EssayLife & Business

10 Things People Don’t Talk About in Business (But Should)

by Grace Bonney


As I head into my 12th year of blogging and business here at Design*Sponge, I find myself craving more “real talk” in business. I want to hear from people about when things didn’t go as planned, or when they found themselves up against an unexpected challenge. I want to know about the nitty-gritty and the times they fell down and what they learned from it all. I learn best from my own failures and have always shared them here in hopes that others can learn from them (or avoid them altogether). But being vulnerable isn’t easy, and it’s not something that comes naturally to most of us, especially when the current online trend is to present a nearly perfect facade of branding and business. But we all know that at the end of the day, we’re all real people and we all make mistakes and there are topics that even the boldest of business gurus don’t want to tackle publicly.

So today I want to talk about what some of those are for me — the things I’m uncomfortable talking about and the topics no one wants to touch with a 10-foot pole. Things like firing people, working with friends, dealing with money and how to know when to walk away. Those aren’t things that have a one-size-fits-all answer, but they’re topics that get easier (and feel more universal) when we share them openly. I’m going to go into more detail about all of these in future posts, but today I’m sharing 10 of the biggest issues I’ve faced in business that I wish people talked about more. Have a story to share? An issue you want to see discussed here? Let me know in the comment section below and I’ll tackle it here. xo, grace

Hiring is as important as firing (and both are hard): The topic I’m always most afraid of, more than money or taxes or competition, is dealing with hiring and firing. First, hiring anyone is a huge deal. Not only are you committing to paying someone for a set amount of time, but you’re signing up for managing them and both setting expectations and holding someone to them. And when those two things don’t go well, you may find yourself in the situation where hiring turns into firing. I have never fired anyone and felt good about how it went. A huge part of that is my struggle to speak up clearly when warning signs pop up. I try to assume the best of people and have, in the past, been prone to both avoiding difficult discussions and letting people walk over me. I want to run a business where the boss is compassionate and understanding, but I also know that worrying about that too much has led me down a path of very difficult situations that end with negative financial impacts. What do I wish I knew earlier? It’s simple: I wish I had remembered that as soon as you hire someone, you sign yourself up for the possibility of having to fire them. So you need to imagine both and get a good contract in place to deal with both. Speaking of which…

Tough contracts are your best friend: I just made a huge mistake this summer with contracts, proving that after 12 years, I still haven’t quite learned from all the earlier blunders I’ve made by not reading, or writing, contracts closely enough. I have lamented spending a lot of money on lawyers for contracts but when things get sticky, boy am I glad that I did. Like good fences, good contracts make for good working relationships (or neighbors, in the case of fences). Defining clearly what each party expects from the working relationship, and in return, is absolutely a necessity. Sure, handshake deals work out sometimes, but when they don’t, they can end badly — in a way that could have been avoided. So always (always) take the time to make a contract you feel comfortable with, that both parties understand, and that has a clear “out” clause you both agree to. What do I wish I knew earlier? To speak up and be patient when a part of a contract makes me uncomfortable. That has always come back to haunt me, so when you feel nervous about something, listen to your gut and consult a lawyer.

Being friends with employees is a challenge (and it’s okay not to be): One of the greatest joys of my life has been working alongside some of the most incredible people in our community. From full-time editors to part-time writers to our incredible in-house advertising/business team, the people I spend most of my day talking to online are the people I often feel the closest to. But that can be a tricky line to walk. I’ve made the mistake before of letting personal issues cloud my business judgement (and the other way around) and it was a hard reminder that boundaries have to be set. There will always be a part of me that believes there are exceptions to this rule (I consider some of our long-term team members to be my family and that will never change), but overall, it’s been hard for me to remember that as much as I want to be BFFs with all the amazing people we work with, sometimes you have to be the boss and that comes with decisions that won’t make people “like” you. And that’s okay. What do I wish I knew earlier? You can’t make everyone like you. But you can treat everyone with respect and care. The latter won’t ensure the former, but it will ensure that you feel good about the working experience your team members have.

Tell, don’t ask, people what you want: Speaking of decisions that may make people not “like” you… I spent the first 11 years of Design*Sponge politely (with way too many smiley-faces and question marks) asking IF people wanted to do the assignment I needed them to do. It led to confusion for our writers and team and to the idea that there was no real system in place. It wasn’t until I had a real wake-up call about how that was affecting our team and their understanding of what was expected of them that I realized I had to start telling people what I needed, rather than dancing around that request like a question. What do I wish I knew earlier? That what I saw as “asking nicely” and “being open minded” was really just confusing my team, who needed clear, strong guidance and vision.

