Cleo Murnane

By Above the Glass On February 5, 2016 Photography By:   Darcy Hemley
Business Name:

Project M Plus


Social Media Handles:




Los Angeles, CA

Short Business Description:

Project M+ is a Los Angeles–based collective of designers and architects.

Cleo Murnane is an entrepreneur after our own hearts: she is a bonafied hustler, who started her design firm, Project M Plus, out of the necessity to accommodate impending motherhood with her own career aspirations. Working along side her husband and Co-Founder, McShane, she proves that successfully mixing business and family is possible! Her designs have helped launch the brands of start-ups and large companies alike, but she clearly has a knack for working with female entrepreneurs like ourselves. Most of all, she reminds us that you can create the career and the life that you want if you are willing to work hard and take some seriously calculated risks. Read on to learn more about Cleo Murnane, and the making of Project M Plus.


Before launching your business, what did you do?

I studied fine art and art history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was lucky to get my first job at the Guggenheim Museum. I met a designer who I thought was so talented, and decided to go back to school and study graphic design.

From there, I worked for a photo agent named Howard Bernstein. He taught me how to produce large scale photo shoots for national print campaigns – from hiring the location scouts and casting directors to stylists and hair & makeup artists. This was my introduction to the workings and players at advertising agencies. I produced shoots for some of the top photographers at the time – Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Steven Meisel. I worked on as many shoots as I could, I listened and learned from the best. My career as an art director and graphic designer grew from there – starting in New York then to London and now, here in Los Angeles.

Did you face any obstacles in your previous career/endeavors?

I grew up with two older brothers so I’ve always been comfortable in a male environment, but professionally I found it a little more challenging. I was flattered to be working in teams of all male designers. As my positions became more senior, work also became more competitive, and ego-driven.

I was working at a big agency in London, and I had experience art directing internationally for Bentley and Rolls Royce with another firm. I had created my first campaign for Toyota and was set to go to Australia with a team I had assembled. About a week before the shoot, the agency hired a male freelance art director they had worked with before, and pulled me from the job. That was kind of crushing, that they didn’t trust a woman with my experience could art direct an automotive campaign. At the time, it felt like the industry was more dominated by men in decision-making roles; it seems more balanced now.

What was it like working in a male-dominated industry?

I quickly learned to be more assertive and how to use my experience to get my male creative directors and clients to trust me. This was invaluable and taught me to be decisive, a little less emotional about my work, and how to work quickly in a competitive, fast-paced environment.



Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point

What was the turning point that caused you to start a business?

When I moved to LA, I worked in Venice, and I was commuting from Echo Park everyday. On my way to work one day, I got into a car accident that was not my fault. I was seven months pregnant. Thankfully, I was fine. When I finally got to the office, my boss (who did not have children) was pretty furious that I was late. Without thinking I said, “I can’t do this. I just got into a car accident. I’m pregnant. This is not going to work.” I honestly had no idea what I was going to do or where I would get rent money. I immediately jumped into freelancing, and M Plus grew from there.

How did you find your first clients?

I registered with an agency and got placed at KB Home. It was a temporary, well-paid gig so I swallowed my pride to pay the rent. I designed a few property logos for them, and worked with a woman in marketing who seemed to like my work. A few months later that same woman called me and she was now the Marketing Director at Caruso Affiliated. She said, “I have a new project for you, it’s called The Americana at Brand.” I worked with Caruso for the next seven years creating campaigns and websites for both The Americana and The Grove, and branding several restaurants and properties like The ResidencesExcelsior, and 8500 Burton Way. It was exciting to work with Rick Caruso on a few key projects – he’s a visionary thinker who is passionate about LA. Working with Caruso opened doors with other development companies such as Kilroy Realty Corporation, along with various retail and restaurant projects.

Did you have any formal business training before launching?

I don’t have any business training but I’m fortunate that I grew up with some hard working, industrious people. My mother is a talented interior designer and worked for herself for many years. My father started a trade show business that he sold a few years ago which continues to grow, and both my brothers work for themselves. 

Have you always wanted to own your own business?

Not consciously. I’ve always had strong opinions and been a decisive person. I have a lot of ideas and typically I’m not afraid to take risks or act on them. My mom said when I was a kid I could have sold an elephant to just about anyone – apparently I was a convincing child.

Is there anyone in particular who influenced your journey?

My oldest brother is also an entrepreneur and might be the most creative person I know. He was a punk rock kid – in bands, started a fanzine, lived like a squatter in a warehouse and he travelled a lot. I’m pretty sure he never graduated from university. He decided to open a small café in a pretty sketchy neighborhood in Milwaukee. From there, he opened another coffee shop, and then a bar, a restaurant, and then another restaurant. Now he has 8 restaurant groups and popular motorcycle show called Mama Tried. He’s a true artist, and there’s freedom in that. The things he loves most in life, he made into his work – that’s my goal.




The Business of Your Business

What is it like working with your husband?

We’ve been in business nearly 8 years and every day, I feel lucky to work with him. He’s a very handy sounding board for business decisions and for me professionally. I have so much respect for him, his profession and his work. Plus, I’ve learned a thing or two about architecture which has always fascinated me.

What is the key to running your business successfully?

