Biz Ladies Profile: Victoria Smith of sfgirlbybay

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.

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

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.

Photos of Victoria’s home in San Francisco, CA. Designed and photographed by Victoria.

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.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

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.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

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.

Rose Duggan

Thanks so much for having Victoria Smith on the blog! I just wanted to say I’m taking a website design course right now and spend so much time on sfgirlbybay to learn what great design is.

jane

Thanks for this great interview with Victoria! She has been one my favorite design bloggers since the beginning. I love getting her take on the business side of things and her story of collaborating with Pinterest was fascinating.

quintessence

Great post – totally relate to everything Victoria said! Insightful, honest, refreshing and intelligent – authenticity and originality is where it’s at. Thank you!

Laura

So inspiring-I love her! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to get out of my day job, trying to figure out if blogging is something even remotely plausible as an eventual career-this gives me so much hope! Thank you so much for this interview and this column in general.

laura redburn

very inspiring! i think, if nothing else, to do what you want you need passion and sincerity & it will take you a long way. as well as hard work and hopefully a bit of luck!

joanna

I love your blog, Victoria! Glad you’re featured on Biz Ladies. I am curious as to whether you have any advice about starting a blog in 2013. Do you think the design-blog market is over-saturated or still has plenty of room to grow? I’d love to hear a seasoned blogger’s take!

Sarah - Art of Decor Blog

That’s really inspiring…a great piece of advice for the newbies in the blogoshere. That will really help a lot of new bloggers who try to copy the voice of others or are impatient to become successful.

Nomadic D.

What a great interview! Victoria is one of those people that is like a bright light in the blogging world, one of the great and inspiring success stories. So wonderful to get a bit more of an in depth view into how it happened and how she thinks. Thanks!

Jesse

This is a great & really helpful interview! The timing couldn’t be better. I follow both your blogs (D*S as well as Sfgirlbybay) and am often inspired/encouraged to keep going on my own. I think what really resonates with me is the “saying no to sponsorships & freebies” I see SO many blogs with the constant giveaways, and the 3,000 comments to enter & it’s easy to feel… small? Not sure what the right word is there, but you hit the nail on the head. My favorite quote: “It’s best to build slowly and grow your business over time, and assess your strengths and weaknesses and then fix them.”

Thanks for this interview, I enjoyed reading it!

Beccy

I’m very new to blogging and I’ve found this very inspiring. What a lovely person, with what sounds like great advice, I like that. Be honest and true to yourself. Thank you.

Judi Powers

Love this woman. Found myself saying me too. me too. I am not a blogger but a by the seat of my pants owner of two businesses that I have built slowly over the years, finding out along the way what works for me and also listening to my sweet clients.

Victoria Smith

Thank you all so much for the lovely comments!

Joanna – to answer your question, I think there’s always room for everyone’s point of view, and I think the trick is to share your own unique voice – how you see the world. There’s only one ‘you’ so think about what you want to share and focus on that.

patricia

I am a big fan of Victoria Smith and her blog. I have been reading her since the beginning
and have always admired and appreciated her honesty and sense of humor. And in a world of younger bloggers it is nice to know that there is someone out there that gets me the slightly older reader and for that I am grateful.

brenda

Victoria’s blog was the first one I ever discovered. I have been reading her posts since the very early days. I never even knew what a blog was before that. What a beautiful interview and lovely insight into her life. Perfect timing as I am about to make a leap into the unknown and open my own business….inspiring interview !

Victoria Smith

thank you so much to everyone for taking the time to read and comment. it’s always so inspiring to hear your thoughts and perspective on the blog!

Alissa Mathison

love, love, love her! Totally authentic and original. I’ve been following her since 2006 and it’s great to see her succeed. Thanks for the great interview!

Moira

Awesome advice. Thank you, Victoria, for your candid insights on blogging, collaborating, delegating, and saying “yes” to having your photo taken. You are endlessly inspiring.

Joan O'Connor

Victoria has inspired me so often with her humor, generous spirit, insightful assessment of design, and her “heck-I’ll-give-that-a-shot” attitude. So much energy! So much humility for someone who is leading the parade when it comes to expressing yourself and creating a biz using digital tools. Bravo, and thanks, Victoria! This is a wonderful interview, and the questions bring out so many aspects of your work and personality.

Cattie

very inspiring. I’ve been juggling a full time job, a freelance photography business, Etsy shop and a couple of blogs for several years now, and I have major burnouts on a regular basis (and can still not live on the income from all those things but have to keep my job). My goal for 2013 is to “figure it all out” and finally turn all my hobbies (because they are, when you’re not making a living from them, or putting your entire being into each project, I think) into my full time job(s). It’s a huge boost to see that it is in fact possible to do so. Thanks for a great interview!

Trina Cress

I loved what you shared about growing a business slowly, over time. So much in our world is fast-paced, and we’re led to believe we should be a success today and shouldn’t rest until that happens. I don’t like that mentality and love your subtle encouragement that it’s okay to slow it down. Thank you.

Lisa Anderson Shaffer

Thanks for featuring sfgirlbybay. Great advice from a truly lovely and talented woman. We are so lucky to have Victoria as part of San Francisco’s creatives. She inspires!

eLIZabeth Floyd

“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”

Love this! so true and so helpful to hear from someone as successful as Victoria.

Liz

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