People who do the same thing aren’t automatically competition: Too often women in particular are told that we’re competing with each other. It wasn’t until a good friend encouraged me to run toward the feeling of jealousy and fear, rather than away from it, that I started seeing that people who did exactly what I did, or things I wanted to do, weren’t people to avoid, but instead people to vocally and passionately support and stand up for. The wonderful thing about the Internet is that there is room for all of us, and even advertisers like to spread their money around, so the idea that there can only be ONE person succeeding in each field is just silly. People who do what you do and do it well should be admired, appreciated and looked to for inspiration — not as a source of competition. What do I wish I knew earlier? Not to assume that because someone’s life/business looks “perfect,” it must be. Everyone is human, everyone could use another friend or support system, and no one is too “big” to approach to consider a new partnership or friendship.

Learn from and run toward the things that make you scared: One of the things that gets spread around online in the interest of “pep talks” is the idea that you should stick to what you love, what you do best and forget the rest. But the rest includes a lot of important things that will help your business go far. If you’re not good at something, try a new way of learning about it that forces you to at least get a bit more comfortable with it. If you’re not great at photography, take a new class! If you’re like me and were terrified of public speaking and interviews, start a podcast or event series where you have to get used to those things. Too often we’re told to stay in our comfort zone (or “in our lane”) in a way that keeps us from learning new things and growing at people and businesses. Run toward what makes you nervous — you’ll be glad you did. What do I wish I knew earlier? That I will continue to fall on my face and make mistakes well into my career. I thought that after a few years that would stop, so I became more and more cautious with my risk taking. But risk taking is what sets you apart and helps your business grow and learn and change. So accepting that mistakes happen, but that growth and learning comes from them, has been huge for me.

There is no such thing as work/life balance: You know that whole “she’s got it all” idea? That doesn’t actually exist. No one has found that “perfect balance” because it doesn’t actually exist. After interviewing 107 women at the top of their game for my new book, I realized that whether you’re new to your business or have been doing it for 40 years, there will always be a see-saw effect with life and work. There will be days when your personal life suffers, and days when you need to choose life over work and your business suffers. But you know what? You will always be there to redirect when you need to and if you stay in touch with yourself and the heartbeat of your business, you’ll know when you need to put more time and energy into either. What do I wish I knew earlier? That evvvveryone feels like they’re out of balance. It was so refreshing to know that even the people who have the finances to have nannies and assistants and huge teams still feel like they’re not getting to spend 100% of the time they want on work or life. And that’s okay. It’s impossible to be in both places at once, but both of them will understand as long as you check in and keep checking in to see how both are doing.

It’s never too late to say you’re sorry: I did an entire radio show on this topic and the idea that women are often taught it’s better to try to be “perfect” than to learn to say you’re sorry and admit something went wrong. But I am over that. Why don’t people ever talk about the times they truly messed up and had to eat crow? Or the times that they made a mistake that hurt their business? Those things happen a lot, and understandably, they’re hard to admit. But admitting them and airing them out lets you take the sting out of them and realize that everyone does this. What do I wish I knew earlier? That a sincere apology goes a long way. It was hard for me to get used to the idea that I couldn’t make everyone happy (or make everyone like me) all the time. And accepting that idea meant accepting that I would need to give some sincere apologies when things didn’t work out the way I hoped. And learning to apologize (not unnecessarily, but when truly called for) has been an important part of my personal and business growth.

Sometimes when your company grows, you grow away from the part you originally loved: I hear this talked about in the food industry all the time, because the more successful you are, the more you’re pulled out of the kitchen to be on shows, podcasts, do special events, books and promotions that take you away from your passion and into the business/marketing/promotion part of your business. And you know what? That’s okay. Most small business owners (including myself) take great pride in having a hand in, or total control over, every aspect of the day-to-day life of our business. But at a certain point, that stunts the (even slow and gradual) growth of your company. Your business needs you to take time to step away, think big-picture, meet with people who can help you scale and grow and take your company to the next level. Even if your goal isn’t to sell your business or turn into a household name, you will need to spend time away from the original “passion” part of that project to focus on the business end. I felt so much guilt about this for years until I realized that anyone who would truly be angry and walk away from my company because I couldn’t answer every email personally within two days wasn’t someone I needed to win over. What do I wish I knew earlier? That delegating and focusing on the overall direction of my company was just as important as answering emails in a way that spoke to what I felt was the heart of my brand. You can teach someone to share and project your brand’s way of communicating (it will take time, though), but it can be done. It’s much harder to teach someone to share your brain and come up with the long-term vision for your company. So delegate those emails and social media if you need to make room for working on the long-term health of your business.

