy. There are certain times of day I get more done in an hour than I would in three hours at another time of day. As a woman there are certain times of the month I am more creative and outgoing, some days I’m more introverted and marinating. What types of people do I spend what levels of energy with, how do I sustain energy over a long day? My biggest challenge has been allowing my body to rest when I am sick. I still find this a challenge. Especially as a creative person, if you are consulting too, you don’t get paid for missing a day. The hustle is always there in the back of your mind, and as a creative person, we are not given stability and pensions and etc. You have to make that all for yourself. Fortunately, as the workforce changes, there are a ton of resources to do so, and as I said, especially as a woman you have to get financially savvy – and it still can be challenging even then. Barbara Stanny is a great person to read about this. Also my friend Laura Shin writes a ton of helpful articles on freelancing and personal finance.

LA TimesFS: Your journey to shoe designer is amazing! Tell us how MeghanSAYS® came to be, and your vision for the debut collection and the brand.

MC: Thank you! It has been so exciting honestly. I became obsessed with shoes when I was five years old and I also wanted to be a psychologist when I was little, I started writing poetry when I was 10 and I have always loved dressing up. What I do has been kind of a weird blend of all of these things. I’m deeply interested in shoes in relation to questions about culture and identity, what they say about people. I love really spirited, fun design. Through my work as a shoe expert and listening directly to actual women, I learned there was a huge gap in the market for what women wanted in a shoe. I thought it would be fun to begin to try to meet that need in a really fun, spirited way. The collection itself came out of an offhand conversation with a friend at a holiday party – one thing led to another, and soon I had a manufacturer who was willing to underwrite the first line of samples. This is huge for a woman entrepreneur – we do not have the same type of access to capital and infrastructure that men do so it was a huge beautiful thing they were will willing to do it. My first meeting at Soho House, I brought shoes to the table literally and put them on the table – I had a very clear vision of styles I wanted, what I was thinking of. While I was talking, the woman at the next table leaned over and asked about the prototypes I had on the table — she wanted to know where to get them! I think that helped and boom! We had a line. I wanted to create shoes for women that were easy to wear and at the same time extremely fun. I don’t take the word fun lightly by the way – there’s so much in our society set up for not fun, to actually try to infuse it into things you do, and in this case, an actual product I feel is essential.

FS: I love that your line is affordable and stylish without sacrificing on quality—a rare breed in the shoe business. Is this balance a challenge (if so, how), and did you have a price range in mind for your woman going into the design and manufacturing process?

MC: I love that you called that out – it was something I thought about a lot. What I learned is that how you are able to price your product is largely based on how many shoes you can get a retailer to order and your relationship and negotiating power with a factory. It sounds totally backward I know, and you need to go into the design and sample process with an idea of where you’d like to be pricing-wise obviously, but it all comes down to how many shoes you are making. The more you make, the lower the price the factory can give you. So the more a retailer buys, the better pricing you can give them and, in turn, the customer. You also have to figure in margins for your manufacturer and yourself. I got incredibly lucky that the manufacturer I partnered with has amazing relationships with factories and was able to get the pricing we wanted. Although in order to keep the flat under $100 I took a huge margin hit. I have practically no margin on the flat but I was adamant I did not want them to be over $100.

FS: What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

MC: I was surprised and honestly I am always surprised when I set out to make a product – making actual physical things gives you a whole new appreciation for how things get created from a sketch to on someone’s feet. All this year I literally go into a shop and am like wow – can you believe this glass was made wherever it was made, and now it is here on this shelf and I can buy it! How amazing! Seriously, the amount of things that have to come together to make a thing, and then get that thing into the store, seems like a Sisyphean task. But it happens! It all happens and comes together. You wouldn’t think you would get so excited about supply chain or shipping logistics, but you do! Again my manufacturer has a huge infrastructure already set up so for me to plug in was amazing – and still it was full of surprises even though it’s a well-oiled machine. That’s just the nature of making THINGS.

