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Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. You know, one of my favorite parts of this job is the fact that I get to talk to incredible people who are doing the work that they were born to do. And today I’m gonna introduce you to a woman who is doing exactly that in this digital era and she has one of the most beautiful and popular design blogs on the web.
Grace Bonney is the founder of Design Sponge and the author of the best selling book Design Sponge at Home. Grace is passionate about supporting all aspects of the design community from up and coming designers to seasoned business owners. In 2007 she founded a scholarship for young designers and in 2008 she started the Biz Ladies series to help support and grow creative businesses. Grace also hosts a weekly radio show, After the Jump, where she interviews artists and designers and discusses larger business issues within the creative community.
Grace, thank you so much for being here today.
Thanks so much for having me.
So you fascinate me. I love your blog, I love your business, and I know that you started Design Sponge over 10 years ago now. Right? What was the original inspiration when you first started?
Honestly it was not seeing the things I wanted to see represented in magazines or on TV. I had just moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2003 after college and was so in love with all of the incredible independent design happening, people making things by hand. All the things that are sort of passe and normal now, like yarn bombing, all that stuff was… felt very new then. And I was taking photographs and I kept expecting to see it in magazines and it wasn’t showing up. So I decided that it seemed to make sense, just write about it myself if no one else was writing about it. And this was sort of pre Domino magazine, pre Lani, and like that whole community, so I think it was a good time to be doing that because no one else was really sort of championing the handmade community.
So it was a passion project.
Yeah. It was something that you just loved and you were like, “I wanna see this online. Let’s make it happen.”
Yeah. I think that’s how all great things start. I think if you start with like a business in mind at first it makes things operate from a very different place instead of just saying, “I love this. I can’t wait to talk to other people who love this. This is the only reason I’m getting up every morning.”
I mean, that’s how I started life coaching, for sure. Before I could figure out how to build it into a business, I was doing it when I was like 17 so I totally relate. So you ran it yourself, Design Sponge totally by yourself for 3 years before you decided to bring on others. What was that decision process like and is that when it started to feel like a business?
Weirdly, no. It didn’t feel like a business until pretty much every other magazine closed. Basically in 2008, 2009 all of the sort of home and design magazines like threw up against a wall and everyone freaked out. Domino closed, House and Garden closed, Blueprint closed, all of these like sort of bastions of cool, independent design just fell apart. And I realized then that magazines, which I always thought was my end goal, because here’s this traditional, sort of sustainable, safe job that I can hopefully work up to, that became clear that wasn’t going to be the safe place anymore. And at that point the site was running really well, it was supporting me half time, and I thought, “Ok, well, this is the place to invest, to hunker down, and to make this really, really work.” So I would say probably in 2009 it felt like a real business, but back in 2007 when I hired everybody it was really sort of a… what I always think of is like an anti Martha move where I… Martha Stewart is always my idol of everything but I didn’t love the way that I felt like the editors there didn’t get the sort of credit and attention that they deserved. Because no one person is an expert in every topic, and I’m certainly not, so I hired people in the interest of having people who were experts in topics that I didn’t know about, whether it was gardening or DIY or food. So the first people I brought on were all people who knew about things I didn’t know about.
And were they friends of yours from the magazine world or were they just friends that you met out and about or did you actually, like, put out classified ads or do something to go find them?
No, they were internet friends. They were the first sort of OG generation of internet friends and people I just found who were also blogging, who I sort of heard of through friends of friends. Lorik and Derek Fakersom who were my DIY editors used to work for Todd Oldham and they opened a store in San Francisco and I just knew of their store and they lived and breathed DIY, so they were the natural fit to hire somebody like that. And then Christina, who’s been my food editor since 2007 who lives in Rome was running an incredible Italian design blog and was writing about food and architecture and we just clicked and we’ve been working together ever since.
That is so cool. And did you find it… because I know for me when I hired my first person and then more people, I sucked at it. I was not good at all and I felt really insecure. I’m like, “I don’t know how to be a boss.” Did you have any of that when you started to grow?