It’s okay to walk away: Okay, this is my final topic for a reason. No one wants to talk about when to end something. We all hear about people selling companies for huge amounts of money, or taking on investment funds and then sitting back to collect a salary, but the truth is, most businesses usually end or are handed over quietly. Not everything ends with a fanfare and not everything ends the way your audience — or even you — may suspect. But most importantly, no one can tell you when it’s the right time to close your business. I’ve seen friends take businesses from the brink of bankruptcy to profitability on sheer drive and grit alone and I’ve seen friends walk away from profitable businesses because their heart wasn’t in it. I’ve seen friends walk away from businesses because their interests changed, they had a new health challenge, or they wanted to focus on raising a family and doing something else closer to home. There is no right or wrong answer and if you feel it’s right to close the book and move on, that is 100% okay. What do I wish I knew earlier? Very few people will encourage you to end something if it’s still making money or has the potential to sell. And I understand why. But at the end of the day, the most important decision is what makes you, your family and your health the best. Everything in life has a time and a season and when you feel that you’re ready to move on and try something new, know that you’re not alone and that your life can have many different stages, phases and identities. Embrace them all with love and respect and you will go far.

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  • Grace, I hope this isn’t your way of saying that DesignSponge will be no longer because if it is, it will be missed!

  • Hi Grace
    Congratulations the success of your amazing book.
    Here is something I think about. It is not a new issue but social media has intensified it. Do we know the person behind a business? Social media is such a powerful tool for building and promoting a business. A person/business can show us only what they want and they can control comments, buy “likes”. Number of followers is taken as a measure of credibility and number of followers opens doors because someone else wants to gain those followers. Pretty pictures are passed around and that becomes a form of advertising but do we really know what we are endorsing? Sometimes yes, but we are also risking endorsing use of social media over business practice, ethics, community involvement.
    Thank you for being willing to tackle challenging topics.

  • Thanks for sharing this, you’re right being honest about what didn’t go right is hard. But it’s where we learn the most. Too often we edit out the bit about what went wrong in order to almost sanitise the advice we give, but that doesn’t work. Not only do we do ourselves a disservice it also sets a false expectation that everything goes right all of the time and we learn things magically without having to do it the hard way. This has given me a lot to think about and take on into my own practice – thank you

    – Natalie

  • Thoughtful advice that works in business and personal life! Thanks for sharing. Also–Happy Anniversary! Much love and joy to you and Julia!

  • Grace, thank you so much for publishing this essay here. These subjects are difficult and nobody wants to talk about them or share them, but I believe they are the best piece of advise you can give to anyone. It’s not all pretty and easy, especially the beginnings.
    Thank you,

  • Great post, great list, and a great reminder that we all struggle from time to time. Also, completely in agreement about a good, heartfelt apology. A skill to master!

  • I’ve always believed that naming our fears/insecurities takes away their power over us, so thank you for this transparent and inspiring essay. I was nodding along with every paragraph and sending you a few virtual amen’s. Although I am only in the second year of my business, I can relate to each of these experiences in my personal life as well, and they are wonderful reminders for us all to have more grace for ourselves and others. Thank you for sharing, as always.

  • Thank you Grace, I love this. I especially love this part: “It’s never too late to say you’re sorry”. We actually ask this as a standard interview question where I work: “Talk about a time when you made a mistake in your career; how did you move forward?” It’s so telling to see how people answer that question, sometimes with funny stories, and how many can’t think of (or won’t admit to) an example. I know I can! I also struggle with being friends with my employees… it’s not easy but I agree it can be done!

  • This is really great! After 6 years in business, I’ve definitely felt/experienced a lot of these and often felt I was alone in them. Also, I love your blog- I spend many too-late-nights looking at all the beautiful stores and homes!

  • Thank you so much for being willing to share this wisdom in a vulnerable way, Grace. It’s honestly just super encouraging and timely for me. It’s a relief to get a peek behind the scenes and know that we, our businesses, our lives are all constantly in process. You are a huge encouragement, and I can’t wait to dive into the book. The panel discussion I attended left me totally energized and encouraged. (I think I’ve now used “encouraged” 80 times…I guess that solidifies my point on how awesome this essay is ;))

  • Grace, thanks for sharing all of this info so candidly and opening up this dialog for real talk.

    In your future posts I would love to hear your thoughts on pivoting and changing direction in business, or those times when it’s best to scrap what you have and start over.

    Congratulations with the success of your lovely new book and thanks again for sharing.

  • Hi Grace,
    Your post reminds me why I prefer to be an employee with clear guidelines in a large organisation…or to be a sole operator and avoid all the messy people management bits. I start in a new government role in a couple of weeks and yesterday was sent about 18 pages of documentation to sign off on first.
    How many fulltime, part time and freelance staff do you manage at DS?
    I,m looking forward to reading your new book. I have placed an order.


