Shea and Syd McGee, the married couple behind buzzy Utah-based design firm Studio McGee are—dare we say it—having a moment. Their debut book, Make Life Beautiful, was released this fall and quickly hit the bestseller lists. Their breakout Netflix hit, Dream Home Makeover, has projected them into the homes of millions. And their e-commerce platform, McGee & Co., is a runaway success. But, as the duo tell host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of the Business of Home podcast, what might look like instant fame has been anything but instant.
“People will say, ‘Oh, wow, McGee & Co. is like this overnight success,’ but I’m like, ‘You’re [not] taking into account the five to eight years of lead-up!’ … It’s been quite the journey,” says Shea.
In this episode, the McGees tell their story in all its ups and downs, from the early days of scraping Instagram content out of a project for Shea’s parents to the challenges of signing vendors who were skeptical of e-commerce. “We’ve established our ‘Syd and Shea McGee process of progress,’” says Syd. “We have super-high aspirations for something and then we get denied, so we’re sad at first and then the dejection turns to anger, like: Oh yeah, well, we’re gonna show everybody, guns a-blazin’. And then we get to work.”
THE PIVOT TO PRODUCT
In the early, dreaming days, the McGees had conceived of their firm as a large national business with offices across the country. But as they started to grow, Shea (who handles the design side) realized that wasn’t what she wanted. The decision to give up on the interior design empire, however, ended up giving the pair time to focus on their e-commerce business, which has taken them from a relatively small company to a booming 110-person operation. “You have to be in it to realize that—I enjoyed being involved in the design too much to let that go. Once we realized that, it meant that if we’re going to build something big, it needs to be all in on the product side,” says Shea.
UPS AND DOWNS
The McGees are enjoying a period of great success, but it hasn’t always been a cakewalk. When the two moved from Orange County, California, to Utah, they didn’t qualify for a mortgage, which made it difficult to snag design jobs. (“We’re telling people to trust us to design their homes, and I do not have a home of my own,” says Shea.) Later, when building their e-commerce business, they had the frustrating experience of attending market and getting rejections across the board. “We were so full of hope and exuberance at that time, and we thought the world was our oyster!” says Syd with a rueful laugh. “We soon crashed into the establishment, which is the interior design industry. They didn’t like newness and they didn’t like change.”
INSTA REIGNS SUPREME
The McGees built their business on Instagram, full stop. They were lucky enough to get in on the platform’s early days, back when it was somewhat novel to share design content on Insta. “It was free, and it was visual,” says Shea. “It was like, wow, no one is using Instagram as a designer to promote their business, but I see all these other businesses that are using it—there’s got to be something there. So I just started posting every single day, and was one of the earliest people to see Instagram as an opportunity.” The mechanics of the platform (the importance of having good imagery, a unique photography style and regularly sharing content) were not lost on the duo, nor was its impact. After they had garnered a sizable social following, they went back to market and found that their numbers opened doors that had once been closed.
“The social following was the thing that spoke the loudest,” says Shea. “Knowing how many followers we had was the most impressive thing to [vendors]. … There were designers who had been famous in the industry for years, whether they had been on a TV show or names in the industry that people recognize, and we had more followers than them. And I think that once that [the vendors] saw that this person that everyone knows in the design industry doesn’t have as many followers as this young couple, all of a sudden they started taking us more seriously, because I think the influence couldn’t be argued with.”
Homepage photo: Shea and Syd McGee | Lucy Call; Courtesy of Studio McGee