I still do. I think that’s the hardest part of my job. I think I’m naturally like a solo act. I think I tend… I’m an only child, I prefer to sort of work by myself. Although I love working with people that I admire and who I think make me work better, and so I’ve always wanted to work with other people. But it’s really difficult to tell to somebody who’s also writing from a place of passion and excitement that they need to do it better or that they need to do it differently. That’s a really difficult thing to do, especially when it’s someone that you’re friends with. So that’s an ongoing struggle and something that I think I sort of work on on a weekly basis.
Yeah, it’s… for me, I find that my business has changed so much when I found people that so complement my strengths because there are so many things that I am not good at.
Yeah, and those things will always continue to grow and change.
There will be years where I’m really on it and really great at sort of being, like, the person who says no and knows when to sort of hire the right person or let the person go. And then there’s a year where I get overwhelmed with all the things that we’re doing that are new and different and I kind of fall back on that. So it’s always a sort of checks and balances thing that I have to constantly be aware of and work harder on.
So overwhelm is an amazing topic I think for all of us, especially in a digital space. And a while back there was that New York Times piece about blogger burnout and I know you have a great perspective on it. We can sometimes in our company, we don’t do anywhere near the volume of posting that you guys do. What’s your perspective on blogger burnout? How have you been able to over the years manage the high quality that you guys produce all the time?
I think that the first step is just to accept that it’s inevitable that everyone will be burnt out at some point. It might happen every year, it might happen every other month, whatever that cycle is, it will happen. It doesn’t mean that you’re not doing the right thing anymore, it doesn’t mean that you should change jobs, it just means you need to figure out what’s not working and accept that that’s… that had its moment but now you need a new system to deal with things. And so for me that’s meant either hiring a bigger team, sometimes totally downsizing and having a really small team to sort of focus on writing more and less on team management. And so it’s just always about changing and right now I think it’s very much a less is more game for me and so I’m investing platforms that I really enjoy personally. Like I’m obsessed with Instagram and so I’m putting a lot of time into that because…
You guys do great, by the way.
I enjoy it and it’s meant spending less time on Pinterest and Twitter and Facebook and other things that are important to be a part of but I’m not enjoying in the same way. And I think when you don’t enjoy something, your readers know. They can absolutely tell it in the tone of your voice, when they see you. Everybody can tell when you’re kind of phoning it in. So at a certain point I realized the voice in my head that was saying, “People will be upset if you don’t post 10 times a day,” that’s just my voice. No one else is telling that to me. So I just started dialing things back saying, “Ok, I’m gonna post 4 times a day and if anybody gets mad at me then I’ll explain why.” But for the most part we’ve been scaling back and noticing that people are talking more and they’re happier to have fewer posts that are a bit longer and more personal and are more focused and engaged. And I mean, I would want to read that from all the sites that I follow. So it sort of was a hard place to get to, but I think now that I understand it. I hope I can sort of tell other people how to get through that same space because all the bloggers I’m friends with that have been in the design community for the last 10 years, I think everyone’s hitting a wall right now where you have to be on 10 different platforms at the same time and it’s… it’s exhausting.
It is. We’ve made some really conscious decisions in our business, you know, different friends are like, “Oh, man. You’ve gotta be on this, that, and the other thing,” and when I really take a look at who I am as a human being outside of business and how I want my life to be long term, we’ve actually made some super conscious choices to not be in places we’re “supposed” to be and it’s been so liberating.
It’s both liberating and terrifying because, to be brutally honest, I made a huge mistake with Pinterest. I had a real issue with some of the stuff that was popping up, people were taking photographs that weren’t theirs, they weren’t crediting them, and photographers were getting upset, the stylists were getting upset, and I just decided I don’t support this, I don’t like this idea so we’re not going to do it. Cut to two years later and now there’s a billion people on Pinterest and that was a terrible business decision to make. But it’s a good example of like there are gonna be some times where you don’t join something and it doesn’t matter at all.