    My ex-husband and I divorced ten years ago. When we divorced our business went bankrupt. We shut over a hundred stores. We told hundreds of employees and friends that we would no longer be offering them work. My life was in shambles, it was a shadow of what it had been only a couple of short years before. And there I was, consoled by family who stood beside me, in solidarity, as we told our colleagues and friends that our business was finished. So many friends encouraged me to move on. I remember, pretty clearly, something I told my son, “Be the most you that you can be, that’s what the world wants.” And I realized that this business was me, it was something I had built and sweated through and cried through and fought through. I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t stop there. I was determined to rebuild. I never knew then that rebuilding would reveal a success I had yet to achieve.

    People talk about come-back stories all the time. They want to hear how things were at their most difficult, and how you managed to get through it. The truth is…I don’t know. I don’t know how I, we, made it. Heart? Dedication? Support? I think it’s a bit of all of those, a big stew of positivity and effort. But what about when you don’t come back? What about when you get up on your feet only to fall in the mud again? Success isn’t just about how we reached the business and financial mountaintop. That’s too narrow. The substance is in striving. The emptiness of financial achievement rings hollow when we compare it to the experience of pushing beyond your limits and opening yourself to the beauty of our temporary lives. Success is about how many times we kissed our grandkids with love and tenderness. Success is about the courageous kindness we used to provide for someone in need. Success is about how we loved the world and allowed it to love us back. There are lots of things that pluck the strings of fear in my chest; company finances, vendor relationships, family in business, and I agree it’s important to name those and process them. But here’s the thing; when the world gets crazy and the future becomes uncertain I can always control a legacy of kindness, an influence of charity, and an endowment of creativity. Because, for me, that’s being the most me I can be and that’s what the world wants…

    With love and gratitude,


    • Grace the article was for me an endorsement of the conclusions we reached to after a few years in business.

      April, absolutely agree with you, its about striving and not giving up, not about reaching….what is the mark any way “x” no of stores/units, “x” no of dollars……… loved loved how you concluded, am sharing with all my family & friends..

      • Shema, thank you for your appreciation! It’s such a big conversation and I love Grace’s attention to it. Again, thank you for your note.

  • I love these unspoken issues you wrote here, esp. about “People who do the same thing aren’t automatically competition.” There are those who think that way and act accordingly, and there are those who are wonderful & kind. I encountered both, but have kept in touch with the latter. Life is too short to not be kind to others :)

    Thank you so much for the article. :)

  • Thanks for this post Grace. You’re right, these are things that people often don’t discuss and many people wonder about. It’s also great that you respond to the comments, which allows these topics more of a discussion on your heart-felt and carefully considered thoughts. I look forward to the next post in the series. It’s a nice counterpoint to the (also wonderful) Life and Business posts.

  • Hi Grace, thanks again for sharing your thoughts. I can really resonate with “There is no such thing as work/life balance”. People kept telling me that it was possible to have it all and it made me felt like I was doing it all wrong… that I have focussed too much on business while losing the other important things in life. But I’m sure I know more than anyone where my heart needs to be. And now, when I read your article, it made me feel a lot more confident in my decision. It is truly okay not to have it all… and that made me smile. Thank you, Grace.

  • So much wisdom here, Grace – and so beautifully written. Also very timely, particularly about walking away. This is something I’m seriously considering after 11 years as a solopreneur. As you point out, I’d be walking away from a successful, profitable business because my heart’s no longer in it, I’m not growing personally, I have no desire to scale the business, and my life (and subsequently, priorities) have changed.

    I won’t lie – I shed a few tears reading your words about walking away. It truly hit home – and is exactly what I needed. I’d love to hear more from people who have made this decision, particularly when their business was doing well but was no longer serving them.

    As always, thanks for your transparency and commitment to keepin’ it real.


  • The lack of “real talk” is why I’ve drifted away from reading the weekly “Biz Ladies” posts. (Though I wasn’t a huge fan of the name change either…made it feel…less ambitious.) The interview always asked some variation of “describe a failure and what you learned from it,” and the answer was nearly always some variation of “I don’t see anything as a failure.”

    But the fact is, a lot of small businesses end up not able to sustain themselves, and they close. People lose their livelihoods and end up in debt. It’s the real situations mistakes that could jeopardize a businesses viability that I’m most interested in learning about…but that people avoid talking about in these interviews.

    So yes, I hope this essay marks the start of incorporating more of this perspective into the “biz” content on the site.

    • I was thinking something similar, Mosan. I still read and appreciate the columns, but I started glancing at the responses to the questions about mistakes/failures, and if I saw that sort of answer, I’d skip to the next response. I totally understand and empathize with the reasons people say things like, so I’m not faulting anyone for it at all! But I found that the interviews that spoke the loudest to me, the ones I was bookmarking for future reference, were those where the interviewee admitted to specific examples of mistakes and failures. There’s something very powerful about that, and the bravery it takes to be that vulnerable. It connects in a totally different way, and I found reading those accounts way more helpful and empowering than a vague admission to past mistakes with the usual “spin” (however true it may be) we’re all conditioned to put on them.

