Humble beginnings, the Middle Finger moment, setbacks, and the unexpected impact Rihanna had on her life
Ash Ambirge is an internet entrepreneur, creative writer, speaker, and advocate for women being brave and doing disobedient things with their careers and their lives. She is the founder of The Middle Finger Project®, which is both the name of her hallmark lifestyle blog as well the title of her first book. In this episode, we talk about humble beginnings, her Middle Finger moment, setbacks, and the unexpected impact Rihanna had on her life.
Transcript and show notes can be found here
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Ash Ambirge 0:00
I said, here's what I'm gonna do. Here's what I would like to write. Would you like to buy a copy? So much of selling that I've learned over the years is...
Jay Clouse 0:10
Ash Ambirge 0:10
...about simply making an offer with genuine enthusiasm, and stating, here's what I can do, here's how I can help. Do you want to buy it? That very night, within 24 hours, I made my first $2,000.
Jay Clouse 0:22
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show. Hello, it's good to be here talking with you again. A few years ago, a good friend of mine forwarded me an email that he said I had to read. It was an email talking about freelancing, and it was awesome. That email was part of a series called '25 days to 100k' by Ash Ambirge of the middle finger project. It wasn't from quote, 'Ash Ambirge,' but the email was from Yo, it's Ash." And when I opened the email, the brand name and logo of the middle finger project was the first thing that I saw. Talk about a first impression. Not only was the information in the email itself really on point, but I had never read an email quite like it before. The way it was written was hilarious, fun, and totally irreverent. It just wasn't like any other quote unquote business email that I'd ever seen. Ash Ambirge is an internet entrepreneur, creative writer, speaker and advocate for women being brave and doing disobedient things with their careers and their lives. Her voice has been called the most memorable on the internet, original and a world with too little of it, not safe for work at all, and also really kind of sweary, which is definitely her favorite description. She's the founder of The Middle Finger Project, which is both the name of our hallmark lifestyle blog as well as the title of her first book. Ash Ambirge has a big personality. She pairs that with big words, vibrant colors, and an unapologetic 'This is me, love it or leave it' tone. In this episode we talk about her humble beginnings from a trailer park in Pennsylvania, the unbelievable story behind the name of The Middle Finger Project, the setback she fought through before doubling down on writing, and how her enthusiasm helped to fuel her the entire way. This episode is really an emotional roller coaster, and contains a few swear words as you may expect from someone described as really kind of sweary. So if you're listening with kids, you may want to wait until you have some privacy. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode as you listen. You can find me on Twitter or Instagram at Jay Clouse. But now let's jump in and hear from ash. When we started our conversation, I asked her to describe her situation growing up.
Ash Ambirge 2:52
So small town trailer park, rural Pennsylvania, mom with severe, severe social anxiety. Couldn't work, government assistance, grew up, never really seeing work modeled for me. Grew up very embarrassed and just mortified of our circumstances. Mom passes away when I am almost 21 years old. And so I go on this mission to the city of Philadelphia, which was two and a half hours south, kind of determined to figure out what it meant to live a good life and do work that I was proud of. I just wanted some lemon pepper chicken, and some poppy seed bagels, and a two car garage, and maybe a carpeted staircase. And so I did everything that you're supposed to do. I followed all the instructions to a T. I was under the belief that if you didn't do anything wrong, then nothing bad could ever happen to you. And I studied other people who I deemed to be, you know, quote unquote, normal, almost like an anthropologist would. Going into a scenario and looking and figuring out how these people were living, because everyone else seemed to, seemed to be kind of happy. You've got a Mercedes and your name is Babs. Like, you've got it figured out.
Jay Clouse 4:10
I love the way you put a lot of that of, you know, work wasn't modeled for me. But when you were a kid and when you're growing up, you probably didn't realize that was happening or wasn't happening. What did you, what did you think life and work was when you were in Pennsylvania, in Scranton growing up with your mom?
Ash Ambirge 4:27
To be honest with you, Jay, I actually did have a notion because I do remember distinctly when I was 11 years old yelling at my Mom, why can't you just get a normal job like everybody else's parents? I didn't understand the depth of her disorder. But I mean, to give you an example, I was captain of my volleyball team. I was all the things, right, like student council president, you know, like Students Against Drunk Driving, all the things, one of which was volleyball. I played year round, I was very committed, I would do club ball, you know, the driving with my coach an hour away to the university. And my mom could never come to see me play, not because she didn't want to but because she was so scared that when she would walk in the gymnasium, the spotlight would be on her and she wouldn't know where to sit. Like this was the kind of mom I had. And she was a great mom when we were home. But these types of things weren't good. So yeah, I think I did know then that something wasn't right. She wasn't able to work. I had to go to the store myself and pay with our food stamps, and buy milk and eggs, and I was so mortified of this because our, my friend, who, his name was Rich Any, and I'm Ambirge. So we sat next to each other in class the whole 12 years. His dad on the local market in town, so he would oftentimes after school, be there working in the register and this was just, I would wait, I would circle around the market you know, around the block with my bike like four hours until Rich Any got off, so I didn't have to pay with food stamps. So I think I didn't know very much. And that's why I was determined, when I got to Philly, I was going to put all that behind me, no one knew who I was, or you know, what my background was, so they couldn't pity me. I didn't want anyone's pity. I just wanted to be normal. And it wasn't until I got a few years into working in corporate America when I figured out that normal was the most disappointing thing that ever happened to me.
