This month marks the 13th birthday of Design*Sponge and I’m feeling, personally and professionally, both the weight and the wonder of those years. The first five or six years of Design*Sponge flew by in a flash. The Internet was booming, blogs seemed unstoppable and most everyone I knew was hopping online to talk and share ideas about home, creativity and this blossoming community. But, like everything in life, things change. Industries change, systems grow, burst and topple, and the way we do business (and life) seems to be rapidly evolving — and demanding more of us — at every turn.
I’m working on an updated State of the Blog Union post for next week, but today I wanted to take this 13th birthday to stop and look around. To remember what this all felt like when it was just me on my lunch breaks blogging about recycled felt furniture; to look at what I’ve learned and what I wish I’d known going into this job that turned into the career I never knew I wanted (or could have). So for anyone out there looking to start a blog, podcast, magazine or any other business that might go on to become your career, I hope these lessons learned can come in handy in building a place that you love for years to come. xo, grace
The biggest thing I wish I’d known before starting Design*Sponge is that starting a business at the age of 23 and expecting it — and you — to look and act the same 13 years later is ridiculous.
I’ve always admired my favorite restaurants and family businesses that (appeared to) stay the same over the years. That consistency and knowing exactly what I would get every time I walked in the door was what I always wanted to replicate in anything I built. For me, trust and being trustworthy meant staying exactly the same.
But what you know, like and believe in evolves as you get older. And for me, I’m thankful it did. My viewpoint and tone of voice at the age of 23 was precocious and needlessly snarky. But with that style came a community of readers that expected more of that. They enjoyed the look of the blog, the heaps of product content (sometimes posted at 2am so I wouldn’t “get scooped,” SMH) and the idea of calling out other people for what I embarrassingly deemed “copying.” I know, I don’t know why anyone stuck around then either.
But thankfully over the years my voice changed. I learned to talk a little bit less, make room for other voices and opinions and styles and to take a back seat when I needed some time to deal with difficult personal moments. Those moments of change were not, and continue to not be, easy. I wish I’d known that change was okay and inevitable, but that it wouldn’t be like the movies one day when you wake up and makeover your wardrobe and everyone says, “Grace, was that you all along?” People don’t always like when you change, so grinding through that time period and trying to find self-assurance when you’re still figuring things out can be hard. So give yourself, and your business, a break when changes are happening. You will lose readers/customers/fans who want you to stay the same forever, but in exchange you will gain a greater sense of self and hopefully connect with others who know what it’s like to grow into something or someone new. And that feeling is worth more than X amount of followers any day.
When I started Design*Sponge I was fresh off of 16 years straight years of school life, during which I’d convinced myself that if I did everything perfectly (Ha!) no one could hate me. I wasn’t popular in school so I figured if I got straight A’s and followed all the rules at least no one could dislike me. Boy, was I wrong. I learned later on that people thought my “intense studying and no social life” decisions was me conveying how much better I thought I was than everyone else. Sadly, I still carried that concept into my work life and felt that if I tried really, really hard to do everything perfectly, no one would start message boards about how much they hated me.
But I never actually did anything perfectly (and still don’t!) and people still write me to this day to tell me my “face is stupid” or that I’m a horrible person for getting divorced or that they’d punch me in the face if they saw me on the street or that (my all-time favorite) they, “hope I cry myself to sleep in my Marimekko panties.” That still makes me laugh every time. I seriously hope Marimekko designs a line of comfortable hipster underwear. I would wear the heck out of them.
It wasn’t until I realized that people would always dislike me for a wide range of reasons (some valid, others less so), that I decided to stop worrying so much. Do I want to be kind and compassionate to everyone in my life and community? Absolutely. But beyond that, I recognize that it’s impossible to please everyone and be everything to every person. I don’t know if I could have actually accepted that at the age of 23, but if someone had told me more often I might have let go a little earlier.
When you run your own business, it can be easy to assume every decision is a personal one. Someone moved on to a new job? They must hate me. Someone decided to share their home with a different site instead? Clearly I’ve deeply offended them in some way. An ad campaign went to another person in the running? I’ve got to rebrand and start over because obviously something’s majorly wrong.
I’ve gone through all sorts of paranoid moments in my career when I forgot to remember that for most people, you’re just a co-worker or a friend or someone they got to know through the Internet. Their decisions rarely have much to do with you and if they do, they’ll probably tell you. This is not to shirk all responsibility for one’s behavior, but over the years I’ve learned to trust that people will tell me if they’re upset — or that I’ll be paying close enough attention to notice the hints they drop. So while it’s true, some business decisions are personal, usually they have more to do with business and that’s okay — it frees you up to make decisions based on business, too, and not intend anything beyond that.
If I had a nickel for every time a person (usually an older white man) sat me aside early in my career to tell me how I needed to a) get investment money b) hire a CFO c) stop paying my employees as much or offering them healthcare or d) quit and work for someone else because my business couldn’t “scale” fast enough, I’d be a very wealthy woman. And while I’m comfortable and able to pay my bills and so thankful for that, I’m much happier knowing that I’ve done my best to choose my team and their comfort and job security over growth for the sake of growth.