      Grace, this was so helpful to read, and I’m really excited to read more. Yet again I appreciate your willingness to push these discussions in a braver and more honest direction.

  • This is such a great post, Grace! Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences and advices! I could take more and more of this kind of posts!
    ps. I loooved your podcast with Garance Doré & Anna Bond!
    pps. I have to get your new book!
    ppps. Thanks for being such a great source of inspo for the last 12 years!! (I guess, I’ve been reading you for 10 years!! woow!)

  • Hi Grace! I’m a new fan of yours :) just jumped aboard this year. And this post has to be the most honest one yet. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m definitely sharing this with others!

  • Dear Grace;
    I haven’t got the time to read all of your post (and the numerous replies already now) BUT I have ‘earmarked’ it and sent it to my personal mail in order to read and re-read it, go over it again and again – because I believe you have touched a very important bit of ‘doing business and living life’ – Thank You so much; this is important to me because for some time now I follow your blog as much as I can and although I live in France (after Switzerland/Canada/UK) and therefore, many of your ‘addresses’ don’t apply to me, I am eager to inform myself and take joy in reading about your uploads and of course, their creators, their stories behind everything and the inspiration/exultation/enthusiasm they pass on.
    THANK YOU for everything. May it last long, may your book be a huge success… Lots of love from your Swiss reader Kiki

  • On balance: I completely agree. We have three children under six, we run a design firm, and I’m in grad school working on a phd full time. I heard the best advice the first day of grad school: stop thinking about balance because it doesn’t exist. Instead just focus on the next most important thing. I maintain sanity (if not balance) by keeping the big picture in mind but focusing on just the next thing. Sometimes that’s meeting with our accountant, sometimes it’s putting the kids in bed, sometimes it’s reading for class, sometimes it’s pushing work aside for an hour after the kids are in bed to hang out with my husband. I have so much more work and children now than I did when I was working full time in a job I liked, not loved. But at that point I was constantly stressing about the thing I wasn’t currently working on instead of just focusing on what I needed to give energy to at that moment. It was a revelation to me that balance was the wrong way to think about life.

    By the way, I am looking forward to reading your memoir in thirty years. Put me on the preorder list now!

  • Perfect timing for me to read these amazing and profound tips and considerations. Sending over a heap of heartfelt gratitude!

  • Hi Grace and all,
    I commented above about an issue that I would like to see talked about.
    I have one more – health insurance. I am a self employed woman. I have not struggled with the things that Grace has written about and have been able to talk about them with family, friends, other self employed people and also people who are not self employed.
    I do struggle with how to pay for health insurance. It is the greatest expense, the thing that causes me to loose sleep and the thing that will put me out of business. The Affordable Care Act, although it has accomplished some good things, is not good for the self employed. It could be good for self employed people who do not make much money. But if you start to make enough, what you are worth or enough to send your kids to college, you have to pay so much money for horrible insurance that you go backward instead of forward. And you can not afford to get health care for your self or your children. I worry about this not only for our family but for the future. This keeps people in jobs they are not enjoying or suited for because they get benefits. And that hurts us all. It keeps people from doing what the are good at and holds back unknown amounts of creativity because people are afraid to go out on their own with out benefits.
    I have found that if someone is not self employed that have no idea how the Affordable Care Act works. They just know the talking points.
    Not sure what to do, but I am going to get started. This is a huge issue.

  • The last section was especially poignant for me. I have several side hustles that I do to fuel and feed my creativity and hopefully make money off of, but every day – hell, every week, every month, every year – isn’t a success. I’ve been reading more and more about this idea that it’s okay to walk away and I really, truly appreciate when people as accomplished as you share that sentiment. It enables me to take a deep breath and remind myself that I am a success and that I can try new ventures and move on from other ventures and it all goes toward this one big journey I’m on.

    Also, I have been reading your book and love it. Thank you for that too!

  • Oh boy does this one hit. I had a contract with a marketing/PR person for our business. And yet, it still didn’t matter, she didn’t do the work. We kept paying her, thinking I was too far along the road with her to give up now. Surely her promises of our work appearing on Oprah – I kid, but not really – would be realized, but to make this happen we had to pay, each invoice a ransom note for something already gone. And, I ignored the warning signs, that were there from the beginning. In part, because she was recommended by a valued friend. Now, we’re in a tight spot. And, I’m in the position of begging her to do something, anything, just to make it seem a little worth it. Because she has the thousands (tens) paid her, and we have nothing. It’s been an expensive lesson. A painful one, too. I ignored warning signs, blinded myself to truths because of the friend connection and because I was desperate for this to work, and didn’t make the contract explicit enough. Too eager to please and be well-liked has led to an expensive (for me) boondoggle (for her). So, thanks for writing this!