FS: I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner or hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

MC: I think honestly the only thing I regret is spending ANY time on worrying or what my brilliant friend Vanessa McGrady calls future tripping. It is a natural part and parcel of being an artist to have fear, anxiety, dread and resistance come up. It’s only now I feel like NO! I do not want to spend time dragging myself into that pit like I have spent too much time doing that. Saying that, I also have a very fearless side of myself as well. I don’t really listen when I hear naysayers and I have a special penchant for just doing things. Like ok, that sounds fun, I’m gonna do that. I do. That’s how I wrote a pilot last year and how I started a shoe line. Literally because well, why not?

My godson Daniel is the cutest; he calls me a “possibilitarian”. I try to stay in that zone so my only regret is when I’m out of that zone and I spend any time out of it.

FS: Have you endured any challenges building a business as a woman? How did you manage them?

85653-24A BLACK-2MC: I think the challenges I face as a woman are extremely subtle and some not so subtle. I am a white, college-educated woman, so I have a certain amount of privilege in the world and ease with which I can navigate the world. Saying that, I know that because of income inequality, I have not earned as much as my male counterparts, and I am a pretty fierce negotiator, so I certainly probably have come close but over time I could have probably earned more as a man. Also, women are just not given the same financial tools and information from a young age as many men are. I remember I had a great boss at one of the banks I worked at and I asked him how should I invest my money and he was like just park it in a money market – because it was assumed I would get married. He didn’t say get fierce with your 401K, and use it to try and buy real estate or learn about stocks — it was kind of like ok, honey just put it there — and he was an amazing guy who I looked up to in so many ways. I think had I more financial savvy I would be further along. When I first read Barbara Stanny’s Prince Charming’s Not Coming — it opened my eyes about how I think about the ambiguous “future” when it comes to finance. We all sometimes have magical thinking when it comes to money. I’ve gotten very savvy over the years, but still could be so much savvier.

Then there are real, logistical and institutional issues — women do not have the same access as men to capital and financing. And if you are entering a male-dominated business, oftentimes it’s difficult to make the relationships necessary to take the business forward. Factories, sourcing, etc are usually male-dominated so you have to partner up with people or find other ways to convince people to work with you. Capital is the lifeblood of businesses especially when making a product so to not have that access can cripple you early on.

In terms of how I managed these issues, honestly, I just plow ahead. I don’t think about it too much. I find that in a lot of cases, passion, enthusiasm and having a clear vision resonates with people and they will take a chance with you. You only need like one person to get on board.

FS: Who/What has inspired you along the way and why?

MC: So many people. My mom taught me how to work things out and hustle. We got hit by a recession in Michigan when I was little and she was always super resourceful and taught me the same skills. Very handy for creatives! My auntie Mary who did my logo for MeghanSAYS® and all my illustrations for my Shoe Are You?® book and web series. My aunt Kit who had the awesomest shoe collection ever and was a major businesswoman and marketer. My dad who always finds some kind of humor in every situation. He loves to throw in “slingback pump” into any conversation because now he knows what that is! My brother who always is super hilarious. Funny is a big thing in my life and I can giggle my face off with all these people. My boyfriend Tim is one of my major sounding boards. He works in entertainment so he totally gets the creative side of things and is always a huge proponent of just going for the creativity full on.  My BFF in New York, Sarah, who I call the The Rabbi, always tells it like it is. And my BFF in LA, Vanessa, who is always down for blowing up the fear. Jason Campbell who always pushes me to look at design and style in new ways. I also belong to an extraordinary writing group who I call The Pod run by David Hochman — they are my secret superpower group.

FS: What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding shoe/manufacturing-related ventures?

MC:
1. Don’t quit your day job/Quit your day job. What I mean by this is keep your sources of revenue flowing, but try not to get too caught up in the daily grind of a j-o-b. Like the office politics, etc. Keep it light, keep it observational, positive. You need to keep your psychic space to create so don’t spend it on office blah blah blah.
2. Learn how to manage cash flow and what that is!
3. Be flexible.
4. Lose the shame in working a day job! People get so wrapped up in appearances. I’ve found most of my day job people are my biggest supporters! I’m always very appropriate when revealing what I do in addition to my regular work, you have to feel it out at your particular workplace, but once you tell people you’d be surprised how many people want to be your cheerleader. Because you are doing the risky thing, the thing many are afraid to do. It doesn’t feel courageous sometimes but it is.