Then there will be times where you do join it and you have to play catch up to get back there. But it doesn’t mean that your business ends. It just means that you might have to play catch up every now and then and if that’s the worst thing that happens then, by all means, you should be following your gut. And then also just accepting that there will be bloggers and podcasters and whoever that are younger and have more energy and more time and it doesn’t mean that your voice is no longer relevant, it just means that there are new voices that are part of the community and we were all those new voices at some point. So I’ve sort of gotten to the place where I’m very excited that there’s a newer, younger generation of people online that can sort of take over that space that I used to love and now I can operate in a different space where I talk less but sort of talk about a different type of thing.
Yeah, let’s go there next too because there’s so many lessons you must have learned over these 10 years of doing what you do and all of the evolutions. And one thing that I read that you said was about, you know, just because you’re doing what you love doesn’t mean that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a job.
It does. Every day.
It’s a job. But it’s the greatest job ever and I think that’s… there’s a weird thing where people don’t wanna say, especially if they’re doing something like we do. We get to talk about what you love every day. You don’t wanna sound like that you don’t appreciate it or that you’re not grateful for it. Because I think all of us are incredibly grateful not only just to have a job right now, but to have a job that we really love. But there are still parts that are difficult, that aren’t fun, and that you have to struggle to make an easy part of your day to day schedule. So that’s something I always go back to is that it’s ok to be honest about the things that are difficult. Sometimes I think just saying things out loud and admitting what you’re struggling with, that’s half the battle. You feel so much better when you just get it off your chest and say, “I’m having a really hard time dealing with this type of ad right now and dealing with sponsored posts is really stressful and doesn’t feel natural to me. How are you guys dealing with it?” Having that conversation is both vulnerable, but also incredibly liberating.
Do you do that both within your team and some of your, like, treasured friends that are in the same space?
Absolutely. I mean, I think everyone has a core group of sort of colleagues and even competitors, in a sense, where you feel comfortable to have these conversations sort of within reason and I think the more people that you have that you trust to talk about those things with, the better. And for me if I have 4 or 5 people I can talk to about that, that’s kind of all I need to just stay calm and grounded and not go completely crazy when things feel overwhelming. But I think we all… we all need that core group of support.
I definitely do because, you know, it can get so insular and even in my own head I’m like, “Wait, I am so close to this I can’t see anything clearly.”
And there are moments when it’s good to be detached a bit because I think if you’re watching what everybody else is doing all the time it’s such a comparison game and it’s, “Oh, this person just did X, Y, Z. They opened a store. They are teaching classes,” whatever it is. And we think, “I should do that same thing now.” That’s not always the right thing for you, so it’s good to kind of go back and forth between being incredibly engaged and sort of plugged in and then pulling back and listening to what the voice inside of you says you should be doing right now.
As someone who loves design, I love design. You know, the websites that we have that are kind of like our digital homes. You know, over 10 years you’ve had a few evolutions not only in how the actual website looks but also your own personal taste, what you want things to feel like. Walk us through a little bit of that process. I know any time we change something like if we change something on the set, which we’ve changed MarieTV sets several times, but it’s like people are like, “Oh, no. I miss the brick wall. I miss…” and it’s just like oh goodness. But I keep having to come back for me going like, “Ok, well what do I wanna see? What’s gonna please me?” And knowing we’re gonna get the comments, and that’s totally ok. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and this is what we like, but I’m just so curious about your process and how making visual transitions, especially in the design space, how that’s gone for you over the years.
You just described everything that I’ve gone through over the last 10 years. It’s difficult and it’s a weird thing because you have to talk to people who’ve been like blogging or on the… on the internet community for that long to sort of understand the same thing. We’ve been through I think 6 or 7 different incarnations of Design Sponge now and I think visually we have made this sort of progression from being like a 23 year old when I started to being 33 now. And the way that I dress and decorate are completely different than the way I did when I was 23.
I have a question, because I experience this. Do you ever cringe when you see some of your stuff?
All the time. And I also cringe… I mean, there’s a certain amount of compassion I have for, like, my 23 year old self because I sort of had a big personal journey as well over the last decade and I think you look back at that 23 year old and I’m like, “Oh, God.” I was trying so hard to fill everything in my house and my sort of online life to be perfect.