  • I really struggled with filing and paying my sales tax and I felt like a huge failure for my inability to juggle that tast with all the other tasks involved in my business. Finally I went to meet with someone at the tax enforcement office for help and saw another business owner I really looked up to on the sign in sheet. We never talked about it, but it made me feel so much better to know I wasn’t alone in my struggle!

  • This was a really great read. I’ve been a D*S reader for nearly a decade. I started reading right after I graduated college and was starting my career. I came for the design inspiration but I have stayed for the life tips and how D*S weaves design with life. So much more than “here’s a pretty rug” and I think that’s what sets you apart. Thank you for continuing to push out quality and consistent content after all this time. I’m not sure many people can really wrap their heads around what a truly great accomplishment that is. xoxo

  • Hi Grace,

    I started following Design*Sponge in high school and have loved seeing it evolve. I attended a recent book tour event and this post covers a lot of the areas addressed in the panel. In the panel, and in this post, one thing I haven’t seen discussed are, perhaps for lack of a better term, financial privilege and wealth endowment (if I’ve missed any interesting articles on this please let me know!). People acknowledged the cyclical nature of income when working in a creative field but what other sources of income help themmake it through those tough times? I think Design*Sponge does better than some outlets in providing accessible design, but I haven’t heard a lot of discussion on the business side acknowledging how people finance their initial endeavors. In some ways creative industries are unique in that the lifestyle and brand become synonymous. The resurgence of crafts and local goods on the retail side relies in many ways on people with higher incomes, and it seems important for creatives to cater and fit in with the lifestyles of the well-off and Instagram famous, if you will.

    According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average salary for craft and fine artists is $45,000, and I think what I see is a disconnect between the wealth it takes to maintain the lifestyles that I see from creatives and the probable income derived from these creative endeavors. I am lucky to have financial resources, but after recently furnishing my first apartment it was a shock how much everything cost, especially without access to a car or family near by to take advantage of the Craigslist and vintage pieces often toted as budget options. I think I would appreciate an acknowledgement from people along the lines of “I support my creative pursuits by also working part time in retail”, “because of money and connections I received from my family”, or “from the financial support of my partner”. I think people with privilege worry that their accomplishments will be discredited if it seems like they started with a leg up. In this regard, I also think Design*Sponge is in a unique position with such a loyal following to really gain an understanding of the role and extent of financial privilege in the creative community.

    • Hi Natalie

      Thanks for bringing this up- it’s actually something we discuss in most of our recent Life & Business posts and it’s a big part of our new book, In the Company of Women, and the accompanying book tour. If you have any specific issues re: budget/salary you’d like us to tackle just let me know and I’ll get on it :)


      • Hi Grace,

        I have seen the question along the lines of “Where did you receive financial funding for your first business?” in the Life and Business posts, but I just still had some larger questions. I usually get more interested in measurement. I have read some articles on the creative class, but the definitions are usually very broad. I list some questions below, but overall I think the gist of my post was that I think Design*Sponge as a platform is an interesting combination of information to consumers and to producers creative content, and although they are not always mutually exclusive, I think measurements could offer tangible insight into the state of the creative community and acknowledge possible areas for improvement.

        Questions: Income characteristics of the creative class – particularly with breakdowns by race, education, gender identity, location. What are their educational backgrounds? Educational and wealth backgrounds of their families? What are the income levels and other characteristics of the neighborhoods they are from? What are the income levels of the neighborhoods they move to (particularly to understand trends of gentrification)? Where are they clustered? What are their incomes, their household incomes and how does that compare with their total household wealth (which would be derived usually from family wealth)? What portion of income is derived from their creative pursuits and what is from their day job? How do these characteristics compare to those of Design*Sponge readers who are primarily consumers of design?

        Yesterday was a tough day for me, as I believe it was for many people. It felt a little weird composing this now, but it has also been nice to distract myself with thinking of ways to measure the true state of things.

        • Hi Natalie

          I think a lot of this might be too personal for most people to feel comfortable sharing, but we will definitely ask people about their income breakdown (I think that’s an important one to discuss if people feel comfortable) and education. I know the general income and education levels of our readers based on statistical data we have access to (the accuracy of which I’m not 100% sure about), but I don’t know which of those #s correlates to creatives who are reading, versus being featured here.

          I can tell you from our book research that there are definite clusters of creatives in metro areas of all sizes. They tend to spread out more in rural communities, due to the nature of housing developments in the city vs. country.