Jay Clouse 6:32
Let's talk a little bit about moving out or pursuing the normal path. What did your normal path look like?
Ash Ambirge 6:37
I went and interviewed in an office. I got my first job for $32,000 a year, which I had negotiated up from something like 28 or 29 originally, and I was a marketing assistant going back and forth just doing the nine to five. I did not know at the time that you can't actually afford $1,000 plus apartment plus utilities plus a brand new car on $32,000 a year. But I went for it anyway, because guess what, when you can prove that you have an income, people give you credit cards. Weird. And that was something that drove me in a way that I made some mistakes early on, because there I was in the sleepies mattress store, putting a $5,000 mattress on store credit just because I had this chip on my shoulder, that I had spent my life literally sleeping either on the floor or on this loveseat that I had in my bedroom in the trailer. And so I thought I deserved it. And there are many things I thought I deserved. So I went out to be normal. And I just started using credit, and eventually found myself with a lot of debt and a job that was uninspiring, and the very real notion that all of these adults around me, people that I thought had it figured out, that I looked up to to guide me, sometimes in some cases weren't actually very admirable people. And I was heartbroken by that discovery, to discover that I'd spent, you know, the first quarter of my life working towards this. And all of it was for not.
Jay Clouse 8:07
For a lot of us, when we realize that the real world is harder than we expected, or when we start to question our path, we have a little bit of a safety blanket. A lot of us, especially in our college years, reach out to our parents for help and guidance. But Ash didn't have that luxury. In fact, it was up to her to look after her mom.
Ash Ambirge 8:25
Yeah, I mean, that was difficult. I ended up going to school on a scholarship from the founder of Monster.com. You know this website? Like the monster.com. The guy grew up in rural Pennsylvania, so when he hit it big, he wanted to give back. Ended up going through this whole process. And I was awarded the scholarship based on two things, financial need and entrepreneurial spirit. So I had this option to go an hour south to the school, and I would go back every weekend, and I would kind of take care of my mom because there were things that she couldn't do very well for herself, right, like someone had to force her to go to the dentist, I had to call the dentist, I had to make appointments for her, I had to then drive her there. And at some point around my junior year, she started to have trouble walking, she had a problem with her legs where one of her, her arteries was blocked. So we had to go back and forth to doctors, trying to figure out how to get a stent and basic things like this. And I remember being frustrated, because there was a part of me that felt like she was doing this to me on purpose. Irrational, but at the time when you're a kid and you're trying so hard to escape this town where like your fate is to be a cashier at the Dollar General, it felt like she was being needy, like she was getting sick on purpose, making, you know, making herself a victim on purpose to keep me there and keep me tied into this, this drama that I perceived. And so I was resentful, and I was bitter, and I was kind of an asshole. And we would go back and forth, and then one thing led to another where it wasn't just a stent when they did, you know like a heart test for her heart. The guy was like whoa, you need open heart surgery, before you even worry about your feats. And then before we could do that, she had to go back to the dentist, easiest way to get bacteria to your heart is through your gums.
Jay Clouse 10:10
Ash Ambirge 10:11
Didn't know that. And so when we were waiting for all these appointments to take place, you know doctors, especially, take, you know, sometimes months, I was away at school and I got a phone call. And that's what happened. And I drove in a man panic so the trailer an hour away. And when I got there, I really expected everyone to be there, ambulances and EMTs and the neighbors looking around. And instead it was eerily quiet. No one was there except for my college roommate and I, who had come up with me insistently. And we got a note on the door, and I plucked the post it from the door and it said, 'Call me, the Coroner.'
Jay Clouse 10:48
When we come back, Ash ventures off into the world of corporate America right after this. Welcome back to Creative Elements. When Ash was just 21 years old, her mom passed away. Now without her mom to lean on, Ash was looking around for new role models and a new model for work. But that didn't go as planned either.
