biz ladies: starting a business + lessons learned

Spring is all about inspiration and renewal so for today’s Biz Ladies post we asked ten of our favorite artists, designers and small business owners to tell us how they got their start, what lessons they learned on the way and what they’d go back and tell themselves, if they had they chance. There is so much fantastic advice here but we’d love to hear YOUR answers to these three questions, too. Feel free to leave your feedback and advice in the comments below. Thanks again to all of the business owners below (Bklyn Flea, Vena Cava, David Stark, House of Brinson, Design Milk, Wayne Pate, DwellStudio, Michele Varian, Joy Cho) for their time and advice. –Amy A.

Thanks to to American Express OPEN for sponsoring this post as part of the Big Break for Small Business program. Visit to learn more about the Big Break contest. Enter your small business for a chance to win a trip to Facebook headquarters for a one-on-one business makeover and $20,000 to grow your business with social media. See Official Rules for complete details.

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

scratch ‘n’ sniff wall paper from Flavor Paper

Design*Sponge: How did you go from idea to reality?
Jon Sherman: I had 24 hours to decide if I wanted to take the equipment of a defunct wallpaper company before it was burned, literally. Once you’ve decided to move a 6,000 lb 52′ long table and 300 7′ tall silk screens across the country you have to get serious!

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Jon Sherman: I was completely naive about the wallpaper industry and didn’t know any of the “rules”. Sounds like something I did wrong, but it was the best thing that could have happened as I introduced crazy colors and mirrored grounds, which were considered verboten, and that was what set us apart from the competition and garnered the most press. Go with your gut!

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Jon Sherman: People are your greatest asset and biggest potential nightmare, so choose wisely.

Jonathan Butler, founder of Brownstoner, and Eric Demby, the former communications director for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, founded the Brooklyn Flea in 2008. Since then, the Flea has become an essential cornerstone for Brooklyn craft and food culture and a showcase for 150 local and regional vendors of antiques, vintage clothing, handmade items, jewelry, food, bicycles, records, and more
Design*Sponge: How did you go from idea to reality?
A couple of things. Before deciding to launch The Flea, I put on a one-day event in September 2007 called Salvage Fest. It was just a dozen or so sellers of architectural salvage in a small school yard in Clinton Hill but hundreds of people came to check it out based solely on my promotion of the event on Later that fall, when close to a hundred or so vendors signed up for The Flea within the first 48 hours, it was pretty clear we were onto something, a notion that was confirmed when 20,000 people showed up for opening day in April 2008.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
My partner Eric Demby and I didn’t realize it at the time, but our decision up front to have food at the market was probably the choice that has had the greatest impact on our business. Food at the Flea became a huge draw off the bat and has now spawned a whole new food-only market and brand, Smorgasburg, which will take place in our new Williamsburg location on Saturdays starting May 21. Other than that, I think that our focus from the start on being good communicators, both in terms of how we deal with vendors and how we promote the business to the outside world, has been key to our success.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
In terms of lessons learned, I personally would say that earlier in my career as an entrepreneur I would sometimes be too quick to respond emotionally to a challenge or hardship. Now I try (not always successfully!) to take a long, deep breath before dealing with a potentially contentious situation. Overall, I would remind myself of the fact that business, like life, is by definition full of stress and things you can’t control and to try not to sweat every bump in the road quite as hard.

Lisa Mayock is one half of Vena Cava. Together with Sophie Buhai, she created a fashion brand that went from a living room floor in Brooklyn in 2003 to winning an Ecco Domani in 2006 and back-to-back Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund Award nominations in 2007 and 2008.

Design*Sponge: How did you go from idea to reality?
Lisa: We started our brand on a lark- we just decided to make some pieces together and show them at fashion week and see what happened. It wasn’t really anything we thought would go anywhere- but after seeing the response from the press, it became clear that we had found ourselves a great niche- and a business was born!

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Lisa: Just one mistake?? There have been hundreds. I think one of my big mistakes initially was thinking that I could do everything- and that doing so was a good idea.
Division of labor is key. Divide and conquer!