  • One of the absolute best and heartbreaking stories of a late apology comes from Amy Pohler in her book, “Yes, Please”. I listened to her read it and it was quite a lesson. So brave of her to share.

  • You cannot imagine how valuable this information was for me to hear. I’m contemplating starting my own business within the next year and your post addressed so many of what I’ve thought. I know my product, I know the quality, but all the other business stuff? This is a practical list with practical responses and solutions. And for that, I thank you.

    I’ve bookmarked this post to come back and read again when things start to change for me and I feel that the information will be just as valuable then as it was today. Thank you.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have read several of your articles now regarding creative careers and being a business owner, and they always seem to evoke a great big sigh of relief. Thank you for being so open and honest, for helping me to see that there is value in making mistakes, and for fostering a sense of community among creatives, and especially for the last section of this article. I will be going through a career transition this year, which I will inevitably question every day; so, I am going to save this article and read it during those moments of doubt.

  • Hi Grace – great blog! I love reading two stories from The Company of Women every day as part of my morning practice. Although I have just stepped up to being an entrepreneur in 2016, I have had a long corporate history of both hiring people and letting them go. I’ve lost sleep and stopped eating over firing people, but at the end of the day my father (entrepreneur and CEO of a large company) taught me that people fire themselves. When you “see the signs” you should talk it through with them. If they don’t heed that, then the conversation is one they have asked to have. I repeat that to myself every time I have to face that situation. It’s always tough but it really is true.

  • Hi Grace, This was a really great read. when I read your article, it made me feel a lot more confident in my decision. Thanks you

  • Hi Grace,

    Thank you for this great post. All of the things you named have come up in my business and it gives me solace to know you (and others) have had similar experiences. Your articulation and clarity is a true gift.

    An addendum to the portion of Walking Away and Work Life Balance, I find the daily experience of struggling with needing to say no – when to say it, and why to say it. I am so grateful to be asked to participate in a plethora of opportunities. Though question how to strike a balance between the bottom line (money) and opportunity. Invitations arise from interviews and teaching opportunities to collaborative dyeing projects.

    I often times feel if I say no to someone, I will lose out on an opportunity. Or perhaps if only I can add a few more hours to my day, I can make it work, hoping to avoid disappointment of others or a loss opportunity for my company. I have found even the time it takes to discuss if something is a good fit can drain hours of our day. And sure enough my work life balance (or any simulation of such a thing) suffers.

    To try to gain more clarity around this quandary, at Verb, we have worked diligently (and will continue to as I think it is ever evolving state) to clarify our vision, and to create goals which will lead us to that vision. We have stated a clear amount of time willing to be spent on debating whether it is a good fit. When invited to do something, if the answer is not clear, we visit this list of goals as a team, and see how closely in alignment our goals are to the invitation, and give an answer in the most efficient amount of time possible.

    I am curious to know if you have run into the same quandary and how you have gone about working through it.

    Many thanks!

    • Kristine

      It sounds like you have a really good system in place! Having a clear mission and a team of people to run through questions with is definitely something that can help make these situations easier to work through.

      I run into these issues a lot, too, generally around the idea of participating or judging events/panels/lectures, etc. For me, it boils down to: is it worth (financially or emotionally) the cost of traveling away from my family and work (because time away from work costs money and time). For me, most things aren’t financially worth it (as very few event series pay people creating content), but emotionally is where I get hung up. Working with students and non-profits means a lot to me. When it comes to situations like those, I typically ask if their timing is flexible to see if I can add their engagement onto another trip that is already being covered or taken for work so I can try to avoid an extra expense.

      But something that really helped me was a few years ago, when I found out the person running a conference that I had gone above and beyond to attend (bought my own ticket, bought my own travel/hotel, wasn’t paid for my talk), was complaining about how I “should have promoted them more” behind my back. It really hurt and it was an eye-opening moment of, “Anyone and everyone can (and sometimes will) be disappointed by you no matter how hard you try.” That may sound pessimistic, but for me, it was a much-needed reminder that I cannot (and should not) try to control everyone around me by doing what I think they need most. I will always treat any offer/opportunity with respect and kindness, but no matter how hard you try, someone may be disappointed.

      Instead I started to focus my energy on just putting out work I was proud of and accepting that what I needed and what my business needed and what mattered to me was important- not more important or less important than anyone else. Not everyone will understand that their needs aren’t your top priority, and that’s ok. Just keep doing good work and treating people with respect and they’ll realize that “No” and “Yes” aren’t personal judgements and realize they’re just a part of life and work.


  • I am an architect and my husband is an engineer , we left our fields thinking we can make it in the restaurant world. We failed. Second year in the business and money flying from our pockets , stress , managing staff , late nights and a never ending product purchase list.

