Photo by HomePolish
One of my earliest Design*Sponge memories involves a bit of unsolicited advice I received from a fellow design blogger. He pulled me aside at one of the first professional events I ever attended and said, “You’re making a HUGE mistake with how you’re running your ad program. You’ve gotta hire a guy to help you — and don’t worry about courting the little guys. Indie companies can’t pay.” I remember feeling shocked (I would later learn not to be surprised when this sort of thing happened) — and then wondering if I was doing everything wrong.
Over the years I’ve had a number of people “pull me aside” for a bit of unsolicited advice – usually about how I was doing everything wrong and how they were doing it right and just wanted to let me know. Sometimes that advice was rooted in truth (yes, I needed a better accountant), sometimes it was rooted in someone else’s truth (risks are easier when you have a lot of money to fall back on), and sometimes they were rooted in, well, not much at all.
Looking back, I’m grateful for some of the advice that people shared — because it helped me define what I didn’t want to be or how I didn’t want to run my business. And it reminded me of an essential truth (for life and business): everyone’s goals and needs are different. And most importantly: what works for one person may not work for another. So today I wanted to share 5 pieces of unsolicited advice I received again and again over the years that I’m glad I ignored — and what I learned from it.
- “Don’t Get Close to Your Team — They’re Not a Real Family.” Every time I’ve spoken at an industry event, someone has felt the need to remind me, with a worried face, that I seem “really close” to my team. They seem surprised that we know about each other’s personal lives and that I often take that into account when issues arise and people need support or time off. But in my experience, being close to our team and getting to know them as people (not just colleagues), has been one of the greatest rewards of working at Design*Sponge. It’s been challenging to figure out how to walk the line between friend/family/colleague at Design*Sponge — and I haven’t always done it well. But in my experience, even the stickiest moments have been worth it, because it means that at the end of the day, our team feels supported, appreciated, open, and close to each other. So many people have told me that I should “maintain an air of separation” or “make sure your team knows who is the boss.” And while I agree it’s important to be a clear leader and set boundaries, I think it’s possible to be both an empathetic person AND a clear leader. Does that mean you won’t run into issues now and then? Of course not. But for me, getting to know our team, supporting them in their work and dreams, and getting to actually connect with each other has been a gift. Seeing everyone support each other in tough times, visit each other outside of work and stay in touch beyond blogging has warmed my heart like nothing else.
- “You Should Really Get Married — Brands Will Feel You’re More Reliable.” I will never forget this statement. Ever. I remember where I was (Balthazar), what I was eating (Eggs Florentine), and the feeling of white hot anger that shot through my body like it was yesterday. I was having a friendly breakfast chat with a fellow blogger and he pointed out that if I was to get married (this was prior to my first marriage), I would see a huge change in ad support. This blogger had a feeling that I was coming off as “too young” and “too unsettled” for larger brands to want to invest in me. And that if I “made it official” I would see brands come running to back me and Design*Sponge. I repeated it out loud, “So you’re telling me you think I should get legally married in order to make more money” and him nodding, as if it was a totally normal thing to tell someone to do. No matter how you feel about love and marriage (and divorce), never let someone tell you to make a personal commitment just for the sake of business. Also, just an FYI, I did get married a few years later and I didn’t see any brands change their minds or suddenly come running with offers.
- “Focus On the Big Guys — Indie Biz Will Come and Go.” Most of the unsolicited advice I received over the past years was about how I run my team or how we’ve run our ad program. And I’ve ignored pretty much every piece of it. The thing I heard the most from people re: our ad program was that we “spent too much time focusing on the little guys” and not enough time “playing nice” with bigger brands. Caitlin has spent years perfecting and honing our ad program to do the best we can to make sponsorships and partnerships doable (and successful) for smaller independent businesses, and I am so grateful she has. Those business owners ARE our community. We started as a site to celebrate handmade and small-scale business and we will close up shop with the same mission at our core. Did taking the time to support those business owners mean we couldn’t work with larger companies? Of course not. But did it mean we got to actually understand what small businesses needed and how to better support them as an ad partner and as a fellow design community member? Absolutely.
- “Put Yourself Out There More! / Put Yourself Out There Less!” People have always told me, alternately, that I was putting too much or not enough of my personal life online. And to be honest, both camps have had good points at one time or another. I certainly learned how much was too much when I was going through a divorce and coming out and trying to process all that internally, but I also learned that not sharing anything personal for a while can lead some readers to feel disconnected or like I’ve pulled away. I understand both ends of this spectrum and feel like I’m always navigating my way toward the middle of that scale as much as I can. I think sharing parts of our personal lives online can lead to meaningful connection and representation, but it also opens you (and your loved ones) up for criticism and editorializing that can be hard to handle. So for me, listening to my gut about what feels right has always been the best guide.
- “You Should Sell Design*Sponge.” I talked about this a lot on the podcast episode I did with my wife Julia last week. Over the years, a lot of people have reached out to talk about when I would be selling Design*Sponge, not if, and for how much. And they would respond with shock when I would say I wasn’t interested. Since the beginning, Design*Sponge has been my most cherished creative project. And 99.9%** of the time I’ve been happy for it to stay that way (**listen to the podcast for more on that 0.1% moment). I never wanted to see this space turned into something it wasn’t intended to be — and I worried about how something so special to me could possibly be turned into something that didn’t match our values. That’s not to say that there couldn’t be a world where DS could be sold and still stay true to our goals, but the chances felt way too high to me to ever risk. I’ll never forget a meeting I had back in 2010, I believe (also at Balthazar, where apparently all my awkward meetings took place), where the owners of a now HUGE mega site (though it was much smaller then) took me out for a chat. I had no idea it was coming, but they opened quickly with an offer to buy Design*Sponge. I politely declined, moved on to a new topic, and they looked at me like I’d sprouted another head. I told them it just wasn’t something that I was interested in and well, let’s just say that friendly coffee meeting ended quickly when it was clear that what they thought would be an easy sale didn’t turn out to be one. Selling is right for some people. It’s also not right for others. And both are okay. I’m glad I listened to my gut and that we’re able to end on a note that feels right for us.