Ash Ambirge 11:10
So the first job that I had was for a headhunting firm in their marketing department. What they wanted to do was expand operations locally in Philadelphia, and they wanted to go from one branch to having three within the next two years. So that was the goal. And it was great at first because they didn't have anything set up. So I would start doing these, these fun marketing campaigns. And then next thing you know, the phone starts ringing. And then they need somebody to go out and meet with these, you know, Fortune 500 companies who want to contract us, and they didn't have a salesperson. So then I volunteered to go out and meet with them. And Iwas young, I was a baby, I was probably 22 or 23. I remember going out and buying these very, you know, cheap, like Claire's glasses, but thinking they'd make me look older.
Jay Clouse 11:59
I still have a pair like that.
Ash Ambirge 12:02
Yeah. Oh yeah. And I rocked them. And I really did, and going out and meeting with these folks. But the benefit of coming from a small town, you assume that everyone is friendly. And so you come at it with the demeanor of friendliness and engagement, and you don't expect people to be standoffish and rude and corporate and city-like. So that was one of my greater advantages then. And from there, I moved into another role in sales for a magazine for a different company, doing advertising sales for them. My first boss was the kind of guy that you just, he was like the Dalai Lama to me. He spoke in such a sincere, gentle kind of way. He was wise. He gave me so much trust to do my job and come to him with creative ideas. And he would say, All right, great, execute, try it, here's your budget. He would let me run with things. And I very much looked up to him. At some point, we contracted a marketing consultant to come in and work with me exclusively one-on-one to kind of get me up to speed to where I needed to be able to run the entire company in terms of marketing. And I looked up to him very much, I thought he was just wow. And then slowly but surely, you discover that everyone really is just making it up every day as they go along. And even the people that you admire maybe don't have it together. And there was some disappointing things that happened that I had discovered that, you know, wow. And it made me rethink a lot of things. And it was kind of like, jeez, if everyone else around here is just guessing, well, maybe maybe I can guess, too.
Jay Clouse 13:38
When you got this internship from the founder of Monster.com for exhibiting entrepreneurialism, how did that show when you were entering college, and where was that when you were working a job?
Ash Ambirge 13:51
Interesting you ask, because when that opportunity came up, I did not even know what the word entrepreneur meant. I mean, right, I'm 17 years old, I had no idea what the word meant. I remember googling it, but I knew I needed this. And I knew that out of everyone in my school, we were all good kids, but I was really particularly dedicated and committed. So I did a thing. I did kind of an embarrassing thing that I will share briefly. When we went to the interview at Penn State, Andy McAlvey is sitting in the far back of this interview room, in literally the shadows, in the recesses, the most intimidating structure ever, while this woman named Carol interviewed me at a desk like way up here in the light.
Jay Clouse 14:37
Wow, it's like the opening scene of knives out.
Ash Ambirge 14:41
I've never seen it. But is it a scary movie? Because, yeah.
Jay Clouse 14:45
Not quite, but you'll watch it someday and that will make sense.
Ash Ambirge 14:49
It was so intimidating. And I remember we were asked to bring an object that personified our entrepreneurial spirits. And all the kids that were in the waiting room from other schools and a couple that were actually at my school also applying, they brought things like their oboe, you know their musical instrument or maybe like, I don't know, their, their pet cat or something.
Jay Clouse 15:12
A lemonade stand.
Ash Ambirge 15:13
I remember--no, there was not even any of that. It was, they were random objects. I remember being like Gosh, that's not very entrepreneurial, is it, now that I knew the definition. But I can't speak much because what I brought was this spherical little box shaped in the shape of a hexagon and when you open the box, it kind of goes into the smaller smaller hexagon boxes, right, until you get to the middle. So on the outside I had like you know, scanned, because we had scanners back then, scan and then shrunk down all the, you know, the bullshit stuff I had done: the awards, the captain of the volleyball team stuff, like all of these things that on the surface looked very shiny and nice. I did a couple of things, as the boxes got smaller, I did a little bit more meaningful stuff. You know, a friend of mine passed away in a car accident, so we went outside and built her a wall and collected money and that kind of stuff. And I went through and kind of explained briefly each one of these, but at the end, I paused, and I was like, but none of those things that I've just got done telling you about actually make me an entrepreneur. The real reason why I'm here today is because of this, and I pulled the smallest box out, and inside was this little like stuffed animal heart. And that's what I was talking to them about, like, Listen, it's my heart. I am enthusiastic as they come, I'm a hard worker, I go for it, I'm not afraid to try things. And so we talked a little bit about those qualities. And I walked out of the room in tears because I was so overwhelmed by the pressure. Then they laughed at me, everyone kind of giggled like the, you know, no one else wanted to go into the room after I came out crying. Within, within the next week, I had won, I won a full ride to a private school $60,000 a year school.