In full transparency, I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking about what I would do if we did have VC money. Oh, the guest writers I’d hire! And the raises and bonuses and perks I would offer my writers and editors and long-time co-workers for their dedication and talents. But that’s not our situation. We are a small, independent blog that has two full-time employees (just me and Caitlin) and does its best to make ends meet while paying our writers as much as we possibly can. It’s not easy (more on that in my State of the Blog Union essay next week), but having the power to say “yes” or “no” to ad campaigns or partnerships or editorial decisions without having to run it by other people for approval is a wonderful feeling. I wish I could combine that feeling with greater financial stability, but for now, we’re making it work and I’m beyond proud of our small team and what we’re able to do.
Some people will think success is all about numbers and money and awards, but for me, it’s about what we will leave behind at the end of the day. And right now I’m proud of the work we’re doing and the efforts we’re making to change our site for the better and continue to evolve and grow at our own pace. It doesn’t make our business any less valid, loved or important.
One of the weirdest parts of being someone who works online is being in a position (a position most of us put ourselves in, I know) to live out some or all of your life in the public eye. Not Beyonce-level public eye, but enough that people in your community will have an opinion on who you are, what you do and how you share that online. It’s easy, painfully easy, to fall into believing the version of yourself that lives online. Because most of us present only the best parts of our life. So if you believe that version of yourself, you’re leaving a lot out.
I understand why most of us don’t share the full story — because oftentimes when we do, people attack, criticize or editorialize as if you’re not a real person. And no matter how thick your skin is, it’s not fun to spend most of your day reading about how people think your hair/face/clothes/dog/house/business is awful. Finding that balance where everything seems “just relatable enough” is impossible. I tried, naively, but then gave up. When was that? I wish I could say year two, but it wasn’t until last year, year twelve of running Design*Sponge.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes that I gave up trying to play a part I never played well anyway. With the full-time job of managing a chronic illness on my plate I finally stopped worrying about being the least appropriately dressed person at a work event (sorry, sound guy who thought I, “shouldn’t wear jeans on stage”) or having the “right” haircut or shoes or vacation destination or hashtag or “brand extension” or whatever… none of it seemed important anymore (and it never really was). Letting all that go meant letting some people down, and that’s an odd feeling (I’ve actually had people tell me that they were “disappointed” to find out I’m not a) wearing pink b) so “serious” or c) not into the same blogger trends they thought I’d be). I do my best to share as much of my full self online as feels appropriate and safe and respectful of the people I share my life with, but I’ve come to accept that there will be parts of me (good and bad) that will never go online and mean that no one really knows the full story. But that reminds me of something even more important: that means I don’t know anyone’s full story either. So the people online who I follow, love or pay attention to aren’t sharing their full selves either and that means we can all remember to cut each other some slack and know we’re doing our best to share what feels okay at the time. I much prefer loving and accepting all of the complicated parts of people rather than the 2-D shiny versions of themselves.
I’ve struggled a lot with falling in love with a niche of the world that I felt, for a while, wasn’t contributing anything serious or deeply substantial to the greater needs of people in our society. I fell into narrowly defining design and my own design blog as purely aesthetic pursuits. I thought to myself, “Well, wallpaper never saved anyone’s life” and fell into a spiral of thinking I needed to change careers and fields if I wanted to contribute something substantial to the world. But thankfully I learned that that was misguided and narrow-minded thinking.
In addition to the realm of engineers and designers designing products that provide housing and shelter and food/water sources for those in need, design has the power to get people talking and discussing the way in which we create safe and welcoming spaces. And what I’ve most enjoyed about the past few years is being able to have those conversations about even deeper topics like race, immigration, religion and cultural appropriation. Those topics feel “too heavy” to some (I was told to stop talking and just “post pretty pictures” last week, which felt like the digital version of someone telling young women to “smile more”), but to me, they’re one of the ways in which design can facilitate change and meaningful conversations about what happens in and around our homes — who we welcome in, what our boundaries are and how best to share the resources we have with those in need.
Starting out, I was fully infatuated with the aesthetic and surface nature of design, but once it started to feel limited, I panicked. I wish I had known then that it would be my duty and my job to work on finding those connections (they already existed, I just needed to join the conversation already happening) between design and world issues to find an entirely new love and joy for the work I am fortunate to do every day.
Last but not least, this final lesson is one of the biggest I wish I’d known when I first started. It’s so easy to get caught up in 5-year plans and the pressures of people asking you “what’s next?” when things appear to be going well. It’s never enough to just enjoy what’s happening now, it seems like there always needs to be MORE. But I wish I’d known that was wrong — all wrong.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with cherishing the heck out of the way things are right now, and taking time to soak in all the joy and learning and friendship and excitement and all the complicated feelings that come with running a business. If you get to do something you enjoy with people you like and also pay your bills with that? That’s a pretty great situation. So don’t worry about what your business will look like in five years. Maybe it will become a huge empire! Maybe it won’t! Either way, if you run things with a careful head on your shoulders (don’t overspend as if you won’t have a business in five years) and take care of yourself and the people who join you in your work, you’ll be running a business you’re proud of.