Regarding footwear – wow – that’s a whole other interview! I’ve learned a lot but I’d say in the end it all comes down to product and your factory. You want a great factory that wants to make the best product for you – especially because in my case my actual name is on it!

FS: What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

MC:
• Burt’s Bees lip balm
• I TRY to meditate – don’t always get there but I try
• Petting and walking my dog – best oxytocin booster ever!

FS Most importantly, which of your shoes do we absolutely NEED in our closet and what is your favorite of the collection?

MC: The ballet flat!!! Seriously you can have one in every color – it is so comfortable, perfect travel shoe and just the chic-est shoe around IMHO. Makes every foot look amazing from size 5 to size 11. The denim is beyond, the floral is super punchy, the b/w gingham I wear literally every day though now I am alternating it with the blush sparkle microsuede because I just fell in love with that one too!

 

BM01020-3 BLUE+NATURAL

 

All images courtesy of Meghan Cleary. 

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want to get into the freelancing game? our roundtable has all the answers!

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Can I tell you I’m privileged to have such good people in my life? If you would’ve known me 10, 15 years ago, you would’ve met a paled-down version of me–a woman who was anxious, defiant, focused on quantity over quality. But I guess that’s what happens with age, you come into your own so beautifully and acutely, that people have a tendency to cleave to that which is calm and good.

To that end, imagine my joy to discover that so many of my friends and peers were so generous with their knowledge and time in helping readers of this space get the answers they need should they want to pursue a freelance life. I’m humbled by their generosity, the fact that the time it took to read and respond to your great questions took them away from billable work. So I’m grateful for that, and I think part of being a successful freelancer is to know when you should give your time and to whom.

So thank you, dear readers, for your questions. As I was preparing to chime in with responses, I realized that my peers were so eloquent and so helpful, that I would only be parroting versions of their words. I hope you find value here, or at least inspiration to give of your time and pursue that which you hold dear and love. –FS

Question #1: This is going to be the newbie-est of newbie questions and rather embarrassing to ask, but…how does one start freelancing? In particular, how does one break into freelance copy editing, especially if one does not have many, many years of solid experience in the field? Honestly, I have no idea how to start! My background is mostly in academia, but I am in a situation in which I need to look for employment elsewhere, and I am thinking about freelancing as I navigate my way through the rough seas of job hunting and relocating. Well, thank you, Felicia and everyone else, for offering this great service! –RINE

Lindsey Tramuta: Great question! I would first start small and see if anyone in your immediate network could use copy editing services. If you can seek little projects on the side initially, you’ll build up your portfolio and get more comfortable applying for freelance gigs or connecting with potential employers once you have the experience under your belt. For me, I had an idea that I thought would fit in nicely with a magazine so I asked a friend who had previously written for the magazine if she would be kind enough to share her editor’s email (she was no longer writing for the outlet and didn’t cover the same beat) and she did. That doesn’t work every time but in this case, she opened the door for me, I reached out to the editor and I’ve been writing for them ever since. Also, if you’re looking to actively veer your career in a new direction, make sure you update your close friends and contacts with personalized emails (or phone calls!) so that they know to keep an eye and ear out for opportunities that would fit with your interests.

Amber Katz: My advice is to network beyond belief. Find some people doing what you’d like to do, in this case, freelance copy editing, and email them and ask them if you can take them to coffee for a 20-minute meeting. In the email, ask if a phone call would work if they’re not able to meet up and come to the meeting/call with three questions you’d like answered. Another thing I’d recommend is simply emailing your network and let them know you’re taking on freelance copy editing work if anyone has any leads. You may have to offer your services for a small fee (never for FREE, unless you really don’t have any related experience, in which case you may need to do a project or two gratis) so you can put together a portfolio. Good luck!

Leah Singer: I would suggest doing a few things. First, if you have experience doing copy editing (or any of the freelance skills you want to do) in your current job, make sure you highlight that on your resume and on your LinkedIn profile. Even if your job in academe is not a copyeditor, if you’re performing that work as part of your job, it’s relevant and should be promoted.

