Posted on February 11, 2016
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.
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.
FS: 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?
MC: 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?
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?
• 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!
All images courtesy of Meghan Cleary.
Posted on August 29, 2015
What do I miss most about New York? My friends. When I got sober, it took me years to rebuild all the friendships I’d broken. Some remained as they were–in a state of disrepair–while others found themselves mended and transformed into something healthier, new. You leave your dead behind (you may even have to kill them yourself) in order to move on. I’m grateful for the women in my life because they challenge, support, and inspire me. They make me laugh that ugly laugh, the kind that finds you choked up in tears.
I regret that I haven’t met Alex sooner. While I was waving everyone away, muttering no new friends, my friend Grace rolled her eyes, ignored my nonsense, and set me up with Alex because I suspected she knew that we’d become fast friends.
I mean, Alex is the owner of a pink cat. That really should tell you everything.
Alex is one of the great ones. She’s smart, sharp, acerbic, and honest. There’s no hey, girl! (kiss kiss), followed by a turn of a head, a whisper of something unkind. Alex is real, plays it as it lays, and if I can find a way to smother her and her pink panther out west, know that I would do it.
On a professional note, Alex received her MBA in Spain, speaks flawless Spanish, and is the founder of a boutique communications agency in New York, focusing on jewelry and accessories designers. Her business philosophy is in-step with how she lives her private life: surround yourself with good people and help them make magic happen.
While I supposed to publish this next week, I couldn’t wait to share this with you. In this chat between two friends, Alex brings the truth and I’m here for all of it. –FS
We’ve talked about this often—our allergy to the traditional agency structure. And while it’s a fit for some, it sends people like us fleeing for cover. Can you tell us about how Le Brain came to be, how you’ve distinctly set it apart from the boutique agency pack, and what you envision as its future?
Alex Dickerson: I worked in an array of agencies of all sizes for almost 10 years and ultimately I realized I wanted to be master of my own destiny, choose my own clients, and create a portfolio of brands that inspired me and “made sense” as a group. I’d seen that agencies could be a place for mediocre people to hide, or ascend up the ranks without deserving it. I’d also seen that agency leaders could be money-hungry and willing take on anyone able to pay a bloated monthly retainer, despite the client not fitting with the employees’ skill sets. I was tired of watching the owners cash a fat check each month while I struggled with accounts that didn’t fit my profile (i.e. the utility bag brand that was sold at Office Depot, while I was the Luxury Jewelry director…say what?)
And so, Le Brain was born.
We are different because we are strategic, honest and thoughtful – I won’t take on a client that isn’t right because they have a big bank account. I mean, if we are talking 6-figures a month, maybe I’ll sing a sell-out tune, but I really try to only work with designers that do something that inspires me and my team, and at their heart, are decent people. We aren’t a place where I go out and pitch and promise the world to prospective clients and then dump it on an intern’s lap and say, “Deliver this with a full page in ELLE Fashion News next month, thanks, bye.” We are a place that challenges ideas (we aren’t “yes girls”) because if it doesn’t make sense, why are we doing it? Good work starts by knowing your market and managing expectations.
We really try to work as a team and each support our clients and projects with the unique skills that we all have. The future? Fewer clients, more money, more attention—thanks, Jerry McGuire. No seriously, I like what we are doing and how we continually evolve – we aren’t just a PR firm, and I hope as we grow that becomes less and less of a descriptor of our work. I want to help clients build their brands from the bottom up…product shots, lifestyle images, web development, collaborations, editorial, influencers, and financial success. I really enjoy being able to be a partner to our clients.
It amazes me how the lines between marketing disciplines have blurred in the past ten years. It used to be that you had siloed departments, budgets and roles, and every department worked (or seemingly so) independent of one another. However, with everyone being online that way of business changed overnight, flattened it. Turned the model inside out and punched it in the face a couple of times. Now, the most successful businesses work when disciplines collaborate since the consumer is in control. What’s it like juggling brand work, traditional PR and social?
AD: Welcome to the juggle, Axl Rose. What’s it like? Mind-blowingly frustrating and creative and stressful and fast-paced. A land filled with possibility and limitless options – which is awesome but really challenging when you’re trying to stay in front of the trends and advise clients on what’s best for them.
I love that all of these areas are fused because it means that we have the chance to create the collateral materials that we know will work, and then when we do get results we can post it to our own audience that we have built. It is powerful. At the same time, it is awful because now many brands expect all of those aspects to be housed under the general term of “PR” but they don’t acknowledge the different skill sets it requires and the need to compensate us for the enlarged scope of work we are doing. That, and the fact that a client attention span is so much shorter, and just when you’ve got one thing properly in place they want you to do a Periscope campaign, without having tested the first thing they thought about trying.
One of the things we often talk about, at length, is the shifting influencer climate (see how I made that professional?). I think we both agree that people who do good and honest work should be compensated appropriately. What challenges have you faced as someone who has to negotiate with influencers (or their agents), but at the same time has to appease clients?
AD: The influencer climate is a scene out of Mean Girls. My new catch phrase when I assess influencers with clients is: “Let’s just make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.” This whole market is very much a bubble – and I truly think/hope it is going to burst soon. Are there talented voices out there? ABSOLUTELY – there are fantastic digital influencers with original content, researched opinions and a genuine point of view. And there are a lot of women who are doing absolutely nothing and getting paid for it, and they’re are ruining it for the rest of us. People that have bought followers early, before people could catch on, and then somehow made a following out of it with some sweet photoshopping skillz. People who charge a fortune and somehow get big brands with thoughtless budgets to pay, but really have no credibility or taste.
