If you have ever second-guessed your way out of starting a new venture, Meg Touborg’s story might motivate you to get off your butt and just do it. Meg has had a high-profile career working for companies including Saks, Coach, Kate Spade and Waterworks, but when she thought about launching her own business, she first had to get out of her own way. She became, as she calls herself, a reluctant entrepreneur.
Today she has two successful businesses, a small marketing firm, Metworks, Inc. which works with major interior design and architectural firms, and The Leaders of Design Council (of which she is co-founder), a 150+ member group of people in the design industry. Her next project is their yearly conference in Kyoto, Japan this spring. No matter what field you’re in, I think you will find Meg’s thoughtful insights applicable on many levels. Here, she tells TFI why she decided to channel her teenage-self, why great ideas don’t qualify as success, and the glamour of drugstore perfume.
Please introduce yourself and tell us what you do: I describe myself as a business person in creative fields. Then specifically, I use two titles. Well, two titles, two businesses, I work on two coasts and I have three teenagers and two dogs. A very important part of my definition is I’m a working mother. It’s my passion, it’s my challenge. But specifically I am the founder and president of a boutique marketing firm called Metworks Inc. We provide architects, interior designers and companies in the design field with marketing services.
In my second business, I’m the co-founder of The Leaders of Design Council. We are a membership organization and our purpose is to create conditions for community. We offer education programs, networking events, one big annual conference in an international location, and other kinds of programming over the year.
What was your career path that led you to start these? My senior year [in college], I interviewed with executive programs for major retailers. I started with Saks Fifth Avenue because I thought the store was so chic. The lure of working in New York for this top, glam retailer seemed perfect, exciting, an almost antidote to growing up in Boston. I thought I would just do it for a maximum two years and then go to law school.
I found I loved it. I loved being inside a company that applied analysis, rigor and instinct, and all of the senses and sensibilities of running a business. I was enamored with the intellectual side of luxury.
I had the good fortune to work inside these amazing brands, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Laura Ashley, Coach, Waterworks, and Kate Spade at critical times for them. I did everything from from merchandising, to product development, to marketing, to supply chain. So, I was both a part of the change for the brand, but I also learned from what the founders were thinking and doing. Along the way, great people influenced my career path by either offering me new experiences or new jobs.
What led you to launch Metworks? I started my companies around my 50th birthday. I started both companies really from the same place, which is that there was a market need. Metworks, Inc. provides marketing intelligence for small businesses in the design field. I felt that the creative leaders and founders of design companies have so much artistic and creative talent in their discipline, but they don’t always have either the energy, or the aptitude, or the means, to think about their business as a business. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it is. It’s an entity selling imagination and infrastructure to create a home. I really felt that there was a need to bring some critical, structural thinking, and fresh thinking, to helping these entrepreneurs with how they grow their business.
Then, The Leaders of Design Council was a similar impulse, but on a different scale. We have over 150 members, so I’m able to bring my values and programming to a broader group.
What lessons or knowledge did you take from your previous jobs that you apply to your businesses now? From my different career paths I learned technical skills–knowing retail markup, how to read a P&L, how to organize a data base, and how to create a product-to-market timeline. I apply them every day working with my clients on their projects and my own companies.
My team and I have an expression which is ‘Be your best client.’ It’s like the adage ‘the cobbler’s son has no shoes’. Sometimes we present ways of thinking and structuring ideas for success for our clients and then think, ‘Oops, we forgot to do that for ourselves.’
Then a whole other category we could talk about for days is what I learned from working for larger brands. I learned about people and how important it is to try to rally people around a central idea. As a leader you can almost never communicate enough. You think you explained a mission in a meeting, you look around the room and say, ‘Great, we’re all set’, and you start to gather your things to leave the meeting, and there are six blank faces. Or, you write an email and you think it’s clear. That’s something I try to take in my own ventures every single day. With The Leaders of Design Council, which is a dispersed organization operating, we have members in probably 25 states. This week I’m going to try some new techniques of communicating, such as webinars. I didn’t learn how to do a webinar in my other jobs, but I learned to keep trying. Keep trying to connect with people. Keep trying to communicate.
