Small Business Profile: Megan Strasser, Owner of Fern
Hi Megan! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I've spent my career creating spaces and environments from starting a popup vintage clothing boutique to turning a 1968 camper into a mobile coffee cart, styling for magazine and craft books, and now owning Fern, a curated plant and home goods store. I somehow convinced my Belgian husband to move to Cincinnati, Ohio where I am mothering two kids and lot of houseplants.
What lead you to begin Fern?
We had recently moved back to Cincinnati after a few years living abroad and I knew I wanted to start a new business. There was this cool old gas station next door to my parents house that was for sale so I began to daydream about what sort of business could work in the space and would be sustainable for me as a mother of 2 kids under the age of 2. I saw a need in this city for a shop where plants merged with design, where indoor house plants were carefully selected and styled with handmade ceramic vessels and where folks received straightforward and complete care information.
How do you source what you have in the shop?
Because the shop supports independent artists and makers by only selling handcrafted work, most of our ceramics and home goods have been found down the rabbit hole of Instagram, one account leads to another leads to another... Some of the original artists we carried from the beginning are still in the shop, but I am a junkie for change so we tend to switch things out pretty often. All of our plants are handpicked by me every week (usually with my kids in tow). I try to keep a collection of specific plants on hand, either because of their popularity with our customers or their ease of care, but I am also always on the hunt for new or interesting species.
Do you have a team? What steps did you take to build it?
In the shop we are a team of 3. I have one part time employee, Jessica, and another, Kellie, who fills in for events. For the first 2.5 years that the shop was open it was just me and so the shop's hours were a bit odd as they were designed around my children's schedules. We expanded our hours last year and subsequently needed to hire on help. I was lucky to have found girls that loved plants and loved what Fern was doing and have been an amazing addition. Recently, Jessica decided to switch her major at school to study horticulture. I am so happy that this business has deepened her passion and I am honored that I get to be a part of her journey. Behind the scenes Fern is a family business through and through. Our team is made up of many people from my mom and dad, to my brother and sister in law, to my husband and children, to my best friend who have all lent something of themselves to help Fern get started and to keep it going.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
Creating experiences for our customers is our number one goal and one of the best ways we've learned to achieve that is by hosting artist led classes and plant care/design workshops. I think it's really important for an owner to have presence in their store. As the business and our team grow I continue to hold hours in the shop, even if it's just one day a week it allows me to interact with customers and keep my finger on the pulse of what they are responding well to.
What are some of your favorite plants (sorry if this is difficult)?
Haha. I probably say, "this is my favorite plant" at least once a week about a different plant. Maybe I could choose a plant from each family?... I have had a mild obsession with angel wing begonias and hoyas for about 15 years, I just recently acquired the "my special angel" mother plant that one of our growers has been cutting from for years and it's my favorite in the shop right now. I also recently added a hoya obovata to my personal collection that I'm swooning over. I have an undying love for any philidendron (micans, scandens, selloum, erubescens, and just picked up a brandiatum today). I would love you forever if you could get your hands on a philodendron gloriosum for me!
What do you wish more people knew about plant care?
I wish people understood that plant care begins before the plant makes it into their homes. There's this barrier in value and price when it comes to houseplants that leads a lot of people to purchase their plants from a big box retailer like Home Depot or IKEA. Unfortunately, in most cases those plants didn't get off to the best start moving directly from a greenhouse setting to fluorescent lighting and therefore may not perform as well once they reach the customer. We work with wholesalers who after sourcing plants from growers take the plants through an acclimation process to prepare them to live in non-greenhouse settings like a home or office.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local makers?
From a social perspective I'm quietly pretty passionate about the cost of a disposable society. I believe in owning fewer, better things and knowing exactly where my dollars are going is really important to me. Buying goods from local independent makers is obviously better for our local economy and ensures that I'm supporting fair working conditions. I hope that by stocking work that is only made by hand, by connecting the consumer with the artist/maker whose hands and time built a piece that we can help to change the way people think about buying.
What is your favorite thing about your workspace?
It truly is my oasis. It's this incredibly calming light filled space where I just feel like I can breathe more deeply. It is also surrounded on almost all sides by my family, my parents live next door and my brother lives behind the shop. On any given day my children are drawing with chalk or riding bikes with their cousins in the parking lot and every Thursday my mom makes dinner for our entire family after I close the shop. Fern wouldn't exist outside of this space, it is so much a part of who the business is.
What role has Cincinnati played in the development of Fern?
