Photo by Sarah Deragon
This week’s Biz Ladies Profile is of sfgirlbybay founder Victoria Smith. In 2008, Victoria decided to transform her blogging hobby into a full-time gig and jump head-first into the business-owning realm. Today she reveals the lessons she has learned and the advice she has received along the way. Thank you, Victoria, for sharing your business journey with us! — Stephanie
The full interview continues after the jump . . .
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I didn’t really decide to start a new business — it kind of chose me. I started sfgirlbybay in June 2006, as just a hobby at first — it was never meant to be my “day job.” I was a successful art buyer and ran a creative department at an advertising agency for many years, and I left that steady, reliable position to head into this thing called a “blog” that I had to succeed at all on my own. I did both for two years before I ultimately quit my job in 2008.
I’ve always had a love of photography and interior design, as well as writing, and the blog seemed to encompass everything I was passionate about, so it just kind of blossomed. It’s still that — I love curating inspiring and interesting posts to share with people who share a similar aesthetic.
As I mentioned, I didn’t really decide or make a business plan. It happened quite organically. My whole life has been that way, though. I’ve changed careers many times, and mostly by happy accident. I’ve pretty much followed my instincts all along my career path. I started out by getting my advanced arts degree in interior design but didn’t do well in the sales aspect of it, working in a design showroom. I’m a horrible salesperson. So then I was invited by a friend to work in advertising. I thought that would be glamorous, and it was anything but at first. I started as a receptionist and moved my way up to art buyer, running the creative department. And now it’s all circled back around into design again, but writing and curating about design on the blog rather than actually working as an interior designer. I find this much more fulfilling and satisfying creatively.
I think readers like and respect authenticity, so I knew I wanted to find a creative way to share my point of view on the blog and remain as unique as possible. I sometimes have a quirky view of the world and of design, and I didn’t want to be afraid to share that. I think that authenticity will always be my driving force. And I also think it’s possible for anyone who’s willing to work hard (it’s a full-time job for sure!) on their blog to succeed. I think you need to have a very clear vision of who your audience is and to share what you’re most passionate about, and perhaps most importantly, speak from your heart and in your own voice.
All of this is sounding like I fly by the seat of my pants, and I suppose I do, so perhaps it’s not the best business advice! But it’s all the advice I really feel qualified to share. However, I think all of those experiences help me day to day on the blog. Having an eye for art buying helps me identify great imagery, and my interior design background hopefully helps me edit and share good design with the readers.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting out?
Well, again, I hate to sound like the most ill-prepared or least business-savvy person out there, but I wasn’t really given any advice until way after I started the blog. The blogging community, and actually Grace in particular, was really supportive of me, and I felt very welcomed. Grace and I shared some Thai food and a glass of wine one evening at my house, and she sat down with me and helped me suss out my creative strengths and an editorial calendar of sorts. She helped me identify which features resonated most with my readers and helped me focus on those kinds of posts — I think we named “Unexpected Guests” that evening — the home and studio tours I share regularly.
I heard this Zig Ziglar quote recently from Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day! that really resonated with me: “The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want right now.” I think that’s really powerful advice because it’s so easy to fall into a trap these days of accepting everything that’s offered to bloggers. Sponsorships and freebies may seem really tempting, but they’re not always in your best interest. Follow your gut instincts — you’ll know in your heart if something doesn’t feel morally right to you, and you should pass on those kinds of offers. A free pair of shoes has a price tag, and it’s an expensive one — it’s called your credibility. It’s more than fine to have sponsors — that’s why it’s called a business — but be transparent about it. Be honest with yourself and your readers.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
I think it was really just my own fear. I was nervous about making a living and sustaining a career. I still get nervous — I’m an older blogger and didn’t start until very late in life, so I worry I won’t be able to keep up. But I have always bounced back from difficult times, and I think I always will.
This is more of a heartfelt lesson than anything else, but I would say it’s to be as unique and as individual as you are. Don’t copy others, find your own voice and share what you love. When people see something unique and genuine and a voice that resonates with them, they will follow. Just create something that’s all yours. I also share a lot of my own home, and while that can be a little disconcerting at times, I think the readers really like stepping inside my personal world — so don’t be afraid to share that side of yourself.
Also, save your money before you jump in head-first. I made a considerable savings from the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters I used to sell in my Etsy shop. I put all of those earnings into my savings account before I quit my job in 2008 to blog full-time. I had an income to lean on in case the blog failed or didn’t earn me a living. And I knew I could always go back to my career in advertising if I had to. It’s good to have a fallback plan if for no other reason than that it helps you to feel that much more fearless. And having a savings to count on may help you feel less tempted to take on a sponsorship or projects that really aren’t right for you. It helps you hold out for those opportunities that fit you and the brand you’ve worked hard to build.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
I don’t think I’ve had one particularly memorable failure, but I do think I’ve had some missed opportunities because I was too afraid to put myself out there. I’m a little bit camera shy (I like to say I’m the J. D. Salinger of bloggers and like hiding out behind the Internet). I probably could have had more success had I put myself in front of the camera a few more times, or spoke at a conference or two that would have introduced me to new opportunities. I am not comfortable in those situations and really think my strengths lie “behind the camera,” so to speak, because maybe that’s where I am most rewarded personally. But it would be interesting to see what could happen if I pushed those fears aside now and then.
I think I would have to say it was my collaboration with Ben Silbermann, one of the founders of Pinterest. We met at the Altitude Design Summit two years ago, and he told me about this “little” site he was developing. He was one of those people with so much joy and enthusiasm for life, I just felt compelled to check it out. And when I did, I could instantly see what a unique tool it was, a great device for sharing, and for me, an insanely helpful blogging tool. I use it to pin things I want to share later on the blog, and I design “rooms” or pinboards for myself from pieces that inspire me and that I might like to try down the road. It’s the perfect tool for me, because I can never remember my traditional bookmarks, and this is a visual bookmarking tool, so it’s all right there in front of me, and it links back to the original site where I discovered it, so I knew it would be helpful to other bloggers, too.
So Ben and I talked more about introducing other bloggers to Pinterest and came up with a twist on Blog It Forward, a previous event I’d hosted, and we created Pin It Forward as a way to introduce a whole community of bloggers to this great visual bookmarking tool. For my part of the collaboration, I had a readership to share that was perfectly suited to benefit from what Pinterest had to offer. And Ben had a great platform for bloggers. So we invited 300 bloggers to each create a pinboard of what inspired them most, post it on their blogs and then link to, and virtually pass the torch on to, the next blogger. Kind of like a blogging chain letter, which also turned out to be the perfect collaboration for new bloggers hoping to gain more readership and connect with other bloggers. So I love the sense of community and inspiration that came from this collaboration with Pinterest, and I love seeing them succeed.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Consider what’s unique about your business idea. Think about what are you bringing to the table that no one else has delivered thus far and really focus on that aspect.
2. Have a fallback plan and a savings account to get you through the slow periods because there undoubtedly will be times where money making shouldn’t be your main area of focus. It’s best to build slowly and grow your business over time, and assess your strengths and weaknesses and then fix them. Invest in yourself before spending all those earnings. I appreciate that I’m very fortunate to have enough success that I can sustain a living doing exactly what I love to do and support myself. It’s truly taken my life in a whole new and very rewarding direction, and I get to live creatively every day, working for myself, which was ultimately the goal.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and learn to delegate. I am the worst delegator ever, and I think if I could learn to do that, my life would be a whole lot easier, and I’d have a lot more free time. I’m working on that one. That’s my goal for 2013.