Jay Clouse 16:59
Ash Ambirge 17:00
They threw in a free laptop, which was awesome. And all I had to do an exchange was I'm gonna go with maybe 100 hours of community service in my local community in the summers, something like that. So, so that was it. And that really played into my understanding of where my value came in, in my early jobs, too. I wasn't bullshitting, as much as I thought I was then. Truly, the thing that differentiated me in those early positions I held was not that I knew everything and not that I knew exactly what I was doing or I had all this experience. It is sincerely the enthusiasm I brought to the table for everything we were doing. I was the most excited fucker in the building at all times, really pumped to just dig in and figure stuff out. And clients saw that, they started calling and asking for me by name, which shouldn't have been happening. And, and I started to realize that that was a very fundamental career hack that I had discovered early on.
Jay Clouse 17:58
Where did this enthusiasm come from? Was it just innate? And it was always there, or was there a time when you notice that by being enthusiastic, things were easier? You know, from, from the story that you're telling, it seems like there would be a lot of reasons for somebody to not have enthusiasm and to not embrace that, even if it innate. So can you talk about where that came from, and how you're able to hold on to it?
Ash Ambirge 18:21
That's a great question. I think that a lot of it certainly is innate. I am an enthusiastic person in general. But I also think there's a lot to be said about coming from a place that you're embarrassed to be coming from, and having to learn how to put on a show, frankly, when you're young, and trying to not let anyone see past the facade. So I think you tend to go overboard in certain areas, and you tend to be bigger than life as a personality because it is a defense mechanism. So I think it probably started there. But then it became, it became who I was. I actually don't know how else to be. You know, that's kind of why I like writing so much, too, and why I became a writer in the end of all of this, because one of the things I recognized was writing in particular is that I could be my enthusiastic self on the page, and I didn't have to worry about, you know, what face I was making, what I looked like that day, if I had the cool sneakers on, whatever, the page was the page was the page, and my screen looks the same as your screen. And all that mattered were my ideas, and they were a great equalizer. So similarly, I think enthusiasm and and sharing your ideas that way are helpful as an equalizer.
Jay Clouse 19:38
I've been following Ash's work for a long time, and I've never actually known where the name of her business, The Middle Finger Project came from. So I asked her to talk about her decision to leave corporate America and how she came up with the name, and you're not going to believe the story.
Ash Ambirge 19:54
I mean, did we want to talk about the Polaroid, Jay?
Jay Clouse 19:58
Let's talk about all of it!
Ash Ambirge 20:01
Yes, you know, gosh, I started as I worked my way up in corporate America, I was doing really well. At some point for the next company I worked for, I was winning awards for having like the number one number of contracts signed on first meeting, like nationally. We had to do these awful cold call challenges, and I was always up there, too. And at some point, people stopped being happy for me. And that included some of my co-workers, that included a couple of managers. There was this sense of resentment, because I think that when you're in any position, and you're doing something that brings creativity to the table, you've now raised the bar for everyone around you. And I think that people in general are kind of like, hey, like, Don't make me work harder, don't make me look bad. So, I started facing that a lot. And it became very discouraging to me because I could do the corporate thing if I had to, but where I was getting my outlet from was the creative side that I was bringing to the company. So whatever I was doing, I was looking for it, you know, thinking to myself, well, how can I make this fun? And I would, I would, I was always crafty with everything that I was doing. I remember a regional manager when we had a big meeting, he would like fly into, he'd fly into your market and just surprise you, and then want to go with whoever he picks that day to go on ride alongs with. And I was up to bat one day, and we went out and it was a huge account I was about to get, it was huge. And we had a great meeting. There was like eight people around this conference table. And we talked and we bantered and, like, I explained this, this was a great product that we had, it was phenomenal. And at the end, they said the thing to me that is like the kiss of death. They said, Okay, great, thanks, we'll think about it and let you know. That's not a good thing for a salesperson, but more so when you've got this regional director with you who's examining your methods and deciding if you're good. So we came out to the parking lot, and he said to me, I'll never forget, he said, you know, Ash, you're not there to make friends, you're there to make money, and I think you need to tone it down a little bit. By tone it down, he meant my personality and the enthusiasm that I really had been having so much success with. I wasn't following the script by any means, and I wasn't talking like a robot, and I wasn't being all salesy. And five minutes after we started driving down the road, I'm like, you know, just like, about to cry again, like, Oh, is this going on my permanent record somewhere? And the phone rang, and it was the client and they said, You know what, just kidding. We liked you so much. We actually, we'll send written out and we want to double it.