Second, start finding organizations that will use your talent in a volunteer capacity. For example, see if your church, synagogue or kid’s school or club needs a copyeditor for their newsletter, and volunteer to do the work. When you’re well established, I don’t always advocate giving away your time and service for free. However when you’re starting out, you need to get the clients and experiences to build your business. And remember, nobody knows the work you’re doing is volunteer or paid!

Third, harness the power of social media! Find a few friends or post something on Facebook that you’re starting this service and want to do some copyediting for people’s blogs, articles, etc. Then make sure to get testimonials for your LinkedIn profile and future website!

Matthew Sharpe: I’m a freelance editor and writing coach and I started freelancing somewhat by accident. I taught creative writing in the evening at a local university. Some of my students were grown-ups working on novels, and they got in touch after the course was over to see if I’d continue helping them with their novels. Same thing happened after I attended a few writers’ conference over the years. I confess I’m not great at advertising and marketing my own services, so most of my work has come to me via word of mouth.

As for copy editing: okay, so you don’t have many, many years of experience. Do you have any? That will certainly help. I’d get in touch with the copy departments of all the major book publishers and magazines and let them know you’re available, and what your experience is. If they have an opening, they’ll give you a test. If you do well on the test, they’ll start giving you some work. If you do well on the work, they’ll give you more. Etcetera.

Cariwyl Herbert: No need to feel embarrassed at all! We all must start somewhere, and most endeavors begin with asking questions. If you are ready to take clients, put the word out to your network. Email your friends and family to let them know what you are offering. They’ll gladly hire you when they need copywriting, and they will tell their friends as well. You can also post your services on sites like elance.com and odesk.com; both are portals catering to freelancers.

Alexandra Ostrow: Good for you, Rine! Depending on your role in academia, you likely have more related experience than you’re giving yourself credit for. Take a look at the projects you’ve worked on, and make a list of the times when copyediting played a role. This list is the beginning of your portfolio. Also, let your network (colleagues, friends, family) know that you’re beginning to work as a freelance copyeditor and are looking to take on new clients. If you’re open to it, offer discounted services to new clients for a limited time period. This will help grow your portfolio. Bottom line, if you’re gravitating towards freelance copyediting, this is either a passion or an innate skill of yours. Believe in yourself and go for it. The hardest part is often just putting yourself out there.

Kim Brittingham: Years ago I worked as a legal assistant and I used to wonder the same thing. How do these freelancers get work to begin with, so they can eventually work only for themselves? And I’m still not sure I have the answer! I have friends who write full-time, and they get non-stop work just pitching ideas directly to publications. But I think that requires a lot of persistence, and you have to be good at coming up with a lot of different ideas all the time (enough that you can afford to have the majority of them shot down). I also suspect it takes time to establish relationships with editors who will look forward to your pitches and respond to you quickly, or even reach out to you and offer an assignment.

I also know of some writers who get work through eLance.com, Guru.com and oDesk.com, but I personally haven’t used those sites because I think most people who go there seeking writers and also looking for a bargain, so you wind up making really insulting money.

My path to becoming a full-time freelance writer was a little unconventional. It started in the ‘90s when I published a ‘zine called Café Eighties. I did a lot of interviews with entertainers, and after a while, people came to know me as a writer. Eventually, someone from a local publication reached out to me and said, hey, would you be interested in writing something for us? Then when the Internet came about, I was completely fascinated. I wanted to tinker and figure out what I could do with this thing. I had a really early website, I was on message boards, et cetera. I remember posting an ad on Craig’s List, offering to write what we call “web content” today, although I don’t think that term was being widely used back then. I got some responses. I wrote articles about personal safety in the context of dating for a telephone forwarding service; I wrote about novel ways to propose marriage for a diamond company. One thing led to another. Eventually I sold a book to Random House, in part because I had built a following with my personal blog and stuff I posted on social media. I was extremely lucky in that I didn’t have to work hard to get a literary agent to notice me; my agent approached me first.