For me, the biggest part of making a business successful is communication, and making sure everyone understands: what needs to be done, by when, and how. The energy and the vibe in the office is also really important. We try to run our company like a family business. I think the people who work for us understand that, and they enjoy it.

How does being a woman impact your work?

We work with established brands, but we also work with start-ups and entrepreneurs. I like to tell clients that branding is a little like therapy for your business. There’s a lot of collaboration and trust involved in designing an identity and launching a brand. Equally challenging is helping established brands change the music – people get very attached to their brand even when it’s not working.

You need a certain softness when you’re asking personal questions like, “why are you doing this? what story do you want to tell? what matters to you the most? what causes do you love?” As a women, I may have a softer approach and hopefully it’s easier for clients to be open and honest – that’s when the real creative works starts.


What is it like working with clients who are entrepreneurs?

We’re not afraid to invest big in great ideas and talented people. We only work with clients who offer quality products, and people capable of doing what they’re setting out to do. This way we can set our clients up for success, and that is the most rewarding part of our job.





How has having a family changed how you make business decisions?

It’s taught me to delegate. I’ve had Creative Directors tell me, “OK, this is good, I like the direction this is going in, just save out all of your files and I’ll work on it.” And then they’ll pull an all-nighter and change everything. I’ve done it too. But with children it’s not sustainable, so, I had to learn how to communicate with my team.

I think women set themselves up to think they can do it all, but the reality is that, yes, they can do it all, but with help. It’s important to surround yourself with people you like and trust, who are clever and resourceful – and who want to help you. In return, you can help them.

You helped us with our brand identity. What were your main sources of inspiration in that process?

For naming, one of the things that we first talked about was Corner Office. Corner Office is a New York Times column I’ve been reading for years, so there was always this idea of a metaphorical space – a beautiful place where a women felt successful. For tone and demographic – Sheryl Sandberg, and the Lean In movement was taking off right when we started working together, and Sopie Amoruso has just published Girl Boss – two totally different brands and we were somewhere in the middle. Edgy and youthful, but still chic and professional. Also, I fell in love with this royal blue / cobalt color for the brand, and I felt like to own that color was such a unique – and strong – yet feminine move.


Favorite book(s) about business:

The Business of Design, Keith Granet

Design is a JobMike Monteiro

The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero

Wabi- Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

( I read this book when I was 20 and it lead me to a creative career. I even named my dog Rilke, who’s now 11 years old. )

Have you ever fired a client?

Yes, unfortunately. I think you will get the best out of anyone you hire, if you hire them for what they do, and then let them do it. The hard clients are the ones who hire you, and then question you at every turn along the way. Don’t get me wrong, we welcome that collaboration, but there has to be a certain level of trust. We work to a very high standard. We’re very experienced. We’re small – so we can work closely with our clients and manage the quality of our work.



Experience & Insight

What is the best thing about running your own business?

The best part is, I love my job. I am excited to go to work. We have amazing clients. I get to hire talented people that I like – we’re having fun. We are a team of 12, and now everyone is younger than my husband and me, so the office keeps us young, relevant and vibrant.

At this point, it is exciting to mentor young designers, and to see how that helps the company to grow. What our employees bring to the company has afforded us more success than I could have ever imagined.

How do you manage your employees?

We tell our employees that we want them to do the best work of their careers. So we push them and try to give them freedom to try new things. Because we offer so many different creative services, whether its writing, design, art installations, architecture, art direction, interiors, if you want to try something or hone your skills, there is an opportunity here.


What is the most difficult about running your own business?

I feel like I’m always working, so I’m kind of exhausted. I’m very committed to this company’s success and that can take away some energy I feel I should be giving to my family, and my kids.

I feel like I was such a great mom before I had children! I used to cook, sew, draw, screen print – all of these incredible crafty things. And now that I’m a mother, I don’t cook as much, because I just don’t have as much time. There are certain choices I’ve had to make, and as we grew our studio there are more responsibilities here.

What are you most proud of?

This house is sort of a miracle. We leveraged our entire company and put every penny into building  it, with the hope that it would showcase our services and help our company grow. Given our current projects, I would say it worked. It took way to long, and was a little painful at times, but we took a huge risk, and it paid off.

And Lombardi House is one of my favorite projects. We went to see the property, and they had these old dilapidated farm stables in the back. I said, “What are you going to do with these horse stables? You should renovate them. It could be a great event space.” Then they talked to McShane, and they designed and built this beautiful barn. We basically turned what was going to be little luxury vacation suites into a successful event space for them. It’s been booked solid since it launched. On the opening night party, the client came to me and said, “I want to thank you so much because my daughter just finished university, and she’s going to help me run this event space. I am so excited that my children are finally interested in what I’m doing.”

At what point did you think, “I made it”?

I’m not sure I feel that yet. We invest back into the company to grow it, so we’re still hustling every day. We hope to buy a small building this year and finally move to a bigger office. Stay tuned, we’re getting there.

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in business?

Find what you love doing. You know, the thing that your parents tell you did when you were ten years old. And go after that thing. Invest in what you love, and you will find success from that.

Try not to compare yourself with other people, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Give your business time to grow organically, and it will reveal itself to you along the way.

And invest in design. I honestly think that if you have a great design, a clean communication strategy, you know what you stand for, a solid brand will help your business grow faster.

Photography by: Darcy Hemley

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