Jay Clouse 22:38
Ash Ambirge 22:38
Yes. So it was those, those were the early inklings of, I need some creative outlet with my work in order to feel like I am making some meaningful contribution that isn't just sending off a glossy white binder to somebody that no one's ever going to read. So that was where I started to feel like this was valuable to me, and it was also valuable to other people. And one thing led to another. You know, I decided first to start doing what everyone does when they're disgruntled with their career, and I enrolled in grad school, and I started doing you know, taking night classes. And you know, eventually I, I had one of my last meetings, the last sales call I ever did, I think, where I had gone out I finally got a meeting with a guy, a very important man with a very busy schedule who only agreed to meet with me if it was in a podunk bar in the middle of nowhere, not in an office and I said, Yes, I am from Scranton, I can hang I will go to that bar, and I will get this contract signed, Terry.
Jay Clouse 23:36
Ash Ambirge 23:36
Yep. And that's what happened, and I went to there, and he, you know, he had too Long Island ice teas waiting for us. I knew it was going to be an interesting conversation. He started saying very inappropriate things. And at one point, when I tried to drive the conversation back to the reason why we were there, he took out a Polaroid camera out of his satchel and started snapping Polaroids of me as I was talking. So creepy, so disrespectful, so inappropriate. So I decided to deal with him the way any girl from Scranton would. And I got up and I slid myself in the booth next to Terry, and I kind of, like, weaseled the camera out of his hands and I said, Listen, I'm gonna make a deal with you, Terry, all right. You're gonna sign this piece of paper, like slid the contract in front of him. It was for double the money. And I'm gonna take your camera and I'm gonna go into the bathroom, and I'm going to take a very special picture for you. Do we have a deal? And he was just like, Whoa, all right, you know, like that guy that you're picturing, like, all right, and I went into the bathroom, I snapped a photograph and then I came back, and then he gave me the contract. It was signed and dated. I said, thank you very much for that, it was a pleasure doing business with you. And I threw the Polaroid out on the table and walked out. And I remember hearing him groan from the parking lot because he was not expecting a picture ofy middle finger.
Jay Clouse 25:01
Ash Ambirge 25:02
Yes, that's the origin story of why I now own a company called The Middle Finger Project.
Jay Clouse 25:07
Ash Ambirge 25:08
That was the last straw. Like you can only disrespect yourself so much before it really starts to hurt. Yeah, and that was when I decided, Okay, I'm going to do the thing I've been wanting to do. I want to be, I want to be a writer. I'm gonna start freelancing. I'm gonna figure it out.
Jay Clouse 25:22
After the break, we talk about Ash's Rocky beginnings and freelancing right after this. When we left off, Ash had just had her last straw, middle finger to the camera moment and decided that she was going to go out on her own. And from there, it was all smooth sailing, right?
Ash Ambirge 25:39
No, it was terrible. I started in the only place I knew how, which was my corporate contacts since I was the salesperson. I knew all sorts of Fortune 500 companies and all the marketing people inside of them. So I started off writing for medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies and writing white papers and case studies about polymers.
Jay Clouse 26:00
Mmm, the good stuff.
Ash Ambirge 26:04
Oh, and yes, it was one disappointment after another because I didn't find much joy and pleasure in that either, believe it or not.
Jay Clouse 26:10
How did you pivot? How did you get to a place where you could harness your enthusiasm, writing about things that you actually enjoyed writing about and you didn't have to force it?
Ash Ambirge 26:19
Well, I didn't. I made more mistakes, and I made more mistakes. I made a few more mistakes. And I tried very hard at that point, you know, going back to the original goal of figuring out what it is to live a good life and do work that you're proud of. I decided that since I was pursuing this degree in linguistics, you know, maybe if humans had developed hundreds of different ways to communicate with one another, maybe they had also developed hundreds of different ways to be happy. And so I put my anthropologist hat back on, and I started searching in other cultures for the answer to why I was feeling this void inside me. And that led me to taking all sorts of salsa classes and language exchange classes and going to all sorts of restaurants and traveling quite a bit. I ended up meeting a very handsome man who lived a completely different life. He worked for $10 an hour, delivering frozen food supplies, and he didn't drink alcohol, so he wasn't, he didn't care about like fancy $15 martinis and this like glamorous life. But he was very content with it all. And I was fascinated by that. And I thought to myself, well, maybe that's the answer. Maybe lowering my expectations...
Jay Clouse 27:35
Is an answer.
