This week we have the sincere pleasure of speaking with Megan Gilger of The Fresh Exchange, a blog, studio, and shop, that Megan runs with her husband Mike Gilger. The Fresh Exchange is their thoughts, dreams, reality, and musings. It is the peaceful reserve they go to, the place they dream of when they wake up every morning, it is their life of intentionally simple and beautiful moments.
We are honored that Megan took time out of her busy entrepreneurial and new momma schedule to share such wonderful wisdom. This interview is chock-full of insight; you'll want to read it over and over again!
Can you tell me a bit about your path to becoming a freelance designer?
I began doing design while still in college. I was getting my degree in Media Communications with a focus on Multimedia Design and Studio Management. My goal was from the start to own my own studio. I wanted to do things my way. I was more fearful of working for someone else and being tied down than I was to strike out on my own. From there I made a lot of contacts in the media industry on various internships I did. I took anything and everything from a movie poster for an indie film to a wedding invite to labels for a food company. Anything I could get my hands on. After college, all of the contacts I made payed off. I was able to create a strong base for freelance work. The work wasn’t glamorous though so to fill in the gaps and be even more creative I started a blog and I did some wedding invites for a local wedding planner. I was never someone who was that into weddings, but what it allowed me to do was make a lot of big mistakes. I learned how to value myself and how to manage contractors working with me (aka printers), how to mark-up product, and most importantly build my own contracts and brand.
After about 2 years or so, the blog started taking off. The work was pouring in as people saw my lettering and design style. This resulted in my ultimately bringing my husband into the company. Now, we work together. We do less design work these days and more creative consulting, but that creative space was what launched us into growing a business that inspired us more than just made us hustle.
"I was never someone who was that into weddings, but what it allowed me to do was make a lot of big mistakes. I learned how to value myself and how to manage contractors working with me (aka printers), how to mark-up product, and most importantly build my own contracts and brand."
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
The blog was the key. Starting that and getting myself out there and using twitter made a huge difference for me. I started landing very open design projects with amazing companies. Doing branding for an iPhone app, labels for a cocktail mixer, and lettering for a food truck. Having my husband as my partner made all the difference in how we continued to do this work.
As Fresh Exchange, you are one half of a design team with your husband. Can you tell us a bit about what it is like to work with your partner?
You know, it is hard sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We never wanted to work together. We actually purposely tried not to, but after a while we realized that our skills weren’t so similar and we actually complimented each other similarly. It makes sense knowing we are married, but to us we weren’t sure it was something we wanted to do at all. Now, it has offered us so much freedom. There is a lot of pressure that all of our income is from one entity, but we like having the pressure on us. Some people don’t like that and need more security, but we love the hustle that comes with working for yourself and even more so as a couple. It pushes us to always do more, not just work, but things that inspire us creatively.
What advice would you give someone who is considering joining forces with a spouse, friend, or colleague to design as a team?
Well there is a ton of advice on our Working Together Youtube series, but I highly suggest beginning by making sure you have the same vision for the company. Spend time making sure you align with where things are headed and be open about your dreams. Talk about what qualifies success for you. I also suggest learning how you each work. Mike and I work very differently in some ways and very similarly in others. We have learned it the hard way, but now that we know, we know how to respect those parts of ourselves.
"I highly suggest beginning by making sure you have the same vision for the company. Spend time making sure you align with where things are headed and be open about your dreams. Talk about what qualifies success for you."
You are a relatively new mom, congratulations! How has becoming a mom changed how you work and/or the types of projects you take on?
Oh man, being a mom and running a business makes running a business with your husband look easy and in all actuality it has made running a business with Mike easier in many ways. I never expected that. But it has changed every ounce of who I am both creatively as a human and as a business owner. For a while it was hard to separate myself from mom and my work mentally. I felt in many ways I didn’t want to release the weight of what it is to have a child to anyone else. I felt I was burdening everyone else with him in some way. It was a very weird feeling I never expected. I felt I needed to somehow perfectly find the balance between doing it all. It has been hard on me to realize it isn’t about being it all, but being able to know when to delegate and when to release what you cannot do because it is not allowing you to do other things well, that goes for too much work and too much mom. The balance is hard and I do not believe it will ever be perfect for me. I love my work and I love my son, but I know that my son will benefit by seeing his mother work hard and pursue her dreams as much if not more so than me being there for every step along the way. I thought I would have an easier time with that idea, but it has been hard to release for me. That said, I am still working on this part of my life as a creative. Still working hard on this one every day.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
My greatest struggle is always wanting to be the best me in every capacity. It used to be that I just wanted to be the best, but I found that was always a let down because being at the top is never a great place to be. Instead, I struggle constantly to find the balance between being my greatest self in every area of my life and giving myself grace when I fail really hard or when I lose touch with reality of what is possible and what isn’t. That may sound vague, but I think as someone who is entrepreneurial there is a natural instinct to achieve and be great at everything. When I had a kid, I realized that thinking great in every capacity of life was possible is just a let down, instead I tell myself daily I have to find a way to just be my best for today. It is hard to remember what that looks like and some days are different than others.
"I tell myself daily I have to find a way to just be my best for today."
You do a wonderful job sharing your personal life in a professional space. How does this openness affect your client relationships?
I have found that when you are open, when you are a real human, people find a quick and instant connection to you. I believe the greatest way we can connect with others is by telling our story. We all have one and a story gives us a place to connect with others. Each one of our clients has always found our blog and our story as a point of beginning a relationship with us and not a hinderance. I think it depends on how you want to be with your clients though. Everyone is different, but I like being connected to my clients and feeling like we could potentially be friends especially when we are doing consulting work. I want them to feel open with me and able to ask tough questions. Sharing our tough things, I think, makes the vulnerability happen faster so we can get the core quicker.
As you know well, freelancers are just as much small business owners as we are creatives, what are three tips for managing the nitty-gritty components of your business?
In all honesty, Mike handles so much of this. I tried and I am so so so bad at it. BUT we do hire an accountant, we hire a lawyer, we hire people to step alongside us to make sure we do it all right. We do use a ton of apps and have a Working Together about those tools we use, but setting aside a time each week to do it makes it easier.
You have built a large and engaged social following, what are your tips for creating a community around your brand?
My theory is you have to live great content to produce great content. People have very high bull shit meters these days, so though creating beautiful things is nice to see, I think people want connection and real stories. I think you can grow a following on making pretty things that are niche, but those are things you will quickly unfollow. To create a following of people who really engage and stick around even through the tough times you have in your life and your business you have to be real and live a life that you truly love alongside it. I think people can read through the lines when you are just phoning it in. That’s my theory. So I try really hard to share things that are both visually beautiful to me and bring me joy, along with real thoughts I am having about life and moments going on.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
A willingness to learn, A willingness to fail, and A passion for the work you are doing.