As for doing something right- Id say the first time we really sat down and analyzed our sales we realized that everyone wanted the same thing from us-
feminine silk dresses in prints. The next season we made an entire collection of those pieces and out business exploded. We went from 18 stores to 80 in one season.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Lisa: That as difficult and stressful as the business can be, even if your problem seems insurmountable- you will figure out a solution. there is always one- it might just take you a while to find it- but there is always an answer.

David Stark is one of New York’s most sought-after event designers and has just published David Stark Design, which details his eco conscious and witty approach to event design.

Design*Sponge: How did you go from idea to reality?
David: I started working with flowers for events to support my fledgling painting career, working right out of my home/studio. This was merely a creative solution to waiting on tables — tedious work that did not feed my creative hunger. But as the floral part of my world ballooned, I needed more and more help, and when I needed to make room for a new person, for instance, I threw away the sofa to make way for a desk. This continued until there were no home furnishings left. Even my bed, on most occasions, became a storage shelf for table cloths!

One day I woke and said, “ok. It’s time to take this seriously because a real business has eaten up my home!”

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
David: I found a brilliant person to play the role of General Manager for my organization, someone who could put a business structure to my creative passion, someone that could reinforce the importance of work flow and process as being just as tantamount as art making. Now, I can’t have creative freedom without the process that we have developed over the years. Order is crucial to freedom.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
David: The journey is just as important as the end result. We are all so trained to goal ourselves for “opening night,” “winning the gold medal,” and “beating the opponent,” that we forget that rehearsals, training, and the game itself is where the fun happens.

Husband and wife team, Susan and William Brinson, met at William’s 16th birthday, attended Savannah College of Art & Design together, and then moved to New York together. Susan works as an art director and designer and William is a still life and food photographer. And while the couple has their own separate projects, they collaborate on their fantastic blog – House of Brinson. (see the Brinson’s sneak peek!)

Design*Sponge: What was the spark that make you take your business seriously?
Susan: I would see ideas published, that I thought about months earlier and didn’t execute. I knew I had to take action and get my voice out there.
William: When I picked up my used $50 camera and held it to my eye, I knew this was the path for me, I was born to tell a story, even if it is just my own imagination.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Susan: I waited. I wanted to blog for sometime, but waited until we could execute a blog the way we envisioned.
William: I learned by watching the best, and being true to myself. As a husband and wife team one smart thing we did was take our own path, then circle back to each other.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Susan: Don’t over commit. Growth too quickly will hold you back from executing your original idea well.
William: Learn as much as you can when you have the chance to be taught, and stick to your own beliefs.

Design Milk is an online magazine started by Jaime Derringer to highlight modern design.

Design*Sponge: What was the spark that make you take your business seriously?
Jaime: The first time someone asked me for my ad rates. This was the moment when the gears started turning and I thought… “hey, maybe this could be a legit side business.” But I never thought in a million years it would end up being my primary business. Since the day I walked out of my day job, I’ve been pinching myself. The blog grew organically; I didn’t do any excessive marketing or seek out any advertisers. I’ve been lucky in that it kind of became what it is on its own.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Jaime: Right: I never strayed from my original purpose. The first day I started this blog, I decided I’d use it to catalog cool stuff that I found. I haven’t really changed my tune. Every single thing that is posted on my site is something I (personally) love for one reason or another.

Wrong: When I started my blog five years ago, there weren’t the millions of blogs that there are today. There was no rule book, and in fact, most people had never even heard the word “blog.” I did everything wrong you can possibly think of. I learned how to do everything on my own, making tons of mistakes!

Design Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Jaime: I think I would tell myself to be more personal and open with a stronger voice. Your personality is what sets you apart from everyone else, and you can easily blend in (especially these days). A strong personality and a personal voice not only develops community but fosters relationships with readers.

We’ve been fans of Brooklyn-based illustrator and Good Shape Design founder Wayne Pate’s clean yet whimsical illustrations pretty much since day one.  (See our mini peek into Wayne’s studio)

Design*Sponge: What was the spark that make you take your business seriously?
Wayne: There was one particular blog I was pestering way back when. One day I presented to them my Flock print which they liked and posted it and the sales came pouring in. The reaction was a sure sign that their was an audience out there that liked what I was doing.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Wayne: The one thing I’ve done wrong over the years is to get sidetracked with ideas that are perhaps a bit too indulgent and weren’t necessarily right for production for retail.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Wayne: Know who your customer, your audience is. Always focus on the things you do really well and not on things that other people do well.