You call yourself a reluctant entrepreneur. Why? I must have been channeling Ann Tyler’s, The Accidental Tourist. It’s because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I had ideas for my own business for years. I saw a path to launch, but this is kind of hard to say…I just wasn’t sure I could do it. I had spent my career working for other leaders.
I was intimidated to act on my own ideas for myself, to convert my energy and move my vision. So I sat on my ideas, sat on my impulse, sat on my own drive. Which is not a terribly comfortable thing to admit. Then I looked back at my childhood and my teenage experiences. As a teen, I started a family newspaper. I started a small company to provide entertainment to children’s birthday parties. I organized a team trip to Europe. I was entrepreneurial.
I would encourage other women, who might be at mid-life, to look at your own path, see what you did when you were in your teens because there’s a lot of truth to who we were back then. You might find, as I did, some sparks or some confidence.
How did you feel after you got started and realized, “I can make this work”? It feels really good. The terror, the fear, they go away. The challenges remain. It’s like learning to riding a bike. You realize ‘Wait a second, I’m doing this. I’m riding a bike.’ Now the bike is in motion and I have to keep the momentum. I have to pedal.
What came easiest for you when you launched your companies? I had a network of people, a pipeline of potential clients. I hadn’t really given myself enough credit for realizing that I did. And it came from keeping relationships active and authentic. Underline authentic.
What was the hardest part? What was and is still is, is that there’s a lot more gray than I expected. In an established company there’s a structure, there are protocols, there’s history, there’s precedent. But when you’re starting out, you’re literally making it up. Your history is only the day before. I think of myself as a decent decision maker, but how much there was to decide was unexpected.
You have to decide tax treatments. You have to decide which piece of your CPA’s advice to take. Should you take the office with the en-suite restroom, or should you take it with the public restrooms? Then the harder stuff, like, when do you fire a client? Hopefully the restroom decision is a little easier, but firing a client is a super hard decision to make. There isn’t a protocol until you make it yourself.
A second thing that no one warned me about is that it’s personal. I did not put my name on my company because I really didn’t want to make it about me, me, me. I want to build a firm, and I want to build a membership organization. But I think I was naïve. I felt that by not naming it my name, it wouldn’t be personal. That’s a fallacy. It’s personal. I’ve always been fairly private, even reserved in professional life versus personal life. When you have your own companies, you can’t. You have to be more forward with the people around you, whether it’s employees, peers, collaborators, or clients.
What do you love most about interior design? In college I was a history and literature major. When people ask, ‘How did you get from that to this?’, it’s because what I studied academically is the study of how people lived. How did they live in early America? What were the cultural norms? What were the houses? What were they reading? What were they looking at in art? What were they eating? What were the philosophical movements influencing them? I love interior design because on an intellectual level, it’s literally the academic study of how people live.
I also have always been drawn to patterns. I love patterns–in my businesses, in interior design. I love thinking about how colors, textures, and functions all come together.
Then, I guess this is a little embarrassing, I love things. I like objects that go into a room. I like how they come together, but I also just like the actual objects.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: My determination. I find myself saying, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ The truth is I have no idea how I’m going to figure something out, but that’s what comes out of my mouth. There’s some massive cognitive dissonance there, but I think that probably the act of saying it gives me the confidence.
Three words that describe you: Fun, loving, determined.
Three words that describe Metworks, Inc.: Grounded, fresh, collaborative.
Three words that describe The Leaders of Design Council: Community, comaraderie, trust.
Role models: In terms of a profound role mode, my late mother. In her 74 years, she reinvented her lifestyle several times, across different geographies, across different professional fields, even across different romantic partnerships. Back on our word of reluctant, some of those life transitions weren’t her choice. But she created ways to live that were exciting and different and novel. I find that so unbelievably inspiring.
What motivates you? Bringing ideas to conclusion. Having ideas, creating ideas, imagination, I think is such a powerful force. But what motivates me in particular is not staying in a thought bubble, but actually doing it, having a result.
One of my business mentors was a women named Robin Marino. Robin used to say, ‘Success is completion.’ I love that because, when your brain is wired to think creatively, the success isn’t just the idea, it’s getting something across the finish line.