Ash Ambirge 27:36
Is the answer. I was just desperate for something. So I started like using him as an experiment, by which I mean dating him vigorously. And, you know, I thought that I was being quote, you know, what you'd call woke today, because I wasn't choosing the picket fence anymore. I wasn't choosing the corporate path. I was going to be coming writer, and it was going to be very romantic, and I was having this hot passionate romance with this lover from Latin America, kind of a thing. And then you know what happens when you don't prioritize money in any way is that eventually you run out of it. Weird. Eventually you run out of it. And that's what had happened to me, and I eventually found myself sleeping in my car in a Kmart parking lot with no other option but to figure out a creative way to make money that was not involved in any way with corporate America or with waiting two weeks or a month for your paycheck. You know, any of that. That was the day that things changed for me.
Jay Clouse 28:36
Is this like the rock bottom moment?
Ash Ambirge 28:38
Yeah, it sounds like I've had several, right? Yeah, that's the rock bottom moment because like, look, like, when whenever you are in a position and most people would sell something, right, you'd sell your family jewels, maybe some bonds maybe you might sell your car. Couldn't do that. The dealership wanted me to pay them $2,000 to take it off my hands, because it was upside down on the loan. So what do you do? And that's when I had to redefine what it looks like to have something of value. And for me, I didn't have anything physical I could sell. But that is when I realized that maybe I didn't need anything physical to sell. And maybe I could sell my ideas. Maybe I could sell my creativity, my enthusiasm, the things that people tended to like about me. Maybe I could package that in some certain way. I recognized that that's kind of what books are. I wanted to be a writer anyway. That's what a book is. It's an idea. It's a bunch of ideas packaged for sale. And there's value in that. And that night, I heard the radio DJ actually put on an ad for the new Rihanna album, and he said the new Rihanna album is now available for pre-sale. And that was when I was like, Oh my god, this is, this is, this is what I have to do. I realized that art is worth paying for, and it doesn't need to be finished yet in order to exchange it for future value. Pre-order. And so that's what I did. I reached out to the world, I had been blogging for a year of my own volition, and I made the world an offer. And I said, here's what I'm going to do. Here's what I would like to write. Would you like to buy a copy? So much of selling that I've learned over the years is...
Jay Clouse 30:25
Ash Ambirge 30:25
...about simply making an offer with genuine enthusiasm and stating, here's what I can do, here's how I can help, do you want to buy it? That very night that within 24 hours, I made my first $2,000,
Jay Clouse 30:36
The small thing that you underplayed there was the fact that you had already been writing for a year, which is also just a brave and probably consistent act of starting and showing up for people, because you don't make $2,000 pre-selling to nobody. There were people that were already there paying attention.
Ash Ambirge 30:53
Yeah, that's true. I mean, having the personal agency and realizing that whatever you want to be doing right now, you don't need The New York Times to come along and say that, you know, you've got the column, you can give yourself a column. If you want to become an interior designer known for their Mad wallpapering skills, you got to get out there and start wallpapering. You have to start creating a body of work, you know, preferably on the internet, because that's your modern day resume now, and that's what I was doing inadvertently without realizing I was doing it.
Jay Clouse 31:21
That presale that earned Ash her first $2,000 and began to turn things around happened in around 2009. Things have changed quite a bit for Ash since then. The Middle Finger Project is now a million dollar brand. You're a published author. So in nine years time, building a million dollar plus brand, can you take me through some of the highlights or like pivotal moments? Necause that is incredible growth and also some like radical changes in your business I think you would have to take to go from, Okay, I've got $2,000 worth of orders now to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of clients and in product sales and things like that. So can you talk us through the evolution of the company?
Ash Ambirge 31:59
Sure. Gosh, you are good at this game, Jay.
Jay Clouse 32:04
We're covering a lot of ground.
Ash Ambirge 32:05
You're good at this game. But I mean, that's, that's so true. It's really important because it's not like I woke up to this. I didn't wake up like this everybody. In the beginning, right, you start off like anyone does. You figure out okay, well, I have this one talent, skill, idea. And so how can I sell it to one other person? That's all you need to start, and that's exactly what I did. And so I started off that way by being a freelancer and selling a service. I wanted to write for you, and how--you know if you wanted me to write for you, I would write for you. I started writing all sorts of random crazy things for people around the world from their wedding vows to creative product descriptions to website copy for the Miss America Pageant. Like it really started to range.
Jay Clouse 32:48
Very cool gain, much, much different than medical device sales.