    We found out its not meant to be and we are better off closing the business , paying our pending supplier receipts and just go back to design .

    We are still in this process , not yet fully closed , but the failure for some reason didn’t feel so bad after all . Yes we owe people money , yes we wasted 2-3 years of our careers years into a field not meant for us , but now letting go is very refreshing and freeing. Thank you for the beautiful blog and articles , and instagram account . Keep em coming we need them!

  • This is wonderful and incredibly useful advice, Grace. I recently finished your book and rank it on my Best of 2016 list. I doled out the stories a few each night so as to savor and let them sink in. So many dog-eared pages. It’s so nourishing to read about the REAL challenges of business and to see that we all face the same issues. Over the course of my 20 year career, I’ve been a consultant, a creative director for a startup and now I’m a cofounder and CEO of a brand agency. What I’ve always longed for is a community of women, and I finally feel like I’m coming in to that. Your book has played a huge role in helping me feel more confident and less alone. Thank you for doing this, and sharing the real, scarier parts of business.

  • Thanks so much for posting this Grace! It’s so nice to see others thoughts and struggles are all truly similar. We’re all in this great big boat…I run a calligraphy business, am a papermaker and own a small shop and feel like something is always suffering-whether it be health, personal or business. It’s a balance I have yet to master and at least hope to have a better grasp on. It can Thank you for your blog and for sharing the tough bits of the creative and small business.

  • Love you Grace. I always seem to find your writing at just the right moment in my life. Or maybe, I look for it, knowing that you always have sage advice ;) xo S

  • Dear Grace, you took the words right out of my mouth. I wish that more people will read your article, so that
    B2B will become more easy and in the end more fun for business partners. I sometimes have the feeling, that some business partners are just waiting for you to make a mistake; to point the finger at you or even worse to beat down the price of your work.
    Throughout the years of making business I have learned : if you are not 100% happy with a deal and the “win win” situation is not totally clear – don’t do it! But it takes some time and you have to gain experience and as you sad, we can not shield ourselves in future, not to make any mistakes – but probably cope better with them. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your most probably biggest fan from germay :-), Yvonne

  • Grace. You are one of the very few online voices I respect and whose words I always carefully consider. I really do think of you as a mentor of sorts. Respect, intention and care – three lessons I have received so far from you. I look forward to many more. Thanks You

  • Hey Grace, Thanks for your insight and wisdom. I’m at the beginning of my career with ambitions to move up, and it’s SO helpful and heartening to hear your advice. I hope I can take these words to heart. Thanks for sharing.

  • Grace! Thanks always for this kind of thing. During 13 years in business, I’ve: fired a friend while we both cried, became so stressed doing her job temporarily that I started clenching my teeth and needed to wear a mouthguard at night, signed a contract I KNEW was one-sided and paid hard for it, hidden from scary business-building things, felt really stressed out that I couldn’t take care of a baby and a toddler and run a business smoothly, resisted (then loved) being “just the boss” who doesn’t do any client work.

    I still cringingly ask my employees if they want to do certain tasks instead of just telling them to get it done (hi, guys!), and I recently trusted someone’s warm friendly voice on the phone enough to spend $9k on a bad service that took forever to get out of. You can’t get me down, though; I’ve learned a lot from each of these things and I’m determined not to repeat my mistakes.

    We put SO much time into hiring now! It’s exhausting and very thorough, and I hope it will save us from the bad firing end of it.

    Grace, I think you would be interested in the Radical Candor idea — it’s a head-smackingly “of course!” concept that helps set everyone up on your team for success. We’ve been talking about at Aeolidia a lot lately: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/radical-candor-the-surprising-secret-to-being-a-good-boss-1113686406

  • GRACE! Yes. Nine years in now and I’m learning these lessons over (and over) again this year. Also, I’d add, apparently we all have to learn these lessons a zillion times?

    We have a rule in the company that you don’t do clients favors, because there is some weird thing in human psychology where wen you give a client something significant for free as a favor, they stop valuing you and end up screwing you over somehow. But the joke is that we learn the rule the hard way once EVERY DAMN YEAR. And every time we’re like “AGAIN, REALLY, WHY? I thought we learned this already.” But no. We’re never done. Partially because I think we all wish the world didn’t work that way. Partially because… at least around here we never learn things once? We just learn it a little better each time.

    In the same way I wish I could be friends with all my employees, in a BFF way. But I can’t. And I have to learn that so often.

  • The topic of walking away is such a personal one. I quit a relationship even when other people thought it had potential to work. Why? Because it wasn’t working for me. I’ve resigned a job when other people said I was crazy. Why? Because my sanity was more important than potential joblessness. sometimes, the only opinion that matters is yours. Yes, definitely seek and take good counsel but at the end of the day, make your own decision.