meet megan clark

“Success comes from being the exception to the rule.”

These are words to live (and work) by, according to Megan Clark. A sought-after graphic designer and owner of three affiliated businesses, Megan lands firmly in the exceptional category. She’s also developing a busy sideline gig as a keynote speaker, and loves to share her hard-earned lessons about art and commerce. I was eager to get the lowdown on this inspiring woman from Vancouver, WA (the other, less riotous Vancouver, just up the I-5 from Portland). She didn’t disappoint.

When the ad agency Megan worked for suddenly went bankrupt three years ago, it was the kick in the pants she needed to turn her off-hours freelancing into a full-time design firm, Studio M, which she recently incorporated as Clark & Co. The studio offers branding and design services for startups and big-name clients including Simple Shoes, Disney, WebMD Health Services, Nike, Tourism New Zealand, Waggener Edstrom, Razorfish, Levi’s, Holland America Line and Travelocity.

Last year, Megan and Jen Mele also launched hi, friend – an online boutique featuring printed goods and custom stationery, all designed by Megan, of course. If that wasn’t enough, Megan recently unveiled her most ambitious project to date, The Exceptional Creative. Both a downloadable toolkit for designers and a brand-new online hub, The Exceptional Creative (TEC) is built on the principle that when all else is equal (talent, work ethic, etc), the most successful creatives have exceptional communication and organizational skills. They’re professional and they’ve got it together.

Megan’s got big plans for the EC community, but her first product is A Toolkit for Designers, which includes customizable templates, questionnaires, invoices, a client contract drafted by a business attorney, and more. She’s already done the legwork. For designers just getting out of the starting blocks, or anyone who needs to ratchet up their business tools, it’s a valuable package – and it makes you wonder, why didn’t someone think of this sooner?

And when does this woman sleep?

1. Tell me more about The Exceptional Creative.

I first came up with the idea last summer. I was co-directing a program for entrepreneurs, and we were focusing on products. I kept thinking about how I was working and what I could offer to other designers, and someone pointed out that I work differently from many other creatives. I’m very Type A, kind of a control freak, and pretty darn organized. Then I thought, “How can I offer what I do naturally and spent the past five years creating to people who are just starting out?”

I created a toolkit for designers – particularly entrepreneurial designers – that includes invoices and client contracts and other necessities. I developed the product first, but then I needed a way to introduce and launch it. I was asked to speak at a university and when I was working on my presentation, I came up with the phrase “the Exceptional Creative.” I wanted to share with students the idea that if you want to get ahead as a designer (or in any creative field), you have to act differently. You have to be exceptional and be the exception to the rule. That’s when all the pieces came together and it became a platform that I’m very passionate about.

2. What was the most challenging part of building it?

Just getting it done. I had a hard time staying motivated, and I think it was because there weren’t clients tapping their toes waiting for it. There was no deadline. So, I asked a couple people to create a core accountability team for me. I put together a timeline and asked them to hold me accountable. They didn’t have to review all the materials at each checkpoint, but I wanted them to keep asking me if they were done.

Simply keeping up the momentum from the first spark of an idea and that initial excitement through all the tedious tasks was really challenging. But, there are an increasing number of designers working on their own as free agents. The more that number grows, the more people are going to realize that they need to get their business tools in order. This really drove me to finish the toolkit.

3. How will you help people understand the need for these tools?

I’m offering a free download that outlines the client experience, and I think it’s really enlightening for designers to see the stages that they should be taking their clients through. It helps them realize that these tools can save considerable time and energy, given that they go through the same process with every single client.

Personally, I didn’t realize that I needed a lot of these tools and documents until I made mistakes because I didn’t have them – especially the client contract and some of the disclaimers in the invoices and estimates.

4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

Anyone who is working on a national level and has a publication, a speaking circuit of some sort, and still does studio work is intriguing to me. Someone like Seth Godin, who has created an empire for himself, is really inspiring.

Locally, there are some great people who fit that description. Frank Chimero is someone I’ve been following for a while. He’s a Portland designer who does illustration work for large corporations and magazines, but he also writes. He’s publishing a book, he’s got a fantastic blog and he also sells his studio art. That diversity is really smart.

People who have a diverse business model can express their passions in a lot of different ways – and it’s obvious that regardless of the medium, they have something to say and will find a way to say it. Those are the type of people who get my attention.

5. How many revenue streams do you have?

Currently, four. In my studio (Clark & Co.) I work on project and hourly rates, plus I’m often hired as a contractor for other branding and advertising agencies. Then there’s product sales from hi, friend and The Exceptional Creative. I also created some online business templates for INKD.com from which I receive commissions.

6. Tell me more about your passive income streams.

Building hi, friend took a lot of time upfront, but now the product sales can be considered passive income – except for customizing wedding invitations or any other personalized stationery design. Now that it’s launched, TEC offers straightforward digital downloads. That’s a completely passive stream. The business templates for INKD.com are also passive income. People can purchase the identity systems online and I receive a commission.

7. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Ongoing clients. I work with a lot of startups at the beginning of their journeys that return to me as regular clients. I have a client who just spoke at a TEDx event in Silicon Valley and is featured in Wired magazine this month. We first worked together at a coffee shop a couple years ago. So, my bread and butter is people who’ve had a good experience working with my studio and decide to come back. It’s a lot more efficient to keep your current clients happy than it is to try and get new ones.

8. Talent aside, what’s been the secret to your professional success?

I really think it has a lot to do with being responsive. Everyone can learn how to be responsive. Acting differently from what people would expect from a designer is the biggest reason I’ve succeeded, in my opinion.

Acting differently? What does that entail?

Communicating well. Knowing how to write, how to speak, and how to pick up the phone when email might not be the best way to talk something through with a client. And if something does go wrong, which it will, you make it right – whatever it takes. Even if you make no money on the project, but your client walks away feeling like you treated them well, that goes beyond talent. It’s easy to be selfish and get wrapped up in your cash flow and forget that you need to be generous and selfless to stay afloat.

9. What’s not worth the time and energy?

I’ve been reading a lot of Seth Godin’s recent books, like Linchpin and Poke the Box. He describes how you can have the best idea in the world, but unless you actually execute it and let it out into the world, it’s not worth much. As designers, part of our training is to pay attention to detail and keep pushing a project until it’s perfect, but at some point you cross a line and the things you’re perfecting don’t really matter. It’s more important to get it out there – whether it’s for a client and a deadline or a personal project. Get it out there and let the world interact with it.

As Godin says, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” Part of me is offended by this, but deep down I know it’s true and agree completely. In this mindset, perfection is what’s not worth the time and energy most of us spend working toward it.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?

I have to make a living doing design and making money is the point of business, but the reason I do what I do is because it helps people. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If helping people doesn’t satisfy anymore and I do it just for the money, I will have sold out. There are days I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of that line, but then I get a shout-out from a colleague, a thank you note from a client or have a meaningful conversation about the work I’m doing and I remember what it’s all about.

11. Any other advice you’d like to share?

Find a mentor. Whether it’s an informal relationship or it’s someone you hire as a coach, find a mentor. Mentors can make all the difference; I know they have for me. I also have a lot of colleagues that I consider mentors. I like to collect mentors.

Also, respond to every email – even if you don’t have the answer. Just say, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out for you.” I think people can hide behind their email. I consider unresponsiveness a sin. I think it’s really horrible. I make a rule to respond to every email, unless it’s spam. It’s a super practical detail that can have a huge impact. The times I’ve run into trouble with my clients is when I haven’t been in contact with them often enough.

Thanks, Megan!

posted 6 Jul 11 in: art, business, design, inspiration, interviews, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

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