And there was just a lot of stuff, so much stuff, and the site looked like that. There was a button and a banner in every section of the site. There was a ribbon and, like, a piece of fabric and stuff everywhere and I think that’s what people associated with Design Sponge and with me personally. And part of that was accurate and a part of that was just an attempt to sort of feel fuller than I think I did. And so as I’ve gotten older the site has gotten more and more pared down, but I think there was like practically a revolt when we gave up the old linen background that we used to have and I went to this current iteration, which is very dark and sort of moody and that’s how I felt and I wanted something that seemed totally different than super bright, texture, and people… I got a lot of angry emails for a long time about that. And we’re about to totally change again and I’ve gotten to the place now where I’ve just accepted that the people who are gonna hang around, they’re not here because the background looks like linen. They’re here because they like whatever it is we’re talking about. So I’ve just accepted that the people who are angry, at least they’re talking to you.
At this point I really love people talking to me, even if they’re telling me they hate whatever it is that we’ve chosen to decorate the site with. But I’d rather have conversation than no conversation at all.
Yeah, absolutely. For me it’s… I am from Jersey so I can use some really interesting language and sometimes I look at my earlier videos and I’m like, you know, like kind of like palm to the forehead moment going, “Wow, I was bold.”
Yeah, I do the same thing. When I started, I was such a jerk. I don’t know what… I was reading a lot of like political blogs at the time in 2003 and I was reading this one blog called Wonkette, which is this big DC sort of insider blog and she would sort of call people out all the time. And I thought, “Well, this is what bloggers do is they call people out.” So I set the whole left side of my site and I would be like, “Great job, New York Times. I don’t know where you found that thing that I just read about.” What was I thinking? That was, A, not the way I talk in real life, which is a terrible idea. But, B, just a horrible career move. I don’t know what I was thinking. Thankfully all those reporters have… are now friends and/or don’t hate my anymore, so that worked out ok. But a really good lesson to learn in the first year versus like the 10th year.
Yeah. It makes me chuckle and it… it’s so… it’s fun to be able to talk with somebody else who can look back at their history. Ok, so we have a lot of people in our audience who have this idea of, “I wanna blog. I wanna have a really successful blog,” and then my part comes in and I start talking about the business aspect of it, especially with our B-Schoolers. So out of curiosity, even if it’s broad strokes, how does Design Sponge make money? If it was like just, you know, revenue broad strokes. Where does it come from?
To this… up until this moment it’s still so primarily off of ad income but it’s so dramatically changed. Just in the last year and the year before that it’s sort of… all of the changes that print media dealt with with ads sort of going other places and prices plummeting, they’ve had like 20 years to get used to, if not at least just 10 years, have happened in 2 years for the online community. So we’ve really seen how advertisers look at web publishing completely change overnight. So they now no longer value traditional ads, the ones that you see blinking on either side of a blog. They just want to buy the actual post. They want you to hold up a product, they want you to write about how great that product is, and that’s now what we’re dealing with, which for me I have a really hard time with. So it’s meant that rather than taking tons of those ads to stay afloat I’m now going to diversify and do other things, which I always recommend to everybody. So I’ve been teaching classes, we’ve been, like, sort of prepping a product line to sell based on the things that we already do, like photographs that we take or things that just make a natural extension from what we talk about. But we’re always kind of just throwing different things out there to see what people are interested in and what makes sense to them. Because sometimes what makes sense to me, people don’t understand coming from us. Like we printed a newspaper for a while and people loved it but people don’t pay a lot of money for newspapers, so that’s not going to be a revenue driver. But I had to produce it and then sell it to find that out. So it’s always a matter of testing, but blogs as a platform are no longer sort of the end all be all. Having a great blog is wonderful, but you also have to have a really great social media feed and you have start a YouTube show and you need to be on Pinterest and all these different platforms are sort of all very necessary arms of the same thing.