Challenges I’ve faced in this arena – the biggest one is that this market really hasn’t been around long enough to truly measure the return. Yes we can talk about unique page views and engagement (these are both so vague and malleable) but what does that really mean? Does it matter that your picture of your hot dog legs at the beach got 15k likes and you tagged a bikini company in the photo? Did the bikini company really get anything out of that? Doubtful.
When it comes to dealing with the agencies…man that one is tough. I get it, they serve a purpose. But it feels like there’s a monopoly system happening and a few big players just acquire all this “talent” without really vetting them, and suddenly the price tags skyrocket with nothing really behind it. Then the smaller brands are screwed and are forced to compete in the same space as a brand that has a huge budget and is willing to shell out $10k for an Instagram post for a crappy handbag. It can feel insurmountable to the emerging designer.
Am I bitter I didn’t start a blog years ago and now make a fortune off of talking about the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale? You bet I am.
Talk to me about getting your MBA in Spain. Have you ever thought about picking up and leaving the U.S.?
AD: Every. Single. Day. Living in Barcelona and studying there were the happiest years of my life. What a unique opportunity to step out of the traditional adult track to interact with a group of super smart individuals from all over the world. The MBA really taught me to think on my feet and also to have confidence that if I don’t know something I can either fake it, ask the right questions or just learn how to do it. I was definitely the Elle Woods acceptance, btw. Me, fashion PR girl, sitting front row in Corporate Finance.
I would love to live abroad again. The culture and mindset are so different in other locations – they don’t give you a gold star for unnecessarily logging insane hours and working over the weekend. They don’t give you a trophy just for showing up. I find that their system is built more on merit and they reward those that get it done, that work smart (not just hard) and perform.
Have you endured any challenges running a company and building a business specific to being a woman?
AD: I find that people don’t take women as seriously as they take men. Men don’t take women as seriously, women don’t take women as seriously. I went in to talk to a financial planner about the future of the business and he couldn’t have been more condescending. He lead with a smirk, saying, “So you know what a P&L is?” I almost threw my folder full of excel sheets showing my sensitivity analysis in his face. I politely informed him that just because I work in fashion and get my period that I shockingly could do math. Then I left. I’m sure he probably turned around to his colleague and said, “That raging b*tch clearly has PMS.” The moral of the story, as a woman you have to navigate around people’s misconceptions of what you know and what you can endure – you have to play their game and your own, and that is tough.Ellen Chisa wrote a terrific piece about what she learned in her first year at HBS. One of the leadership lessons challenges you to understand your worst self. I imagine that this is appropriate for all leaders, even more so for entrepreneurs since new ventures can be so all encompassing. When it comes to being a leader, what is your worst self and when does it come out? And what do you do to combat it?
AD: My worst self is a defensive, stubborn, nagger that is focused on pleasing everyone to get over crushing self-doubt. Wow, I suck. This worst self comes out when I know what I have said or done is right but someone disagrees with me – if a client comes back and criticizes a campaign we did or isn’t satisfied with what I think is a fantastic result. To combat it, I try to address it head on and say “listen, I realize that I am having a big reaction to this and I might nag/be stubborn/be defensive about it, but that is because…” In my experience if you tell people what you feel, in no uncertain terms, they will be more willing to level with you. My team appreciates it when I stop myself in a tirade and say, “Yes, I’m nagging you and it is because I am nervous about something.” It is ok to be human – people can forget that in the work place.
What has surprised you most about launching Le Brain? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?
AD: The thing I expected the least is that I still feel like I’m working for someone else – I often take my freedom for granted and find myself limited. Felicia, you recommended a wonderful book that helps me get unblocked in those particularly dark times – The Crossroads of Should and Must. When I sat down and really thought about it, I came to conclusion that it is very possible that I am already doing my “must” but I have built up a bunch of internal mental barriers that somehow make it feel like my “should.” Sorry for those that haven’t read the book as this probably sounds like garbage – do yourself a favor and go out and read it.
Who has inspired you along the way and why?
AD: I am very lucky to have an amazing group of friends that are all kicking ass and taking names, and these people inspire me daily. From designers to bloggers to buyers to writers to entrepreneurs, women with limitless energy and smarts surround me. When I’m feeling down or less-than I can talk to one of them and draw some power from one of their successes and feel that I’m back on track. Natalie, Grace, Karen, Jen, Tara, Felicia, you guys are at the top of my speed dial list.
My very first mentor in fashion was a man named Adrian, who has sadly since passed away. He taught me that you should always try to love what you’re doing, no matter what, and to find a way to be irreplaceable wherever you are. He was the first one that really showed me how to fake it ‘til I made it and he brought such glamour and passion to everything he touched. It didn’t matter that I was an intern and he was a VP, he treated me with respect and really took time to teach me. I’ll never forget him.
What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own company (agency or otherwise)?
AD: My three pieces of advice or observations from having my own company are:
• Fake it ‘til you make it – whatever you say with confidence instantly becomes fact
• Don’t be afraid to say no to projects and to turn business down – don’t sell out, ever – it WILL come back to bite you
• Don’t be shocked when you find out that you’re the last one to get paid…your employees and clients secretly own you, haha
What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day? I was going to say Oscar, your pink cat, but I’ll let you take this one. ☺
AD: I couldn’t get through the day without:
• Talking to friends and laughing about the absurdity of what crosses our desks – sarcasm is key to diffuse some of the stress.
• My perfect pink kitten…seriously, he’s a blue Abyssinian and such a distinguished gentleman with delicate pink ears and a pink belly. I come home and instantly forget about what was bothering me when he snuggles up. Crazy cat lady? Maybe.
• Reading short digests of news and gossip because in my business we trade in knowing just a shred of information. Nothing like an US Weekly email headline to get me through an awkward conversation with an editor or client – hey, did you hear that Bethenny has a new boyfriend? What’s that all about! AND SCENE.
All images courtesy of Alex Dickerson + Home Polish.