What do you think has been your biggest success to date, and what has been a dud or a failure? What did you learn from it? Thank you for having the dud in the singular! The biggest success, the one thing I’m super proud of is Metworks Inc. worked with Ike Kligerman Barkley a top-notch, national architecture and interior design firm, on all aspects of how they present their creativity to the world. It was a privilege to be their partner and to be at the table and be trusted to guide them through every way they presented themselves. That meant brand identity, website and digital communications. How they presented themselves to the press. How they presented themselves to their perspective clients. How they presented themselves in two different large offices on different coasts.
In terms of biggest dud and what I learned, was with a different architecture firm, who had come to me through a trusted referral, and I didn’t do sufficient diligence. I was hungry for the business. I performed the work, but the client fell behind in the payments. I couldn’t quite believe that this firm was not paying me. Ultimately, the client old-fashioned reneged on the agreement. I lost money in the five figures, it had economic impact. I guess the life lesson is trust, but verify. On a very practical note, don’t let clients get behind in their payments. For a small entrepreneurial business, it really is about collection. You have to watch your own money.
What’s next? Right now the field that fascinates me is anything to do with technological communications. I attended a Ted Talk conference last month and there were a lot of seminars on artificial intelligence and virtual reality. At first you think, ‘Those are crazy. What would those have to do with twenty-person architecture and design firms?’ But I have to figure that out. What do those forces have to do with high end design? And how can we communicate that to people so that it’s tangible and realistic? Right now my firm is doing a lot of work into tools, search engine optimization and digital ad marketing. Those are subjects and disciplines that, even a year ago I would have said, ‘Oh, those are for really big companies.’ No, they’re not. It’s how we’re all gaining information, how we’re all learning information.
Life goals: To be strong and be flexible physically and mentally to help my kids grow and experience the world. As well as for my friends, clients and for my professional projects.
Daily goals: I try to bring mental energy, emotional energy, and physical energy to my family and my work.
Daily rituals: Coffee, black coffee. I try for a little bit of yoga. And dog walking. I have two rescue dogs. When I’m not traveling it’s really important to walk them, for them and for me. Then, because I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, I also make a ritual to see the ocean. Sometimes it’s just a peek.
How do you unplug? I don’t know if I actually do. I try by reading physical books, not an iPad or a Kindle.
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss. It’s a children’s book. It’s about a little boy who has a seed and goes to grow a carrot. Everyone tells him it’s not going to work, it’s not going to come up. He sticks with it and it does. That’s my inspirational treatise.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I guess my talent is preparing meals for my family, which sounds totally pedestrian, but I love to combine. It’s the merchandiser in me. I’m a cupboard cook. I look in the cupboard and whatever is in there I make into a meal. This morning I made vegetarian chili at 6 a.m. because I’m not going to be home tonight.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: The first time I took myself on a trip. I was approaching 30 and went to South Africa. It was the time of Apartheid and it was fascinating to see a stunningly beautiful country under an oppressive set of circumstances. I took myself on a luxury train called the Blue Train between Cape Town and Johannesburg. I never regretted it.
Do you collect anything? Junior League cookbooks. I think it’s really important to find them at flea markets and old book stores. I like to be able to hold them before I buy them.
Favorite small indulgence: Butter nail polish. They have the most gorgeous colors, and I love their packaging.
Album currently on repeat: Natalie Merchant’s Tiger Lily.
Scent that brings back memories: It’s my perfume today, Tatiana, launched by Diane Von Furstenburg in the ’70s. It’s more of a drug store scent, but it’s quite feminine. I first smelled it one summer when I was twelve and I was au pair for a family. The mother wore it and I thought she was so glamorous and had it all together. I think I’m channeling her spirit all these years later.
Lucky charm: A tiny photograph of my mother and me when I was a baby. It was given to me in a tiny frame, I think it was supposed to be used as a Christmas tree ornament, but I keep it in my handbag. It’s a lovely memento of my mother and that there are people in our life who love us unconditionally.
Favorite hour of the day: The 7’s. I love 7 a.m., it has lots of possibility. It’s not so early that you’re exhausted and it’s not later, so you’re behind in your day. Seven p.m. is on the same axis. Work is over, it’s not late. I’m not thinking about what I didn’t accomplish, I’m thinking about what I did.
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