And in terms of how often you guys post, because I know that has shifted over the years, what’s it look like for you today in terms of the blog and maybe just a snapshot of what you guys do on social media?
Sure. So I run all our social media myself.
God bless you.
I feel really strongly… well, I feel really strongly that it’s important for that to be a cohesive, authentic voice and I think it’s very difficult to do that when somebody else is writing for you. And I tried. We had a social media sort of manager for 4 months and it did not work out. Because it’s really difficult to teach somebody else how to talk like you, especially when they’re responding, and I just… I didn’t feel comfortable with it so even though it’s more work for me, I just like doing it. So I would say I update on Instagram anywhere from 4 to 7 times a day. That’s a mix of things from the site, photographs from my own life. We do hashtag challenges all the time, so we’re sharing photographs from Design Sponge readers. I’m on Twitter about the same amount of times a day. And then on Pinterest, which I’ve really only recently gotten into, I’ve decided to make it wildly personal and just only create boards and things that have to do with what I want in my life, whether it’s clothing and shoes or things I want in my dream house one day. So I’ve really kind of pared it down to only the things that I like. And then on the blog we write anywhere from 4 to 5 times a day, but try to really stick to, like, 4 original, great posts a day. And if we don’t have 4 then we just post 3 and it’s totally ok. But at one point we were writing 10 or 11 times a day and it’s difficult to do that in a way where you’re still writing thoughtful, personal posts. Like, you just don’t wake up and have 10 things to say every day.
You just don’t.
I’m like I am so in awe of you right now, woman. I just have to say. It’s… and I do want to just make this clear, just for anybody. I could see the comments going, “Marie, is it not you on social media?” It is me on social media, but I am… we don’t post anywhere near as much. But then I think that’s also a cool thing because it shows you how diverse it actually can be.
You know? When I… when I listen to you and I’m like, again, I’m in awe. I’m so inspired by everything that you’re creating and… and I take a look at what we do, which is a great fit for us, and it just reaffirms that notion that there’s so many different ways to make a business and a life that you love.
Absolutely. And it’s never finished.
I think that’s the key is everyone’s sort of like, “How do I get from A to C?” and the middle step, the middle 10 steps that are there, are the only way to get to whatever that end point is. And then once you reach C you look forward and there’s D and E and F and you keep going. And so every time I think I’ve gotten to a place where I feel comfortable something else shifts, whether it’s sort of the ad market that underlies everything else or my own personal interests. I’m always trying to remember that what I’m doing right now will never define me for the next 10 years going forward. So whether it’s starting a radio show or trying to print a magazine or product a product line, I’m always trying to test something else because the internet doesn’t sit still and I shouldn’t either.
So let’s take a look at your team now. At this point in time, how many of you are there?
We’re super tiny right now, but we weirdly are more efficient than we’ve ever been. In terms of regular daily staff it’s me and Max Tielman, who’s been with us for a couple years now, and Max lives in upstate New York. I’m about to be part time in upstate New York and so we’ve kind of embraced the fact that none of us liked working in an office, which we tried in earnest for a few years. We got an office, we decorated it, and then none of us wanted to come to it every day. I just felt like, “Oh, everybody… everybody else has an office, so we should do the same thing,” and another… a mistake I shouldn’t be making in my 8th year of running a business but I sort of fell into that trap of I feel weird that nobody can come see our beautifully decorated office because we don’t have one. So we tried it, we didn’t like it. We went to a coworking space and then we all were like, “I just kind of want to work from home.” I’m much more efficient from home, so we all were like, “Let’s just give it a shot,” and so we did and we’re all very happy that way. So Max and I are full time, we have a copy editor on the west coast, Stephanie who runs our Biz Ladies and City Guides is on the west coast, Christina, who does food, is in Italy. We have such a great team and we have ad people who help out as well, Caitlin has been with us forever. It’s a really good team of people and I’m really happy to work with the people we work with right now. And we just brought on this really lovely, very energetic team of interns to help with home tours and DIYs, which are sort of the things that require the most finessing in terms of photographs and reshoots and things like that. So I would say there’s like 10 of us on a regular basis, but really kind of like a core group of 3.