Ash Ambirge 32:52
Yes, well, the reason is because I realized my clients were right in front of my face. They were my readers reading my blog, who loved the way I was writing. They loved my creative voice. But I wasn't looking in the most obvious place. I was still looking in Philadelphia trying to be professional. So I started that way. And then eventually, people kept asking me how I was able to write and persuade the way that I was. Part of that was my advertising background, a part of it was my creativity. And one thing led to another, and one time I was like, why don't I just give a copywriting workshop. It'll be like a fun, creative copywriting thing. I slapped something together, just honestly just having some fun with it. I was living in Santiago, Chile at the time, and I woke up to $30,000 in my bank account. And then I was like, What just happened? I, I didn't realize there'd be such a response for this thing. But okay, cool. And so then I discovered that there's a lot of power in scale and how can we scale more. So I was already doing that with books. I was trying to write as many books as I could, but at that point, they were self published, they were downloadable. I mean, it was, it was things around ideas with modern work. But courses were a different thing. They allowed for more interaction, and people really needed those. So then I kept taking on clients and you keep on learning about boundaries. Boundaries are really hard things to put down. And realizing that you really do only have so many hours a day and so much energy in so many ways that you can help before your taps. And so I started leaning more and more on the other side of things that I was actually enjoying. I was enjoying teaching people things, I was enjoying reading other people's writing and having discussion groups and having the community aspect of it. And I kept making more and more revenue for the company that way, and it was wonderful. And so slowly but surely it no longer made financial sense for me to be taking on one on one clients. And so scale started to happen more and more. And eventually, I was my own bottleneck. I think this happens, too, where it's like, I'm still the lead voice for the company, and I still have to make all the decisions, and other people are filtering their decisions through me. So we, we hesitated in growth for several years, because I couldn't get enough done. And I still didn't know how to hand the reins over to anybody else, because so much of what I did was about me and my personal brand.
Jay Clouse 35:26
Ash Ambirge 35:27
I didn't have the luxury anymore to let my ego get in the way of our revenue and the way the company was operating, because when I wasn't there, when I was off playing around in New York, the company would come to a grinding halt. And that's a very big problem. So that was kind of the final shift where it became critical for me to delegate and understand how to hire and have other people, you know, helping run the company instead of putting everything on me. And it's the only way you could do it. So that's where we're at now.
Jay Clouse 35:55
Totally. And the reason I ask is because, you know, it's clear to me as a freelancer hearing your story that, at some point, you had to have offloaded some of this to other people, even though, you know, there is so much Ash in the brand. You just can't do all that as one person.
Ash Ambirge 36:08
No, no, no, no. No.
Jay Clouse 36:12
Something else I want to dial in on, because it's come up several times in this conversation, and it's kind of a theme on this show, is you are not afraid to talk about money and tell other people to think about and care about money. And yet it's still kind of taboo in our society. So how did you find comfort, learning, understanding your own finances, and why do you think it's so important for other people to do the same?
Ash Ambirge 36:33
I mean, for me, especially as a woman in particular who has been in a position where when you don't have money, your discretion kind of goes out the window as well, I think that money has become not, not, not a source of pride for me as much as it is a source of options. And I think that's why it's so important to give yourself those options. It is, you can choose. I want to be able to choose I'm spending my next hour, and money will help me do that. And building a company that can stand on its own will help me do that as opposed to me constantly having to be there. But it's a muscle I think like anything else. In the beginning, taking money from clients is a difficult thing. I think a lot of us are very, especially creatives, we're very empathetic people. You almost have to be in order to be in any kind of creative field. You understand human emotion better than other people do. So you also can understand, you know, kind of the pain that it feels when you have to ask someone for money, you're effectively taking something from them. I think we think about it a little bit more than other people might. Women are tough because they've got this whole narrative in their head that they're supposed to be selfless and give and mothers, and oh that she should give everything to our children, kind of a thing. But taking money from someone else is one of the most generous acts you can do. Because what that means is you are volunteering to help them, and you're going to help them with your skills. So much of selling and taking money, the act of taking money, it's about helping. And this is where my background came in. And I didn't even realize it was going to, but why I've been so successful was simply the level of enthusiasm I brought to everything. I didn't make it this terrifying kind of uptight, formal experience of taking someone's money. I literally approached it like, Hi, you know, here's what I can, I'm so excited, here's the new thing I'm doing. I'm really excited. Here's what it is. Here's how much it costs. Do you want my help with it? And when you say it like that, it feels like a fun and easy, ease thing to be, you know, buying from someone . It feels like I'm at ease to be offering it. And so much of that enthusiasm rubs off on other people. You become magnetic.
Jay Clouse 38:50
Ash Ambirge 38:50
So much of selling is helping. Yeah.
Jay Clouse 38:52
And in that inverse. You know, if you are afraid to make the ask, if you're afraid to say here's how much it costs, even people who don't realize they're empathic pick up on that, too. And they, they pick up some of that fear. And they may not know why they're feeling fear, but it's certainly not going to make them want to give you money.