There’s always something I’m coveting from DwellStudio (Draper Stripe Poppy Shams, anyone?) Christiane Lemieux is the company’s creative director and founder.  She recently published Undecorate, a book that encourages a laid-back, rules-free approach to decorating.

Design*Sponge: What was the spark that make you take your business seriously?
Christiane: I was working for a home company called Portico in New York doing design. I put a couple of things that were my designs and my style into the mix and they worked! I decided to take a leap and start a business.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Christiane: The one thing I did right was to have solid experience in the industry. I started my business armed with the right contacts and a very good idea of how to execute.
The one thing I did wrong was underestimate how much capital it takes to grow a business to a significant size.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Christiane: There are so many things I would tell myself….The big one –and I know this is not sexy  -write a business plan.  You will know how much you need to start your business, you can set goals and a process. It really helps you create structure.  When you are starting a business you are so optimistic about it’s success that you can get pulled all over the place. It’s much better to stay focused and a plan helps do this and puts you on the path to success.  I did not do this when I started but I have on a yearly basis since.

Michele Varian designs and sells decorative home accessories: pillows, blankets, lighting, jewelry, furniture, glassware and tabletop. Her store in SoHo is a magical place when the unexpected is hidden in every corner – and it’s nearly impossible to walk out empty-handed!

Design*Sponge: What was the spark that make you take your business seriously?
Michele: I sold my first collection of decorative pillows to Neiman Marcus and Barneys, but then 9/11 happened. No buyers were coming to NYC to see the collection, so I decided I would sell my collection in my own store. I may never have opened a store otherwise. Just yesterday, I opened at my new location, which is 6 times bigger than my first store, so I guess it was a good thing.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Michele: Because my experience working for other design companies had always been complicated by backer problems, I decided to be independent and primarily self-financed. This had meant that my company has grown slowly. I guess this has been right and wrong.

Design*Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Michele: Save as much money as you can if you feel ambitious. It takes a long time to reliably pay your bills without tons of stress. It’s pretty fabulous owning 100% of your business. I employ people who’s opinions I value, but at the end of the day, the last word is mine

Joy Cho wears many hats! She’s a Graphic designerblogger, and author and is currently based in Los Angeles country.

Design*Sponge: What was the spark that make you take your business seriously?
Joy: My business started mostly by accident as I began taking on freelance work while looking for a new job. I realized I could turn it into a business if I took it seriously after the amount of clients and projects slowly increased..and it ended up turning into the best job I could ever have asked for.

Design*Sponge: What’s one thing you did right (or wrong)?
Joy: One thing I made the mistake of in the beginning was to try and be everything to everyone. I’ve always had a particular design style. Especially after coming out of my first two job experiences and into my own business, my style evolved to be a clean, modern, yet feminine aesthetic that often involved patterning. I was fine with staying true to that and found myself working with clients who came to me for my style. But, in the back of my head, I wondered if I wasn’t a real graphic designer if I didn’t design in all styles for everyone. So there were a couple projects that presented themselves that involved a totally different clientele and aesthetic than what I did best, and to prove to myself that I should be able to do anything, I took them on. These were situations where the work I did was fine, but because the subject matter or the style required was something I wasn’t passionate about, the work wasn’t my best. After that, I learned to stick to the type of work and style I’m best and will enjoy most as it shows so much in the final result.

Design Sponge: If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?
Joy: I’d tell my younger, worried self to, “Take a deep breath, continue to work hard, and it will all pay off in the end.”

  1. wow. This is a very wonderful Biz post! It is one of the most valuable. It gives me hope for my little business and my future pursuits!


  2. Niki Fulton says:

    Some great advice from wonderful businesses. Good idea asking these questions. A deep breath seems to prevail – I will try it!

  3. What a treasure trove of helpful info. Thanks so much for these BizLadies posts – they’re fab! Xx

  4. Andrea says:

    Great article! I just opened my first shop last week in Toronto. Everyone here is so inspiring and lends some great advice. Thank you.

  5. Andrea says:

    *I mean everyone interviewed in this post!

  6. Jen says:

    I absolutely love these interviews! Thanks so much for compiling and sharing this, it is very inspiring!!