Isn’t that awesome? Like, the age that we live in. I get so excited because I love Team Forleo and there are some here in the studio today, but most of us are kind of spread out. And I just think it’s the coolest thing in the world that we get to work with amazing human beings and don’t have to be in the same location.
I think it’s great and I think there are a lot of teams that work better in person and that’s how they work and I think I’ve always wanted to theoretically be that person like walked into like a line of desks that all look the same and like beautiful, giant fig trees everywhere, and that’s just… that wasn’t what we looked like. It just isn’t how we work. And at a certain point, like, running a blog business that wants to stay small instead of like we don’t use VC money or anything like that. To stay small you have to be really efficient with how you spend your money and at a certain point I was like, “Spending thousands of dollars on rent and I’d rather just give that to the people who write for the site.” So at a certain point I was like, “I need to just let go the idea of having this, like, beautiful, magazine ready office and just embrace the way we actually work.” And ever since we’ve done that it’s been very easy which I’m just like knocking on whatever is made of wood somewhere. But so far… so far so good.
That’s so cool. So for you personally, I know people always ask me like, “Ok, Marie, how do you get everything done? How do you stay organized?” Do you have any favorite digital tools that help you manage all of the content and the things that you’re putting together?
I weirdly am pretty low-fi with that stuff. I do everything through Google, so…
… only Gmail. Boomerang is my best friend. I love Boomerang. I Boomerang everything to get out of my inbox so I don’t have to look at emails. Email is pretty much how I do everything in my life. So everything gets sent back or returned to me at a certain date. We use Google Docs for everything from scheduling all of our content to team meetings. We use Google chat to talk to each other and have sort of impromptu, you know, team chats. But everything else is just done on the site for the most part. I like keeping things pretty simple and when we teach classes we still teach them in person in Brooklyn. I just prefer talking to people face to face. So I think I’m probably the most analog blogger around.
That’s really cool. So as we wrap up, anything… this is a question we get asked a lot and I’m sure you do as well. If someone is like, “Oh my goodness, I love Design Sponge so much. Grace, tell me, I’m just starting out. Is there any advice that you’re just getting started.” Any little keys that you’d wanna tell someone?
Absolutely. Two things. The first one is to figure out what makes you different than everybody else right now. There will always be 20 other people doing the exact same thing that you do. It’s just the nature of the way information spreads. There’s so much of it, you’re never gonna be the only person who loves wallpaper. There’s gonna be so many other people who do. So figure out what makes your voice different. It is where you live, is it the way you grew up, is it the fact that you have two masters degrees in decorative arts? Whatever it is, figure out the angle that sets you apart and make that sort of your core focus. The second thing would be to diversify. I think it’s really a mistake right now for people to focus just on building some sort of dream perfect blog because that’s not where people read sites. They come read sites through RSS readers, through social media, through any other platform. They’re not all funneling into just that home page anymore. So making sure that you can share your message on whatever website you’re using. Your homepage, your Pinterest page, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube. Having a voice on all of these different platforms allows you to connect with people naturally where they already go. It’s really difficult not to sort of convenience people to all come to your home page. You have to kind of grab them where they are already driving past you. So the more places you can sort of share your voice naturally and simply, the better chance you’ll have to connect and have a really genuine sort of one on one moment with all of those people. So find what makes you different and then diversify and spread that voice out.
Grace Bonney, thank you so much.
Thanks for having me.
For being so beautifully open and sharing all of your talent and all of your gifts and your passion over the past years and just coming to be here with us today. It’s really awesome.
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
So now Grace and I have a challenge for you. We would love to know, building off of this idea of knowing that there are lots of people out there that may enjoy the same things you do, what are three things that you feel make you unique? Whether you want to start a blog or whether you have a business or whether you just want to excel in your career. Take a few minutes and brag on yourself. What’s unique and awesome about you? Tell us in the comments below.
Now, as always, the best conversations happen after the episode at MarieForleo.com, so go there and leave a comment now.
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