With a thriving interior design business and a hit TV show, Dream Home Makeover's Syd and Shea McGee may seem to have it all now, but they nearly lost everything chasing their dream.
As new parents, the college sweethearts took a major risk and quit their office jobs to start their design firm, Studio McGee, but they quickly burned through their savings and found themselves in dire financial straits, eventually moving from California to Utah in a last-ditch effort to afford to keep going.
Less than a decade later, Syd and Shea have built a brand that's gained them a legion of fans (including 2.3 million Instagram followers). They have 140 employees currently designing 17 homes across the country. They've launched a furniture line, a collaboration with Target and of course, landed a Netflix series.
Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Shea and Syd McGee streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be here now," Shea, 35, tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story. "We hoped to provide for our family, have some clients, maybe sell some products. But to have people from all over the world reaching out to us and telling us that we've inspired them to pursue a new career, or a new path, or design their home, I mean, that's incredible."
Especially considering the rocky road that got them here.
Just 11 years ago Shea was working full-time in public relations and taking night courses in interior design at a local community college. After landing a few styling and decorating gigs, she left her job to launch a new business from the spare bedroom of her and Syd's Southern California starter home while pregnant with their older daughter Wren, now 7. (They also share Ivy, 5, and are expecting a third baby in July.)
Not long after, Syd, 36, who was also feeling adrift in his career at a tech company, quit too. "We had always talked about him striking out on his own," Shea recalls. But the timing was far from ideal: "Suddenly I had to support us on this design income, and we were stretching everything."
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As Shea cobbled together clients and Syd stepped in to run the business side of the company, they were forced to tighten their belts. They vowed not to eat out, canceled gym memberships, then cable. But soon anything that wasn't food or their mortgage was off the table.
"We were selling things to make ends meet. It just progressed to anything and everything that wasn't a necessity had to go," Shea says. At their lowest point, she recalls feeling angry and ashamed at having to put things back to check out at the supermarket.
The circumstances also put a serious strain on their marriage. "Money problems can be enough to break two people, and throw a new baby into it . . . it was a hard time. There were a lot of tears," Shea says.
After a year, they hit a breaking point: They could either abandon their business to get back on their feet or make a serious life change. They decided to move to Utah, where they'd both attended college, met and fell in love. "We knew it was less expensive and we were already kind of at a place where there wasn't a backup plan."
In 2014, they leased Studio McGee's first office, a run-down Salt Lake City space without heat or air conditioning that had occasional visits from squatters. "We worked 16- or 17-hour days," Syd recalls. "We didn't say no to anything."
Adds Shea, "It was wild, but we were just so excited to be going for something."
WATCH THIS: Dream Home Makeover's Syd and Shea McGee Are Expecting Baby No. 3: 'We Are So Excited!'
Slowly but surely they built up their client roster, landed a few big projects, and documented everything on Instagram. The social media platform helped grow their business and even became their springboard to TV fame.
After a false start with a production company that had spotted their account but wanted to cast Syd in a fake contractor role, they decided to start a YouTube channel instead to produce content on their own terms. A few years later, when they were offered a meeting with Netflix, they felt ready to give TV another shot.
On Dream Home Makeover, which premiered in October and returned for a second season in January, Shea tackles all kinds of design projects, from renovating single rooms on to building multimillion-dollar mansions from the ground up — all in their signature Studio McGee style: a mix of the cool, modern aesthetic of their former home in Southern California and the cozy, mountain-chic of their adoptive one in Utah.
And while they can't yet reveal if they're working on a third season, Shea promises, "We've got some fun things up our sleeves."
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