Then I had some more skills in my pocket, like the social media, blogging, et cetera. I had even more to offer as a freelancer. Then one day I got a call from a guy I’d taken a class with at Media Bistro. He asked if I’d be willing to ghostwrite a book for him. I signed a contract that made it possible for me to quit my job as a legal assistant. Since then, I’ve taken some part-time jobs here or there to get by while doing the freelance writing thing, but I’m happy to say I haven’t had to do that in the last three years. Most of the work I get today is repeat business and referrals. People also find me on LinkedIn. For example, I occasionally publish a blog post to their content platform “Pulse”, and people have reached out to me with work after liking what they read. I think it also helps that I’ve carved out a niche for myself, working with executive coaches, management consultants and thought leaders. When you specialize in something, you have a better shot at winning business than if you try to be everything to everyone, in which case you disappear into a vast sea of other Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades. I do still take outsourced work from marketing agencies, though, because I enjoy the variety. One day you’re writing blog posts for an insurance company that caters to teachers, the next you’re creating mildly crass Facebook memes aimed at 20-something heterosexual men who gamble. It’s fun!

Question #2: Thank you for offering us the chance to ask questions! I’ve been working as a freelance editor part-time along with my normal day job in academia. I’m currently looking to grow my business. I’ve been wondering about keeping regular clients happy, yet still being able to take a week or two off throughout the year. –EGEORGIAN

Amber Katz: There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a week or two off throughout the year. It’s all about sending your freelance clients an email 2 weeks before your vacation and letting them know you’ll be off the grid for a couple weeks and could they please submit any requests for work by X date so you have time to finish up before you leave. Then, use an Out Of Office notification to let people know you’re away and not checking email until X date and to contact you in case of an emergency using a special email subject line.

Cariwyl Herbert: Everyone is entitled to time off—even freelancers! It isn’t difficult to take a day off here and there; put an out-of-office alert on your email if you’re worried. For a longer vacation, simply give clients a couple weeks notice so they know what to expect.

Leah Singer: For me personally, it’s been hard to take chunks of time off and not do any work (although I know people who do it well). I usually always check email or have client work that needs to be done in some way. However, it can be done and it just requires a lot of planning and working in advance. If I know I need to take a few days off, I schedule time on my calendar to do work ahead of time. I also let my clients know I won’t be working on those days. Also, some seasons are slower than others. December always seems to be less chaotic, which is great since my daughter has the last two week of the month off of school. I also take advantage of holiday weekends since the rest of the world tends to slow down during these times.

Matthew Sharpe: I think just give them a lot of advance notice about your time off. If feasible, offer to do extra work in advance of your vacation so they won’t be stranded. Everyone needs time off. People generally accept this, in my experience.

Kim Brittingham: One thing that helps me is flat-out refusing to work with unreasonable and/or demanding people (FS note: Hallelujah!). I have a pretty good instinct about people, and usually after just one conversation, I can sense whether or not they’re going to be a giant pain in the rear. Life’s too short for that. Just say no. BACK AWAY FROM THE NUTJOB. That’s why I never have issues with clients calling me at odd hours or expecting me to be available 24/7 to discuss things that are in no way urgent. Also, I think it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. Tell your client how many hours you have available to them, when you take calls and when you don’t, when and how often you will meet via Skype or conference call, et cetera. Put it in writing.

The work I take allows for a lot of flexibility. For example, I have clients to whom I provide the same amount of content every month. I know when my deadlines are, so if I want to go away for a week, I just work extra-hard to get everything done early. But I do make sure I’m available by e-mail while I’m gone. If that’s not possible, I let all of my clients know in advance when I will be out-of-reach. I also accept longer-term projects, like ghostwriting books, but when I accept those projects, I also accept that I won’t be doing any extensive traveling until the gig is over.

Alexandra Ostrow: It’s all about setting expectations. Just like you, your clients are likely looking to take a vacation (or three), and should understand you need some time away. It’s unlikely to be an issue as long as you let them know ahead of time about your plans, and then work out an arrangement where either a) you complete all deliverables prior to takeoff or b) you have a trusted colleague cover your role while you’re away. If it is still an issue, I would personally question whether that particular client is worth sacrificing work-life balance.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo


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