Cincinnati is an amazing small business incubator. The size of the city, relatively low cost of living, and nature of the people here make the risk of starting a business feel like less of a jump. There is also an incredibly supportive group of artists, makers, and small business owners here who continually find opportunities to collaborate and support one another. Fern really got it's start because of one of those businesses. We began by participating in a curated urban flea market, The City Flea for about 6 months before the shop opened. The event allowed us to introduce ourselves to the city and grow a base of customers organically before we even opened our doors. The Flea is an event that I still participate in monthly as it has been such a big part of our story and continues to open us up to new customers.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I've always said that plants are one of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to transform an environment, and I feel so lucky to play a role in people designing and loving their spaces. My favorite moments are when someone comes back in the shop and says, "I kill all my plants but the plant I bought from you is still alive and growing!" Providing clear information on plant care and having folks gain confidence and pride after following our instructions is the best. And it feeds our business by creating this incredible community of loyal plant addicts.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting Fern?
One of the biggest challenges for Fern has been that our location is in a neighborhood that hasn't had a lot of traffic, though this is changing. We recognized early on that we were a destination store and that would be our biggest barrier to entry. Retail is already so unpredictable and it has been hard at times to not be personally affected by the natural ups and downs in traffic or sales or to see that as some indictment on our location. We also did not take out any loans or lines of credit to start, just a very small initial personal investment. In some ways this was great as it kept our risk low, not much invested meant not much to lose but it also restricted what I could purchase for the store. I could only buy stock with cash on hand so any mistakes in buying were pretty costly and devastating.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
We've been conditioned as women to compare ourselves and to compete with one another. We've been taught that there isn't room for us so we fight one another to be in the arena and that becomes what is expected of us. When we come together and support one another, when we don't give voice to the lie that there isn't room for all of us, when we embrace the women that we are in "competition" with it only helps us to become stronger ourselves.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
Elizabeth Pape, owner of Elizabeth Suzann for her commitment to customer care and education while creating a new market in the fashion industry. My mom, the first female entrepreneur I knew who isn't afraid to take chances in pursuit of her dreams for herself and her family.
What have you learned from owning your shop that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
My dad once told me that whatever energy it takes to start something it will take to sustain it. I've found this applicable to nearly all aspects of my life but especially my business. If I make a decision based on a need to protect what I've built or to compete or because it's what I think will sell, then I always have to be plugged into what other people are doing, my fear of what they will do, or what they want me to be. It takes the business away from me and puts it in the hands of others. It's volatile and unsustainable. To know who you are, to have a clear voice and point of view, and to make decisions only from that place is what keeps a business or brand authentic and people respond to authenticity.
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
We recently expanded the shop, tore down a wall to almost double our space, and replaced the garage doors to be full view in anticipation of some pretty exciting (to be announced) projects. The College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati that we call home is growing pretty rapidly. Its an amazing and diverse community whose residents are very much invested in the development of their neighborhood. A brewery recently opened and a couple restaurant projects are underway as well as multiple housing projects being built and redeveloped. It's an exciting time to be in our location and we are looking forward to our developments contributing to that energy.
What do you wish more people knew about you?
That, "I'm not ignoring you, I just stink at email."
How do you manage a work/life balance?
I'm not sure I manage it and maybe that's ok. I honestly feel like it might not be possible and this notion that we have to achieve work/life balance is another way that we as women set ourselves up for failure. There have been times when being a mother has taken priority and I have fallen short as a business owner and many other periods where the opposite is true. I think I'm coming to terms with this as the way it is and I'm trying to learn to have grace for myself. Don't get me wrong I would love to feel balanced but I don't want to place pressure on myself to constantly be striving for something that may not be attainable or that leaves me feeling like I'm doing a mediocre job at everything. I do my best to care for myself, my business, and my family without any expectation that I will feel balanced. That shift in my expectations on myself feels right to me.
What are some of your favorite places in Cincinnati?
We are so lucky to have so many great parks in Cincinnati which as a parent I love discovering with my kids. Specifically, we tend to spend a lot of time in Washington Park or Smale Riverfront Park and we live close to Mt. Airy Forest which was one of the first and largest Urban Reforestation Projects in the US and has lots of trails for hiking. For a night out, I would do drinks at Longfellow and dinner at Please. I'm a big fan of Brush Factory which is a furniture company that recently opened a home store. It's a really clean and inspiring space to be in. Continuum is my favorite place to shop for myself, the store has such a strong point of view and carries some of my favorite designers.
I started Pilates a few months ago after not exercising for 7 years and am hooked on Prism Pilates (which is like pilates and bootcamp combined) and it's an excuse for me to hit up Rooted Juicery + Kitchen after for a smoothie or juice. Their rainbow noodles are insane!