  7. Kristen D says:

    Thank you so much! I just opened my new business this week and am consequently on a huge rollercoaster. Some of these answers really helped me put things in perspective! xoxo

  8. Thanks for including me!

  9. So much great info! I love hearing other artist/designers ‘back’ stories. I always look forward to these posts and take away so much relevant good stuff!

  10. Thank you! Great interviews…the the best and the worst things they shared were helpful.

  11. thank you for the beautiful ideas based on past and current experiences. okay business plan – it’s TIME! :)

  12. Susana says:

    thank you so much for this! so much wisdom put together, such great advise, it is nice to learn from such successful artists

  13. many thanks, so encouraging on a ‘worry myself to death’ day like today ;) many thanks….

  14. Baghy says:

    Wonderful article, I have much to learn from these entrepreneurs. Thanks for sharing, very inspiring reading!

  15. carolyn says:

    as a (very) small business owners, i find these stories SO inspiring. thank you for sharing!!

  16. Jess says:

    Love hearing other entrepreneuer stories! Thanks to all who shared.

  17. claudine says:

    I often think of my life lived backwards… the ‘what would I tell myself’ line really helps to put things into perspective… and keeps my eye on the prize – running your own creative business is truly a “life lived” in my books! Many thanks for this great read :) cc

  18. Phoebe says:

    Thanks for the post! As a very small business, I can identify with a lot of the doubts they mentioned. Thanks for the inspiration!

  19. Thanks so much for including us with such an inspiring group.

  20. Emily Henson says:

    These are such great little interviews, Grace. I particularly like what David Stark says about order being crucial to freedom. As a creative person I’ve always found it really hard to handle the business side of things as well. Partnering with a business brain is essential. Thanks!

  21. Wonderful post! Gives me hope for my newborn interiors business!

  22. Thanks for posting and thanks to everyone who shared!:) All this advice is both encouraging and challenging– good stuff to know!

  23. This is a fantastic round-up. Thanks so much for putting this together! Vena Cava’s ANALYZE, Jonathan Butler’s BREATHE and Jon Sherman’s GUT were really inspirational.

  24. Anna says:

    I love these Biz Ladies posts- thank you for another great one.

  25. I needed this article! We are opening our vintage furniture showroom in 9 days. The to-do list is endless, and we have to sometimes stop ourselves and take a deep breath and focus. It’s hectic and scary, but most of all FUN! Can’t wait to share!

  26. all great advice. so inspiring to someone (me) who’s going to be starting her own business too! love biz ladies ;)

  27. What a fantastic post!

    This has given me a boost of encouragement to keep my focus, keep learning (and making mistakes!) and enjoy every step along the way!

    Thanks for sharing biz ladies.

  28. these posts are always a major help. thank you. viva biz ladies!

  29. Great advice – a very motivating article! Thanks Guys :)

  30. Excellent post – I like that one of the common themes was the unexpected magnitude of positive feedback many people had to an initial idea. And the flip side, that positive feedback to a creative idea isn’t enough to sustain a business.

    We a similar experience in many respects – we were approached by a large nation-wide retailer to re-start our company and sell to them exclusively – which certainly qualifies for “how we got our start” and “what we did right and wrong”. What I would go back and tell myself – “this is going to be a LOT of work, with ups and downs, and will require me to learn, try, stumble on and execute things I couldn’t foresee at the start. But as Joy says at the end – work hard and it will pay off in the end.

  31. I loooove this post! Such amazing insight from so many incredibly talented artists! Thanks for the continued inspiration!

  32. Marina says:

    Great post, excellent advice. Thank you!!!

  33. Wonderful post! So many great tips to take away and come back to. It’s so great that so many designers mentioned being true to yourself – something I will take to heart!

  34. Ingrid says:

    I thought this site had a copy checker?

    1. grace says:


      yes, it does. but we’re human. just tell us what you’re seeing and i’ll fix it.


  35. Jenn says:


    Thank you for this fabulous post! I am just about to launch my venture- a dream a long time coming. Hearing the fears, trials, and joys from these established and inspiring businesses is exactly what I needed right now.


  36. Alicia Jimenez-Q says:

    Inspiring post, a friend and I decided to go into business together and yesterdays Design Sponge’s email also listed a business post. I see it as a sign from the God’s :) Thank you.


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