Ash Ambirge 39:06
Oh, man, that's a good point. Yes, yes. I think it's a really nice thing to practice to practice saying like, Hey, you know, here's what it is, here's how much it costs. Do you want to buy it? Do you want this? Do you want my help? I'd be happy to help you. Here's what I need in exchange. And that's kind of it, right? Like if someone is willing to give you that money, they believe that it's worth it. So you don't have to worry about their money story. You don't have to worry about what they're thinking. If they're volunteering the money, they believe it's worth it, it's valuable to them. And that's great.
Jay Clouse 39:40
You can hear Ash's enthusiasm all throughout this interview. And if you read any of her writing, it rings through there, too. It truly is the unmistakable enthusiastic voice of Ash Ambirge and The Middle Finger Project. So to close our interview, I asked Ash how she would recommend other creators find their own voice, whether it's in writing or any other medium.
Ash Ambirge 39:57
You know, writing is really about thinking. And I think a lot of us forget that we don't build time in our day to think about stuff anymore. Nobody's got time to think about what they actually believe about a topic, to become informed on a topic, to form an opinion. So many of us are kind of running around, just going through the motions. So when you sit down to write, what ends up happening is either you feel like you don't have anything to say, not because you're a bad writer, because you haven't thought about it enough. And number two, if you do sit down and start to write, what, what starts to come out, is like this jumble of generic cliches and things that you've already heard, because that is the brains way of taking a shortcut. The human brain is designed to be as efficient as possible. So anytime you sit down to write something, it's going to give you those shortcuts first, because that's what it's trying to do, is get the idea down on paper as quickly as possible. That obviously is a very bad idea if you're trying to write something that feels fresh and original. But what I would encourage you to do is fine, let it be cliche at first. Write down all the cliches, just get the ideas on paper, what are you trying to say? And sometimes you do need to maybe wrestle with it a little bit on the page to figure out what you do actually think. But great, that's the first step. Form an actual opinion about something. I'm not reading your writing to hear a summary of someone else's ideas. I want to know what you think. So form an opinion, and then let yourself be generic. And then go back and edit it, edit it, and try very hard to take a sentence that you have written that is just balls, and be like, okay, you know, how can I say this and express this in a more creative idea? And how can I have fun with it? How can I make this pleasurable for the reader on the other side of the screen? That's what writing is all about: a pleasurable exchange of ideas. That's good writing. So have some fun with it. And don't worry about whether or not it sounds bad at first.
Jay Clouse 41:55
Well, I've been following you for a while. Your work is awesome. And I haven't seen you more enthusiastic about anything than this book that you just put out. So how has that experience been, being in Target, working with Penguin Random House, how has this experience been for you?
Ash Ambirge 42:10
So surreal, so surreal, I just found a picture of myself and Elizabeth Gilbert from 2006, when I was still, you know, working in corporate America, going through the motions. And, you know, like many of us, she was one of the first to, who was like, wait a minute, we can live life a little bit differently. And I can't believe that now. I'm 35. She was 35 when she published that. And now, I'm 35 publishing this, it just all feels so surreal. It's been a great, it's been a great experience working with some of the best people in the world at what they do in publishing. And trying to, also--this was a really good exercise, similar to what we talked about in business where you have to also let other people do some of the work--one of the things that I learned from this process was really how to take a message and really make 50% of the population hate you. I hadn't made that my explicit goal before. But when you've got something as small and tidy as a book, and everything from the title to subtitle to what you read in the flap and everything has to be polarizing, you don't have a chance for someone to like, read your blog for a few months and decide if they like you or not, it is do or die. So, one of the pieces of advice that was given to me right in the beginning was, when you're writing this, forget about making everybody like you, how can you make 50% of the population hate you? That was one of the best exercises I ever did. And I think why The Middle Finger Project is, is, so far, the book has been a success, the, the wrong people will stay away, and the right people will really love it. And that's the best thing we can hope for.
Jay Clouse 43:54
If that story doesn't inspire you to get up and take action, no matter your circumstances, I'm not sure what will. I'm generally a pretty even keeled guy myself, and this conversation really convinced me to lean more into my own enthusiasm and use it to my advantage. Ash fought through so much adversity between losing her mom, going into debt, living out of her car, and more. And yet here she is building a million dollar brand, publishing a book, and building a life on her own terms. And it was that enthusiasm that has helped carry her all throughout. I highly recommend picking up Ashley's book, The Middle Finger Project, which I'll link to in the show notes. I also recommend signing up for her email list at TheMiddleFingerProject.org, and checking out her article, the 67 Emotions of Unconventional Success, which are also linked to. One of the best articles I've ever read. Thanks to Ash for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Brian Sceele for mixing this show and also creating our music. If you liked this episode, you can tweet @JayClouse and let me know. And if you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. I'll talk to you next week.